I’ve written on this topic before and even given classes in it, as well as talks, but this is a slightly different approach. Basically, I’m looking at the fundamental skills one has to acquire or develop in order to write fiction, as opposed to non-fiction. In a nutshell, they are the ability to create character, the ability to create emotions and the ability to create narrative tension. None of these are required for ordinary writing but they are all requisite skills for fiction. I’ll address them in reverse order.
Some people may prefer the term ‘narrative drive’ to ‘narrative tension’ but the word tension is more appropriate in my view. Tension is antithetical to resolution and has a comparable role in music which is less obvious. Narrative tension can be manifest in many forms, but it’s essential to fiction because it’s what motivates the reader to turn the page. A novel without narrative tension won’t be read. You can have tension between characters, in many forms: sexual, familial, or between colleagues or between protagonist and antagonist. Tension can be created by jeopardy, which is suspense, or by anticipation or by knowledge semi-revealed. In a word, this is called drama. And, of course, all these forms can be combined to occur in parallel or in series, and have different spans over the duration of the story. Tension requires resolution and the resolution is no less important a skill than the tension itself. Ideally, you want tension in some form on every page.
Emotion is what art is all about, and the greatest exemplar is music. Music is arguably the purest art form because music is the most emotive of art forms. No where is this more apparent than in cinema, where it is employed so successfully that the audience, for the most part, is unaware of its presence, yet it manipulates you emotionally as much as anything on the screen. In novels, the writer doesn’t have access to this medium, yet he or she is equally adept at manipulating emotions. And, once again, this is an essential skill, otherwise the reader will find the story lifeless. Novels can make you laugh, make you cry, make you horny, make you scared and make you excited, sometimes all in the same book.
Normally, I start any discussion on writing with character, because it is the most essential skill of all. I can’t tell you how to create characters – it’s one of those skills that comes with practice – I only know that I do it without thinking about it too much. For me, when I’m writing, the characters take on a life of their own, and if they don’t, I know I’m wasting my time. But there is one thing I’ll say about characters, based on other reading I’ve done, and that is if I’m not sympathetic to the protagonist(s) I find the story an ordeal. If the protagonist is depressed, I get depressed; if the protagonist is an angry young man, I find myself avoiding his company; if the protagonist is a pretentious prat, I find myself wishing they’d have an accident. It’s a very skilled writer who can engage you with uninviting characters, and I’m not one of them.
There is a link between character and emotion, because the character is the channel through which you feel emotion. A story is told through its characters, including description and exposition. If you want to describe something or explain something do it through the characters' senses and introspection.
Finally, why is crime the most popular form of fiction? Because crime often involves a mystery or a puzzle and invariably involves suspense, which is a guaranteed form of narrative tension. The best crime fiction (for example, Scandinavian) involves psychologically authentic characters, and that will always separate good fiction from mediocre. We like complex drawn characters, because they feel like people we know, and their evolvement is one of the reasons we return to the page.