The task sounds simple enough: Write a story that will entertain people. “Why,” you might think, “I tell my friends stories all the time – how hard can it be?” Unfortunately, the intricacies of how to write fiction can be difficult, even for writers that find nonfiction or research writing to be fairly easy. As with any creative endeavor, you’ll need to practice for a while before you get to the literary equivalent of Carnegie Hall.
Moreover, no two writers have exactly the same process, and there’s no magic bullet for building a compelling narrative – what works for George Saunders is likely very different from what worked for George Orwell. All of those disclaimers aside, here are seven fiction writing tips that you may find useful when attempting to write.
The people come before the plot. An intricate plot with numerous twists and turns can be sidetracked by boring or one-dimensional characters. Create back stories for each of your main characters. Where were they born? What do they like or dislike? What’s happened to them? What are their personalities like – and why? Take copious notes and begin to build a dossier on each character that you can revisit and continue to revise as you write.
Once you understand your characters’ personalities and ambitions, think about how they might react to different situations. Or, as Ray Bradbury once put it, “First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!” The hero to your story needs to have a purpose. Once you know what it is, it will become easier to determine the plot points around that purpose. Try creating multiple scenarios and write your characters into – or out of – them.
The idea of there being three acts to a story is a timeworn cliché for a reason: It works. For those of you that haven’t heard of this, the first act is used to introduce your characters and their main conflict. The second act involves raising the stakes of the conflict, exploring the themes of your story, and examining your characters more closely. The third act resolves the conflict and leaves the reader with an understanding of the purpose of your work. Once you’re an old pro at the three act story, you can begin subverting this style.
Don’t be afraid to shift direction as you discover how to write fiction. If you find yourself thinking that the grizzled war veteran should be a down-on-his-luck firefighter instead, write it down and see where it leads. If you get the sense that your comedic sidekick is really shaping up to be the hero of your novel, go with it for a while. Yes, you may be wrong, but that’s why we have erasers and the Delete key. All writing is good practice for the writing ahead.
Try writing at different times of day, or even on different days of the week. You might find that you’re more productive at certain times. Also, experiment with different “time to write” techniques. Setting an alarm to go off after you’ve written for an hour may work for you, or it may completely wreck your concentration. Starting with a single sheet of blank paper (or the digital equivalent) may feel incredibly liberating – or incredibly daunting. Find what works for you, then stick with it for a while.
Continue to be inspired by other authors and artists as you write. Spend time reading, listening to music, watching movies, or visiting museums. Think about what you like or dislike about what you see or hear. Do these things or places have any relevance to what you’re writing? Or to your characters? One caution here: It’s best not to compare your work to current bestsellers. That hot new book is going to be yesterday’s fad. Write what you actually want to write, not what you think might sell.
Don’t wait until you’ve completed your novel to begin editing it. Strike a balance between writing and reviewing what you’ve written – taking an editing break after every paragraph is overkill, but is a great idea after every couple of chapters. It’s exceedingly rare that a first draft is the final draft. See what flows, and what needs to be trimmed, tightened, or smoothed.