Writing tips for new fiction authors
If you are new to writing and in particular, creative writing, there are a few typical pitfalls you should avoid.
Two of the most common traps for new authors when they start fiction writing are to narrate too much and to overuse the passive voice.
These two mistakes make it impossible to adopt the golden rule of fiction writing, which is show, don’t tell.
In other words, you must allow your characters thoughts and actions to show the reader what is happening. Don’t fall into the trap of letting long passages of narration or your selection of writing elements, tell the reader.
A reader doesn’t want explanations. A reader wants to empathise, sympathise and be drawn into the story by your characters.
No matter what type of story you write, if you are an aspiring writer and plan on publishing short stories or you want to become a published author, you need to create a story that will hold a reader’s interest.
Yes, you need good writing skills, but if you want to write a great story, it all starts with good planning and building a story structure.
With good preparation, you are less likely to suffer bouts of writer’s block, so the words will keep flowing.
Here are six easy to follow tips on how to write a story to help your writing career.
1. Start by gathering your story ideas
It doesn’t matter if you want to write a short story or a full-length novel. Your first task is to look for great ideas that you can turn into a powerful story.
Any form of creative writing and great storytelling starts with one very good idea.
You can look for ideas or story starters by searching for writing prompts online, or use one of the many websites that have automated story generators.
Typically, you should write your story idea into one or two sentences, as in the examples below.
Lorna is a young scullery maid from London who falls in love with her best friend. The two are separated when her friend is ordered by his father to go away to sea. Lorna spends years pining for her loss. Until at forty and widowed, she travels to India.
Marie was happily married, she thought, until the day her husband got clumsy with an email address and she received his message meant for his mistress. She doesn’t confront him about it, but instead carefully plans her revenge.
You don’t necessarily need to use names. You can draft your notes by using nameless subjects.
The main character finds …, the other character notices … the evil character starts receiving …, after falling in love, she discovers…, or only to find out that he was married.
No matter what genre or kinds of stories you want to write in—sci-fi, crime, horror or fantasy, you need to spend time finding the best possibilities.
Make a list of your all your book or short story ideas and narrow them down to the very best ones.
Now select the best, and you are almost ready to write.
2. Plan and select your plot
In his 2004 book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Christopher Booker explains that most stories follow one of only seven plot lines.
It is worth thinking about which one will suit your story the best.
Overcoming the Monster
The protagonist sets out to defeat an antagonistic force (often evil) which threatens the protagonist and/or protagonist’s homeland.
Rags to Riches
The poor protagonist acquires power, wealth, and/or a mate, loses it all and gains it back, growing as a person as a result.
The protagonist and companions set out to acquire an important object or to get to a location. They face temptations and other obstacles along the way.
Voyage and Return
The protagonist goes to a strange land and, after overcoming the threats it poses to them, they return with experience.
Light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending; a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion. Booker makes sure to stress that comedy is more than humor. It refers to a pattern where the conflict becomes more and more confusing, but is at last made plain in a single clarifying event. The majority of romance films fall into this category.
The protagonist’s character flaw or great mistake which is their undoing. Their unfortunate end evokes pity at their folly and the fall of a fundamentally good character.
An event forces the main character to change their ways and often become a better person.
Make sure you know which type of plot you plan to use before you start writing because it will help you stay focused on your storyline.
3. Drafting your story outline
If you have taken a writing class, your instructor probably told you that the best stories begin with a plan.
You start with a story idea. But you need to fashion it into a logical progression that has a beginning, middle and end.
Take it step by step, and develop your idea. You can use bullet points, a list of important events or a series of short sentences.
You can add character names, places and perhaps descriptions as well.
Think about how your story will evolve, and how you can create rising action, or tension, that will lead to a climax. Most importantly, make sure you know how it will end.
You might read that some writers prefer to write without a plan and say that they let their characters drive the story.
It might work for some writers. But I’ve learned by trying this method that is very easy to get lost. Or, more precisely, to lose the plot completely.
My experience was that I spent so much more time re-writing and repairing plot problems, which a solid plan would have easily avoided.
Of all the writing tips I could give to a new writer, it would be to plan well to write well.
Another way to extend and refine your outline for a novel is to think about writing a short story. It is an ideal way to include more details, write dialogue and learn to get into your character’s head.
Now you are almost ready to start writing your book.
4. Choose your point of view
If you don’t know what point of view (POV) is, you need to find out before you write a single word.
POV is the perspective or angle a writer uses to let readers hear and see what happens, as well as indicating who is telling the story.
If you plan to write fiction, it almost always uses the third person POV. In other words, he said, she said, they went, he looked, she wondered.
You will also almost always use the past tense, which is logically called the storytelling tense.
Deciding on your point of view will clarify who is telling your story, and make writing much easier.
5. Work on the consistency of your writing voice
Writing voice can be used to describe an author’s writing style, but also for the voice of characters.
Think of writing voice like how you talk. You don’t talk like everyone else, do you?
On television, new anchors all seem to sound the same, because they talk the same.
Creating your unique writing voice is not difficult, but maintaining it throughout a long story can be a battle.
Look at the words you use in your narrative in particular and search for changes in your tone or formality. Is your register changing from formal to informal without any good reason? Maintaining constant register is the key to managing your writing voice.
Are you using full words and then changing to contractions, and then back again?
The same applies to your characters. In your use of dialogue, do your characters’ voices stay consistent?
It doesn’t matter if you are a short story writer or a fiction novelist. Good storytelling always uses a unique and consistent voice.
6. The passive is toast
As I noted at the start of this article, using the passive voice is where many new writers go wrong.
On occasions when I have reviewed or edited a story, the first thing I do is check for overuse of the passive.
If I see it a few times in the first page or chapter, I send the manuscript back to the author with a note. “Feel free to kill off all the passive, then send it back to me.”
Should I ever happen to judge a writing contest, I would use the same formula. If I struck the passive early and often, I would stop reading and move on the next entry.
The problem with using passive voice is that it is totally about the author telling the story and it doesn’t allow the characters to show the reader what is happening.
It doesn’t matter if you are writing a high school essay or a full-length novel. The passive leaves too many questions unanswered and events and actions undescribed. You should always try to avoid using it.
Tom was trapped.
Who put him there? Why did they do it? Where is he trapped? How did he get in there? How big is the trap?
All of these questions can be answered by using the active voice.
Early in the morning, the villains who had taken him from his home the night before lowered Tom into a cavity beneath the barn floor. Darkness filled his tiny prison as they covered the entrance above his head with wooden beams. He heard the rumbling thunder of a storm approaching, and the villains laughing at his fate.
I allow one exception to the rule because it can only be used in the passive form.
Tom was born in 1961.
Otherwise, always write in the active voice.
When I first started writing, I made all the mistakes I have described. All of them, and many times over.
It takes time and practice to learn how to write, and write it well. However, it can be a rapid learning curve if you always have your reader as the most important person in your story.
Think about how they will read and enjoy your writing.
The quote by Charles Dickens is true, and it is why it is so often quoted when talking about great fiction writing.
“Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.”
If you can do these three things, you will become a terrific writer.