Learning How to Be a Writer–Part 3, Fiction and Mechanics

Last week we presented some edited excerpts from a series first published in the Eagle Peak Quarterly on learning how to be a writer. This week we’re offering some basic tips applicable to writing fiction and some mechanics that apply.  This is NOT a comprehensive set of never before heard tips, but you might still find it helpful if you are new or need a refresher. If you missed last week’s post, get it here.

Fiction Writing Tips

Fiction, no matter the length or the genre, has a number of elements that you probably already are well aware of:

  • A plot—the narrative or storyline of events that make up the story; depending on the length and complexity of the work, there may be a number of subplots
  • A protagonist—the main character, often at odds with an agonist also known as the bad guy
  • Secondary characters with whom the protagonist interacts
  • A setting—where the story takes place; there could be multiple settings for different scenes but there is still likely a main focal place for the story
  • Theme—the overarching issue or concern of the story; it could be love, war, man’s inhumanity to man, etc.
  • Conflict—an internal or external challenge to the protagonist; how the protagonist deals with the events that precipitate the conflict are an essential part of the plot
  • Climax—when the plot elements of the conflict come to a head, a time when the tensions reach the maximum
  • Resolution—how the protagonist and any other essential characters resolve the climax, the payoff of the story, if you will

So how do you make these disparate elements into a story—from a short story to a novel? You need a beginning and an end. A good story, no matter its length, connects readers to the protagonist so that they empathize with him/her—feeling what they feel. A story arc introduces the protagonist and through a series of event escalates the conflict to the climax and resolution. Along the way, the story shows the possible character flaws, shortcomings or other reasons that make the challenges the protagonist faces difficult. The speed at which the story progresses from beginning to end depends in part on the genre (action/thrillers are typically fast-paced and sacrifice character development to the plot; romances, mainstream drama and other stories may take a more deliberate pace) and in part on whether it is a short story or novel.

The Mechanics

  • Point of View—the perspective from which the story is told; from whose head is the story being told to the reader
    • First person (“I walked along the shady trail”) common in memoirs and autobiographies
    • Third person (“Fred walked along the shady trail”)—which can be limited or omniscient; most books today use limited third person (inside the head of one person only)
    • Second person (rarely used, talking directly to readers)
    • POV can and often does switch from scene to scene but should not within a scene; imagine if two people are talking and then the story first offers one person’s thoughts about the other and then the story switches to the other character’s view—very confusing
  • Flashback—You know what this is, right? A character’s thoughts go back to events of the past; used judiciously for a setup or for character definition and development it works well but done too often in one story it can be confusing
  • The beginning—ideally, the opening of any story will cause a reader to want to continue reader; hence, the advice to begin with a “hook”
    • Set up an action sequence—something is happening with or to the main character
    • Do a flashback of some event from the past that sets up a plotline
    • Introduces the protagonist or another key character
  • Show don’t tell—Tears fell from Lisa’s eyes at the viewing. Her knuckles whitening as she gripped the seat back before her, “What will I do without him?” she voiced her thoughts aloud. [an example of showing] Lisa cried at the viewing, overcome by the loss of her beloved husband Bill. [the same scene told instead of shown]
  • Avoid unnecessary adverbs—“Stop it,” Sal yelled loudly (loudly is redundant); “Stop it,” Sal yelled; “Stop it,” Sal said loudly—yelled does the work of expressing Sal’s emotion without need of loudly and much better than by modifying said with loudly
  • Using said—some (including Stephen King, who rails against adverbs) insist that it works fine to attribute dialogue to a character:
    • He said, she said is fine—especially if you are showing and not telling so that any emotion that hissed, laughed, growled, etc., might convey is unnecessary; only if it is critical and more expedient to use something like “yelled” as in one of King’s own examples in his book, On Writing should you consider something else
    • Often, if not most of the time, dialogue attribution can be omitted altogether when two characters are having a conversation; it should be obvious who is speaking
  • Be sparing in the use of cliché’s—consider “It rained cats and dogs, soaking his pants and shoes” versus “The rain fell hard, bouncing drops soaking his pants and shoes the moment he stepped outside”
  • Dribble out character details—dialogue works well for this, as well as responses to events during scenes; it’s more interesting and keeps reader’s attention learning about the characters as they go along, it’s another aspect of showing versus telling; don’t try to do a biography of the protagonist and other major characters all at once
  • Reveal a character’s faults or flaws—it’s OK for the main character to be imperfect, in fact it may be essential in presenting the scope of the conflict and getting through the climax to the resolution as the character succeeds despite his or her shortcomings—which most humans have, even heroes
  • If you can plan, do; if you can’t, don’t—there are two (or more) camps of writers: those who swear by complete planning with outlines, character sketches, setting descriptions, plot lines, etc. and then there are those who completely wing it, letting the characters take the story where it should go; you will have to decide what works for you—try them both on for size and see which you prefer
  • Get it all down, THEN revise—this is a mantra sworn to by many, for the sake of not getting bogged down by constantly editing while you are trying to complete a story; it may be hard to resist but if you can, you might find it worthwhile so long as you can forgive yourself for what appears on the page or the screen on the first draft—because it is only that (and should be)
  • Polish and revise until you can do more—except that will probably never happen; you just have to stop and say enough but then you need to have beta readers and/or an editor look it over, preferably both, if you want you have written to be something others will really want to read and pay for to do so
  • Use spellcheck and grammar/usage checking if using a word processor—it’s far from perfect but it will give you a start on editing; it won’t catch everything, it will annoy you with its recommendations that are incorrect or unhelpful but it still is useful


These are just some of the mechanics that you should consider. There are more, that you will find exploring them on the web or in books about writing, as noted above. Just write and have fun doing so. You can get some tips on improving your writing by posting it on the web on sites of your choosing, but remember you do risk having people take you less than seriously by putting up less than your best work, writing that will forever remain discoverable on the web with only a tiny effort by anyone.

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