What you want to know is out there… Along with mountains of other information that you really didn’t need to know.
My favorite example is Youtube. I sign on because I’ve had the same song stuck in my head for three days and it’s starting to drive me mad. An hour later I’m knee deep in videos of baby animals taking baths. Then, in the blink of an eye, I’m watching someone in a duck suit hula hoop in front of a police station.
Without insane amounts of self-discipline, the internet will lead us all over the place. Even if all we want are a few quick tips to get our next story started. Well, look no further, don’t click, don’t leave. Ignore the duck suit. Here are five essential fiction writing tips you can put to use right now.
1. When to Show and When to Tell
“Show, don’t tell,” is possibly the most basic storytelling tip there is. It basically means that you should describe what’s going on by appealing to the reader’s senses rather than laying it out in a block of words. I still remember the first time I grasped this rule. I was probably eight or so and I wrote, “The commander stroked his large mustache.” I was so proud to have not simply described, “The commander had a mustache.”
Showing allows authors to create a rich environment that pulls the reader in. It creates a reality instead of just explaining a setting. Description is necessary to fiction. But is there such a thing as too much?
Yes, I believe so. Especially when it comes to dialogue, choose your descriptors carefully. If Character A is relaying a series of activities previously described to Character B, it’s alright to say, “She continued to explain the turmoil until there was nothing left to be said.” There is no need to double-describe an event, unless the reader themselves may have forgotten.
You also shouldn’t “show” to the extent that the reader gets bored. Not every reader is fond of spring green hills, covered in grass as soft as moss that seemed to roll on forever, despite the reality that they extended just to the edge of the dark, ominous woods, full of dangers that kept the village kids away and… Get it?
Description is like icing. The bulk of the cake is action, conflict, and dialogue in most cases.
2. Use All Five Senses
In conjunction with the tip above, this tip explains how to use description effectively. To pull a reader into the reality you’ve created, you have to engulf them in your story. This means tapping into all the senses to create a complete experience. This is not to say that every paragraph needs to follow a checklist–remember, pure description is icing–but when you do describe, vary your technique.
The characters do more than see what’s around them. They smell things cooking in the distance on a dreary night, reminding them of warmer times. They taste bitterness in food given to them by a suspicious host. The feel the comfort of a soft, downy pillow before they drift off. They jolt awake to hear shuffling and muffled cries outside their door.
Letting your characters use all their sense will help make them real and help your reader feel a part of the story.
3. One, Two, Three, Four, How Many Characters Knockin’ At the Door?
The number of characters in your stories will differ based on a number of factors; primarily, the length of your story. Look at the epic Song of Ice and Fire series: dozens of characters of varying importance. Even for its five book run, the series has a stunning number of character. The same can be said for James Clavell’s Asian Saga in which the first book alone has over fifteen “major” characters. Contrast to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment which is primarily an internalized struggle of one man.
So how many characters is the right amount for your story?
First, look at length. A short story is best described by one event with a limited number of characters, allowing each character some significance. Full length books can hold a lot more. Long series can sustain a larger number of important characters, many of whom may be minimally introduced in the first book, only to make stronger appearances later.
(For novellas and larger, I use for # of chapters/2 as a general rule. Meaning, if there are twenty chapters, I can have ten prominent characters. They may appear all at the beginning, near the end, or evenly interspersed. Besides, there isn’t really a science to it at all, I just like numbers.)
Second, make all your characters necessary. While naming minor characters gives them flavor, describing every character in the grocery store only serves to confuse the reader. Make it clear who will be important and who can be forgotten. (Note: Genre may give exception to this rule. Suspense and thrillers may be more subtle).
Finally, trust your critics and editors. Have family, friends, and trusted colleagues read your book and ask them to specifically look at your characters. Are the names confusing? Is everyone memorable? Do they all seem to support the story? If more people than not can’t remember who Theodore Muzzlefluff is, you might consider firing him–or promoting him to make him stand out better.
4. Stories Are Driven By Conflict
You can’t explain something that isn’t happening, hasn’t happened, or isn’t going to happen.
The basis of any story is conflict, in any of its many forms. In quick review we have: Person vs. Person, Person vs. Self, Person vs. Environment, Person vs. Supernatural, Person vs. Society. Conflicts can be external or internal, some can be both. Most stories have multiple conflicts, or a single conflict with varying levels.
But, in short, there is always conflict. Conflict is what motivates characters to act–or not to. Conflict keeps things going. Conflict gives purpose. If your story seems dull, you can always ask: What’s the conflict? Maybe the stakes are too low. Maybe the conflict died out without you noticing it.
If a plot seem stale, try revitalizing it with an unexpected conflict. Is your protagonist about to meet her long lost mother for the first time… on page twenty? Well, throw a wrench in it! Cause a car crash. Delay a plane. Kill the cell phone batteries. Make your characters work through conflict to get what they want; it will make your story much richer in the end.
5. Varying structure provides an interesting read.
I was walking down the street. It was raining. The rain was cold. I had been walking a lot. I passed the bakery. “I’m hungry,” I thought. I decided to keep walking.
Good story, huh? Despite the fact that the action isn’t exactly enthralling, the structure itself is tedious. Each sentence is the same: subject, verb, object. The sentences are each about the same length. Even the words are similar in their simplicity. There is nothing wrong with short sentences or simple words. The error comes in refusing to add variety (which is, so I’m told, the spice of life).
It was raining as I walked down the street. Hands in pockets, chin shoved into my chest, I was regretting my decision to leave the raincoat and umbrella at home. It felt like I’d been strolling along for hours without a thought other than my final destination. It wasn’t until I was hit with the wafting scent of freshly baked bread that I even realized I was hungry.
Varying sentence structure, word length, and figures of speech doesn’t have to be fancy. It’s about keeping the rhythm fluid to keep the reader reading. Additionally, if you’ve been writing rhythmically and suddenly jump to snappy, quick sentences, you can build tension and suspense. This is a way to keep the reader interested and cue them to changes of pace.
So there you have it. Five essential tips to keep your fiction reading well. What are your favorite “fiction rules?” Have you ever found it better to break the rules I outlined? Let me know in the comments below!