If you are dipping your toes into the sometimes-tumultuous waters of fiction writing for the first time, you might be feeling a bit daunted right now. But there are certain rules and guidelines to follow that can help you keep your writing both focused and engaging (and, therefore, more publishable). Here are our top eight guidelines for beginning fiction writers:
Know your audience. Beginners sometimes want to appeal to the widest audience possible and so try to write for everyone. As a result, they let their work run off in too many directions and end up with a muddled mess of a story. But you can’t please everyone—a story that appeals to city-dwelling twenty-somethings won’t necessarily catch the fancy of a middle-aged man from the suburbs. Once you accept that, you can focus all of your energy on writing for the readers who will appreciate your hard work that much more.
Here’s a tip: Once you’ve decided who your audience is (specific gender, age group, etc.), reread your story with that audience in mind to make sure your focus is consistent. Remove any elements that could potentially cause any friction (unless that’s your goal!).
Know your genre. This goes hand in hand with knowing your audience. There are key elements that fans of certain genres will expect to find when they start reading your work. More often than not, genres can be divided further into subgenres that accommodate very specific motivations and plotlines. Keep it consistent. It is possible to write a successful cross-genre story, but you don’t want to mix it up too much. A supernatural romantic thriller, for example, could end up alienating fans of all three genres.
Create real characters. Make your characters human—give them nervous tics, phobias, a funny way of messing up clichés. Some of the most memorable stories have three-dimensional characters that readers can feel strongly about in some way. For example: A heroine who has to overcome her deep-seated fears before she can get what she wants is much more appealing than one who just breezes through without struggle. The former’s conflict is relatable (who isn’t held back by their fears?), therefore her victory will be that much more satisfying.
The same logic applies to antagonists. Why do we love to hate Othello’s Iago? Because his actions come from emotions we all know we’re capable of feeling: jealousy, insecurity, etc.
Just like you, characters should evolve over time. Everything that happens in your story affects them in some way. The changes to their progress (or lack thereof) can be significant or minute, but they must occur. Place your character in situations that force him or her to make difficult choices, mistakes, etc. You can decide whether the character should make the “right” or “wrong” decisions, but any character not evolving on some level is static and that will take away from your story’s momentum.
Show, don’t tell. Beginners often make the mistake of explaining what is happening instead of simply showing the reader. Think of it as the difference between watching a movie and having a friend describe a movie to you.
Rather than having the narrator mention that one character spent the night in jail for egging a neighbor’s car, give the reader the play-by-play of the character laughing gleefully while throwing the eggs (underhand, of course, because they were on the bowling team). Then show them crying to the point of hiccups when the cops slap on the handcuffs. This will paint a much more vivid picture for your readers and, therefore, make the story more enjoyable.
Want to take it one step further? Include a scene showing the neighbor using the character’s mailbox for batting practice—that gives your egg-throwing hero motivation, which adds to what we talked about in Rule #3.
Stick to the main plot. Beginners often get caught up in subplots they find interesting, but don’t serve to propel the characters forward in any real way. Your story isn’t a well-cast ensemble sitcom. Focus diligently on one main plotline, and if you do decide to add subplot elements to your story, make sure they relate to the main story and help propel your character to his or her inevitable end.
Let your scenes play out. Don’t cheat your readers by trying to wrap up every scene too quickly. Events in real life don’t often end neatly; chances are neither will events in your story. Instead, let the falling action of each scene sow the seeds of the following scene’s rising action. Propel your audience through to the next plot point—make them want to keep reading.
If you are going for suspense, cliffhangers are a plus. But there is a big difference between a cliffhanger and an abrupt, unnatural close, so make your choices carefully.
Learn the art of conflict. Creating a powerful conflict and weaving it tightly throughout the story is a tricky thing to master, and can take years of practice. The catharsis that a reader will experience at the resolution, however, is worth the struggle. Conflict is what makes us interested in outcome. And your conflict must affect your characters in a way that forces them to act and grow as a result. A story with a weak conflict that leaves the characters exactly as they were at the start won’t be satisfying; your story won’t make a lasting impression.
Here’s a tip: The best way to learn how to write conflict is by reading it. The next time you’re reading a short story or novel, take note of how the author presents the main conflict and the specific ways in which the characters react to it.
Revise your story. Revising is an important part of any writer’s process, but there is much debate as to the best approach. Some writers like to finish the whole piece before starting any major rewrites. Only when the work is completed are they able to assess the story as a whole and recognize its flaws. Others prefer to rewrite as they write, finding it easier to tighten the laces as they go. A revision early in the story can clear the path for engaging plot points down the line that wouldn’t have been possible had things been written differently. Try both methods so you can feel out which one works best for you.