Looking for fiction writing tips? Occasionally, when we look at our current fiction project, we know that there’s something wrong, but what?
Let’s look at three beginners’ fiction blunders, and the writing tips to fix each of them. By the way: established authors make these blunders too. It’s easy to make a blunder when you’re caught up in writing.
Writing tips: three common blunders in fiction it’s easy to make
Here they are in a nutshell:
- Nothing to see here: failure to entertain readers;
- Stick-figure characters: your characters must seem real;
- Useless, annoying characters: characters who do stupid stuff.
Let’s look at each blunder, and the fix.
1. Nothing to see here: you must entertain
The “nothing to see here” blunder is common; the author’s forgotten to entertain. Since readers read for entertainment, you need to be entertaining on every page.
Often, this blunder is evident from the first page: the novel starts when the main character wakes up. The character shaves, makes toast, drinks coffee, and drives to work.
If you’re using the Hero’s Journey fiction template, as many writing tips advise, your fiction starts in the character’s Ordinary World. However, although waking up and eating breakfast are ordinary, don’t waste the opportunity to make something happen.
A quick fix: make something happen on every page
“Make something happen” doesn’t mean car chases, shootings, and dead bodies on every page. It can be subtle.
For example, here’s the first sentence from John le Carré’s classic spy novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy:
The truth is, if old Major Dover hadn’t dropped dead at Taunton races Jim would never have come to Thursgood’s at all.
That’s the first sentence. Much of the first chapter of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is told from the point of view of a new pupil to Thursgood’s boarding school.
It’s subtle. If you need an example of making things happen, without much happening in the way of car chases et al, read that chapter via Amazon’s Look Inside feature.
2. Unreal, stick-figure characters: the author doesn’t believe in his characters
Your characters must seem real. They have an external life, and an inner life, as we all do, and they act because of who they are. That is, they have a history—a backstory. They also have goals and motivations: even minor characters.
In your first draft, you’re discovering your characters. You may dump in a lot of characters’ histories and backstories, and endless flashbacks. You aim in revising your fiction is to remove all this material, because it’s not entertaining.
A strong suggestion re your process: writing tips are useful for later drafts, when you’re revising your fiction. Please write your first draft; get it done—then use checklists and useful writing tips to fix blunders.
Fix unreal characters: BE your characters, use your senses
You need verisimilitude, that is, the appearance of reality. You add verisimilitude via the senses. Your characters see, hear, touch, taste etc. So, in a sense, you need to BE your characters, inhabit them, so that they become real to you, then to readers.
Senses are gold. Sensory writing from the first chapter of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy:
Of the whole school therefore only little Bill Roach actually saw Jim arrive, saw the steam belching from the Alvis’ bonnet as it wheezed its way down the pitted drive…
3. Useless, annoying characters, without discernible goals or motivation
Readers will forgive a lot, but they won’t forgive an author kicking them out of their fictive dream when a character does something so stupid that they realize that they’re reading.
They want story people who seem real. This means that your characters, no matter how unreal (they’re hobbits, or demons, or vampires) must behave logically. If your characters are TSTL (Too Stupid To Live) readers will want them dead. And you dead too, because you’ve wasted their time.
Authors who are plotters may write TSTL characters because they’re too wedded to their plot. The plot requires that the female lead go into the attic of the haunted house where the killer’s waiting… The detective blunders through the story, missing clue after clue… The romance heroine misunderstands events merely to prolong conflict, when she could have asked a simple question…
Yes, sometimes a character acts illogically, for the needs of the plot, or for drama. When that happens you need to go back and create a reason (a goal and motivation) for the character to behave in this way. She goes into the attic because she’s lost her diamond engagement ring up there, for example.
Fixes: provide characters with goals and motivations
You’re in charge. You’ll make lots of blunders in your first draft: you’re supposed to make them, because writing isn’t typing. It’s creation. Once you’ve written something, that’s wonderful, because you can build on it.
Wonderful writing tips from John Gardner about the writer’s fictive writing dream:
In the writing state—the state of inspiration—the fictive dream springs up fully alive: the writer forgets the words he has written on the page and sees, instead, his characters moving around their rooms, hunting through cupboards, glancing irritably through their mail, setting mousetraps, loading pistols…
See your characters: be them—if you’re looking for essential writing tips, you can’t get more essential than that. 🙂
Essential writing tips: entertain yourself, to entertain readers
A bonus: three quick writing tips to keep in mind for fiction:
- Write your first draft without concern. Just write (blunders are fine in your first draft);
- Be your characters: use your senses while inhabiting your characters.
- Entertain yourself, so that you can entertain readers: use sensory writing.
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Copywriter and marketing pro Angela Booth maintains a busy copywriting and ghostwriting practice. Fascinated by online marketing, she wrote one of the first business books for internet marketing, published by Allen & Unwin. She’s been an enthusiastic blogger since the late 1990s.