What do you think about when you’re writing fiction?
You may well think lots of things, but to write successful fiction, focus on feelings: both on emotion, and on your senses.
Thinking (logic) comes later.
Here’s an excellent strategy for writing fiction, from Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight V. Swain:
“Where should you start, then? With feeling. Your own feeling. A story is like a car that runs on emotion. The author’s feeling is the gasoline in its engine…”
Try to separate these the three processes in your mind when writing fiction:
- Sensations (your five senses, sight, hearing etc.);
- Thought (logic.)
Writing fiction: experience emotion, and use your senses (sensations)
Readers read to experience your fiction, so you need to help them to do that.
Start with emotion, and their senses.
BIG tip: if you can’t feel it, your readers can’t feel it either. From SHOW (write in scenes), rather than tell:
“No matter how exciting your story, if you tell, tell, and tell some more, you’ll kill your story stone dead. Readers don’t want to be told: they want to experience. Your scenes do that: they give readers experiences.”
Here’s a good example of showing. From A Touch of Frost, by R. D. Wingfield:
“A COLD, CLEAR autumn night with a sharp wind shaking the trees. The man in the shadows was trembling. The palms of his rubber-gloved hands were moist, and warm sweat trickled down his face under the mask. Soon he would be able to see her.”
Let’s look at some tips.
1. Be aware of your fiction’s genre: it’s your guide to what readers want to experience
Always let genre be your guide to emotion.
For example, when they read romance fiction, readers want romance. Here’s a snippet from Natural Born Charmer, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips:
“Instead, he took her in from head to toe before he settled on her face.
“Makeup? What happened? You look almost female.”
“Thanks. You look almost straight.”
Behind them, Jack chuckled.”
Susan Elizabeth Phillips always includes a touch of humor. (See the second tip, below.)
When they read historical fiction, readers want to experience the past. From The Boleyn Inheritance, by Philippa Gregory:
“This is a palace for plotting, all the corridors twist round and about each other, every courtyard has a little garden at the centre where one may meet by accident, every apartment has at least two entrances.”
Of course, when they read mystery fiction, readers want mysteries; puzzles. When you’re writing mysteries, your characters’ thoughts are vital, so that readers can attempt to follow your sleuth’s thoughts. From The Switch, Joseph Finder:
“And he knew something was off. He knew it instinctively, in his lizard brain, before he knew it rationally. There was some kind of change in his sensory field, and it took him a moment to realize that he was smelling something different.”
2. Add (subtle) humor if you can: delight your readers
Writing humorously can be a challenge; aim to include a little humor in all your fiction. Readers appreciate it.
Be subtle. From Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry:
“One little tad, evidently the runt of the family, got nothing but cornbread and chicken gizzards, but he knew better than to complain. With eleven brothers and sisters all bigger than him, complaint would have been dangerous.”
3. When you’re writing fiction, remember time and place (setting)
Where are you, right now? Perhaps you’re sitting in your office, in a chair with squeaky cushions. Or perhaps you’re on a train; it’s a winter’s night; you’ll be glad to reach the warmth of home.
From Peace, by Garry Disher:
“The shadows were long now, the sun beginning to smear the western hilltops. No wind. No sounds but for creatures claiming the evening. Surely someone had heard him arrive? He felt reluctant to cross the yard. The house wasn’t repelling him, but nor was it just a pile of stone. It seemed to be gathering some shameful emotion to itself. It seemed not to want intruders.”
4. Avoid boring your readers (be aware of your own boredom)
Whenever you’re bored with a novel, novella, or short story, BEWARE! Make something happen. If you’re bored, your readers will be bored too.
Often, it only takes a touch of imagination to fix your boredom. Feel where your characters are. Experience what they’re experiencing.
From Persona Non Grata, by Ruth Downie:
“Tilla was nervous walking through the garden in the cool of the morning, clutching her bag in one hand and a borrowed straw hat in the other. The air around her was silent apart from the call of a bird and the plants rustling in the breeze. The screeching insects had not woken up yet.”
5. When you’re writing fiction, be there, in your imagination
This may be the most important tip. You need to be there, with your characters.
“Imagine you’re on holiday. You’re in a strange city. You don’t speak the language. It’s the middle of the day. You go for a walk alone to look at the sights, and now you’re lost. Moreover, you seem to have wandered into a bad part of town.
“Imagine: what do you feel? What thoughts go through your mind?”
Feel what you characters are feeling, and think yourself into your characters’ thoughts. From A Place Beyond Courage, by Elizabeth Chadwick:
“‘Drunken young fools,’ muttered Benet. ‘Are you all right, my lord?’
‘Yes,’ John said, although he wasn’t. This was no sottish horseplay. He had been sent a warning, and it made his spine crawl. Next time, even if it looked like an accident, they wouldn’t miss.”
Writing fiction: experience your fiction, so that readers can experience it too
When you’re writing fiction, you need to experience your characters’ emotions, and think their thoughts. Yes, you’re an actor. You’re more than an actor too.
Today, when you’re getting ready to write a scene in your novel, imagine yourself in the scene. What are you (as the viewpoint character) seeing? Touching? What emotions do the other characters in the scene arouse in you? What are you thinking?
Experience, then write.
And as always, have fun. 🙂
If you think you can't outline, you're wrong. You can create wonderful outlines which work for you: write more, and publish more.
More info →
Try writing in series. Your audience loves to binge on entertainment, whether it's a series on a streaming service, or a series of books. Marketing series fiction and nonfiction is much easier than marketing standalone books.
More info →
If you've heard that authors are successfully publishing their fiction as serials, and are curious about how it's done, read on. Readers enjoy serial fiction today, as they've done for centuries.
This practical guide helps you to start writing serial fiction, starting today.
More info →
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.