This is an article from Dakota State University I found a year ago. It is simple, yet a fantastic reminder for the experienced writer, and a great cheat sheet for the beginner. Enjoy!
Fiction writers learn to write by writing. Although writing is an art, there are skills, tools, and techniques that can be learned in order to develop talent. And constructive criticism and feedback can help this process.
To be a good writer you need to read a lot, listen and observe everything about you carefully, and write a lot. Writing a lot takes discipline, because writing can actually be hard work- but very satisfying. Setting up a routine for writing is important; it is very easy to find something else to do besides writing. A compulsion to write is very useful.
Fiction writers should have a good grasp of the language, but most of all they must be storytellers. A really good story can compensate for less-than-brilliant writing, but brilliant writing will not save a bad story.
Readers of fiction want very much to find the writer’s work to be believable. It is the task of the writer to produce a story that does not jolt the reader into recognizing that the narrative is just the writer talking, just fiction. The writer should write about what he or she already knows through experience or can learn about through research. The narrative should read as if the writer really knows what he or she is writing about.
Major Components of Stories
- Plot is the organization of events that will take place in the story.
- Characters are the people or animals who will be in the story.
- Setting is the physical time and place in which the story takes place.
- Dialogue is the spoken words of the characters in the story.
- Point of view is the relative identification of the narrator with the characters.
- Theme is the main idea or meaning behind a story.
- Style is the writer’s use of the language.
Plot (and characters) carries the other elements of the story. The plot must be believable, plausible, and interesting. It is a sequence of events connected in a cause-and-effect manner. Generally the plot consists of a series of increasingly more intense conflicts, a climax (the most intense part of the story), and a final resolution. The plot must be advanced as the story unfolds. Usually the closer to the end of the story the climax is placed the better.
Long works like novels can have many subplots and secondary climaxes and resolutions. Avoid using subplots in order to have cliché characters. Avoid too many coincidences.
Flashbacks have been overused. A story is stronger when it runs chronologically.
The reader should be able to identify with and care about the characters in the sense that the characters seem real to the reader. The characters must do something, and what they do must seem reasonable for them to have done it.
Characters should be introduced early in the story. The more often a character is mentioned or appears, the more significance the reader will attach to the character. Also, the main character should be introduced before setting, so that the setting can be introduced from the point of view of the character.
The nature of characters can be brought out through minimal description and the actions, thoughts, and dialogue of the characters. The writer should allow the reader to make judgments about the characters; the writer should avoid making the judgments for the reader. The feelings of the character should be demonstrated rather than told by the narrator.
Yet, there are some very good stories in which much of the narration is about a character’s feelings and thoughts or in which the narration goes into great detail and analysis of a character’s feelings and thoughts at some point. So one rule about writing is that there are no rules, or maybe: If it works, it works.
Setting includes the place and time in which the story takes place. The setting should be described in specifics to make the story seem real, to set the atmosphere and mood of the story, to place limitations on the characters, or to help establish the basic conflict of the story. Weather can be an important part of setting.
The setting can be used for contrast, having something taking place in an unexpected place. Also, the more unfamiliar the reader is with the setting, the more interesting the setting.
Dialogue makes fiction seem real. However, dialogue that copies reality may actually slow down a story. Avoid unnecessary or repetitive dialogue.
Dialect in dialogue can be difficult to read. A small amount of it can be used to establish the nature of a character, but overuse will intrude on the story. The level of use of language by the characters- pronunciation, diction, grammar, etc.- is often used to characterize people in a story. Most often the main characters use the best English.
Profanity and vulgarisms can be used where they seem appropriate. Overuse amounts to author intrusion and can interrupt the reader’s belief in the story.
Too much exposition through dialogue can slow down a story. Characters should not repeat in dialogue events which have already happened in the story.
Also, one character should not tell another character what the second character should already know just so the writer can convey information to the reader. The conversation will sound implausible: author intrusion. The information can be conveyed in simple narration or by having a knowledgeable character explain something to another character who reasonably should not know the information already.
The form of dialogue should be varied to keep the reader interested. However, don’t try to find too many different ways to say “said.”
Interior dialogue is what a character is thinking. Dramatic dialogue is a character thinking out loud, without response from other characters. Indirect dialogue is the narrator telling what a character said.
Dialogue should be used to develop character or to advance the story. It should not be used just to hear characters talk.
Point of View
First person point of view has the main character telling the story or a secondary character telling the main character’s story. Everything that happens in the story must be seen or experienced by the character doing the narration. The reader’s judgment of other characters in the story will be heavily influenced by the narrator. This can be very limiting. Also, a story written in first person usually means that the main character won’t die in the story. However, first person point of view gives a sense of intimacy to the story.
Third person point of view can be objective or omniscient. An objective narrator describes actions but not the inner thoughts or feelings of the characters. An omniscient narrator can describe all the actions of all of the characters but also all of their inner thoughts and feelings as well.
The theme of a story is often abstract and not addressed directly in the narrative. It is imparted to the story by the concrete events occurring in the story.
Style is the way the writer uses language. The longer the work the less important language becomes. Above all, the writer’s work must tell a story. The writer should not be more concerned with the words used than with the story the writer is trying to tell. Don’t be a fanatic about words. The language is less important than character and plot. However, a combination of a good story and good English will be a delight to read.
Mistakes in English amount to author intrusion and detract greatly from the story being told.
The most effective writing uses the active voice. Shorter, concrete words tend to be stronger. Long words tend to be abstract. Avoid wordiness. Write in a concise, precise, concrete, and specific manner. However, recognize that English has an enormous number of words in it, and the words can have very precise meanings. Sometimes no other word will do. And be specific. Don’t mention just a tree; say what kind of tree it was.
The choice of words can help set the tone of the story.
Beginning writers may get defensive and touchy about their style. When offered constructive (or maybe destructive) criticism about their style, beginning writers may tend to say something like,”Well, that’s just my style.” The implication being that the reader must like whatever style the writer chooses to use. But that is backwards. It is up to the writer to please the reader, not the other way around.
In no particular order.
Be specific in your writing. The more specific the detail, the more real the story will seem to the reader.
The best fiction can come from the preposterous imaginations of writers who are good storytellers.
Becoming a skilled typist (on a word processor) is extremely useful to a writer.
Very few people make a living at writing fiction.
Revision is important. A writer can always do one more revision. At some point the writer has to stop revising and get the work published.
Show, don’t tell.
Avoid starting a story with dialogue.
Don’t use clichés.
The more detail in the story, the more interesting the story.
Revise, revise, revise, revise, . . .
Avoid author intrusion.
Write what you like to read.
Don’t use exclamation points.
Use surprise and irony.
The shorter the story, the more important each word becomes.
Descriptions and technical details must be authentic; when the reader suddenly realizes that the writer made a mistake, the reader is jarred out his or her temporary acceptance of the story as reality, i.e., author intrusion.
Avoid overused words.
Success breeds success. The more published you are, the easier it is to get published again.
Every word can be used appropriately somewhere in some story.
Don’t tell what happened; recreate what happened.
The beginning of a story must be interesting. Readers can be lost on page one.
Scorning the work of a writer does not make that writer a better writer.
A Final Observation
Whatever rules or tips you read about writing you will be able to find some published work that violates them. Sometimes the violation is glaring and amounts to author intrusion. Other times the violation may actually help the story. Usually the latter occurs when the writer actually is an excellent wordsmith and deliberately, with great specific purpose, violates some rule or tip.