The Ultimate Guide to Fiction Writing
Learn the top 9 skills needed to crack the publishing code
An overview of the essential knowledge needed to write publishable fiction
This article is going to give you a super-compact overview of the essential skills you need to write stories that sell. Think of this as a curriculum overview and a guide as to what you need to learn to crack the publishing code. The points in this list come from my experience as an editor and book coach of the main technical problems that authors face when writing fiction. It also correlates with the problem areas highlighted by agents and publishers when assessing manuscripts.
You’ll gain a head start by reading this article and the linked blog posts, but if you want the information in much greater detail, do take a look at my book and video course Write Masterful Fiction: The Complete Course on Planning and Writing Stories that Publishers Love.
Also note that much of the information in this article is aimed at writers of long-form fiction such as novels and screenplays (and even memoirs). Some of the more complex aspects of plotting and character building might not apply to short stories.
1. A story begins with a premise
One of the biggest errors novice writers make is to start their stories in the wrong place. It becomes immediately clear that the author hasn’t got a clear handle on the main conflict that drives the story and how this will be resolved by the end of the book. The premise is a clear formulation of the conflict that starts the story, the character who is affected by the conflict, and what they must do in response. It looks something like this:
When Katniss Everdean’s little sister is chosen to be a contestant in a fight-to-the-death TV reality show, Katniss volunteers to go instead. Now she must prepare herself for a ruthless combat game in which life and death depend as much on fighting skill as on winning the favour of a bloodthirsty audience.
You don’t need to know the premise before you start writing. Some authors only know what their story is about once they’ve reached the end of the first draft. Then they define the premise and story structure and sit down to write a second draft based on this structure. Read more on crafting a story premise.
2. Drafting the story structure
Your premise gives you the initial setup, the main conflict, and the action that starts the adventure. That’s enough to get you through the first few chapters, but it won’t get you to the end of the book. To do that, you need to map out a full story structure, also known as a plot structure. Now there are many plotting models out there and you are free to use any that work for you. One of the simplest and most versatile is the classic three-act structure used in screenwriting and much commercial fiction.
- Act 1: Sets the scene and introduces the protagonist and the conflict or problem they face.
- Act 2: The main body of the story – the protagonist tries to solve the problem and fails several times.
- Act 3: The protagonist makes a final effort and succeeds or fails, bringing the story to an end.
Some authors plot everything out first. Others prefer to write a rough first draft to see where the story is going, and then they map out a full premise and plot structure before starting the second draft. The plot structure helps you write a better story, but it’s also necessary as part of your submission to agents and publishers, so it’s not something you can skip.
3. Building with scenes
Once you have the basic structure of the story you can begin writing it. The basic building block of structure is the scene.
A scene is a section of a story made up of a character (or characters) performing an action that drives the plot or develops the theme.
Following this definition, every scene should have some kind of action, and this action must be useful in advancing the plot or theme. Action includes physical action, dialogue, or even reflection and taking a decision. Make sure that every scene has a purpose that advances your story. If not, leave it out.
Another defining point of scenes is that a new scene begins whenever you change character, location, or time period. It’s important to know this because a common scene error involves authors changing perspective too rapidly from one character to another without a proper scene break. This creates confusion for the reader.
Read more about writing with scenes.
4. Creating characters
Your story plot begins with a main character (the protagonist) who faces a problem and must take action to resolve it. This means that the protagonist is not just some random interesting person to whom various things happen – the character is part of the plot.
The conflict identified in the premise gives the protagonist their external goal – what they want to achieve or avoid. This is the outer layer of the character. It’s also the layer where the character’s appearance and mannerisms are defined. However, to really create an engaging character, you also need to engage the inner level of character. The inner level is about how the character has to grow in order to deal with the challenge posed by the outer layer of the conflict. This growth quest is the inner goal.
The art of creating memorable characters is to give them both outer and inner goals and then to weave these together into a single story. Read the article Creating engaging characters to find out how to do this.
5. Opening lines
Your opening lines are the most important lines you will write in your whole story. They need to grab the attention of readers right from the start. You have two choices to make when opening your story:
- Which scene do you start with?
- How do you open that scene?
1. Which scene to start with
Your first scene should be one in which the core conflict that drives the story is introduced. Or, if not the core conflict, then a related conflict that builds to the main one. In writerly terms, we speak of this initial conflict as the inciting incident. So plan a scene that gets to the inciting incident as quickly as possible and creates a hook for the reader. A hook is any kind of question that sparks curiosity and hooks them into reading more.
2. Which lines to open with
Once you’ve chosen your opening scene and made sure it’s got a hook, you need to consider the opening paragraph and make sure that’s got a hook too. Here are some ways of doing so:
- Start with a disruption – something happens
- Start with a resonant scene-setting description that quickly leads to action
- Start with action or dialogue
- Start with a powerful, surprising statement
To find out more about crafting hooky opening lines, read Starting strong – the art of the opening line.
6. Writing effective dialogue
Your dialogue is one of the key aspects an agent or publisher will look at when considering your manuscript for publication.
There’s a lot that goes into making dialogue really sparkle, so I’ll just mention a few main points here and focus on the common mistakes authors make.
- The first point to get is that dialogue should contain some kind of conflict that drives your plot or builds your theme. Conflict in dialogue is any kind of doubt, need, frustration, mistaken assumption, proposal or desire that evokes questions in the mind of the reader or propels action. A dialogue without overt or subtle conflict is boring to read because it doesn’t advance the story.
- Another common mistake with dialogue is to put information intended for the reader into the mouths of characters who would not normally use that information in natural speech. When this happens, the character is speaking to the reader rather than to the character they are having a conversation with.
Constructing dialogue on the page
A piece of dialogue consists of three things:
- The words spoken: The bits between the quotation marks.
- The attribution: Attribution is what lets us know who is speaking. It’s usually indicated by means of dialogue tags – the little phrases like ‘he said’ or ‘said Mary’ that name or identify the speaker.
- The beats: A short statement that describes the physical action a character performs while speaking, before speaking or after speaking.
Now that’s just a taster on the subject of written conversation, so if you need to brush up on your dialogue skills, do head over to my article Writing authentic dialogue.
7. Showing vs telling
Your grasp of showing vs telling is the big skill that agents and publishers are looking for. Telling is when you give your readers direct information about a character or part of the story. For instance, you’ll say “Anne was furious.”
Showing, on the other hand, is when you use sensory details and actions to convey meaning rather than stating things directly. So instead of saying “Anne was furious” you could say, “Anne grew red in the face, then turned and marched out the door, slamming it shut behind her.” You’re asking the reader to figure out that Anne is angry rather than telling them directly.
The magic of showing is that it engages the reader’s imagination in a way that telling does not. And when readers have to imagine things for themselves, they develop an emotional bond with the characters and the story as a whole.
Knowing when and how to show rather than tell is an art that one is always learning. Read more about how to use showing and telling for the greatest effect.
8. Choosing your story’s tense
When writing a story you need to decide on the grammatical tense you are going to use – i.e. whether it will be told in past tense, present tense or future tense.
The tense is indicated by the form of the verbs. For example, here’s a passage written first in past tense and then in present tense:
- Present: I run through the dark forest. What if she catches up with me?
- Past: I ran through the dark forest. What if she caught up with me?
Future tense doesn’t really work for fiction as it’s difficult to keep talking about events as if they’re still going to happen. We can eliminate this tense as an option and just stick with past or present tense.
So how do you decide on past vs present? Here are some considerations:
- Tense is independent of story setting: A story set in the distant past can be told in the present, and vice versa.
- Conventions: Past tense is seen as more traditional, while present tense is seen as more modern. However, not everyone agrees with this perception, so making a choice can sometimes boil down to personal preference and style.
- Genre: Some commercial genres have trends in favour of one or other tense.
Read more about past vs present tense in fiction.
9. Choosing your Point of view
Point of view (POV) is about the grammatical ‘person’ who tells the story. Most stories are told in either first-person or third-person:
First-person point of view
In first-person, the story is told by a participant narrator (a character in the story) speaking as ‘I’ or ‘we’. The viewpoint is from within the narrator’s head, giving us access to everything they see, hear, think and experience.
The great advantage of first-person narration is that the reader identifies with the ‘I’ character and in a sense becomes the narrator. On the downside, your reader can only know what the character knows. This can be a challenge if there’s something you want the reader to know that the narrator doesn’t know.
Third-person omniscient uses the pronouns ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’, ‘their’, etc. The third-person omniscient narrator is not a participant in the story but is an abstract observer, often associated with the voice of the author. This point of view is popular because it enables the author to see into every character’s thoughts and to pass judgment on characters as well as on the society in which the story is set.
Third-person limited POV is written in the grammatical third person, but only shows the viewpoint of one character at a time – so it’s essentially first-person expressed as third-person. The author reveals all the characteristics and motivations of one character and stays out of the heads of all the others.
The main advantage of limited POV is that it enables you to focus attention on one character (as in first-person) while also enabling you to have more than one point-of-view character (as in omniscient).
For a more in-depth discussion of point of view, see my article Point of view in fiction.
And that’s it … my list of the essential skills you need for writing publishable fiction. It may seem a lot to learn, but I can assure you that if you just begin getting to grips with these topics you will be streets ahead of most of the writers out there who are bashing out stories with little to zero knowledge of these core techniques.
If you want all this knowledge in much greater detail, together with exercises that will help you build a story from scratch, do take a look at my book and video course Write Masterful Fiction (details below).
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Write Masterful Fiction: The Complete Course on Planning and Writing Stories That Publishers Love by Russel Brownlee is your all-in-one essentials course for planning and writing fiction that grabs the attention of agents, publishers and readers. Get the book or take the Udemy course and learn the core techniques of fiction while building your own story step by step. Plus – find out how to avoid the 6 common errors that will cause your manuscript to be rejected within the first few pages.