Top 5 Tips for Beginning Fiction Writers

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This spring, I am offering five tips to students writing in each of the four genres covered in my textbook, Creative Writing: Four Genres in Brief. My last post discussed poetry writing, and this week I shift focus to fiction.

Fiction writing is arguably the most popular genre among first-year writers. Unlike the case with poetry, students probably read a good bit of fiction before entering their college composition course; it’s possible you can build on their knowledge of how narrative works, which is often strongest in genres such as fantasy, romance and sci-fi. Of course, literary fiction tends to privilege character and style over incident and spectacle, so students may benefit from rethinking their storytelling priorities.


Here are my Top 5 Tips for Beginning Fiction Writing Students:

  1. Make sure something significant happens. “Where’s the trouble?” my fiction writing teacher James Gordon Bennett used to ask our class during every workshop, and it’s a question worth repeating every time you compose a new story. The sort of conflicts most of us happily avoid in real life are often embraced in fiction. And something important has to be at stake. The problem might be trivial in the reader’s eyes, but it should matter a great deal to your protagonist.
  2. Don’t make your main character too good or too evil. Yes, you want your protagonist to stand out and be someone readers want to know more about, but if your character feels, on the one hand, like Satan incarnate, or on the other, like an angel who has left their wings at the door, readers are likely to check out—or worse, stop reading altogether. Try to create characters whose qualities are like those of most real people: a combination of the admirable and the flawed.
  3. Be open to changing the story’s point of view. Sometimes the most interesting person in the story is not the best person to tell it. If you’ve ever read The Great Gatsby, for instance, you know that while the presence of narrator Nick Carraway, is important, he is not the most interesting or complex character in the novel. Even a simple switch from first-person (“I did this”) to third-person limited (“She did this) can make a huge difference in how we interpret the narrative.
  4. Use dialogue. Again, this might sound obvious, but often you will be so caught up in the telling of your story that you’ll forget to have your characters speak to one another. That’s a missed opportunity because how they talk to each other, in addition to what they have to say, can reveal a great deal about who the characters are and the nature of their conflict. Don’t, however, feel that your story needs to be composed entirely of talk. Effectively employed, a little dialogue can go a long way.
  5. Refer to the five senses to ground your reader in the world of your story. You might have believable characters engaged in a riveting conflict, but if your reader can’t envision the setting, it may feel as though the story is taking place in some amorphous limbo. Vivid visual descriptions of key places in the narrative are a good starting point, but don’t forget to include taste, touch, sound and smells as well.