How to Write Better Fiction
Fiction is magical, isn’t it? On one end, there’s a writer creating new worlds and characters and putting them in imaginary situations, and on the other end, there’s a reader interpreting the words and conjuring up images to go along with the story. Unlike with a movie, each reader experiences a slightly different version of the story in their head as they interpret the words in their own way. In this sense, author and reader are working in tandem to create a unique narrative experience.
Of course, this works best when the writing is superb. To say that writing fiction is difficult is an understatement, so we’re outlining a few tips and tricks to help you get better at it and make your writing more relatable, compelling, and fun. If you’re struggling to put your story together, check out our developmental editing services for assistance with your plot, character development, and structural issues.
Let’s start with the basics.
Consistency is key
Reading and writing are the most basic ways to improve your skills. Reading will expand your vocabulary and help you learn how to utilize elements like prose, pacing, and dialogue, while writing enables you to hone your craft, sharpen your voice, and focus your narrative.
When you read books you like, pay attention to the tricks and techniques the author uses to keep you glued to the page. Examine how they begin and end chapters, introduce characters, and create suspense, then take your observations and try to replicate them in your own writing. Aim to write every day, and set a goal every time you sit down to work. Make it a challenging but attainable goal—unrealistic targets won’t help you.
Know your topic and genre
Fiction is a huge umbrella term that encompasses many different genres, from fantasy and children’s stories to sci-fi and romance. Every genre has its own conventions and rules, and as a writer, you need to be well-versed in yours. That’s not to say your story has to fit within a rigid category, but you should know who your audience is and what appeals to them.
Knowing your topic inside out is also essential. Surely you’ve heard of “write what you know,” but you should also be aware of what you don’t know and then research it because the last thing you want is to have a technical error marring your otherwise brilliant story. If you have friends or acquaintances who are knowledgeable in that field, reach out to them. Incorporate your own experiences to strengthen your characters’ motivations, and commit to becoming an expert (if you already aren’t) on the topic you’re writing about.
Of course, this doesn’t mean transmitting every bit of information to your readers—you should only include what they need to know to make sense of the plot and use your knowledge to build the world on a solid base.
Always outline! Although we don’t recommend creating an outline that’s too restrictive, having a general guide, a roadmap for where your story is going, has proven to be effective before starting your first draft. Just remember that your outline should be flexible enough to let your story take unexpected turns and reveal itself to you. You may even find that as you sit down to write, the characters that you so carefully developed begin to take on a life of their own and steer parts of the story in new directions. As long as these new developments fit in with your plot, this is a good thing.
Character-driven stories tend to forge stronger connections with audiences than plot-driven ones, which is why character development is so instrumental to writing good fiction. Even your supporting characters should feel authentic and realistic, and for that, they need to be layered and have a greater purpose than merely interacting with the lead. Their arcs—what changes or transforms them—should be completed by the end of the story, and as the author, you should have a good grip on their backstories and personalities. Also, don’t forget your antagonist: They’re just as important as your protagonist, so try to give them at least one redemptive quality.
Developing characters with flaws, virtues, and failures will make them much more relatable than simply describing their appearance, so keep physical descriptions relatively vague and let your readers create their own idea of what the characters look like. When you do reveal details about their appearance, use the age-old storytelling technique of showing, not telling.
As for the dialogue, it should be realistic but succinct and to the point. Avoid using too many fillers or tags—“said” works just fine in most cases. In a steady back-and-forth dialogue, you can forgo tags altogether, making for a smoother and more immersive experience for the reader.
Storytelling is the basis of writing a book, and although there are many elements to it, you can focus on a few to improve your fiction writing. Finding your voice is one of the most crucial components as it will impart authenticity to your narrative. This usually takes practice, but once you find it, it will carry your writing and connect you with the reader. You can use your voice in future novels as well, offering return readers a familiar environment to enjoy a new story.
Using the traditional three-act structure is a great way to organize your book and hit the main beats at the right times. For example, you should introduce your characters in the first act, present the plot and obstacles in the second, and provide the outcome in the third. There can, of course, be variations to this formula, but make sure you understand your audience before breaking too many rules.
When working on your structure, also consider where you start telling your story, how you arrange your chapters, and how you handle your pacing, which will play a role in building tension and keeping the reader hooked. Importantly, you want to start somewhere interesting to grab your audience and make them want to read your book. Opening with action, humor, or a brilliant insight is a common tactic.
Tried and tested advice like “show, don’t tell” and “simple is better” is a classic for a reason. Don’t complicate the plot or your writing as readability and clarity are key and much more important than ornate vocabulary. In fact, if your lexicon is too pretentious, you’re apt to confuse readers and turn them off. The same goes for world-building: Although you, as the author, need to understand the ins and outs of your world, you don’t want to spell out every detail for your audience.
Themes and mood
As a writer, you must be aware of the themes of your book and understand what mood you're portraying as they’re integral parts of the reader’s experience. Make sure the themes are relevant to the story and the mood matches your intention. You can’t always figure these details out in the outlining stage, so give yourself permission to analyze them more deeply after you’ve written your first draft, which is your chance to fix and adjust anything that feels inconsistent.
Also, keep in mind that your primary job is to write a great story. Even if you want readers to take away an important message, let it be delivered through your relatable characters and riveting plot. Don’t spell anything out explicitly: People don’t read fiction to be lectured.
Editing can feel overwhelming at times, which is why we strongly suggest getting a professional editor to go over your first draft. From cutting superfluous adverbs to eliminating scenes that don’t advance the plot, editing is where your story will take shape. It can be a painful process, but if you’re not willing to face criticism from an editor, you’ll face way more criticism from publishers and readers. If you’ve already finished your final draft, check out our paragraph and sentence editing to take your manuscript to the next level.