19 Tips for Writing Fiction (Whatever Stage You’re At)
Whether you’re new to writing fiction or you’ve already written a bunch of stories, it often feels like there’s a lot to learn. There’s tons of great advice out there – but some of it can seem confusing (should you really take “show, don’t tell” literally) or even contradictory (like whether you should avoid repeating words – or keep using “said”).
One blog post can’t teach you everything about writing fiction … but I hope these tips help you to get started, keep going, and finish a piece that you’re proud of. Whether you’re working on short stories or epic novels, these writing tips should help.
Before You Start Writing: Top Tips
For many of us, getting started is half the battle. If you can’t seem to find the time to write, or if you want to write but you don’t know what to write, then here’s what to do.
1. Come Up With Your Characters
Whatever you’re writing, you’ll need at least one character – and in almost all cases, you’ll have two or more.
Get your characters clear in your mind before you begin. Whose story is this? What are they like? There are plenty of “character questionnaires” out there that get you to list things like your character’s eye color and hair color, but that’s not really what’s important here. What do they long for? What do they fear? What are they ashamed of? Those at the sorts of things you want to know in order to really figure out who your character is.
Naming your characters can feel almost as fraught as naming actual children. Remember, it’s easy to “find and replace” a character’s name if you decide you don’t have it quite right – so don’t spend ages agonizing over everyone’s names. Do, however, make sure you choose names that are quite different. Readers will easily muddle up Laura, Louise, and Linda.
2. Have Some Idea of Where Your Piece is Going
I’m not much of a planner, when it comes to fiction. When I’m working on a novel, I tend to know the main characters, how the plot kicks off, some key incidents along the way, and (on a good day) where it all ends up.
It’s helpful to have some kind of end in mind for your piece: something that you’re building towards. This needs to fit with your genre (if you’re writing a romance novel, you’d better be aiming for a happy ending) – and it should also give your story purpose and direction, as well as a satisfying conclusion.
If you haven’t written much fiction before, or if you’re experimenting with a new type of fiction, check out Get Writing to help you get going. It’s just $20 and covers short stories and novels (as well as freelancing and blogging), with advice on getting started, a four-week action plan, plus suggestions on how you can go further with each area of writing. You get a bunch of bonus printables too.
3. Know Roughly How Long Your Story Will Be
Are you working on a 2,500 word short story, a 40,000 word novella, or a 75,000 word novel? The size of your piece is going to determine its scope. Before you begin, you need to at least have a rough idea of what you’re expecting to end up with.
A novella, for instance, is probably going to have a smaller cast of characters than a novel. A trilogy of novels might have multiple subplots. And a 1,000 word short story might revolve around a single incident or moment in a character’s life.
If you’re not sure what wordcount to aim for, check out How Long is a Novel … and How Long Should YOUR Novel Be?
4. Do Enough Research – But Don’t Get Caught Up In This
Research is a big part of writing, especially if you’re working on a novel or a similarly long piece of fiction. If you’re writing, say, historical fiction, researching the setting and characters might be a big part of what interests you about writing in that genre.
Some writers find that they get too caught up in research: spending hours obsessively tracking down details at the expense of actually getting on with the writing. Research can become a form of procrastination, if it’s stopping you from putting your own words down on paper.
On the other hand, some writers (me included!) try to dive into the writing without doing enough research. Even if you’re writing a contemporary novel set in a real city that you know well, you’re still probably going to need to check some details like how long it takes to get from A to B.
5. Set Up Your Writing Space
Plenty of writers daydream of having the perfect space to write. But the vast majority of us have to make do with what we’ve got. I’m lucky that our house has a small spare bedroom where I have my desk and computer set up – but I mostly use that for my freelance work, and often end up writing fiction at the kitchen table in the evenings.
Whether your writing space is a dedicated room or just a corner, take a few minutes to set it up. That might mean clearing other things out of the way (often an issue with our kitchen table!) or making sure you have everything you need to hand, like pens, notebooks, and reference books.
If you struggle to focus when you’re writing at home, you might also want to look at going to a coffee shop, local library, or even getting away overnight to a hotel. Your writing environment makes more difference than you might think.
For lots more on creating your writing space, check out the Supercharge Your Writing Environment guide. It’s just $8 and comes with printable extras, too.
6. Visualise the Scene You’re About to Write
When you sit down to write a scene of your story, it can be tricky to figure out how to begin, what should happen, or even which characters need to be in the scene.
One technique that can help with this is to simply take a mental step back. Close your eyes and try to visualise the scene. What are the surroundings like? Where are your characters? What are they expressing through their body language – are they wary, aggressive, happy? How do they move and respond to one another? What are they wearing or holding?
You don’t need to see the whole scene before you start writing. But visualising at least the start of the scene can help you enter into it.
7. Switch Off Your Internet Connection (and Silence Your Phone)
I know I recommend this a lot … but that’s because it works so well! If you do just one thing to improve your focus, make it this. Switch off your internet connection – turn off the wifi or physically unplug your ethernet cable – and silence your phone, too, if at all possible.
It’s incredibly easy to get distracted when you’re supposed to be writing. Maybe you realise you need to check a fact, so you open up your internet browser – and find yourself, half an hour later, still on Wikipedia. Or perhaps you remember an email you mustn’t forget to send, you head into your inbox to take care of it quickly … and end up replying to a bunch of other messages too.
If you don’t want to switch off your internet connection altogether, look into software that you can use to block specific distracting websites, such as social media or news sites. (You can normally set up your own blocklist of sites that you want to avoid while writing.)
Doing the Writing: Top Tips
There’s no “right” way to write anything, but these tips apply to almost all types of fiction, whatever genre you’re working in.
8. Stick with one perspective in each scene
Generally, each scene that you write should be from one character’s perspective. With modern, commercial fiction (i.e. not literary), then you normally have two choices on perspective:
- First person (the “I” perspective)
- Third person limited (he or she, told with access only to what that character knows)
Third person omniscient, where you tell us about things that are beyond what one character can see, is also an option – but this tends to be associated with older and more literary works.
When you’re writing in first person, it’s easy to avoid accidentally shifting viewpoints: you know who “I” refers to all the time. If you have a novel with two or more narrators, then you might start each chapter with the name of the character who’s currently telling the story.
With third person limited, you’ll often be telling a story from several different characters’ perspectives. It’s important not to “head-hop” between them within the same scene – this is disorienting for the reader and can affect the pace of your writing and the reader’s ability to identify with your characters.
I find that it’s easiest to only ever change perspective at the end of a scene or chapter. You might feel differently, but even if you have more than one character’s perspective in a single scene, make sure you’re deliberate about when you make that shift.
9. Avoid Accidentally Shifting Between Past and Present Tense
As well as keeping your viewpoint consistent, you need to keep the tense of your story consistent. You’ll be writing either in present or past tense:
Present tense: “I walk down the street.”
Past tense: “I walked down the street.”
If you’re used to writing in one and have switched to the other, you may find it’s easy to make mistakes with tense. Try to stay consistent when you’re writing – or at least look out for tense slips later when you edit.
There’s no rule that says you can’t tell a story in both present and past tense, if you feel that suits you. For instance, you might have third-person past tense for most of your narrative, but also include first-person present tense passages (perhaps in the form of diary entries or letters).
10. Make Your Dialogue Realistic … But Not TOO Realistic
In stories, you want your characters to talk in a way that gives the impression that they’re speaking realistically.
In real life, people talk over one another, interrupt, trail off, mis-speak, and generally don’t speak at all smoothly. If you read a transcript of a real-life conversation, it’ll seem distinctly messy! But it’s easy to understand because things like volume, tone, speed, and so on all help us get the meaning of what someone’s saying.
You don’t want to try to reproduce this on the page, however. Instead, make your dialogue realistic with things like:
- Idiomatic phrases (so long as they fit your character).
- Occasional interruptions, when appropriate – if characters are excited, angry, rushed, and so on.
- Swear words (if this fits your genre/audience as well as the way your characters would talk).
- Contractions, rather than words spelt out in full.
- Fairly short passages of dialogue – not whole speeches.
11. Give Your Protagonist a Character Arc
Your protagonist (your main character, or hero) should have some kind of character arc. That means they change during the course of your story, as a result of the things that happen and the things they do.
Usually, the character arc will involve your protagonist doing one of the following:
- Overcoming a problem, false belief, or character defect (e.g. they learn to control a hot temper).
- Becoming who they truly were all along (potentially with some revelation about their character – e.g. Harry Potter learns he’s a wizard and grows into that knowledge and power).
A character arc can also be negative, when a character gives into their darker side. This can be tougher to pull off with your protagonist, though it’s certainly a great way to build your antagonist’s backstory.
For lots of great in-depth information, make sure you check out K.M. Weiland’s posts on character arcs.
12. Raise Questions About Things the Reader Doesn’t Know Yet
As your story progresses, you want to keep the reader turning the pages. That means raising questions that you haven’t yet answered. You can do this through:
- Mystery: things that have already happened in the story but that the reader doesn’t fully know about yet. Often, the viewpoint character also won’t know the details of these either. (If they do, that can get annoying for the reader.)
- Suspense: things that haven’t happened yet. If your character is on the run, for instance, the reader will be wondering what’ll happen if they get caught. If your character is after revenge, we’ll wonder what that’s going to look like.
The more unanswered questions, the more the reader’s going to want to keep reading. You don’t have to be writing crime or thrillers, either: even romance is driven by the huge unanswered question of “will they or won’t they?”
Of course, once all the questions are answered, your story is probably going to be over! You’ll also want to make sure you do adequately answer all or almost all the questions by the end of your story – otherwise, readers may feel unsatisfied.
13. Make Bad Things Happen to Your Characters
Your character won’t grow and change if they’re already living a happy and comfortable life. To drive the story forward – and to develop their character arc – you’ll need to let some bad things happen to them.
Some authors positively enjoy making their characters suffer: others find this really tricky. You’ll also want to keep your genre in mind here: in a action thriller, your hero might take a lot of physical damage but not really go through much mental anguish. In a romance novel, your hero and heroine might not get beaten up – but they could go through a lot of emotional turmoil.
Bad things need to happen to your characters. Those might be things they deserve, because of their actions – or things that seem “unfair” but that they still need to overcome.
14. Keep Pushing Forward till You Finish the First Draft
Whether you’re working on a short story or a novel, it’s easy to lose momentum part-way through. You might feel that you’ve run out of ideas or inspiration – or you may simply be disillusioned with how long it’s taking to complete it.
Often, you’ll also face the temptation to go back and start changing or editing what you’ve already written. Writing fiction tends to be a messy process – and it’s great if you’ve started to clarify your earlier ideas as you write. Of course, some of your early scenes may need to change. You might even end up cutting out whole characters or adding in new subplots.
Don’t go back and change things right away. Keep notes about what you want to alter – and keep pressing on until you finish the first draft. Otherwise, you’ll find you have a beautifully honed first three chapters … and precious little else.
15. Write Vivid, Specific Descriptions
I’ll admit it: descriptions aren’t my favourite thing to write. I find it easiest to describe characters and setting through the eyes of another character – I’m not particularly interested in how things look for the sake of it, but I am interested in how characters view the world (and people) around them.
In general, with descriptions, you want to be vivid and specific. Don’t try to exhaustively describe how a house looks: instead, pick a few telling details. Dead grass and peeling red paint on the front door suggests a very different home from a sweeping flight of steps and polished door-knocker that you can see your face in.
Editing Your Writing: Top Tips
A large part of the writing process is about editing – not simply drafting. You may well end up spending more time editing than drafting, especially if you’re fairly new to writing fiction. Here’s how to edit and polish your work.
16. Break the Editing Process Into Different Stages
A lot of writers think that “editing” essentially means “fixing the typos and spelling mistakes.” While that is part of editing, it’s a relatively late stage of the process. There’s not much point polishing every word if you’re later going to cut the whole chapter.
I like to break editing into three stages:
- Rewriting: this is big picture or structural editing, where you make major changes to your story. You might alter characterisation, add or remove subplots, cut whole chapters, and so on. On a smaller scale, you might heavily rework sections of dialogue or action, add in more hooks or hints at what’s to come, or adjust the pacing of key scenes.
- Editing: this is detailed editing or line editing, where you want to make sure that your sentence and word choices are correct. Many writers find it helps to read aloud at this stage, or at least to edit on paper.
- Proofreading: this is the final stage of editing, where you’re looking for mistakes, typos, and inconsistencies. You generally shouldn’t be making more than very minor changes at this point.
For lots more help with this three-part process, check out The Three Stages of Editing (and Nine Handy Do-it-Yourself Tips).
17. Get Feedback From Someone Else
It’s pretty much impossible to see your own writing objectively – especially when you’ve been working on it for a long time. Perhaps your plot seems obvious and trite, but to a reader (who hasn’t been over and over the details like you have), it might seem fresh and original. Or maybe you have all your cast of characters clear in your head – but the reader might struggle to separate them.
This is why feedback is so important. Asking a writer friend (or any friend who enjoys reading) to look over your story-in-progress gives you invaluable insight on what is and isn’t working. It’s even better if you can get feedback from several different people, as anything that they all agree on is almost certainly something that needs addressing.
18. Use Grammarly or Another Automatic Editor
There are lots of editing tools out there to help you spot mistakes in your work. These go beyond simple spellcheckers and can flag up issues like passive voice, misplaced commas, and stylistic issues.
Whichever you opt for, do make sure that you check the suggested edits make sense. Occasionally, the automatic editor will suggest a change that isn’t correct – so don’t follow every recommendation if you’re unsure.
19. Avoid Over-Editing Your Work
Over-editing can end up smoothing out your work so much that you lose your own unique voice and style. Don’t try to aim for perfection (or to please everyone). Watch out for these signs that you’re over-editing your work … and give yourself a deadline for finishing the edits and getting your work out into the world.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of editing too much. While your story will likely benefit from at least two or three rounds of editing, if you find yourself constantly tweaking a word here and a sentence there, then changing it all back again, you’re going too far!
Don’t feel that you need to put all these tips into practice at once! Some of them might be a good fit for you right now – others may be useful to you in months or years to come. Pick one or two ideas to experiment with this week, and see how you get on.
For more help with fiction-writing, check out my self-study seminar packs, particularly:
- Pack #2: The Craft of Fiction
- Pack #5: Advanced Fiction
- Pack #6: Novel Editing
Each pack includes four full seminars (audio and/or video) – along with edited transcripts plus worksheets to help you put what you’ve learnt into practice. The packs are $20 each, or you can get the full set of six packs for just $50.
I’m Ali Luke, and I live in Leeds in the UK with my husband and two children.
Aliventures is where I help you master the art, craft and business of writing.
If you're new, welcome! These posts are good ones to start with:
My contemporary fantasy trilogy is available from Amazon. The books follow on from one another, so read Lycopolis first.
You can buy them all from Amazon, or read them FREE in Kindle Unlimited.