Advice for Fiction Writers: 3 Do’s vs. 3 Don’ts for Making a Good Story

+ Respect the reader’s imagination

A good writer trusts the reader well enough to fill in the blanks when necessary. I’m not implying that the writer purposefully create holes that end up making the whole book a speculation, but use them where credit is due, like when describing scenery, journeys, or other necessary elements that may come off as tedious if drawn out to long. Give us JUST enough description to figure out what is happening—or to plant clues that foreshadow something important later—so that we readers can fill in the blanks. It is your call to decide which of these descriptions will be important to the storyline.

Describing characters or settings. This especially goes for imagining what characters may look like or where they may live. A lot of the time the writer will get lost in making the perfect description of a character (many times, cliché descriptions) such as “her fiery red hair hung to her waist and had a slight curl that covered her shoulders. She wore a crimson gown that buttoned down the back and wore long sleeves that embellished her delicately painted finger-nails…” blah, blah, blah. This always bugs me unless there is a specific reason why her sleeves are long, such as “to hide the scars that lined her arms” or “culture required modesty at all times” or something pertinent to the storyline.

My key point here is, unless there is a specific reason for including fluffy description, take opportunities to invite readers to imagine their own view of the character or setting…or if you’re daring, even talk to the reader every now and then, like “imagine your childhood home; his home was nothing like it”.

+ Use original language.

I recently read a book that rarely used the same words for descriptions, and I think it takes a master of the craft to be able to do this for a novel. NEVER underestimate the power of “like” or “is a”. Example: “His head looked like his neck grew a zit” or “She was a statue.” Don’t forget to use your senses: what does the scene look, sound, feel, smell, and even taste like? If you are ever stuck or need to get your mind flowing regarding creating descriptions, check out Richard Nordquist’s 5 Examples of How to Write a Good Descriptive Paragraph.

+ Make us invest in your characters, both good and bad.

Nobody is going to care about a story they cannot connect to. And characters are the best way to invite readers to establish this connection.

Antagonists: Even though you may not want us siding with your villains, since they work against your protagonist, invite us to engage with them in some way. In real life, the villain you do know is far more common than the villain you don’t know, even if it may seem less dangerous. If you don’t see the point in fleshing out your villain, remember that they are still a main character that will help drive your story and should be as well-rounded as your protagonist. Plus, the more you flesh out your antagonist, your protagonist’s victory against them will only be that much sweeter to the reader. The more we hate the antagonist, the more we love the protagonist.

Protagonists: Please stay away from the cliché and overused character tropes, specifically the ones revolving around the notion: “He was different from the others” or my favorite: “She was nothing, why would he want her?” Ugh. I do not like main characters who do not think very much of themselves and need another character to show them how important they are. Granted, there are stories where this may be an important premise to the development of the plot, and the overall development of the character, but if not done well—or you have no future plans to help this character become independently confident on their own—don’t even think about it!

On the flip-side, please show us the imperfections of your characters in a way that may not be as visible to them; this will help you discover your character’s growth more clearly and help them on their journey to become a dynamic character that we can relate to. People aren’t perfect, so your character shouldn’t be. But please do not have them make bountiful mistakes that serve no purpose to the story other than making them look stupid. Your reader will lose interest in that character quickly.

– Including unnecessary love triangles.

I know this is a common one, but there is a reason that it is: love triangles, if needed, should develop on their own in a story and should not be forced into the story just for the sake of being included. While it’s nice to show some drama between characters (“who will she choose?”), if you make part of the conflict about a fight over the protagonist, then it discredits the other parts of the book that drive the story that would otherwise make the story a stronger piece of literature. In my opinion, the only literature where love-triangles should exist are in books specifically designed for the YA contemporary romance or literary romance genre. The same goes with including unnecessary romances in your book; not everybody needs to fall in love.

– Making your character do something they would NEVER do.

There is some flexibility with this one; you do want your character to surprise others—and maybe even themselves—from time to time, but the important thing to remember here are the words: “from time to time”. If you are at a loss for where to drive your character, so you decide to make them do something COMPLETELY out of character, please reconsider. This becomes harder to accomplish as the story goes on, because the more you develop your characters’ character, the more the reader begins to trust them as well as their decisions. Like you want your readers to trust you as an author, create characters they can trust.

And finally…

– Disrespecting your own laws.

Obeying the laws set in your story is prudent when writing fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction. Make sure that what happens in obeys the laws of nature, history, or magic that drives your story.

When writing historical fiction, research is vital. Do not pretend like you know the historical backdrop of the period without first learning about the facts of the year, where the story takes place, and any true historical characters. If you do not wish to include research, then do not label your book as historical fiction.

“With fiction, you can use your imagination to fill in the gaps, explain people’s motives and reasoning, or even make up storylines. However, I feel strongly that what a historical novelist invents should be credible within the context of what is known about the subject.”

-Alison Weir, author of Six Tudor Queens series, Historia Magazine Interview, April 2019

When writing sci-fi or fantasy, world-building is vital. Set laws that magic or “space science” must abide by no matter what occurs in your story. If the story does not cohere with those laws, then change them or set loopholes BEFORE writing the book. Do not simply make up laws as you go, this NEVER helps your story and weakens your setting and plot.

“What will the world look like? How different is it from our own? What new and interesting creatures will inhabit it? What will the people be like? What about the cities and landscape?”

-Tim Hillebrant, “Worldbuilding: How to Create a Believable World for Your Fiction Characters”, The Write Life, August 2019

Those are my thoughts on what I believe does or does not work in fiction. Feel free to take this advice or improve upon it at your leisure. I hope that these points will help aspiring authors in your future fiction-writing endeavors!

Published by Ashley Weaver

I am a writer, reader, student, and teacher of literature and the English language.

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