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26.09.2013 20:11    Comments: 0    Categories: Fiction Writing      Tags: improve  fiction  novel writing  

There's no magic to writing a good novel. Anyone can master it, simply by following the rules. Here are five of the most important ones. Follow them and your fiction writing will instantly improve.

 

1. Seek and Destroy "As"

 

In fiction writing, events are nearly always presented sequentially. In other words, even though in real life things often happen at the same time, in the more orderly world of writing a novel, things nearly always happen one at a time. This principal applies to all aspects of your novel's action, from the macro to the micro.

 

Many beginning (and some more advanced) writers instinctively use the "as" construction:

 

She smiled as she took his hand.

Jerry ran to the door as someone started pounding on it.

 

The two examples above are poor fiction writing for two separate reasons. The first example is poor because it is not sequential. Readers prefer sequential. So it's better to write: She took his hand and smiled or She smiled and took his hand.

 

This may sound minor, but it's not. Trust me. The example about Jerry is bad because it violates cause-and-effect writing, another requisite of good fiction. In real life, things don't always happen for a reason. In fiction, they do. So Jerry should be running to the door BECAUSE he has heard someone pounding on it.

 

First he should hear the pounding; then he should run to the door. So you should write:

 

Someone pounded on the door. Jerry rushed to open it.

 

Perhaps it would have been enough for me just to tell you that using "as," whatever the reason, is considered by agents and editors to be a classic amateurism. Getting rid of it is an easy way to ratchet up your novel writing skills a notch or two.

 

2. Keep Background Out of Chapter One

 

Nearly every manuscript I reject is guilty of the same sin: presenting character background right at the start of the story. Many beginning novelists believe that readers won't be able to follow a story, or be interested in following it, if they don't know as much as possible about a character's background, or about the events leading right up to this moment. These writers are mistaken.

 

How many films do we see that begin with a rousing action sequence? We're grabbed, yet we don't know much about the character who is the subject of this scene. There's no time for us to! The same principle applies to novels: Grab your reader with action. WRITE THE SCENE AS IF THE READER ALREADY KNEW THE CHARACTER'S BACKGROUND AND THE EVENTS LEADING UP TO THIS MOMENT. Then, once your readers are hooked, tell them, as concisely and in the smallest pieces possible, only what they need to know WHEN THEY NEED TO KNOW IT TO UNDERSTAND WHAT'S HAPPENING.

 

Here's an example. At the beginning of your novel, your lead, a young woman named Beth, is returning home from college for the Christmas holiday. Without giving any background, have her enter the house and feel a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. Uh-oh, we don't know why she has this feeling. (You know it's because she has never gotten along with her mother, and in fact left for school in the middle of a violent argument.)

 

You'd better clue the reader in. But do you really have to do so by means of the usual straight background exposition? It's better if you can find another way. How about SHOWING the mother react in a hostile manner to Beth as she enters the house; perhaps her mother comes to the head of the stairs to see who has come in, her face freezes, she gives Beth a cold hello and then returns to her room. Beth, for her part, doesn't even respond. Then why is she here at all? you wonder. For her father, who we now find out BY YOUR SHOWING US that he's sick with cancer in the bedroom the family has set up for him downstairs in what was once the den.

 

Notice that we still have not received any straight explanation-that can come later, if necessary. But you've begun your story with straight action, and you've also cleverly told your readers a few important things without actually "telling" them.

 

3. Remember That Emotion is Plot, Too

 

Why do some novels leave us cold? Usually it's because we don't really care about the characters. Why don't we care about them? Because we don't really know how they FEEL.

 

On this great big complicated planet, the one thing we KNOW we have in common with all other human beings is feelings! Feelings are universal, the way we all connect with one another. So the way to make the vital connection to your readers-the connection that makes them keep reading, that makes them remember your novel long after they've finished it-is to make them feel your characters' feelings.

 

How do you do this? It's a two-step process.

 

(1) Make sure you include the feeling in the first place. Believe it or not, many novelists don't bother even to include the fact that their characters react to events in the story, that characters FEEL things as a result of things that happen. These novelists believe that should be understood, or that it's "old-fashioned" or "uncool" to include feelings about things. Nothing could be further from the truth.

 

So the first thing you should do, though it sounds obvious, is to remember to have your characters HAVE feelings in the first place. Remember, how characters feel is legitimate "action" in a novel.

 

(2) Express how the character feels this feeling by SHOWING his or her reaction to it. For instance, don't just say a character is furious. Show the character doing what it would be in character for her to do when she's furious. Don't just say a character is depressed. Have this character tell another character how he feels. Remember, emotion is as emotion DOES.

 

4. Limit the Most Common Gesture Tags

 

Gesture tags are the movements a character makes during dialogue. The most common among newcomers' manuscripts are "he nodded," "she shook her head," "he shrugged," "she smiled," "he frowned." These tags are OK once in a while, but overusing them will label you as an amateur.

 

Whatever you do, don't use a tag and then repeat its message through dialogue-another amateurism. For example:

 

He shrugged. "I don't know."

 

or

 

"No," she said, shaking her head.

 

5. End Your Sections Crisply, and Where They Should End
A section should end when the action it was created to show has been played out. Don't keep going for the sake of-keeping going!

 

For example, if Jonathan has come to Marilyn's apartment to try to convince her to accompany him on his business trip to Rome, and Marilyn not only tells him no but also informs him that she's decided to break up with him, have Jonathan leave the apartment, maybe show his emotion BRIEFLY through some action (see #3 above), and bring down the curtain.

 

Don't show him wandering the streets, wondering where their relationship went wrong, stopping in at a bar to drown his sorrows. All of that rightfully belongs in a REACTION section, a completely separate story unit entirely. It's important to know where the action section (Marilyn telling Jonathan no) ends and the reaction section (Jonathan wondering, wandering, drinking) begins. (The whole concept of action and reaction sections is presented in detail in my books The Marshall Plan® for Novel Writing and The Marshall Plan® Workbook, and in The Marshall Plan® Novel Writing Software, which I coauthored with Martha Jewett.)

 

Go through a manuscript you've already written and see if you can implement any or all of these techniques. Keep them in mind as you write new material.

 

I guarantee your writing will be better for it.

 

 


About the Author

 

Evan Marshall, president of The Evan Marshall Agency, is a former book editor and packager. Recently he and coauthor Martha Jewett released The Marshall Plan® Novel Writing Software, based on his bestselling book "The Marshall Plan® For Novel Writing." Evan is also the author a number of popular mystery novels; recently released are Death is Disposable and Evil Justice. Visit http://www.writeanovelfast.com and download Evan's 77-page Fiction Makeover Guide with tips and ideas on writing a great novel.


 
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