I started out writing non-fiction with no thought of even trying fiction, mainly because I thought I had to write like Umberto Eco in order to be considered a literary success.
You’re already confident with writing nonfiction, so making the transition to fiction should be no big deal, right? Not. There’s actually a significant learning curve to recognizing and mastering the essential elements of writing fiction that captivates readers, sells well, and garners glowing reviews.
As an independent editor specializing in popular, fast-paced fiction, I often receive manuscripts from professionals and others who write a lot of nonfiction and are attaching a draft of a novel or short story. They often assume that since they’re used to writing, the transition to fiction will be easy.
Nonfiction writers and first-time novelists often don’t realize the importance of issues they’re simply not aware of, so they ask me for “just a light copyedit.” When I start reading their manuscript, I often notice right away the story seems to lack sparkle. It doesn’t engage me and make me want to keep reading.
The writers, although accomplished in their field, have little or no concept of the critical aspects of point of view and showing instead of telling.
Other issues I see are writing that is just too “correct” and distant for storytelling, with stilted dialogue, too-frequent author intrusions, and bland, neutral narration. Finally, the writing often meanders along at too leisurely a pace, lacking sufficient conflict, tension, intrigue, and general zing.
The following tips, for anyone wanting to master the art of storytelling, will help you bring your characters and story world to life by loosening up your language, getting up close and personal with your characters, letting them tell the story, and showing their emotions and reactions. Of course, you’ll need to start with a charismatic protagonist, a critical problem, plenty of conflict, and an intriguing plot.
1. Get into your character’s head – and stay there.
Start right out in the point of view of your protagonist and show the events through his eyes, with his internal reactions. Forget omniscient point of view – it’s no longer in favor, and for very good reason. Readers want to get “up close and personal” with the main character, so they can become emotionally engaged and sucked into the story.
Show your character’s thoughts, perceptions, and inner reactions to what’s going on right away, so readers can identify with her and bond with her. Don’t head-hop to other characters’ thoughts within a scene. To get into the head of others, like the antagonist or love interest, give them their own viewpoint scenes.
2. Stay out of the story as the author.
Let the characters tell the story, in a natural way that is authentic to the story world you’re creating. This will keep the readers immersed in the fictive dream. Don’t interrupt the story by stepping in as the author to explain things to the readers. In other words, avoid info dumps and other author intrusions.
3. Make sure your story has plenty of conflict and tension.
Conflict is what drives fiction. No conflict = no story. Not enough conflict and tension = boring. Every scene should have some conflict and a change. Every page should have some tension, even if it’s just an undercurrent of unease, disagreement, or resentment.
4. Loosen up your language.
Again, “let the characters tell the story.” Forget perfect English, complete sentences, convoluted phrasing, or fancy-schmancy vocabulary. Use direct language and strong imagery, in the character’s thoughts, colored by their personality, education, background and attitudes. In other words, stay in your character’s mood and voice, using words and phrasing they would use, which also fit the overall tone of the story, rather than a more correct, neutral language.
5. Show, Don’t Tell
Don’t step in as the author to tell your readers about your characters or their background or to relate something that happened. And don’t have one character tell another about a critical event that occurred offstage. Show important scenes in real time, with action and dialogue.
Also, to bring your characters alive, be sure to show their emotions, internal and external reactions, and physical sensations.
Evoke all or most of the senses. Don’t just show what the character is seeing. What is she hearing, smelling, feeling? Even tasting?
6. Use snappy dialogue.
Dialogue needs lots of tension and attitude. Be sure your dialogue doesn’t all sound the same – like it’s the author speaking. Each character’s words and speech patterns need to match their personality and background.
Avoid complete sentences and perfect English in dialogue. Use frequent partial sentences, one- or two-word questions and answers, evasive replies, abrupt changes of topic, and silences. Read your dialogue out loud, perhaps role-playing with someone else, to make sure it sounds natural and authentic.
Also, skip the “Hi, how are you?” and other blah-blah lead-up and filler. Cut to the chase in your dialogue.
7. Even your narration should not be neutral.
Avoid bland, authorial narration.
Any backstory should be the character’s thoughts, colored by their feelings about it, and keep it to a minimum, preferably with flashbacks in real time. Even your description, exposition, and narration should not be neutral – these are really the POV character’s observations, and should reveal their personality, goals, attitude and mood.
Do you have any more tips to share for nonfiction writers or anyone else just getting into writing fiction? Please do leave a comment below.
Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers and other fast-paced fiction, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER, both available in e-book and trade paperback.
Image: Flickr Creative Commons pen by Gregory Wake