There's a lot of advice out there on the Internet and not all of it is good. I'm going to share with you some of the best tips that I’ve discovered over the years regarding the art of writing a story or book. This won’t be a comprehensive “how-to” for writing, but it should point you in the right direction.
First off, writing a good story is like playing the piano. Image that each key is an aspect of story writing like plot, setting, characterization, romance, suspense, dialog, humor, pacing, grammar, punctuation, word choice, adjectives, adverbs, etc. A piano has 88 keys, but you don’t need to press each of them to play a wonderful song. However, some authors don't use enough keys, while others use them in the wrong places (which is like a sour note). Often, beginners like to pound on the same key over and over. I'm going to try to help you to be more well-rounded.
Rule #1: Each story must have a beginning, middle, and end.This may seem obvious, but it's important to understand. The following should help to clarify what I'm talking about.
- Beginning (may introduce the setting, main characters, genre, conflict, etc.)
|Did this pique my interest? Do I want to keep reading? You need to hook them on the first sentence, then paragraph, then page. Many editors will toss a story after reading the first page.|
- Middle (the meat of the story that builds up to the conclusion)
|Am I still interested? Do I still care about the characters and story? Try to leave each chapter with a dangling carrot to get the reader to continue. Many authors keep the chapters short to entice the reader to read just one more.|
- End (resolves the conflict and ends the story)
|How do I feel? Was it worth my time reading this? Did the ending fall flat. Was the conflict resolved? Remember the resolution doesn't have to be a happy one.|
Rule #2: Did you use the five W's and one H?You might not always need all of these in every scene, but it's a good idea to step back and ask yourself these questions about your story or scene.
Rule #3: Use Strong, Action Words and Sentences. Show Don't Tell.I can't stress the necessity of using active words instead of passive words enough. There are times when you can "tell" the reader something (like in journalism), but more than not, you should show the reader what is happening. Try to avoid passive words such as was, were, is, has, been, and "to be" variations. Example: "It was raining" (telling) vs "The rain pelted the windows" (showing). Limit your adjectives and adverbs (modifiers ending with -ly are not typically as strong). Avoid wordy sentences, redundancy (e.g. "May I ask you a question?" he asked.), and common modifiers (e.g. instead of "very, very small" use "minute," "bite-sized," or "minuscule"). Use all of the five senses. Remember that the thesaurus and dictionary are your best friends.
Rule #4: Use Natural, Meaningful Dialogue.Dialog and narration should move the story along and be interesting. Avoid using too many dialogue tags (i.e. retorted, answered, replied, etc.). "Said" is usually sufficient. One way to replace the dialog tag is to have the character who is going to talk, do something before or after the dialog. Also, don't use "she smiled" (or anything similar) as a dialog tag. Instead, use "she said with a smile" or "she said, smiling" or just keep "she smiled" and your dialog as separate sentences. Each character should have their own voice. Be consistent. Don't fall into the trap of having your characters speak too dumb or too intelligent for their age and position. In most cases, don't have your characters suddenly use a lot of modifiers and detail in their dialog to describe the setting or what's happening at the moment. It helps to read your dialogue out loud. Since I did the audio narration for the Paraworld Zero audio book, I found those same character voices running through my mind when I wrote the second book. If it doesn't sound right, it probably isn't.
Rule #5: Maintain Your Narrator's Point of View (POV).Imagine POV as a camera with a zoom lens. With first person, the main character is holding the camera (we see what they see). With third person the camera is focused on the main character but can also zoom out if needed. Pick a POV style and stick with it throughout the entire manuscript. That means, unless you've got a darn good reason, don't ever shift from first to third person (or vice versa). Don't shift POV characters within the same chapter, unless you're using some sort of indicator like *** or a line break. Then make sure your first sentence identifies the new POV character.
- First Person: Most common in romance novels, where the reader needs to feel and experience every little thought the POV character is feeling. The main character of the chapter or book is the narrator and refers to themselves as "I" in the narration as in "I walked down the hallway." This POV has the advantage of really getting into the head of the character. The disadvantage is that the reader only experiences what the POV character sees and feels. Occasionally, authors will switch POV characters from chapter to chapter but rarely within the same chapter.
- Second Person: Not common, since it's difficult to implement and can confuse the reader. The POV character is referred to as "You" as in "You run down the hallway and see a ghost."
- Third Person or Limited Third Person: Very common. POV character is referred to as "he" or "she" as in "He knew she liked him." When used correctly, it can be as effective as first person. The reader can sometimes hear the direct thoughts of the POV character but it's often done with italics or with tags like "he thought." Advantage is that the narrator can zoom out a little to show more of the story and can move more easily to another POV character without jarring the reader like a first person shift can.
- Omniscient: Not as common anymore. The narrator is god and tells the story without staying in just one character's head. This POV has the most freedom but some readers may feel too distanced from the main character. Some comedies on TV (e.g. That 70's Show, Scrubs, etc.) use this POV to jump from person to person. Can also share back story or details that the characters may not be familiar with.
Rule #6: Make it Original and Avoid Cliches.This is perhaps the most important piece of advice I could give. If you don't have something new to say, then your chances of getting published will be greatly diminished. It is argued that there are only a handful of story themes out there (i.e. solving a mystery, going to battle or on a great journey or quest, loss of innocence, finding love or friendship, etc.), but there are tons of ways you can breathe new life into those themes.
- Be original! Editors have heard the fairy tale stories a million times! TV repeats many of the same story ideas.
- Keep a notepad with you (even when you sleep).
- Put a twist on things you see or hear.
- Remember funny experiences and people’s reactions.
- Create an outline of your story and list the ideas that come to you.
- Listen! Keep your mind open to possible story ideas.
- READ! Movies & games aren’t a substitute for reading.
- Get enough sleep, eat well, exercise, and relax so your mind can be unhindered.
Rule #7: Use Spell-Check and Grammar-Checkers Wisely. Edit! Edit! Edit!I suffer from a minor case of dyslexia and a horrible case of poor spelling, which sometimes affects my writing, since those spell-checkers will tell me I'm spelling the word correctly when I've in fact used the wrong word entirely. Example: I once spelled "bowls" as "bowels" -- as in "she picked up her bowels from the cupboard." Wow! What a strange place to keep them.
Now I've used both Microsoft Word and Corel WordPerfect and I will tell you right now that without a shadow of doubt, the WordPerfect checkers are MUCH better than Word's checkers. I use both, since each of them seems to catch different things. With WordPerfect you can customize the checker to check for different types of genres. I created my own custom checker with WordPerfect, which looks for things like cliches and possible misuse of words. The tip to remember is to never blindly accept the checker's suggestions, since they are OFTEN incorrect. That's where learning grammar and punctuation comes into play. Stop your grumbling! After I wrote Paraworld Zero, I read several grammar and punctuation books, cover-to-cover, which helped me tremendously with my second book. If you're serious about writing, you'll do the same. The reason for this is that editors expect clean manuscripts from new authors. If you want an even greater edge, pay a professional to edit your manuscript. That can cost a couple thousand dollars, mind you. I should know. I paid someone to edit Paraworld Zero before I submitted it. However, my writing skills have improved so much that the grammar and punctuation of my second book is almost night and day from my first one (and my first book placed in over a dozen contests and hit two bestseller lists). Please check out my grammar and punctuation sections on this website for some great tips.