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Writing Books: a
Practical System

Write Gripping
Fiction
Related rant: Easy Plots for Lazy Writers.

I'm a long way from being the most experienced or highly-published author ever, but having come this far I have some thoughts that might be useful.

Rules of good storytelling
If you've never written fiction before, I suggest you try to follow these rules. I wouldn't start breaking these rules until you've mastered writing within them. Lots of good books and films break these rules, especially rules 4 and 5. But sticking to them when you're learning to write will teach you the discipline of good storytelling.

1. Have a single clear protagonist. Describing the story, you should be able to start with the words "It's the story of a man who..." or "It's the story of a woman who..." Your protagonist should be sympathetic (the audience likes the protagonist) and empathetic (the audience says "this character thinks like me"). A good person who strives to do something worthwhile is best. If your protagonist is something other than a man or woman (eg. child, dog, alien), you move further from the experience of being an adult human, which will tend to alienate an adult human audience. Classical protagonists have:
- Belief: They struggle to achieve something they believe is right or good.
- Activity: They take the initiative. They come up with plans and then execute them.
- Will: They're willing to go the distance. They don't give up when the going gets tough.

2. Make the plot a struggle, resolved at a final climax. The protagonist and some antagonistic forces actively struggle to defeat each other, each coming up with new tactics to counter the other. The plot ends with the climax, or "big fight at the end" as I call it, which clearly resolves who's won and who's lost. The climax should end leaving it clear how things will be afterward. After the climax, the story is basically over. Add only what you need to resolve all the plot threads.

3. Start with action, have action throughout and end with action. Don't spend half the book setting out the personalities of the characters or the details of the setting. Let all that seep through while action is going on. A chapter with no action is a wasted chapter. "Action" doesn't necessarily mean shooting, sex and car chases. An argument, setting out on a journey or making a life-changing decision are all action. All move the plot forward. But just demonstrating a character's personality or showing some aspect of the setting aren't action in themselves.

4. Show all of and only what the protagonist knows. Write from "behind the eyes" of the protagonist, not as an observer looking on from outside (see style point 2 below). If the protagonist sees or learns something, let the reader find out at the same time. Don't keep things the protagonist knows from the reader, eg. by writing "I read the letter and was shocked by its contents" but leaving its contents unstated. Equally, don't tell the reader things the protagonist doesn't yet know, eg. "I was later to learn that..." Don't write from the perspectives of multiple characters, and don't write as an all-seeing narrator.

5. Relate events in the order the protagonist sees them. Don't start the book with an exciting bit near the end, then skip back in time to the start. Don't use flashback scenes. Don't start a scene in the middle, then go on to explain how the protagonist got there. But if the protagonist finds out about something only long after it's happened, relate the protagonist learning of it. Don't put it in at the time when it happens, when the protagonist doesn't know about it.

6. The most important part of the story is the ending. A lot of stories are good most of the way through, but then ruined by a weak ending. Early on in writing, think up a good ending and then write with the intention of getting to it. Don't just hope a good ending will miraculously occur to you when you get near the end of the story. Most of the time it won't.

7. Make the reader want to know what happens next at every stage. A "real page-turner" is a book that grips the readers so much that they can't stop reading. The key to this is to make them hungry to know what happens next at every stage. There are two requirements for this. First, they must care what happens next (the book is engaging). Second, they must not think it's obvious what will happen next (the book is not predictable). Aim to get your readers asking this question: "How on Earth is the hero going to get out of this situation?" But beware: if your readers have come to expect the hero to suddenly grow a new magic power when in danger, or to be conveniently rescued by enigmatic god-like aliens, they probably won't be gripped. And audiences expect the hero to win fights, so if he can escape danger by winning a fight that's predictable.

Use of content
See also: Structure.

1. Vary the content type. One battle scene is exciting, but a book of nothing but battle scenes would get boring. One romantic scene of shy smiles and holding hands can be great, but a whole book of it would be slush. The reader can only feel one emotion for a certain length of time before going numb. Try to alternate opposites: happy follows sad, relief follows tension, etc. A balanced book isn't unremittingly cheerful or unremittingly grim, but switches back and forth to keep the reader emotionally engaged.

2. Vary the content intensity. The reader can't keep on feeling powerful emotions all the time, even if they do alternate in type. After a lot of emotions, the reader needs a patch of calm to recover. Classical dramatic practise is to build scenes in sequences of increasing emotional intensity growing to a climax, then to revert to a lower intensity for the start of another such sequence.
These style points are covered in much more depth in:

Write Gripping
Fiction

Style points
In my view, the following make for a better read.

1. Do more with less. Do the most you can with the smallest number of words. Cut out self-indulgent rambling. Cut out repetition, unless it's necessary to remind the readers of something that might have slipped their minds. Don't describe things in more detail than you think is required to do something worthwhile, eg. to give plot-relevant information, to set the atmosphere, etc. Revising a text should ideally be an exercise in cutting down, removing wasted words to leave more content in fewer words.

2. Describe things, not the act of noticing them. Don't state that a character perceives or thinks something, eg. "I saw", "he heard", "she felt", "I thought", "he wondered", "she decided". Instead, simply state the thing perceived or thought. This puts the reader "behind the eyes" of the character, rather than being an observer looking at the character's state of mind from outside.
Seeing/thinking the thing (bad) The thing itself (good)
"I saw some men mending the road." "Some men were mending the road."
"He heard an explosion in the distance." "There was an explosion in the distance."
"She felt something cold touch her arm." "Something cold touched her arm."
"I thought Jim was being childish." "Jim was being childish."
"He wondered if the plan would work." "Would the plan work?"
"She decided to give up her job and write full-time." "She'd give up her job and write full-time."
"I felt ashamed." "Shame filled me."
"He was terrified." "It was terrifying."

3. Keep dialogue unrealistically brief, coherent and to the point. In real life, people talk at great length without getting to the point. They repeat themselves, start and stop incoherently, and don't know what they mean to say when they start talking. This is realistic, but don't write like that. If we made all the conversation in a book realistic like this, it would contain huge amounts of waffle that would bore the reader. It's painful to be deliberately unrealistic, but we have to sacrifice realism for a smooth read. Get a conversation done before the reader gets bored.

4. State causes before effects. "A bang made me jump" is better than "I jumped when I heard a bang".

5. People aren't figures. A lot of authors write "figure", "form" or "shape" to mean "man", "woman" or "person". For example they may write "a bulky figure was approaching" when they mean "a muscular man was approaching". This is a silly affectation. There are times when "figure" is appropriate. "She had an hourglass figure" is perfectly sensible English. "A bulky figure suddenly loomed out of the shadows" is a valid usage, as it vividly indicates the viewer's sense-impression when something new comes into perceptual prominence and the brain rushes to classify it. But to routinely use "figure" etc. for "person" is silly.