10 Essential Fiction Writing Tips to Improve Your Craft
“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” Author Jessamyn West made this observation back in 1957, but it’s just as true today. We all know what a powerful vehicle fiction can be — and indeed, reading novels is one of the best ways to learn the craft of writing.
Still, every now and again, we need the lessons we learn from great novels to be made a bit more explicit. That’s where this post comes in!
Here we’ve compiled ten essential fiction writing tips for writers like you. Some are directly story-related, while some are more about the mentality and setting you need to cultivate. But all these tips have one crucial thing in common: they should all help you become a better fiction writer. Ready to get started?
10 key fiction writing tips
1. Consider your overall structure
Structure is one of those things that you absolutely need to write good fiction. You might be able to get a few paragraphs or even pages into your story on hot air and coffee alone, but you’ll soon find yourself grasping at straws if you don’t have a solid structure. So before you get too far, figure out what your story should look like.
The structure of fiction can take many shapes — only you can determine which one is right for your story. Of course, there are some concepts, like the inciting incident, rising action, and climax that occur in most full-length narratives. But it’s still good to remember that they can be executed differently and serve different purposes.
Know that the structure of your piece may very well change during the writing process. But it’s still important to think about it before you start, and write it down for future reference. That way, you’ll at least have a rough outline to fall back on if you get stuck.
2. Introduce core elements early
When writing fiction, it’s critical to get your reader invested as soon as possible. This means letting them know what the story’s all about within the “first act” (aka the first third or so) by establishing certain elements. If you’re writing a short story, it should be within the first few paragraphs, since you don’t have as much space for exposition.
What are these core elements you need to introduce? For the most part, they’re probably what you’d expect:
- Main characters
- Major themes
Of all these, conflict is the element you want to prioritize most. Yes, it’s important to know where your story takes place and who it’s about, but conflict is what’s really going to engage your readers. Conflict is at the heart of plot (it’s often triggered by the inciting incident), creating tension that makes people read until the very end.
Also remember that, just like structure, there are many different kinds of conflict in fiction! So if you’ve already gotten started on your story but you’re not sure if it has conflict, don’t worry; it might just be an unconventional type. For instance, you don't need to go the classic protagonist vs. antagonist route — your narrative's central conflict might be one that unfolds within your main character (character vs. self). The important thing is to ensure that, whatever this conflict is, it’s introduced early.
3. Give characters strong motivations
This ties into our previous tip — as you’re creating characters and conflict for your story, you want them to be as believable and intriguing as possible. There are a few ways to do this, such as carefully monitoring the pacing and taking details from real life. However, by far the most effective tactic is creating strong character motivations.
Think of your story as a house you’re building. If you want anyone to actually live in the house — aka become invested in your story — you need a foundation beneath it to convince them that it’s solid. Character motivations make up this foundation. Without motivations, there can be no conflict. And as we discussed, without conflict, there’s no plot.
Some common character motivations include survival or self-preservation, protecting someone or something else, defeating their enemy, or defending their honor. You may already know what your characters’ motivations are, but if you don’t, here are a few questions you can answer to help you out:
- What’s most important to this character? (Family/friends, livelihood, principles, etc.)
- How might this thing be challenged or threatened in your story?
- With what other character(s) in your story do they naturally clash?
- How strong is their ethical code?
- Where do they see themselves in five years?
4. Show, don’t tell
Yes, it’s advice that you’ve already heard a thousand times, but it bears repeating: show, don’t tell as often as possible. For those who aren’t really sure what that means, it’s easiest for us to, well, show you. Here’s a passage from Sally Rooney’s Normal People that exemplifies this rule:
He wakes up just after eight. It’s bright outside the window and the carriage is warming up, a heavy warmth of breath and sweat. Minor train stations with unreadable names flash past… Connell rubs his left eye with his knuckles and sits up. Elaine is reading the one novel she has brought with her on the journey, a novel with a glossy cover and the words "Now a Major Motion Picture" along the top. The actress on the front has been their constant companion for weeks.
As you can see, it’s pretty hard to completely eliminate telling from your prose — in fact, the very first sentence in this passage could qualify as “telling.” But the rest is “showing,” as it paints an evocative picture of the scene: the bright, warm carriage in the train that's rushing past other stations, the girl reading the glossy novel in the opposite seat.
The author also presents details that allow the reader to draw their own conclusions, rather than outright telling them. For instance, Connell seems to think that Elaine isn’t very intelligent, based on her choice of book and how long it’s taking her to read it. However, rather than saying “Connell thought of Elaine as foolish,” Rooney implies it through description.
These are the keystones of showing rather than telling: vivid descriptions, subtle details, and implied conclusions. Then again, you don’t want to over-describe, or else the text can start to verge on purple prose. It’s all about balance — your writing should “show” enough to engage and immerse the reader, but not ramble on for pages in description of a single scene.
5. Write sharp dialogue
Dialogue is another way to show rather than tell. A conversation between characters can be much more revealing and intriguing than a narrator directly relaying similar information.
But just as with description, dialogue loses its impact if the conversation goes on for too long. As Polonius said, brevity is the soul of wit — so for better, sharper dialogue, be concise.
Say two of your characters are having an argument. You want to be clear what they’re fighting about and connect it to other events/themes in your story, so you write something like this:
“I can’t believe you were late coming home again! This is so typical. Just like when you forgot to pick up the groceries last week. Sometimes I don’t think you listen to me at all. You say you care about my feelings, but you clearly don’t.”
“Well, maybe I don’t listen because you’re always yelling at me. No matter what I do, it always seems to be the wrong thing. I had a very important meeting tonight, for the record. You know I’m trying to get that promotion at work. I’m really trying to make you happy, you just can’t seem to see that.”
But this exchange is full of unnecessary details. After all, the reader should already be familiar with your characters, their relationship, and past events of the story — you don’t have to spoon-feed them the meaning of the conversation. So keep your dialogue short and pithy, moving back and forth like a tennis match:
“Nice of you to show up. What were you doing, if not getting groceries?”
“Thanks for the warm reception. I had a meeting. Kind of an important one.”
See the difference? Of course, writing good dialogue is easier said than done (no pun intended). If you find yourself really struggling with the dialogue in your stories, check out this post for a more detailed overview.
6. Kill your darlings
Now we’re getting into the more process-based tips of writing fiction. Sometimes you’ll write a passage that’s so beautiful, so nuanced, so masterfully constructed that you want to frame it — but it doesn’t contribute anything to the plot or character development. It’s a tangential distraction, and you know in your heart of hearts that your story would be better off without it.
What to do now? You probably know the answer, even if you don’t want to admit it: you have to kill your darlings. This most often refers to an irrelevant or otherwise story-detracting passage, but it may also be your title, an element of your plot, or even an entire character.
In any case, if it doesn’t add to the story, seriously consider dropping it. This is an especially pertinent tip for writers of short stories and flash fiction, since you really don’t have any room to waste!
7. Eliminate distractions
All writing, fiction included, gets done more efficiently and at a higher quality when you’re completely focused. Yes, this one’s another hard truth — especially for those of us who enjoy working from noisy coffee shops and taking frequent Netflix breaks. But the more you rid yourself of distractions, the better a fiction writer (and writer in general!) you’ll become.
Here are some ideas on how to eliminate distractions and enter deep focus mode:
- Write in a journal, or on a computer with no WiFi
- Set your phone to airplane mode or put it in a different room
- Work in a quiet space, ideally one to which you have free and frequent access, like your local library
- Avoid working alongside friends — unless they really do increase your accountability (but be honest with yourself about this!)
- Use the Pomodoro technique, which Jane Harkness explains in this article
8. Work through crises of confidence
In every writer’s life, there comes a point where they second-guess their entire endeavor, and it will no doubt happen to you too. Maybe you’ve got a major plot hole you only just noticed, a theme you have no idea how to incorporate, or you’ve simply hit a creative wall.
Fear not: every writer who’s ever completed a story has gotten through this. And if they did, so can you.
Remember what we said about recording your structure for later, when you get stuck? Now’s the time to revisit it. Look back through your initial notes and outlines to see if there’s anything there that can help you — you may have forgotten about some critical component of your story! This trip down memory lane can also help you recall the passion and confidence you had at the start of your project, giving you the creative boost you need to power through.
If your early notes don’t help and you’ve spent days agonizing over your project, then it might be time to take a break — just don’t give up. Our previous tip notwithstanding, sometimes you need to spend some time purposefully distracting yourself from your writing. But after you’ve spent a week or so away, get back to it! In all likelihood, your head will have cleared, and you’ll have fresh eyes to solve the problem in front of you.
9. Listen to feedback, but trust your gut
During the process of writing fiction, and definitely after you’re finished, you should share your work with other people: your friends, family, writers’ groups, and your editor if you have one.
Accepting and actioning critical feedback is, of course, one of the most difficult parts of being a writer. Yet it’s also one of the most important skills to have. After all, the feedback you receive from beta readers is the only window you have into other people’s views — until you publish and the reviews start flooding in, but by then it’s too late to change anything. So try not to view criticism as harsh, but as helpful. It might just save you from literary infamy later!
This doesn’t mean you have to make every suggested change to your work. If you feel very strongly about including a particular element that someone else doesn’t like, feel free to go with your gut and ignore them. Still, a good rule of thumb is that if more than one person gives you the exact same critique (e.g. “I didn’t like X about Y character,” “I didn’t think this scene was realistic,” etc.), you should at least consider altering it.
10. Just keep writing
How do prolific, successful authors manage to turn out so many books? Basically, by keeping calm and carrying on.
Stephen King writes 2,000 words every single day, even on holidays. Jane Austen wrote each day just after breakfast without fail. Kafka wrote in the wee hours of the morning, barely sleeping as a result.
Now, you don’t have to write every day, or with the same vigor. After all, Jane Austen never had a smartphone distracting her, so that was kind of an unfair advantage.
But you do need to keep writing with relative consistency and focus. This is the best piece of advice we can give any writer, fiction or nonfiction, short-form or long. And to (hopefully) make it stick in your mind, we’ll conclude with this amusing yet apt anecdote from award-winning author Helen Simpson:
The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying "Faire et se taire" from Flaubert. Which I translate for myself as "Shut up and get on with it."
So go ahead, get on with it already. Happy fiction writing!
What are your best tips for writing fiction? Tell us in the comments below.