- Nikky Lee
The best fiction writing tips I've received (so far)
I wrote my first manuscript when I was thirteen. In the throes of a creative fervour, I finished it in one summer: 80,000 words in six weeks, give or take. And while the story was okay(ish), the writing was decidedly not.
However, after seventeen years, an English degree, a lot of reading, and a career as a professional content writer, I think (hope) I’ve gotten a little better. Though, sometimes I do wonder.
When it comes to the craft of writing, I’m a firm believer that the best secrets shouldn’t be kept. So, here are the best tips concerning the craft that have helped me the most.
1. Show, don’t tell
It’s is the mantra of the writing community. Pick up any creative writing guide and I guarantee this will feature somewhere in it. When writers say this, we mean that we don’t want you to state what a character is thinking, feeling or doing. Show us.
Telling: Jane was sad.
Showing: Jane’s bottom lip quivered, tears rolled down her cheeks.
The word ‘sad’ is not mentioned anywhere in the second description. Instead, the character’s behaviour makes her mood clear.
Telling might get to the point quick, but it can make for a dull read if you’re overly reliant on it. If a character is short, show them struggling to reach a box of cereal on the top shelf at the supermarket. If they’re a thief, don’t tell us that, have them lift a wallet on the train instead.
Distinguishing the difference between telling and showing is not always easy, especially for a beginner writer. I’ve had my share of struggles getting my head around it too.
Read more: When to throw show, don't tell out the window
2. Avoid adverbs
Adverbs—words that modify a verb or adjective—are often are an indicator of telling, rather than showing. Usually, they take the form of -ly words: quickly, angrily, sadly and so on.
Too many adverbs will bog down a story and bury a great idea with uninspiring language.
Often, a stronger verb can replace both the verb and adverb you’ve used. Sometimes the adverb is not needed at all.
With adverbs: She ran quickly.
Without adverbs: She sprinted.
With adverbs: He said loudly.
Without adverbs: He shouted.
Removing and/or swapping out a verb+adverb for a stronger verb makes for concise and more dramatic writing. Everything a reader wants—and many a writer dreams of.
I’m not saying never use adverbs. But use them less. You’ll find them all over first drafts (mine included). And while they’re fine in draft stage, it’s always worth reviewing them to see if they are needed in your revisions.
3. Rethink passive voice
In English, sentences are usually constructed in the format of subject- (the person on thing performing the action) -verb-object (the recipient of said action).
Daisy (subject) drank (verb) a cup of orange juice (object).
This is considered active voice. However, because English is a language with flexible rules, you can reverse the subject-object order of a sentence and it will still make sense.
The cup of orange juice (object) was drunk (verb) by Daisy (subject).
This is passive voice. It has a time and a place. You might use it if:
The subject is not known: The house was burgled.
The subject is irrelevant: My car window was broken.
You want to emphasis the object or action of the sentence: The Higgs-boson particle was discovered by scientists in 2012.
See the full list in instances where passive voice is acceptable here.
Why rethink passive voice?
It adds distance. In some instances, distance a good thing. Journalists might use passive voice to distance readers from vulgar elements of an article, or when reporting a crime where the perpetrator is not known. However, in fiction, distance is not ideal.
It’s like watching a sports match or theatre show from the worst seats in the house; the ones way up in the rafters. You can still see what’s happening, but you’re not right up there in the front row, where the action is. As a reader, I want to be in the front row.
Identifying passive voice
Passive voice took me a long time to get my head around. For years––and I mean years––I struggled, forever getting subjects and objects muddled. And then I encountered this gem of wisdom:
This simple trick of adding ‘by zombies’ after the verb transformed how I identified passive voice.
Passive: The cat was eaten (by zombies). Makes sense, therefore passive.
Active: Zombies ate (by zombies) the cat. Doesn’t make sense, therefore active.
Passive voice stems from the verb ‘to be’ and its conjugations: is, am, are, was, were, has, have, had, being, been, and be. So, if you’re looking to weed out passive voice in your writing, look for these words.
If you want to learn more grammar tricks like this, here are another 5 grammar hacks to help you edit your writing.
4. Edit out filter words
Filter words operate in a similar way to passive voice, minus the complicated grammar.
These words—such as feeling/felt, see/saw and realise—distance the reader from the action.
With filter words: The sound of the demon’s snarl reverberated in her gut and she felt the hot breath roll over her face. She wondered when it had last eaten.
Without filter words: The demon’s snarl reverberated in her gut, hot breath rolling over her face. When had it last eaten?
In the first instance, the scene is filtered through the main character; the reader is experiencing the action and emotion second hand. With the filler words removed, the writing is much more direct and the reader closer to the action (again, it’s all about those front row seats).
Here’s Publishing Crawl’s list of filter words for you to watch out for:
see / saw
hear / heard
think / thought
touch / touched
wonder / wondered
realise / realised
watch / watched
to look / looked
to seem / seemed
to feel (or feel like) / felt / felt like
can / could
decide / decided
to sound (or sound like) / sounded like
notice / noticed
to be able to
note / noted
experience / experienced
remember / remembered
to let / let out (my vice).
Most of the time, these words aren’t needed. If you can, edit them out. Only use filter words when they are vital to the sentence.
Lastly, don’t worry if your draft is riddled with filter words. My latest has hundreds of “let out a x/y/z” variants. And that was just one filter word, let alone the rest. What’s key is to edit these out when you come round to editing and revising your work.
5. Vary sentence length
Paragraphs that consist of sentences with the similar lengths can lull a reader into skimming. It’s the literary equivalent of a lecture delivered in a monotone. It gets dull real quick.
To keep readers engaged, vary your sentence length. If you have several long sentences in a row, mix in a short one to change the pace. Likewise, if you have several short sentences, consider using a longer one to slow down the reader’s eye.
Here’s an example from Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth:
The small boys came early to the hanging. [8 words]. It was still dark when the first three or four of them sidled out of the hovels, quiet as cats in their felt boots. [24 words] A thin layer of fresh snow covered the little town like a new coat of paint, and theirs were the first footprints to blemish its perfect surface. [27 words] They picked their way through the streets of frozen mud to the silent market-place, where the gallows stood waiting. [19 words]
The boys despised everything their elders valued. [7 words]. They scorned beauty and mocked goodness. [6 words]. They would hoot with laughter at the sight of a cripple, and if they saw a wounded animal they would stone it to death. [24 words].
Use short sentences for action sequences
This tip came from a workshop with thriller writer John Harman. When writing action sequences, he said, use more short sentences. And lots of verbs, especially -ing ones as they suggest movement.
Long sentences to slow the pace
In the Follett’s example above, he’s used long sentences to help convey the still, eerie setting as the boys creep into the marketplace. What’s more, after two short sentences in the second paragraph, he follows it up with a longer one to stop the reader racing ahead.
Tip: Words of Anglo-Saxon origin tend to work well in action, thriller and suspense scenes.
They sound harsher, and are often monosyllabic: watch, hate, eat/ate, hug, grip, sweat.
Latinate words do better when trying to produce emotion and feeling. They’re usually multisyllabic and sound softer on the ear: observed, detested, consumed, embrace, purchase, perspire.
6. Look out for repetitive starts
Repetition can work well, when used intentionally. When it’s not, it can make your prose sound clunky. Again, this is not something to be too concerned with in a draft. However, when it comes time to edit, look at:
The start of your sentences.
Bob sat down at the table and poured himself a drink. His phone rang. He grumbled and got to his feet. He snatched the phone off the hook.
The start of your paragraphs.
Bob sat down at the table and poured himself a drink. His phone rang. With a grumble, he got to his feet and snatched the phone off the hook.
Bob listened, nodded twice and hung up. He turned to his cat, Maisie, perched on the table, “We’ve got a job.”
Bob thumped upstairs, delving into his trousers for his keychain. In the bedroom, he knelt before the oak trunk at the foot of his bed. The rusted key slid into the lock. One twist, a weighty clunk: the lid popped open.
Lastly, it is okay to start sentences with ‘and’ or ‘but’!
7. Recognise your overused words
All writers have their favourite go-to words. And as much as we love them, we can’t use them all the time. Knowing what yours are can help keep their use in check, which makes for an easier time editing.
My own personal list of overused words include: eyes, gaze, hands, fingers, down, through, away, again, only, suddenly, really and quickly.
In a recent workshop I was lucky enough to attend, award winning author, Gareth Ward, relayed the story of how his editor once commented that his characters were striding all over the place. It is comforting to know it happens to the best of us!
8. Make dialogue count
Effective dialogue can carry a scene––or an entire story. When a character talks, give it purpose.
The five purposes of dialogue
Dialogue should do one or more of the following:
Foreshadow coming conflict.
In a nutshell, when writing dialogue, consider what it might reveal and what you want the reader to learn.
Tip: Dialogue doesn’t need to be in complete sentences. People speak in fragments, and mimicking this in your writing can make it seem more realistic.
Read: They’re made of meat by Terry Bisson – a flash piece composed entirely of dialogue.
To end, I’ll reiterate that these writing tips are the ones that have helped me. It is by no means an exhaustive list. And what has helped me, may not help someone else. None of these 'rules' are hard and fast. Take the ones that are useful to you, discard the rest, and keep on writing.
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