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How to write fiction, novels, stories

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How to Write Fiction, novels, novellas, short stories
by Maria Z.

Main text

The term ‘fiction’ is used to define a work of imagination in the form of prose, poetry, and various other types of literature, including comics, graphic fiction, and nowadays, virtual characters in virtual worlds .

There are two types of fiction: literary fiction and commercial fiction.

Commercial fiction is written to appeal to a wider audience and thus contains popular elements of modern life.

Literary fiction, on the other hand, is mostly explored by those seeking intellectually challenging storylines and unique concepts. It is characterized by excellent writing, distinctive styles and original plot designs. Both types of fiction branch out into many subgenres like romance, mystery, fantasy and so on.

It is easy to be drawn into the world of fiction writing, what with authors like JK Rowling, Terry Pratchett and Kazuo Ishiguro making aspiring writers out of all of us.

However, producing your own work can be a taxing experience as many obstacles may halt your writing process – writer’s block, plot-holes, clichés and problems with character development are some of the common issues.

A lack of time will cause all sorts of subsequent problems, so be aware that regular writing time will be needed, and also that most of what you write will be edited away in future drafts.

So be prepared for the long haul.

Whole novels languish in drawers after taking years to write. This is normal for all writers, aspiring or successful (although once popular, old novels can sometimes be resurrected).

Beginnings and Endings

These are the most difficult parts of a novel. They have to be just right. The bit in the middle can sail along once you have the reader interested.

Often you might have only the Ending when you start; then you write towards it.

Cliff hangers

This is from old action movie serials, which would leave the hero literally hanging off a cliff at the end, to make you come back to find out what happens next.

This can be used in all sorts of situations, even in intellectual novels (‘Sebastian glanced out of the window. His ennui had grown enormous. How could he continue living?’… so you read next chapter).

Page turners

This is a style of easy-to-read fiction, using short words and a lot of common phrases, combined with cliff hangers, to give an easy and enjoyable speedy read. Masters at this are Michael Crichton and most action or SF authors, also family dramas.

Also known as ‘airport novels’ as they can be read even when accompanied by a loud whooshing sound and imminent death.

Here are a few easy steps that you can take to lessen the chances of any problems arising throughout your writing journey.


• Visualise

Use labeled photos or drawings to help with this. Imagine viewing the setting from different angles, much like through the lens of a video camera.

• Specify

Present details of the setting (eg. Time of day, weather).

• Make it personal

Show the setting through the main character’s eyes.

• Use unexpected details to change the mood of the story.

Creating fear or suspense

“Carmen walked down the isolated street; quiet and not a car in sight – just as she always remembered it to be. All of a sudden, she hears the roar of an engine as glaring headlights flash behind her.”

Literary fiction next line: “Geraldo, his mind in the clouds as usual, he never could get the hang of slowing down. Just like in his life.”

Commercial fiction next line: “Crazed by his drug habit, Jerry stamped on the pedal and aimed straight at Carmen as she jumped off the road. Aarrgh!”


We have used genres as an easy way for beginners to understand fiction, as it is always marketed that way. Also people will think ‘I fancy a good Horror story for this train ride!’ or whatever takes their fancy.

Literary fiction is a bit like poetry, it tends to be consumed by its practitioners, or would-be creators.

Genre fiction depends mainly on great characters.

Otherwise it becomes junk or pulp fiction.

• Seek inspiration

Flip through magazines, read books, watch movies and other sources (this is when the Internet becomes your best friend).

• Build on the character

Give the character a suitable name, unique traits and define its personality.

• Ascertain the following details for each character:

1. Age
2. Interests
3. Special talents
4. Secrets
5. Fears
6. Wishes
7. Likes and dislikes

• Express characters’ feelings through dialogue (good time to expand on your repertoire of adjectives) and through their actions (select effective verbs and adverbs).

Try walking in your characters’ shoes and then treat them as people you personally know.


• Pick a story pattern

It can be a quest, a tale of change (changing fortunes – eg. pauper-to-prince stories) or even your own spin of traditional folklore

• Plots – Martin Amis has said that genre fiction is the domain of the plot, but increasingly, literary novels (those marketed as such to a culture-consuming audience) have strong genre elements, especially crime. Also Family Sagas are a staple of literary novels, and that is a genre, although one where a plot can be left out.

• Ways to plan your story:

o Multiple boxes arranged in a flowchart layout
o Timelines
o Storyboards
o Pictures and images for inspiration or to show the mood of a section
o Story mountains (a structure graph labelled with different stages of the plot; eg. Exposition, conflict, climax and resolution)
o These are all easy to make with boxes on a large layout; and the boxes can be easily dragged around to rearrange the story

Story Language Toolkit

• Have you maintained the tenses? (Look out for slipping into past tense while writing in future perfect – this happens to many writers, even the more careful ones).

• Have you maintained the voice in which you’ve chosen to write the story? Voice is the combination of all aspects into the overall tone of the prose – you can usually tell one writer from another by the voice as much as the content of a story. Very few writers have a new voice for each novel.

As an example, think of Saul Bellow (one voice, many novels) and Joseph Heller (many voices, many novels).

Generally, once a writer has found an agent and publisher they will stick with their popular voice, rather than risking all with a new one.

This is one of the reasons genre fiction (crime, spy, SF) is considered inferior to literary fiction, as the stories are usually the ‘latest episode’ in the same old style (think of Ian Fleming’s James Bond); literature is supposed to have more variety with the voice at least slightly affected by the story (although you know it if you look at say Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie or most Martin Amis).

First person narrative (close up), or third person omniscient – the author’s voice (point of view?). This can be used as a plot device – the ‘unreliable narrator’ – as in the recent hit novel The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters.

• Have you kept your writing fluid and relevant?
Disconnected ideas will confuse your readers. Use transitional words and phrases to connect separate parts of your story together (eg. ‘meanwhile’; ‘on the other hand’; ‘however’; ‘nevertheless’). But don’t get carried away, or it will read like childrens’ fiction.

• Have you made your story interesting enough?

o Add colour to your story by using effective verbs and adverbs.
o Use similes to help your readers visualise your story (eg. ‘Everyone knew Mr. Collins was as mad as the march hare.’)
o Use metaphors (“Time is a dressmaker specializing in alterations.”
[Faith Baldwin, Face Toward the Spring, 1956])
o Use personification to bring scenarios to life (eg. ‘the merciless sun shone angrily down upon the desert sand’)
o Avoid cliches; avoid ‘purple prose’ (like that above!).


• Balance out amount of dialogue, description and action. Unless you are tring for an effect like McCarthy’s The Road, or experimental fiction.

• Keep a good story-telling pace. Make sure there aren’t parts that are rushed through.

• Use settings to create a variety of atmospheres.

• Refer to your main story plan. Keep track of all the changes you make.

• Get someone to help read your completed work. Peer evaluation doesn’t just help you filter out spelling and grammatical errors (which can be done by computer), but also helps you to work on your weak points which you may not be aware of yourself.

• Friends are not good critics and you want to avoid being praised by pals, and becoming convinced of your talent, when unpublished.

• Writers’ Groups are like this; secretly everyone is envious of talent and so can become a sort of losers group; writers are individuals, so don’t expect any support. Adversity is the norm, and will hone your talents.

• Your agent (if you have one) will provide specific story advice, and recommend changes which will make it more sellable to the publishers, who work years in advance and know what is due to be fashionable (public trends are not accidental!).

Always take their advice; unless you want another novel in your drawer.

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