42 Fiction Writing Tips for Novelists

writing tips

Writing tips for fiction writers.

The more I explore fiction writing, the more complex and multi-layered it becomes. Through the processes of brainstorming, outlining, researching, writing, and revising, I have discovered countless details that authors have to consider as they set out to produce a viable work of fiction.

Over the years, I have collected a vast pile of notes and ideas concerning fiction writing. As I was going through these notes, I figured they could be compiled into a master list of writing tips that might help writers tackle a novel by offering different perspectives and by providing fodder for the creative process.

These fiction writing tips come from countless sources. Some were picked up back in my college days. Others came from books about writing. Many came from interviews with successful authors that I have read, watched, or listened to. And a few came from my own personal experiences as both a reader and writer.

Writing a novel is an ambitious endeavor, never mind editing, publishing, and marketing it. Hopefully, the writing tips below will help make the first part of your momentous task a little easier.

Writing Tips


The writing tips below focus on the technical and creative writing process rather than the business end of things. You can take a few of these writing tips or take them all. And add your own fiction writing tips by leaving a comment.

  1. Read more fiction than you write.
  2. Don’t lock yourself into one genre (in reading or writing). Even if you have a favorite genre, step outside of it occasionally so you don’t get too weighed down by trying to fit your work into a particular category.
  3. Dissect and analyze stories you love from books, movies, and television to find out what works in storytelling and what doesn’t.
  4. Remember the credence of all writers: butt in chair, hands on keyboard.
  5. Don’t write for the market. Tell the story that’s in your heart.
  6. You can make an outline before, during, or after you finish your rough draft. An outline is not necessary, nor is it written in stone, but it can provide you with a roadmap, and that is a mighty powerful tool to have at your disposal.
  7. You don’t always need an outline. Give discovery writing a try.
  8. Some of the best fiction comes from real life. Jot down stories that interest you whether you hear them from a friend or read them in a news article.
  9. Real life is also a great source of inspiration for characters. Look around at your friends, family, and coworkers. Magnify the strongest aspects of their personalities and you’re on your way to crafting a cast of believable characters.
  10. Make your characters real through details. A girl who bites her nails or a guy with a limp will be far more memorable than characters who are presented with lengthy head-to-toe physical descriptions.
  11. The most realistic and relatable characters are flawed. Find something good about your villain and something dark in your hero’s past.
  12. Avoid telling readers too much about the characters. Instead, show the characters’ personalities through their actions and interactions.
  13. Give your characters difficult obstacles to overcome. Make them suffer. That way, when they triumph, it will be even more rewarding.
  14. Explore the human condition.
  15. Make sure you understand the three act structure. Every story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end.
  16. Memorize the Hero’s Journey. Use it.
  17. Cultivate a distinct voice. Your narrator should not sound warm and friendly in the first few chapters and then objective and aloof in later chapters. The voice should be consistent and its tone should complement the content of your book.
  18. Give careful consideration to the narrative. Is the story best told in first person or third person? If you’re not sure, write a few pages in each narrative style to see what works best.
  19. Is your story moving too fast for readers or are they yawning through every paragraph? Are the love scenes too short? Are the fight scenes too long? Do you go into three pages of detail as your characters walk from point A to point B and then fly through an action sequence in a couple of short paragraphs? Pay attention to pacing!
  20. Infuse your story with rich themes to give it a humanistic quality. Examples of themes include sacrifice, redemption, rebirth, life and death, faith, destiny, etc. These are the big shadows that hover over your story.
  21. Use symbols and imagery to create continuity throughout your story. Think about how the White Rabbit kept popping up when Alice was adventuring in Wonderland or how the color red was used in the film American Beauty. These are subtle details but they give your story great power.
  22. Every great story includes transformation. The characters change, the world changes, and hopefully, the reader will change too.
  23. Aim for a story that is both surprising and satisfying. The only thing worse than reading a novel and feeling like you know exactly what’s going to happen is reading a novel and feeling unfulfilled at the end–like what happened wasn’t what was supposed to happen. Your readers invest themselves in your story. They deserve an emotional and intellectual payoff.
  24. Focus on building tension, then give it a snap.
  25. Enrich your main plot with subplots. In real life, there’s a lot happening at once. While the characters are all trying to get rescued from the aliens, romances are brewing, traitors are stewing, and friendships are forged.
  26. There is a difference between a sub-plot and a tangent. Don’t go off on too many tangents. It’s okay to explore various branches of your story when you’re working through the first or second draft, but eventually, you have to pare it down to its core.
  27. If you write in a genre, don’t be afraid to blur the lines. A drama can have funny moments and a thriller can have a bit of romance.
  28. Make sure your setting is vivid and realistic even if you made it up.
  29. If you didn’t make up your setting, then do your best to get to the location and see it for yourself before you finish your manuscript. If that’s not possible, get busy researching.
  30. Don’t underestimate your readers. Assume they are as smart (or smarter) than you are.
  31. Give the readers room to think. You don’t have to tell your story in minute detail, including each minute of the plot’s timeline or all of the characters’ thoughts. Provide enough dots, and trust that the reader will have fun connecting them.
  32. Let the readers use their imaginations. Provide a few choice details and let the readers fill in the rest of the canvas with their own colors.
  33. Don’t focus exclusively on storytelling at the expense of crafting compelling language.
  34. Appeal to readers’ senses. Use descriptive words that engage the readers’ senses of taste, touch, and smell.
  35. Apply poetry techniques to breathe life into your prose. Use alliteration, onomatopoeia, metaphor, and other literary devices to make your sentences sing and dance.
  36. When rewriting, check for the following: plot holes, character inconsistencies, missing scenes, extraneous scenes, accuracy in research, and of course, grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
  37. As you revise, ask yourself whether every paragraph, sentence, and word is essential to your story. If it’s not, you know where the delete button is.
  38. Proofread carefully for grammar, spelling, and punctuation. The fewer typos in your final draft, the better.
  39. Before your final revisions and before you send your manuscript out to any agents or editors, find your beta readers: join a writing group, take a fiction workshop, or hire a pro.
  40. Do not send out your rough draft. Go through the revision process at least three times before handing it out to your beta readers. The stronger it is when you bring in editors, the stronger those editors will be able to make it.
  41. Collect and use these and other writing tips in a file or in your notebook. When something about your story doesn’t feel quite right or if you sense there’s something missing, your notes and other resources might provide you with a solution.
  42. Have fun. If you’re not enjoying writing, then maybe it’s not for you. If you’re not enjoying fiction writing, try something else like poetry, blogging, or screenwriting. Be open and you’ll find your way.

Did you find these writing tips helpful? Got any tips to add? Leave a comment!

About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.

Comments

39 Responses to “42 Fiction Writing Tips for Novelists”

  1. Richard says:

    These are great tips for writing, i would like to add, be sure not to lose your way, especially if it is your first novel. plan your timeline, plan your chapters. take your time and give it everyting you have. also upon first draft dont worry if it is over the 120,000 word mark that can be reduced with your subsequent re writes.

  2. Miss GOP says:

    Great tips! I, too, have read so many pieces of writing advice that it is nice to compile it all in one place. Are there any examples of some of these tips that you could share? Sometimes it helps me to wrap my mind around an idea if I can see an example. For instance, number 24: are there any particular books or stories that serve as a good example of building tension in this way?

    Thanks again!

    • Any good story should provide an example of building tension. The general rule of storytelling is that tension consistently builds throughout the story until it reaches its climax. You can also see this in films and sometimes in television shows. A great example would be the movie Titanic. From the get-go, the audience knows the ship is going to sink, so tension is built in. As the story unfolds and we become emotionally invested in the characters, the tension deepens. By the time the ship hits the iceberg, we are on the edges of our seats, tensely awaiting the outcome. Will Rose and Jack survive or will they go down with the great ship? If you watch a movie like this with a writer’s eye, you’ll be able to observe the twists and turns that the writers planted in the story line to build tension. All that tension releases at the climax when we see who lives and who dies.

  3. --Deb says:

    My biggest problem is #1 … I sit down to read, solely for research purposes, of course, and the next thing I know it’s time for bed and it’s too late to do any writing!

    • Tell me about it! Especially on the Internet, research can be dangerously distracting. I guess we could set a timer but then we have to enforce it. I can just see the timer going off and we just reset it: “Five more minutes!” It’s really just another form of procrastination. Overcoming it requires plain old discipline.

  4. Debra Stang says:

    Okay, I’m definitely bookmarking this post. It offers great advice, all very nicely condensed. By the way, I’m beginning to believe in the power of coincidence. Less than a week after I decided to jump start my fiction writing again, no less than five of my favorite blogs carried advice on writing and submitting fiction. Too cool!

  5. Charlotte says:

    Yes, these are helpful, Melissa. Very helpful. #1 is so important and so often overlooked, which amazes me. I sometimes ask fledgling writers what they are reading and they say, “Oh I don’t like to read.” Um, really? And then why might you be writing? Weird disconnect there. I also find that when I am going through a heavy reading phase that I glean so much for my fiction.

  6. cmdweb says:

    As some of the comments have alluded to, you need to make time. Getting a grip of your own time management, allocating time slots to activities and understanding the difference between urgent and important are all things that can help you make that extra hour here and there to get something down on paper.
    If you do only have short time periods when you can write without distraction, I think having the roadmap you mentioned becomes essential to allow you to pick up and drop as you need to.

    • I think that finding time to write is the biggest and most common problem that writers face. On the other hand, if writing is our passion, we will be so drawn to it that making time comes naturally. I actually believe that the majority of writers who say they don’t have time to write are actually avoiding it for other reasons, many of which have to do with fear and lack of confidence.

  7. Janet Arnie says:

    And then there is always my tip: learn to get away from your machine, breathe some fresh air, get inspired and return your grey cells for a new unleash :)..It is what helps me the most.

  8. Kit says:

    I actually have a writing exercise pertaining to applying The Hero’s Journey to a story that hasn’t applied it or avoided it completely.
    http://gogglesandlace.wordpress.com/2011/05/13/writing-exercise-the-heros-journey/
    Might be worth trying. =]

    • I love the Hero’s Journey! I am working on a writing exercise that’s loosely related to it too. I think your exercise is a good one — go through your story and see if each step in the Hero’s Journey is represented. Nice :)

      • Kit says:

        I’d love to try your exercise when it’s through. =]

        Also, great list. It’s so easy to forget some of those points in favor of just getting the story on teh page. Rewrites are essential. <3

        • Many writers say that “writing is rewriting.” Yes, I think it’s essential. I hope you will check out my writing exercises section. That’s where any forthcoming exercises will be posted :)

  9. Lilybet says:

    I love point 10: Don’t over describe your characters. I hate it when I’m introduced to a character and the author goes on and on about what clothes they’re wearing and what their haircut is like!
    Really useful list, I’ll be keeping in mind some of your points.

  10. Zoe says:

    Incredible collection of tips! I stumbled across some points that I subconsciously knew I was getting wrong, but the reading of it clarified what exactly it is. Thank you!!!

  11. Michael says:

    I placed these tips in my favorites list and I’m always encouraged when I open it and read them through again. Thanks Melissa

  12. floyd e. hannan says:

    what do you do when your mind puts out faster than you can write or talk? that’s been my whole problem with writing. need some help if you have any suggestions.

    • When that happens to me, I write in shorthand. Then I go back later and flesh it out. You could also use a voice recorder to capture your ideas more quickly and write them down later. Hope that helps!

  13. Tansy says:

    Thanks Melissa, these are fab!! I am currently on the 3rd stage of major editing my book. Reading through the tips has made me realise that I have only been fully aware of about half!

    Huge thanks (also) to the other ‘tip’ers’ as well! :)

  14. Wow! Follow all those tips and you’ve got yourself a winner! And don’t forget the precious wisdom of Eudora Welty: “If you haven’t surprised yourself, you haven’t written.”

  15. Thanks Melissa for these wonderful tips, I always get so much from them. I am winding up with my second fiction novel and I am stuck with bringing it all together for a wonderful ending. I’m getting there but have decided to take time out as it was consuming my whole life. I wake up all hours with another idea. I don’t know how many times I’ve re-read the manuscript and changed the story or added a bit more of a persons life. I get excited when I read your newsletter and posts as I gain so much from them. Thanks Melissa you are a gem.

    • I’m getting ready to start rewriting my novel and I have the opposite problem–lack of ideas. There are very specific elements of the plot that I need to fill in and for some of them, I’m at a loss. That’s where research will come in! Thanks for your kind words. I appreciate it! Keep writing.

  16. Terry says:

    Thanks for the reminders! I’m working on my first novel and I’m avidly searching for outlets to remind me of the things I know I should be doing, but are not floating out of my memory on their own. Thanks especially for the reminder about symbols and memorable character traits or behaviors. I’ll be fleshing out some characters and establishing my world’s monetary system to parallel an item my main character happens to have for very different reasons. I look forward to having more of my memory jogged!

    • Hi Terry, You have perfectly expressed the reason why it’s so helpful for many writers to read books and articles on the craft of writing (when other writers say they should be writing instead). I too often find reminders of things I know I should be doing, which is why I subscribe to so many blogs on the craft. Most days, I come across some gem that is just what I needed for my current project!

  17. Jc says:

    I write a self-narrative that says what I want the story to be about. You know how when a friend asks you what the book is about and you condense it into a short narrative that gives them the idea of what its about? Yeah, that is what I mean about a self- narrative. When I find myself stumped I review the narrative to find my way back into the story.

    • Yes! I did the same thing with the first few chapters of my work in progress. After a while, I switched to narrative writing (showing vs. telling) and of course now I have to go back and rewrite those earlier scenes.

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