10 Steps to a Better Story

keyboard-smallI edit a lot of fiction, and I see a pattern of common problems in manuscripts from novice writers. The most important involve the bond between story and character. If you want an agent or editor to get past the first page, here’s 10 things to keep in mind.

1. Make your main character want something. Desire is the engine that drives both life and narrative. Characters who don’t want anything are rarely interesting.

2. Make your main character do something. Your story can start with a character who is the victim of circumstances, but afterward the character needs to move quickly into action. Readers like characters who take charge.

3. Let your readers know the story’s premise early. If they get to the end of the first chapter and still can’t answer the question—what is the story about?—they might not keep reading.

4. Get conflict into the story early. It doesn’t have to be all-out bickering or deception between characters, but let your readers know things will sticky.

5. Skip the omniscient POV. Let the reader experience as much of the story as possible through the eyes of your main character. This is how readers bond with protagonists. If you shift POVs, at least put in a line break.

6. It’s okay to tell sometimes, instead of show. Not every character reaction has to be described in gut-churning, eyebrow-lifting physical detail. Sometimes it’s okay to simply say, “Jessie panicked.”

7. Introduce characters one at a time with a little background information for each. Too many characters all at once in the first few pages can be overwhelming.

8. Don’t overwrite. Nobody agrees on what constitutes good writing, so trying to make your writing stand out will probably work against you. The best writing doesn’t draw attention to itself; it just gets out of the way of the story.

9. Avoid word repetitions when you can. Read your story out loud. You’re much more likely to hear the repetitions than see them.

10. The components of a novel that readers care about most are, in order: story, characters, theme, setting. If you have to sacrifice something, start at the end of list. Never sacrifice the story for anything else.

Readers: What would you add here? What do you want writers to do more or less of?

8 Comments
  1. Boy howdy, I’m printing this one out right now.

    Even though we KNOW these things, it’s very nice to have a short, concise list to remind us.

    (I wonder if I can staple it to my computer?)

    The only things I can think of to add would deal with backstory and dialogue.

    Thanks, L.J.!

  2. How right you are, Lonnie. And though I know those things, I still make some of the same mistakes. Love my critique group because they are quick to catch that kind of stuff. Thanks for the reminders.

    Marilyn

  3. Thank you! Great information — that I will use pronto!
    -H

  4. Great stuff, LJ! I’d add, “Make your dialogue sound natural.” To me, that’s a biggy.

    Thanks for this great list!

    Jodie 🙂

  5. A useful list. I am going to print this off for reference. I am pleased to see it is OK to tell and not show at times.

  6. Excellent post!

  7. Nice list. All things I agree with.

  8. Thanks! Very helpful!

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