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Top Ten Fiction Tips

I was surprised to find a list of my top ten fiction tips in an interview from seven years ago. Surprised, because, my list is now different. I guess these days I’m looking to new challenges. Here’s my current list.

1. Tie plot to character. Remember, the outer drama reveals deep character. Conversely, it is character that makes action meaningful. Why does the character care about this problem?

2. Make the stakes matter more. Lift the consequences of the story beyond the personal. How will the outcome effect the community, say, or an important institution, politics, the world? (From Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel.)

3. Write in Scenes. These discreet blocks of drama will help you decide what to bring on stage and warn you away from narrative drift. (Robert Ray, The Weekend Novelist.)

4. A few big scenes. Shape your story ahead of time by sketching or writing turning point scenes.

5. Bury secrets. Readers like to be surprised, They’re trying to figure out what will happen, but they don’t like to succeed! Plan ahead of time what to withhold and for how long.

6. Backstory. Things lurk in the past, events that shape character. Avoid flashback scenes that dramatize the backstory, but do reveal it in increments and use it to build character.

7. Work harder on an original premise: Dinosaurs revived from amber; a murdered girl relates her story from heaven.

8. Use tracking tools for the novel. Ongoing scene list* and style sheet** are my favorites.

9. Cut the fat: excess scenes, pace-killing bridges, pointless ruminations, and… extra words! (This is something I’m especially working on these days. It ain’t easy, I’m telling you.)

10. Deepen the climax. Strategic thinking about your climax can save it from just-an-action-sequence to something that challenges your protagonist internally at the most profound level. (Thanks to Robert McKee, Story.)

*A very short summary, compiled as you move through first draft of novel, of the key actions and character revelations in the scene you just finished. Print it out, and as you write the novel and discover things you need to change, make margin notes on scene list. Use it also to remind yourself where you are in your novel. Other margin notes can be: page numbers (for quickly moving to a problem scene), note of whose POV, tally of days passed.

** List of characters, places, special terms and expressions and their spelling. Compile as you go, or you’ll never do it.


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