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Below are several archived tips from the “Fiction” category. Though some tips have been edited by the current guru, James Gapinski, most are the original creations of past Life Tips gurus.


How is your language? Is it fresh and snappy? Do you make good use of sensory material? Are there any sentences which contain vague, unclear, or unhelpful wording? Are there any inappropriately abstract phrases? Are there any word packages which convey unearned emotion or lack freshness? (Ex., "Something broke inside me," "one thing led to another," "once upon a time," etc.)

Show vs. Tell

There are two ways of getting an idea across in fiction--SHOWING and TELLING. Descriptive language which paints a picture of what you want to convey is always the better way--it’s simply more interesting to read. Telling the reader what to think is flat and boring, and does not inspire him or her to read the prose carefully and thoughtfully. Here are some examples.

TELLING: "They held the gala in the big ball room, and the decor was beautiful."

SHOWING: "They held the gala in the big ball room, the one in which the Christmas tree stretched to the ceiling, and gold silk bunting draped the walls. A buffet of fruits, nuts and chocolates stood in the corner."

Clearly, the "Showing" example tells us exactly what the room looked like and why it was beautiful in the narrator’s opinion.

Plot or character?

Good fiction is always character-driven, as opposed to plot-driven. Plot is necessary, in the sense that without things happening, there is very little for the characters to do and consider and react to. But you should be pulling stories from within your characters. What are they afraid of? What do they want? What prejudices or biases do they possess that will motivate them to act? Finding out these things about your characters will give you a wealth of directions for your story to take.

Taking stock of your scenes

List your scenes(or cut out with scissors), so that you can get a sense of what weight they have in the story, whether they belong, are working individually, and are working with the whole. Analyze each carefully. Read them aloud so that you can hear how they would sound if spoken. Make a list of scenes you need to include in the next draft.

Dramatic cliches to avoid

*Beginning with predictable imagery: "It was a dark and stormy night," etc.

*Too much dialogue exchanged over the telephone.

*Killing off characters as a means of resolving their issues quickly

*Allowing "fate," "fortune," or "chance" to be the saving grace at the end.

*Coma-related drama

Let your work get cold

One final note on editing: let your piece get cold for at least an hour before beginning serious edits. A day if you can afford it. Your most objective analysis will occur when your writing has “gotten cold.”

Further Reading on Plot

This page features a concise article on the Top 10 plot hangups for beginning writers.

A wealth of imagery

Make sure you are injecting your story with plenty of imagery from the characters’ environment. The characters’ senses will take note of things throughout the story, so be sure to include the smell of bread baking, the lap of ocean waves, the grit of beach sand on someone’s toes.

Whose story are you telling?

It’s important to consider whom you want to TELL your story before you begin writing. Point of view means everything. The person narrating your story will tell it in his own peculiar way, due to his vantage point, experiences, biases, etc. Even if the narrator is an omniscient force outside the action, you must be conscious of this so that the narration will be consistent.

What does the narrator know or not know? What are his biases? What attitudes might make his account suspect? What do you hope to accomplish in the story, and would this particular person enable you to do so?

Am I ready to write a novel?

A novel is a complicated thing. Multiply the frustrations you’ve felt with trying to perfect a short story by about 10, and that is the level of focus and maturity required to produce a novel. Use your beginning years to hone craft and gain a mastery of language. A novel will likely flow from some idea one of your mature stories generated. So don’t be in a hurry or pressured to produce the Great American Novel.

Isolate and target problem areas

Periodically take stock of areas in your writing that are giving you trouble. Dialogue? Building enough tension in scenes? Language fresh enough? Do exercises that target these areas and help you improve. This "spot training" will do wonders for your writing.

Inner Life vs. Page Action

In addition to the behaviors and speech we see on the page, your characters must also have an "inner life" that comes through in narrative. You must account for their thoughts, because this is where the real meat of an individual resides. People often do and say things contrary to their real selves and emotions, and they frequently leave things unsaid. Clue us in to the characters’ internal workings so that we can understand them better.

Situation and Character

Plots should unfold because something within a character has caused him to act. Think about real life: your life story unfolds as it does because it is a combination of the situations you find yourself in and the choices you make within these situations. The same is true, or SHOULD be true, of your characters. Don’t lock them into a pre-determined plot. It won’t work out. Be flexible with the chain of events in your story or novel. There are a million directions your character can take it!!

A Story´s Innate Intelligence

At some point in revision, your story will begin to assert its own ideas for how it should develop. Though you are the creator and ultimately in charge of the direction your story takes, you should be sensitive to the "voice" of your story. You are like a sculptor, chipping away at the rock. Something beautiful and perfect lies beneath, and how close to it you get depends on how good you are at using your writerly ears. It takes focus and extreme quiet. You must think. What should the finished product of this story look like? You will no doubt experience the frustration of trying something in your story that just flat refuses to work. This is the story’s way of directing you toward what DOES work. Eventually you have to let go a little, let the story write itself. You MUST be able to admit when something isn’t working--even if it is an idea you love intellectually.

Finding your style

Don’t worry about making your mark, or finding your individual "flair" just yet. Certainly experiment with types of writing, but in the beginning, just focus on how to tell a story and how to produce solid prose. Your individual flair will emerge when you have mastered certain basics.

Starting with conflict

Begin with whatever is eating at your character. Relationship failing? House burned down? Get to the point as quickly as you can. In the first line if possible. The faster you engage your reader in the heart of your story, the more likely they’ll be to finish it. Boring, over-intellectualized beginnings that leave the reader asking "What’s the story here?" are simply doomed.

The trap of "plotiness"

Be careful to avoid stories where outcomes/resolutions depend on an intricately connected chain of external (i.e., non-character-related!) events. Tolkein’s LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy is an example of what you don’t want happening in your stories. While we love the characters, the real movement of those books depends on surprise events a few pages down the road.

Read it back to me

Take the time to read finished scenes aloud, possibly into a tape recorder, so that you can hear their rhythms as a reader would. Note as you listen to yourself:

*Does the dialogue sound like something real people would say?

*Is the pace of the scene too fast or two slow?

*Do I provide enough narration between lines of speech so that the reader understands the conversation?

What life is this?

When you write a story, you will no doubt choose to center it around a specific situation, into which you will introduce a character. Before he can react to the conflict you throw at him, there must already be a fully constructed life, full of disappointments, joys, pain, etc. The character will meet the new conflict WITH the baggage of his past experiences. Take care to develop this properly. It will help your reader interpret the characters’ behaviors in the "present time" action.

Keep a goals log

It helps to put goals in writing. Before you go to bed at night, jot down what you hope to accomplish in the next day’s work session. Note whether or not you are meeting these goals. This is helpful, especially if you are working on multiple projects.

Editing Yourself

At some point, you have to step outside your role as creator of a piece and start editing it. You have to think objectively and critically about what you've written. What sounds clunky? What language sounds trite or not specific enough? What trains of thought within characters' heads aren't carried through fully enough? Where do you need more or less narration, and more or less scene to balance? These are workpoints you need to consider over and over as you revise a piece. You can always make something better. Try to think of your piece as though you were an editor looking at it for the first time. Pay especially close attention to what Faulkner called “your darlings—“ those little phrases you love & expect the whole world will too. They may need to be cut more than anything!

Journal Writing as an aid

Journal-writing can be a help to isolating your voice. Take note of the issues you find yourself gravitating toward. The ways in which you close off trains of thought. What kind of sensory information you include in your descriptions. Work at exaggerating these things. Pretend that you are a character speaking in the first person about his or her experiences. You will find the pages of your journal filling up. And you might get a new story out of it.

Basic Character Elements

Strong characters in fiction come about by answering the following questions:

*What does my character want?
*What does he fear?
*How does he deal with his emotions?
*What are his social & intimate relationships like?
*What are his past experiences, and how does he regard them?

*What does he view (or not view) as responsibilities to himself and others?

*What elements of the spiritual does he exhibit, and how does he deal with them?

This is just a start. Like real people, characters will be complex and do things that aren’t readily explainable. Dig. Ask questions.

Breaks in time

You do not need to always feed scenes directly into one another. It is fine to insert a "break" into the text, indicating that some time has passed but that nothing occurred in the interim worth reporting. Breaks can also precede changes in point of view.

Author vs. Narrator

Most of the time you want your narrator to do the talking instead of yourself, the writer. You are merely pulling the strings. Give the POV character his own ideas, biases, vantage point, etc.

Forward Movement

A piece of fiction must move forward in some way. Characters must act, react, choose. In other words, keep a line of "things" happening. A plot can neither climax nor resolve if characters are not making decisions and acting. Keep them in the path of other characters, who will force them to make choices and carve out their own destinies.

Notebook of the senses

Carry a small notebook around with you, in which you can write things you observe in the world around you. A kicky line of dialogue on the subway, an unusual animal, a smell in a coffee shop, a dispute between two lovers. The notebook can be your database for sensory material. You can thumb through it when you’re blocked and jump-start your creative juices.

Balancing Scene with Narration

Take care to strike a balance between dramatic scene and narration. If you’re not sure which of the two you need to develop more, take a pair of scissors. Cut out all your dramatic scenes and compare them to the remaining passages of narrative summary/commentary. Is there drastically more of one than the other? You may need to work in the area you’re coming up short in. The odds are, you’re cutting scenes short. In that case, it’s simply a matter of analyzing the individual scenes for places where you can extend the dialogue or be more detailed in the non-speech passages.


Flashback is a good method of presenting a character’s past to us. However, you must use it carefully. Never transition into a flashback by saying, "I flashed back to the summer I was sixteen," or "It took me straight back to the night I was robbed." This is clunky, awkward writing. Transition into flashback subtly, without fully disengaging from present time action. Characters are allowed to "remember," but the memory trigger must stay in sight. Return to present time action as quickly as possible.


In stories and novels, it is often true that the beginnings and ends are strong, while the middle sections tend to sag--long passages leading up to the piece’s climax that don’t seem to have a lot of action or else the action is strung too far apart to be engaging. The middle is a good place to tease out some of the threads you have planted in the beginning chapters. In fact, the middle is what links the beginning to the end, so concentrate heavily on whether or not you are accomplishing this. Make a list of the major threads you want to carry through, and work on tugging at them in, say, pages 100-175. This will keep the piece moving and the reader engaged through the end.

Logistical Bores

Leave out the logistical elements of initiating tasks and general "getting around." In other words, don’t take time to explain in detail how a character gets into a car, drives somewhere (unless critical action takes place ON the drive!), puts on a bathing suit, answers a telephone, or enters a room. We all know how this basic stuff works, and it isn’t worth reporting in real life OR fiction. So leave it out.

Motivation & Conflict

Characters clash because their motivations are incompatible. Think about how this happens in real life. You must isolate those inner qualities that spur a character’s behavior before you put him in a room with a potential sparring partner. Be consistent. The arc of a story eventually traces back to motivation.

What does my story arc look like?

Draw a "time line" on a piece of paper and insert the major plot points from your story. This will help you see where you left things after your first draft. You will see places where you can add or cut a scene. You will see your climax and resolution phases in relation to each other. Then you can ask: does my character need more of a kick in the pants this time around? do I throw him too many curves? does he need to be more/less of a bastard/romantic/worrywart/sycophant/etc.?

Make your characters do the work

One way of fattening up your characters is to have them write letters and diary entries. Let your character "tell" you about himself. You won’t necessarily paste what you write directly into the story, but it will at least give you a broader framework from which to view them. Don’t be surprised if your story takes off in a brand new (improved) direction.

Just another dull conversation?

I keep beating this drum. Dialogue in fiction is NOT what it is in real life. Think of all the conversations you’ve overheard on the subway, in line at the DMV. Most are boring to your ears, right?

As a fiction writer, you get to pick and choose what words and information you put into dialogue. You compress, you edit out the uncompelling elements until you have something succinct that builds in tension and moves the story along.

Sculpting your characters

Good characters in literature stay with us because of the detail with which their creators have written them. Be sure your characters have their own mannerisms, speech patterns, catch phrases, habits, fashion sense, etc., so that they leap off the page.

Finding your voice

Each (good) writer writes with his or her own peculiar way of saying things. Oddly, though, it is often difficult to reach the point where you are writing as “you” and no one else. It is hard to break free of our influences. It is hard to resist mimicking a particularly inventive style in another writer. But finding your writer's voice is perhaps the most important roadblock to conquer in your development. Everything you write will be colored by your outlook and sense of phrasing. Style will grow from it once the voice is found. So let's find it!

How do we do that? Take a look at what you've written so far. Compare one of your stories or poems to those of known writers, and to those of your unpublished peers. What about your work is different from theirs? Is it just a matter of different plots and different names? If so, you have work to do. But if your characters and narration sparkle with even a flicker of freshness, you must work to bring this out in the rest of your work. You want people to read one of your poems and say, “That has GOT to be a Sophie Snarfblatt!”

Emulate, but don´t imitate

It’s fine to be influenced by the style of writers you admire. But be careful that you are not simply imitating what they do. You must write in your own voice, with your own diction, and about the things that matter to you. Simply changing the title and "modernizing" a Chekov story is not authentic writing. The story and the way of telling must be your own.

Beginning vs. End Protagonist

Consider your protagonist at the beginning of the story and again at the end. Do you see changes in his character as a result of what he has experienced? You should be able to.

Writing to Rewrite

When you’re working on a first draft of something, just WRITE. Get the emotions, the character motivations, the general story on paper. Save time-consuming edits for later. We write to rewrite!

Using your senses

Writing is about the five senses. Language that does not work off sight, sound, taste, touch or smell in some way is flat and boring to read. (Can you say stereo instructions?) So bring your descriptions of your fictional world down from the abstract. Put us in the moment so precisely that we don't confuse it with another moment, or worse, a “generic” moment.

Forward movement

A piece of fiction must move forward in some way. Characters must act, react, choose. In other words, keep a line of "things" happening. A plot can neither climax nor resolve if characters are not making decisions and acting. Keep them in the path of other characters, who will force them to make choices and carve out their own destinies.

A Dramatic Push

Tip edited by James Gapinski

Dialogue can often revive a story that has "written itself into a corner" or is otherwise feeling flat. If your story needs livening up, try putting two people in a room together. Give them something provocative to talk about. Let the tension grow as the characters´ agitation grows. This will provide instant plot movement.

The Natural World in Fiction

Some of us are more intuned to nature than others, and will simply notice trees, plants, etc. in their own observations. If you are one of these people, play it up--it’s a great gift. Any physical imagery you provide will only help put the reader further into the moment.

Climax/Turning Point

Whatever situation you place your character in, at some moment in the story he will be forced to start moving, thinking, choosing differently. The action will rise to a point at which it can go no further, only reverse, with great internal changes to the characters. This is most easily seen in novels, but it also works in stories. After the climax, your protagonist will be different. He’s learned something, he’s lost something, he’s figured out why he does certain things. Choose your climaxing action carefully, so that it does justice to the internal struggle the character is undergoing.

What´s not being said

Like narration, good dialogue is about revealing more than it tells. Your dialogue must be subtle enough to suggest those things beneath the surface of literal speech. In other words, to catch what’s NOT being said.

Dialogue Abuse

Read over the rules for dialogue in the "Dialogue" section, and see if you have broken any. You’ll probably want to compress dialogue in the second draft, cutting out um’s and well’s, eliminating rhetorical questions, and packing each line with a little more punch. Look for places where you can bury instead of quote.

Novels vs. Short Stories

Short stories are not baby novels, nor are novels necessarily expanded short stories. A particular story is told in novel form because the short story is neither roomy nor flexible enough to deal with it. Novels go into vastly greater depth, and they can accomadate more POV variation. In the end, novels must come to a point of closure that short stories are allowed to avoid.


Be conscious of the tone with which you are writing. Are you sarcastic? Serious? Simply poking fun? Make sure this is appropriate to your subject matter. Irony during a funeral scene must be handled just right, for example.

Tight, clean prose

Edit your prose--the individual words and sentences--so that each line is tight and clean. ALL words must be relevant, well-chosen, and evocative. Working words, in other words. Comb your story for words which, standing alone, say or add nothing. Scan for cliche’s and trite-sounding language. Verbs should be active, adjectives descriptive, and adverbs nearly always absent.

The rule of thumb for line-editing is this: the simplest word that still conveys your meaning is best. Anything fluffier is just getting in the way

What is prose texture?

Prose texture is literally the "feel" of your writing. Every writer has a unique combination of diction, rhythm, and images that sets the sound and feel of a passage apart from another writer’s. Pay attention to how your writing sounds when read aloud. Often the difference between and good and amazing story is in the texture of the writing.

Body Language

Pepper your passages of dialogue with beats of body language. A character nervously tugs his ear, sips a beverage, coughs and covers his mouth, etc. This keeps the reader visualizing the scene and contributes to its rhythm.

Concrete Detail

Good writing, whatever the form or genre, depends on its use of concrete details and images. Your prose texture should be a weaving of minute detail that puts the reader in the EXACT moment you have in your own mind. These details will set your moment apart from others that might occur in fiction. For example, when speaking of love, offer details and images from the senses that indicate why your take on the subject is unique. Tell how you love your lover’s blue hair, or the way the birthmark on her hand resembles Richard Nixon in profile. Anything to create a real, original scene.

Keeping track of characterization

Since novels are large, it is helpful to keep a written account of the specifics of each character´s inner self. Likes, dislikes, catch phrases, experiences, favorite possessions, etc. This will help you stay consistent through to the end and probably save you some revision time.

Focusing on an image

Many wonderful stories center around a single image that carries thematic weight. Experiment with some free-writing on an image that speaks to you and see if a story could surround it. If you’ve already got an image that grabs you, see what happens when you place it in the first line of the story. Make sure you build up some tension around it--in other words, it will need to have some meaning for each character in order to carry meaning throughout the story.

Dialogue--Tread Lightly

Dialogue must be carefully written, paced, and chosen. Speech in fiction is NOT the same as speech in real life. Dialogue should only be used when narrative summary won’t suffice. It exists to give flavor to a character’s speech and to illuminate his or her motivations--try to avoid using it to simply convey information.

Burying your dialogue

Sometimes it´s better not to use quoted speech in a story. This is true if what a character is saying can easily be summarized by the narrator. This is what we call "burying" the dialogue. Alternating passages of buried speech with quoted speech often improves the scene´s rhythm. Here is an example of a line of speech we could easily bury, because its info can be summarized without sacrificing flavor: "The shopgirl put the bracelet into a paper bag and rang him up. ´I´ll just put your receipt in the bag.´ she said." We don´t need to "hear" the clerk say she´s going to put the receipt in the bag.

A writer´s routine

If you’re going to fully tap your creativity, you need to write within a predictable routine each session.

*Try to write at the same time every day

*Minimize distractions--take the phone off the hook, don’t work in site of the fridge or TV.

*Take meal and stretch breaks at pre-set times, if possible.

Using dialogue to flesh out characters

One simple way of providing information about characters, particularly the POV character, is to drop it subtly into a line of speech from another character.

This example, from Shirley Jackson’s story "ELIZABETH", shows us how another character views the narrator:

"When {Elizabeth} came to her stop...and when she reached the door, the woman was near it, staring at her as though wanting to remember her face. "Dried-up old maid," the woman said loudly, and the people around her in the bus laughed." p.154

In this way, the author reveals information about Elizabeth that she could not reveal for herself--that she has gotten old before her time and, as the rest of the story bears out, has moments of extreme pretension.

Experiment with injecting character detail into dialogue.



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