How to Start Writing Fiction: The Six Core Elements of Fiction Writing
Jack Smith and Sean Glatch | June 14, 2023 | 2 Comments
Whether you’ve been struck with a moment of inspiration or you’ve carried a story inside you for years, you’re here because you want to start writing fiction. From developing flesh-and-bone characters to worlds as real as our own, good fiction is hard to write, and getting the first words onto the blank page can be daunting.
Daunting, but not impossible. Although writing good fiction takes time, with a few fiction writing tips and your first sentences written, you’ll find that it’s much easier to get your words on the page.
Let’s break down fiction to its essential elements. We’ll investigate the individual components of fiction writing—and how, when they sit down to write, writers turn words into worlds. Then, we’ll turn to instructor Jack Smith and his thoughts on combining these elements into great works of fiction. But first, what are the elements of fiction writing?
Introduction to Fiction Writing: The Six Elements of Fiction
Before we delve into any writing tips, let’s review the essentials of creative writing in fiction. Whether you’re writing flash fiction , short stories, or epic trilogies, most fiction stories require these six components:
- Plot: the “what happens” of your story.
- Characters: whose lives are we watching?
- Setting: the world that the story is set in.
- Point of View: from whose eyes do we see the story unfold?
- Theme: the “deeper meaning” of the story, or what the story represents.
- Style: how you use words to tell the story.
It’s important to recognize that all of these elements are intertwined. You can’t build the setting without writing it through a certain point of view; you can’t develop important themes with arbitrary characters, etc. We’ll get into the relationship between these elements later, but for now, let’s explore how to use each element to write fiction.
1. Fiction Writing Tip: Developing Fictional Plots
Plot is the series of causes and effects that produce the story as a whole. Because A, then B, then C—ultimately leading to the story’s climax , the result of all the story’s events and character’s decisions.
If you don’t know where to start your story, but you have a few story ideas, then start with the conflict . Some novels take their time to introduce characters or explain the world of the piece, but if the conflict that drives the story doesn’t show up within the first 15 pages, then the story loses direction quickly.
That’s not to say you have to be explicit about the conflict. In Harry Potter, Voldemort isn’t introduced as the main antagonist until later in the first book; the series’ conflict begins with the Dursley family hiding Harry from his magical talents. Let the conflict unfold naturally in the story, but start with the story’s impetus, then go from there.
2. Fiction Writing Tip: Creating Characters
Think far back to 9th grade English, and you might remember the basic types of story conflicts: man vs. nature, man vs. man, and man vs. self. The conflicts that occur within stories happen to its characters—there can be no story without its people. Sometimes, your story needs to start there: in the middle of a conversation, a disrupted routine, or simply with what makes your characters special.
There are many ways to craft characters with depth and complexity. These include writing backstory, giving characters goals and fatal flaws, and making your characters contend with complicated themes and ideas. This guide on character development will help you sort out the traits your characters need, and how to interweave those traits into the story.
3. Fiction Writing Tip: Give Life to Living Worlds
Whether your story is set on Earth or a land far, far away, your setting lives in the same way your characters do. In the same way that we read to get inside the heads of other people, we also read to escape to a world outside of our own. Consider starting the story with what makes your world live: a pulsing city, the whispered susurrus of orchards, hills that roil with unsolved mysteries, etc. Tell us where the conflict is happening, and the story will follow.
4. Fiction Writing Tip: Play With Narrative Point of View
Point of view refers to the “cameraman” of the story—the vantage point we are viewing the story through. Maybe you’re stuck starting your story because you’re trying to write it in the wrong person. There are four POVs that authors work with:
- First person—the story is told from the “I” perspective, and that “I” is the protagonist.
- First person peripheral—the story is told from the “I” perspective, but the “I” is not the protagonist, but someone adjacent to the protagonist. (Think: Nick Carraway, narrator of The Great Gatsby. )
- Second person—the story is told from the “you” perspective. This point of view is rare, but when done effectively, it can create a sense of eeriness or a personalized piece.
- Third person limited—the story is told from the “he/she/they” perspective. The narrator is not directly involved in the lives of the characters; additionally, the narrator usually writes from the perspective of one or two characters.
- Third person omniscient—the story is told from the “he/she/they” perspective. The narrator is not directly involved in the lives of the characters; additionally, the narrator knows what is happening in each character’s heads and in the world at large.
If you can’t find the right words to begin your piece, consider switching up the pronouns you use and the perspective you write from. You might find that the story flows onto the page from a different point of view.
5. Fiction Writing Tip: Use the Story to Investigate Themes
Generally, the themes of the story aren’t explored until after the aforementioned elements are established, and writers don’t always know the themes of their own work until after the work is written. Still, it might help to consider the broader implications of the story you want to write. How does the conflict or story extend into a bigger picture?
Let’s revisit Harry Potter’s opening scenes. When we revisit the Dursleys preventing Harry from knowing about his true nature, several themes are established: the meaning of family, the importance of identity, and the idea of fate can all be explored here. Themes often develop organically, but it doesn’t hurt to consider the message of your story from the start.
6. Fiction Writing Tip: Experiment With Words
Style is the last of the six fiction elements, but certainly as important as the others. The words you use to tell your story, the way you structure your sentences, how you alternate between characters, and the sounds of the words you use all contribute to the mood of the work itself.
If you’re struggling to get past the first sentence, try rewriting it. Write it in 10 words or write it in 200 words; write a single word sentence; experiment with metaphors, alliteration, or onomatopoeia . Then, once you’ve found the right words, build from there, and let your first sentence guide the style and mood of the narrative.
Now, let’s take a deeper look at the craft of fiction writing. The above elements are great starting points, but to learn how to start writing fiction, we need to examine the craft of combining these elements.
Primer on the Elements of Fiction Writing
First, before we get into the craft of fiction writing, it’s important to understand the elements of fiction. You don’t need to understand everything about the craft of fiction before you start keying in ideas or planning your novel. But this primer will be something you can consult if you need clarification on any term (e.g., point of view) as you learn how to start writing fiction.
The Elements of Fiction Writing
A standard novel runs between 80,000 to 100,000 words. A short novel, going by the National Novel Writing Month , is at least 50,000. To begin with, don’t think about length—think about development. Length will come. It is true that some works lend themselves more to novellas, but if that’s the case, you don’t want to pad them to make a longer work. If you write a plot summary—that’s one option on getting started writing fiction—you will be able to get a fairly good idea about your project as to whether it lends itself to a full-blown novel.
For now, let’s think about the various elements of fiction—the building blocks.
Writing Fiction: Your Protagonist
Readers want an interesting protagonist , or main character. One that seems real, that deals with the various things in life we all deal with. If the writer makes life too simple, and doesn’t reflect the kinds of problems we all face, most readers are going to lose interest.
Don’t cheat it. Make the work honest. Do as much as you can to develop a character who is fully developed, fully real—many-sided. Complex. In Aspects of the Novel , E.M Forster called this character a “round” characte r. This character is capable of surprising us. Don’t be afraid to make your protagonist, or any of your characters, a bit contradictory. Most of us are somewhat contradictory at one time or another. The deeper you see into your protagonist, the more complex, the more believable they will be.
If a character has no depth, is merely “flat,” as Forster terms it, then we can sum this character up in a sentence: “George hates his ex-wife.” This is much too limited. Find out why. What is it that causes George to hate his ex-wife? Is it because of something she did or didn’t do? Is it because of a basic personality clash? Is it because George can’t stand a certain type of person, and he didn’t realize, until too late, that his ex-wife was really that kind of person? Imagine some moments of illumination, and you will have a much richer character than one who just hates his ex-wife.
And so… to sum up: think about fleshing out your protagonist as much as you can. Consider personality, character (or moral makeup), inclinations, proclivities, likes, dislikes, etc. What makes this character happy? What makes this character sad or frustrated? What motivates your character? Readers don’t want to know only what —they want to know why .
Usually, readers want a sympathetic character, one they can root for. Or if not that, one that is interesting in different ways. You might not find the protagonist of The Girl on the Train totally sympathetic, but she’s interesting! She’s compelling.
Here’s an article I wrote on what makes a good protagonist.
Also on clichéd characters.
Now, we’re ready for a key question: what is your protagonist’s main goal in this story? And secondly, who or what will stand in the way of your character achieving this goal?
There are two kinds of conflicts: internal and external. In some cases, characters may not be opposing an external antagonist, but be self-conflicted. Once you decide on your character’s goal, you can more easily determine the nature of the obstacles that your protagonist must overcome. There must be conflict, of course, and stories must involve movement. Things go from Phase A to Phase B to Phase C, and so on. Overall, the protagonist begins here and ends there. She isn’t the same at the end of the story as she was in the beginning. There is a character arc.
I spoke of character arc. Now let’s move on to plot, the mechanism governing the overall logic of the story. What causes the protagonist to change? What key events lead up to the final resolution?
But before we go there, let’s stop a moment and think about point of view, the lens through which the story is told.
Writing Fiction: Point of View as Lens
Is this the right protagonist for this story? Is this character the one who has the most at stake? Does this character have real potential for change? Remember, you must have change or movement—in terms of character growth—in your story. Your character should not be quite the same at the end as in the beginning. Otherwise, it’s more of a sketch.
Such a story used to be called “slice of life.” For example, what if a man thinks his job can’t get any worse—and it doesn’t? He started with a great dislike for the job, for the people he works with, just for the pay. His hate factor is 9 on a scale of 10. He doesn’t learn anything about himself either. He just realizes he’s got to get out of there. The reader knew that from page 1.
Choose a character who has a chance of undergoing change of some kind. The more complex the change, the better. Characters that change are dynamic characters , according to E. M. Forster. Characters that remain the same are static characters. Be sure your protagonist is dynamic.
Okay, an exception: Let’s say your character resists change—that can involve some sort of movement—the resisting of change.
Here’s another thing to look at on protagonists—a blog I wrote: https://elizabethspanncraig.com/writing-tips-2/creating-strong-characters-typical-challenges/
Writing Fiction: Point of View and Person
Usually when we think of point of view, we have in mind the choice of person: first, second, and third. First person provides intimacy. As readers we’re allowed into the I-narrator’s mind and heart. A story told from the first person can sometimes be highly confessional, frank, bold. Think of some of the great first-person narrators like Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield. With first person we can also create narrators that are not completely reliable, leading to dramatic irony : we as readers believe one thing while the narrator believes another. This creates some interesting tension, but be careful to make your protagonist likable, sympathetic. Or at least empathetic, someone we can relate to.
What if a novel is told in first person from the point of view of a mob hit man? As author of such a tale, you probably wouldn’t want your reader to root for this character, but you could at least make the character human and believable. With first person, your reader would be constantly in the mind of this character, so you’d need to find a way to deal with this sympathy question. First person is a good choice for many works of fiction, as long as one doesn’t confuse the I-narrator with themselves. It may be a temptation, especially in the case of fiction based on one’s own life—not that it wouldn’t be in third person narrations. But perhaps even more with a first person story: that character is me . But it’s not—it’s a fictional character.
Check out my article on writing autobiographical fiction, which appeared in The Writer magazine. https://www.writermag.com/2018/07/31/filtering-fact-through-fiction/
Third person provides more distance. With third person, you have a choice between three forms: omniscient, limited omniscient, and objective or dramatic. If you get outside of your protagonist’s mind and enter other characters’ minds, you are being omniscient or godlike. If you limit your access to your protagonist’s mind only, this is limited omniscience. Let’s consider these two forms of third-person narrators before moving on to the objective or dramatic POV.
The omniscient form is rather risky, but it is certainly used, and it can certainly serve a worthwhile function. With this form, the author knows everything that has occurred, is occurring, or will occur in a given place, or in given places, for all the characters in the story. The author can provide historical background, look into the future, and even speculate on characters and make judgments. This point of view, writers tend to feel today, is more the method of nineteenth-century fiction, and not for today. It seems like too heavy an authorial footprint. Not handled well—and it is difficult to handle well—the characters seem to be pawns of an all-knowing author.
Today’s omniscience tends to take the form of multiple points of view, sometimes alternating, sometimes in sections. An author is behind it all, but the author is effaced, not making an appearance. BUT there are notable examples of well-handled authorial omniscience–read Nobel-prize winning Jose Saramago’s Blindness as a good example.
For more help, here’s an article I wrote on the omniscient point of view for The Writer : https://www.writermag.com/improve-your-writing/fiction/omniscient-pov/
The limited omniscient form is typical of much of today’s fiction. You stick to your protagonist’s mind. You see others from the outside. Even so, you do have to be careful that you don’t get out of this point of view from time to time, and bring in things the character can’t see or observe—unless you want to stand outside this character, and therein lies the omniscience, however limited it is.
But anyway, note the difference between: “George’s smiles were very welcoming” and “George felt like his smiles were very welcoming”—see the difference? In the case of the first, we’re seeing George from the outside; in the case of the second, from the inside. It’s safer to stay within your protagonist’s perspective as much as possible and not describe them from the outside. Doing so comes off like a point-of-view shift. Yet it’s true that in some stories, the narrator will describe what the character is wearing, tell us what his hopes and dreams are, mention things he doesn’t know right now but will later—and perhaps, in rather quirky stories, the narrator will even say something like “Our hero…” This can work, and has, if you create an interesting narrative voice. But it’s certainly a risk.
The dramatic or objective point of view is one you’ll probably use from time to time, but not throughout your whole novel. Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants” is handled with this point of view. Mostly, with maybe one exception, all we know is what the characters say and do, as in a play. Using this point of view from time to time in a longer work can certainly create interest. You can intensify a scene sometimes with this point of view. An interesting back and forth can be accomplished, especially if the dialogue is clipped.
I’ve saved the second-person point of view for the last. I would advise you not to use this point of view for an entire work. In his short novel Bright Lights, Big City , Jay McInerney famously uses this point of view, and with some force, but it’s hard to pull off. In lesser hands, it can get old. You also cause the reader to become the character. Does the reader want to become this character? One problem with this point of view is it may seem overly arty, an attempt at sophistication. I think it’s best to choose either first or third.
Here’s an article I wrote on use of second person for The Writer magazine. Check it out if you’re interested. https://www.writermag.com/2016/11/02/second-person-pov/
Writing Fiction: Protagonist and Plot and Structure
We come now to plot, keeping in mind character. You might consider the traditional five-stage structure : exposition, rising action, crisis and climax, falling action, and resolution. Not every plot works this way, but it’s a tried-and-true structure. Certainly a number of pieces of literature you read will begin in media re s—that is, in the middle of things. Instead of beginning with standard exposition, or explanation of the condition of the protagonist’s life at the story’s starting point, the author will begin with a scene. But even so, as in Jerzy Kosiński’s famous novella Being There , which begins with a scene, we’ll still pick up the present state of the character’s life before we see something that complicates it or changes the existing equilibrium. This so-called complication can be something apparently good—like winning the lottery—or something decidedly bad—like losing a huge amount of money at the gaming tables. One thing is true in both cases: whatever has happened will cause the character to change. And so now you have to fill in the events that bring this about.
How do you do that? One way is to write a chapter outline to prevent false starts. But some writers don’t like plotting in this fashion, but want to discover as they write. If you do plot your novel in advance, do realize that as you write, you will discover a lot of things about your character that you didn’t have in mind when you first set pen to paper. Or fingers to keyboard. And so, while it’s a good idea to do some planning, do keep your options open.
Let’s think some more about plot. To have a workable plot, you need a sequence of actions or events that give the story an overall movement. This includes two elements which we’ll take up later: foreshadowing and echoing (things that prepare us for something in the future and things that remind us of what has already happened). These two elements knit a story together.
Think carefully about character motivations. Some things may happen to your character; some things your character may decide to do, however wisely or unwisely. In the revision stage, if not earlier, ask yourself: What motivates my character to act in one way or another? And ask yourself: What is the overall logic of this story? What caused my character to change? What were the various forces, whether inner or outer, that caused this change? Can I describe my character’s overall arc, from A to Z? Try to do that. Write a short paragraph. Then try to write down your summary in one sentence, called a log line in film script writing, but also a useful technique in fiction writing as well. If you write by the discovery method, you probably won’t want to do this in the midst of the drafting, but at least in the revision stage, you should consider doing so.
With a novel you may have a subplot or two. Assuming you will, you’ll need to decide how the plot and the subplot relate. Are they related enough to make one story? If you think the subplot is crucial for the telling of your tale, try to say why—in a paragraph, then in a sentence.
Here’s an article I wrote on structure for The Writer : https://www.writermag.com/improve-your-writing/revision-grammar/find-novels-structure/
Writing Fiction: Setting
Let’s move on to setting . Your novel has to take place somewhere. Where is it? Is it someplace that is particularly striking and calls for a lot of solid description? If it’s a wilderness area where your character is lost, give your reader a strong sense for the place. If it’s a factory job, and much of the story takes place at the worksite, again readers will want to feel they’re there with your character, putting in the hours. If it’s an apartment and the apartment itself isn’t related to the problems your character is having, then there’s no need to provide that much detail. Exception: If your protagonist concentrates on certain things in the apartment and begins to associate certain things about the apartment with their misery, now there’s reason to get concrete. Take a look, when you have a chance, at the short story “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” It’s not an apartment—it’s a house—but clearly the setting itself becomes important when it becomes important to the character. She reads the wallpaper as a statement about her own condition.
Here’s the URL for ”The Yellow Wall-Paper”: https://www.nlm.nih.gov/theliteratureofprescription/exhibitionAssets/digitalDocs/The-Yellow-Wall-Paper.pdf
Sometimes setting is pretty important; sometimes it’s much less important. When it doesn’t serve a purpose to describe it, don’t, other than to give the reader a sense for where the story takes place. If you provide very many details, even in a longer work like a novel, the reader will think that these details have some significance in terms of character, plot, or theme—or all three. And if they don’t, why are they there? If setting details are important, be selective. Provide a dominant impression. More on description below.
If you’re interested, here’s a blog on setting I wrote for Writers.com: https://writers.com/what-is-the-setting-of-a-story
Writing Fiction: Theme and Idea
Most literary works have a theme or idea. It’s possible to decide on this theme before you write, as you plan out your novel. But be careful here. If the theme seems imposed on the work, the novel will lose a lot of force. It will seem—and it may well be—engineered by the author much like a nonfiction piece, and lose the felt experience of the characters.
Theme must emerge from the work naturally, or at least appear to do so. Once you have a draft, you can certainly build ideas that are apparent in the work, and you can even do this while you’re generating your first draft. But watch out for overdoing it. Let the characters (what they do, what they say) and the plot (the whole storyline with its logical connections) contribute on their own to the theme. Also you can depend on metaphors, similes, and analogies to point to the theme—as long as these are not heavy-handed. Avoid authorial intrusion, authorial impositions of any kind. If you do end up creating a simile, metaphor, or analogy through rational thinking, make sure it sounds natural. That’s not easy, of course.
Writing Fiction: Handling Scenes
Keep a few things in mind about writing scenes. Not every event deserves a whole scene, maybe only a half-scene, a short interaction between characters. Scenes need to do two things: reveal character and advance plot. If a scene seems to stall out and lack interest, in the revision mode you might try using narrative summary instead (see below).
Good fiction is strongly dramatic, calling for scenes, many of them scenes with dialogue and action. Scenes need to involve conflict of some kind. If everyone is happy, that’s probably going to be a dull scene. Some scenes will be narrative, without dialogue. You need some interesting action to make these work.
Let’s consider scenes with dialogue.
The best dialogue is speech that sounds natural, and yet isn’t. Everything about fiction is an artifice, including speech. But try to make it sound real. The best way to do this is to “hear” the voices in your head and transcribe them. Take dictation. If you can do this, whole conversations will seem very real, believable. If you force what each character has to say, and plan it out too much, it will certainly sound planned out, and not real at all. Not that in the revision mode you can’t doctor up the speech here and there, but still, make sure it comes off as natural sounding.
Some things to think about when writing dialogue: people usually speak in fragments, interrupt each other, engage in pauses, follow up a question with a comment that takes the conversation off course (non sequiturs). Note these aspects of dialogue in the fiction you read.
Also, note how writers intersperse action with dialogue, setting details, and character thoughts. As far as the latter goes, though, if you’ll recall, I spoke of the dramatic point of view, which doesn’t get into a character’s mind but depends instead on what characters do and say, as in a play. You may try this point of view out in some scenes to make them really move.
One technique is to use indirect dialogue, or summary of what a character said, not in the character’s own words. For instance: Bill made it clear that he wasn’t going to the city after all. If anybody thought that, they were wrong .
Now and then you’ll come upon dialogue that doesn’t use the standard double quotes, but perhaps a single quote (this is British), or dashes, or no punctuation at all. The latter two methods create some distance from the speech. If you want to give your work a surreal quality, this certainly adds to it. It also makes it seem more interior.
One way to kill good dialogue is to make characters too obviously expository devices—that is, functioning to provide background or explanations of certain important story facts. Certainly characters can serve as expository devices, but don’t be too heavy-handed about this. Don’t force it like the following:
“We always used to go to the beach, you recall? You recall how first we would have breakfast, then take a long walk on the beach, and then we would change into our swimsuits, and spend an hour in the water. And you recall how we usually followed that with a picnic lunch, maybe an hour later.”
This sounds like the character is saying all this to fill the reader in on backstory. You’d need a motive for the utterance of all of these details—maybe sharing a memory?
But the above sounds stilted, doesn’t it?
One final word about dialogue. Watch out for dialogue tags that tell but don’t show . Here’s an example:
“Do you think that’s the case,” said Ted, hoping to hear some good news. “Not necessarily,” responded Laura, in a barky voice. “I just wish life wasn’t so difficult,” replied Ted.
If you’re going to use a tag at all—and many times you don’t need to—use “said.” Dialogue tags like the above examples can really kill the dialogue.
Writing Fiction: Writing Solid Prose
Narrative summary : As I’ve stated above, not everything will be a scene. You’ll need to write narrative summary now and then. Narrative summary telescopes time, covering a day, a week, a month, a year, or even longer. Often it will be followed up by a scene, whether a narrative scene or one with dialogue. Narrative summary can also relate how things generally went over a given period. You can write strong narrative summary if you make it specific and concrete—and dramatic. Also, if we hear the voice of the writer, it can be interesting—if the voice is compelling enough.
Exposition : It’s the first stage of the 5-stage plot structure, where things are set up prior to some sort of complication, but more generally, it’s a prose form which tells or informs. You use exposition when you get inside your character, dealing with his or her thoughts and emotions, memories, plans, dreams. This can be difficult to do well because it can come off too much like authorial “telling” instead of “showing,” and readers want to feel like they’re experiencing the world of the protagonist, not being told about this world. Still, it’s important to get inside characters, and exposition is often the right tool, along with narrative summary, if the character is remembering a sequence of events from the past.
Description : Description is a word picture, providing specific and concrete details to allow the reader to see, not just be told. Concreteness is putting the reader in the world of the five senses, what we call imagery . Some writers provide a lot of details, some only a few—just enough that the reader can imagine the rest. Consider choosing details that create a dominant impression—whether it’s a character or a place. Similes, metaphors, and analogies help readers see people and places and can make thoughts and ideas (the reflections of your character or characters) more interesting. Not that you should always make your reader see. To do so might cause an overload of images.
Check out these two articles: https://www.writermag.com/improve-your-writing/fiction/the-definitive-guide-to-show-dont-tell/ https://www.writermag.com/improve-your-writing/fiction/figurative-language-in-fiction/
Writing Fiction: Research
Some novels require research. Obviously historical novels do, but others do, too, like Sci Fi novels. Almost any novel can call for a little research. Here’s a short article I wrote for The Writer magazine on handling research materials. It’s in no way an in-depth commentary on research–but it will serve as an introduction. https://www.writermag.com/improve-your-writing/fiction/research-in-fiction/
For a blog on novel writing, check this link at Writers.com: https://writers.com/novel-writing-tips
For more articles I’ve published in The Writer , go here: https://www.writermag.com/author/jack-smith/
How to Start Writing Fiction: Take a Writing Class!
To write a story or even write a book, fiction writers need these tools first and foremost. Although there’s no comprehensive guide on how to write fiction for beginners, working with these elements of fiction will help your story bloom.
All six elements synergize to make a work of fiction, and like most works of art, the sum of these elements is greater than the individual parts. Still, you might find that you struggle with one of these elements, like maybe you’re great at writing characters but not very good with exploring setting. If this is the case, then use your strengths: use characters to explore the setting, or use style to explore themes, etc.
Getting the first draft written is the hardest part, but it deserves to be written. Once you’ve got a working draft of a story or novel and you need an extra set of eyes, the Writers.com community is here to give feedback: take a look at our upcoming courses on fiction writing, and check out our talented writing community .
Good luck, and happy writing!
I have had a story in my mind for over 15 years. I just haven’t had an idea how to start , putting it down on print just seems too confusing. After reading this article I’m even more confused but also more determined to give it a try. It has given me answers to some of my questions. Thank you !
You’ve got this, Earl!
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Writing Fiction For Dummies
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A complete guide to writing and selling your novel So you want to write a novel? Great! That’s a worthy goal, no matter what your reason. But don’t settle for just writing a novel. Aim high. Write a novel that you intend to sell to a publisher. Writing Fiction for Dummies is a complete guide designed to coach you every step along the path from beginning writer to royalty-earning author. Here are some things you’ll learn in Writing Fiction for Dummies : Strategic Planning : Pinpoint where you are on the roadmap to publication; discover what every reader desperately wants from a story; home in on a marketable category; choose from among the four most common creative styles; and learn the self-management methods of professional writers. Writing Powerful Fiction : Construct a story world that rings true; create believable, unpredictable characters; build a strong plot with all six layers of complexity of a modern novel; and infuse it all with a strong theme. Self-Editing Your Novel : Psychoanalyze your characters to bring them fully to life; edit your story structure from the top down; fix broken scenes; and polish your action and dialogue. Finding An Agent and Getting Published : Write a query letter, a synopsis, and a proposal; pitch your work to agents and editors without fear. Writing Fiction For Dummies takes you from being a writer to being an author. It can happen—if you have the talent and persistence to do what you need to do.
How to Write a Novel: A 12-Step Guide
You’ve always wanted to write a novel. But something’s stopped you.
Maybe you’ve tried before, only to get a few, or several, pages in and lose steam because:
- Your story idea didn’t hold up
- You couldn’t overcome procrastination
- You feared your writing wasn’t good enough
- You ran out of ideas and had no clue what to do next
You may be surprised that even after writing 200 books (two-thirds of those novels) over the last 45+ years, including several New York Times bestsellers (most notably the Left Behind Series), I face those same problems every time .
So how do I overcome them and succeed?
I use a repeatable novel-writing plan — one that helps me smash through those obstacles. And that’s what I reveal to you in this definitive guide.
Imagine finishing your first draft. Better yet, imagine a finished manuscript . Or, best of all, your name on the cover of a newly published book — does that excite you?
Imagine letters from readers telling you your novel changed their lives, gave them a new perspective, renewed hope.
If other writers enjoy such things, why can’t you?
Of course this goes without saying, but first you must finish a novel manuscript.
This guide shows you how to write a novel (based on the process I use to write mine). I hope you enjoy it and can apply it to your own writing!
- How to Write a Novel in 12 Steps
- Nail down a winning story idea .
- Determine whether you’re an Outliner or a Pantser .
- Create an unforgettable main character .
- Expand your idea into a plot .
- Research, research, research .
- Choose your Voice and Point of View .
- Start in medias res (in the midst of things) .
- Engage the theater of the reader’s mind .
- Intensify your main character’s problems .
- Make the predicament appear hopeless .
- Bring it all to a climax .
- Leave readers wholly satisfied .
- Step 1: Nail-down a winning story idea.
Is your novel concept special?
- Big enough to warrant 75,000 to 100,000 words?
- Powerful enough to hold the reader all the way?
Come up with a story laden with conflict — the engine that will drive your plot .
I based my first novel, Margo , on this idea: A judge tries a man for a murder the judge committed .
Take whatever time you need to prioritize your story ideas and choose the one you would most want to read — the one about which you’re most passionate and which would keep you eagerly returning to the keyboard every day.
It must capture YOU so completely you can’t get it out of your head. Only that kind of an idea will inspire you to write the novel you’ve always dreamed of.
- Step 2: Determine whether you’re an Outliner or a Pantser.
If you’re an Outliner, you prefer to map out everything before you start writing your novel. You want to know your characters and what happens to them from beginning to end.
If you’re a Pantser, meaning you write by the seat of your pants, you begin with the germ of an idea and write as a process of discovery.
As Stephen King says, “Put interesting characters in difficult situations and write to find out what happens.”
One or the other of these approaches will simply feel most natural to you.
But, in truth, many of us are hybrids, some combination of the two — needing the security of an outline and the freedom to let the story take us where it will.
So do what makes the most sense to you and don’t fret if that means incorporating both Outlining and Pantsing.
(I cover strategies for both types and talk about how to structure a novel here .)
Regardless, you need some form of structure to keep from burning out after so many pages.
I’m a Pantser with a hint of Outlining thrown in, but I never start writing a novel without an idea where I’m going — or think I’m going.
- Step 3: Create an unforgettable main character.
Your most important character will be your protagonist, also known as your lead or your hero/heroine.
This main character must experience a life arc — in other words, be a different, better or worse, stronger or weaker person by the end. (I use “he” inclusively to mean hero or heroine)
For most novels, that means he must bear potentially heroic qualities that emerge in the climax.
For readers to be able to relate to him, he should also exhibit human flaws.
So resist the temptation to create a perfect lead. Who can relate to perfection?
You’ll also have an antagonist (also known as the villain ) who should be every bit as formidable and compelling as your hero. Make sure the bad guy isn’t bad just because he’s the bad guy. 😊
He must be able to justify — if only in his own mind — why he does what he does to make him a worthy foe, realistic and memorable.
You may also need important orbital cast members.
For each character, ask:
- Who are they?
- What do they want?
- Why do they want it?
- What or who is keeping them from it?
- What will they do about it?
Use distinct names (even distinct initials) for every character — and make them look and sound different from each other too, so your reader won’t confuse them.
Limit how many you introduce early. If your reader needs a program to keep them straight, you may not have him for long.
Naturally, your lead character will face an outward problem — a quest, a challenge, a journey, a cause… But he also must face inner turmoil to make him really relatable to the reader and come alive on the page.
Heroic, inventive, morally upright, and physically strong? Of course. But your protagonist must also face fear, insecurity, self-doubt.
The more challenges he faces, the more potential he has to grow and develop.
Much as in real life, the tougher the challenges, the greater the potential transformation.
For more on developing your characters, check out my blog posts Your Ultimate Guide to Character Development: 9 Steps to Creating Memorable Heroes , How to Create a Powerful Character Arc , and Character Motivation: How to Craft Realistic Characters .
- Step 4: Expand your idea into a plot.
True Pantsers — yes, even some bestselling novelists — don’t plot. Here’s the downside:
Like me, you might love being a Pantser and writing as a process of discovery, BUT — even we non-Outliners need some modicum of structure.
Discovering what bestselling novelist Dean Koontz calls the Classic Story Structure (in his How to Write Best-Selling Fiction ) changed my writing forever . My book sales took off when I started following his advice:
- Plunge your main character into terrible trouble as soon as possible.
- Everything your character does to try to get out of that trouble makes it only progressively worse…
- …until his predicament appears hopeless.
- Finally, everything your hero learns from trying to get out of the terrible trouble builds in him what he needs to succeed in the end.
Want to download this 12-step guide to refer to whenever you wish? Click here.
Writing coaches call by different names their own suggested story structures , but the basic sequence is largely common. They all include some variation of:
- The Inciting Incident that changes everything
- A series of crises that build tension
- A Conclusion
Regardless how you plot your novel, your primary goal must be to grab readers by the throat from the get-go and never let go.
For more on developing your plot, visit my blog post The Writer’s Guide to Creating the Plot of a Story .
More in-depth plotting resources:
- Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell
- The Secrets of Story Structure by K. M. Weiland
- The Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson
- Step 5: Research, research, research.
Though fiction, by definition, is made up, to succeed it must be believable. Even fantasies need to make sense.
You must research to avoid errors that render your story unbelievable.
Once a reader has bought into your premise, what follows must be logical. Effective research allows you to add the specificity necessary to make this work .
When my character uses a weapon, I learn everything I can about it. I’ll hear about it from readers if I refer to a pistol as a revolver or if my protagonist shoots 12 bullets from a gun that holds only 8 rounds.
Accurate details add flavor and authenticity.
Get details wrong and your reader loses confidence — and interest — in your story.
- Consult Atlases and World Almanacs to confirm geography and cultural norms and find character names that align with the setting, period, and customs . If your Middle Eastern character flashes someone a thumbs up, be sure that means the same in his culture as it does in yours.
- Encyclopedias. If you don’t own a set, access one at your local library or online .
- YouTube and online search engines can yield tens of thousands of results. (Just be careful to avoid wasting time getting drawn into clickbait videos.)
- Use a Thesaurus while writing your novel, but not to find the most exotic word. I most often a thesaurus to find that normal word that’s on the tip of my tongue.
- There’s no substitute for in-person interviews with experts. People love to talk about their work, and often such conversations lead to more story ideas.
Resist the urge to shortchange the research process.
Readers notice geographical, cultural, and technological blunders and trust me, they’ll let you know.
Even sci-fi or fantasy readers demand believability within the parameters of the world you’ve established .
One caveat: Don’t overload your story with all the esoteric facts you’ve learned, just to show off your research. Add specifics the way you would add seasoning to food. It enhances the experience, but it’s not the main course.
- Step 6: Choose your point of view.
The perspective from which you write your novel can be complicated because it encompasses so much.
Your Point of View (POV) is more than simply deciding what voice to use: First Person ( I, me ), Second Person ( you, your ), or Third Person ( he, she, or it ).
It also involves deciding who will be your POV character, serving as your story’s camera.
The cardinal rule is one perspective character per scene , but I prefer only one per chapter, and ideally one per novel.
Readers experience everything in your story from this character’s perspective.
No hopping into the heads of other characters. What your POV character sees, hears, touches, smells, tastes, and thinks is all you can convey.
Some writers think that limits them to First Person, but it doesn’t. Most novels are written in Third Person Limited.
That means limited to one perspective character at a time, and that character ought to be the one with the most at stake in each scene.
Writing your novel in First Person makes it easiest to limit yourself to that one perspective character, but Third-Person Limited is the most common.
I’m often asked how other characters can be revealed or developed without switching to them as the perspective character.
Read current popular fiction to see how the bestsellers do it.
(One example: the main character hears what another character says, reads his tone and his expression and his body language, and comes to a conclusion. Then he finds out that person told someone else something entirely different, proving he was lying to one of them.)
For a more in-depth explanation of Voice and Point of View, read my post A Writer’s Guide to Point of View .
Step 7: Begin in medias res (in the midst of things) .
You must grab your reader by the throat on page one.
That doesn’t necessarily mean bullets flying or a high speed chase, though that might work for a thriller. It means avoiding too much scene setting and description and, rather, getting to the good stuff — the guts of the story .
Les Edgerton, a gritty writer who writes big boy novels (don’t say I didn’t warn you) says beginning writers worry too much about explaining all the backstory to the reader first.
He’s saying, in essence, get on with it and trust your reader to deduce what’s going on.
The goal of every sentence, in fact of every word , is to compel the reader to read the next.
- Step 8: Engage the theater of the reader’s mind.
Don’t moviegoers often say they liked the book better?
The reason is obvious: Even with all its high-tech computer-generated imagery , Hollywood cannot compete with the theater of the reader’s mind.
The images our mind’s eye evokes are far more imaginative and dramatic than anything Hollywood can produce.
Your job as a writer is not to make readers imagine things as you see them, but to trigger the theaters of their minds.
Give them just enough to engage their mental projectors. That’s where the magic happens.
For more, visit my post on What Is Imagery? and Show, Don’t Tell: What You Need to Know .
- Step 9: Intensify your main character’s problems.
You’ve grabbed your reader with a riveting opener and plunged your hero into terrible trouble.
Now, everything he does to get out of that terrible trouble must make it progressively worse.
Do not give him a break.
Too many amateurs render their hero’s life too easy.
They give a private eye a nice car, a great weapon, a beautiful girlfriend, an upscale apartment, a fancy office, and a rich client. Rather, pull out from under him anything that makes his life easy.
Have his car break down, his weapon get stolen, his girlfriend leave, his landlord evict him, his office burn, and his client go broke. Now thrust him into a dangerous case.
Conflict is the engine of fiction .
(For more on conflict, read my post Internal and External Conflict: Tips for Creating Unforgettable Characters )
His trouble should escalate logically with his every successive attempt to fix it.
You can hint that he’s growing, developing, changing, getting stronger, and adding more to his skillset through his trials, but his trouble should become increasingly terrible until you…
- Step 10: Make his predicament appear hopeless.
Writing coaches have various labels for this crucial plot point.
Novelist Angela Hunt refers to this as The Bleakest Moment. It’s where even you wonder how you’re going to write your way out of this.
The once-reprobate lover who has become a changed man and a loving fiance suddenly falls off the wagon the night before the wedding.
Caught red-handed doing drugs and drinking with another woman, he sees his true love storm off, vowing to never speak to him again.
Imagine the nadir, the low point, the bleakest moment for your lead character. Your ability to mine this can make or break you as a novelist.
This is not easy, believe me. You’ll be tempted to give your protagonist a break, invent an escape, or inject a miracle. Don’t you dare!
The Bleakest Moment forces your hero to take action, to use every new muscle and technique gained from facing a book full of obstacles to prove that things only appeared beyond repair.
The more hopeless the situation, the more powerful your climax and ending will be.
- Step 11: Bring it all to a climax.
The ultimate resolution, the peak emotional point of your story, comes when your hero faces his toughest test yet. The stakes must be dire and failure catastrophic.
The conflict that has been building throughout now crescendos to a final, ultimate confrontation, and all the major book-length setups are paid off.
Star Wars: A New Hope climaxes with the rebels forced to destroy the Death Star.
In the original version of the movie, that scene felt flat. So the filmmakers added that the Death Star was on the verge of destroying the rebel base.
That skyrocketed the tension and sent the stakes over the top.
Give readers the payoff they’ve been set up for. Reward their sticking with you and let them experience the fireworks.
But remember, the climax is not the end. The real conclusion ties up loose ends and puts everything into perspective.
- Step 12: Leave readers wholly satisfied.
A great ending :
- Honors the reader for his investment of time and money.
- Is the best of all your options. If it comes down to clever, quirky, or emotional, always aim for the heart.
- Keeps your hero on stage till the last word.
Because climaxes are so dramatic, endings often just peter out. Don’t let that happen.
Your ending might not be as dramatic or action-filled as the climax, but it must be every bit as provocative and riveting.
Don’t rush it. Rewrite it until it shines. I’ve long been on record that all writing is rewriting, and this is never more true than at the end of your novel.
When do you know it’s been rewritten enough? When you’ve gone from making it better to merely making it different.
Write a fully satisfying ending that drops the curtain with a resounding thud. Your readers will thank you for it.
- Frequently Asked Questions and Novel Writing Tips
1. How long does it take to write a novel?
A lifetime. It will pull from you everything you know and everything you are.
It takes as long as necessary.
I know those answers sound flippant, but remember, speed is not the point.
Quality is the point.
Spend as much time as it takes for you to be happy with every word before you start pitching your manuscript to the market.
How long writing a novel will take you depends on your goals and your schedule.
A manuscript of a 100,000 words, including revision, should be doable — even for a beginner — in six to nine months.
Develop and practice the right habits , set a regular writing schedule, and stick to it.
2. How hard is it to write a novel?
If you’re anything like me, it will prove the hardest thing you have ever done. If it was easy, everyone would do it.
Every published novelist (yes, even any big name you can think of) was once right where you are — unpublished and unknown. They ultimately succeeded because they didn’t quit.
Resolve to not quit, and you will write a novel. I can’t guarantee it will become a bestseller, but I can guarantee it won’t if you don’t finish it.
3. How do I know if my story idea has potential?
You’ll know your story has legs if it stays in your mind, growing and developing every time you think of it.
The right concept simply feels right. You’ll know it when you land on it. Most importantly, your idea must compel you to write it.
Tell your story idea to someone whose opinion you trust.
You should be able to tell by their expression and their tone of voice whether they really like it or are just being polite.
- You Can Do This
If you want to write a novel, don’t allow the magnitude of the writing process to overwhelm you.
Attack it the way you would eat an elephant — one bite at a time. 😊
Don’t let fear stop you. Use it as motivation to do your best work.
Avoid wondering What if…?
Take the leap.
Stay focused on why you started this journey in the first place.
Follow the steps I’ve given you, and you may find that this time next year, you’re holding in your hands a manuscript that could become a published novel with your name on the cover.
- Step 7: Begin in medias res (in the midst of things).
Are You Making This #1 Amateur Writing Mistake?
Faith-Based Words and Phrases
What You and I Can Learn From Patricia Raybon
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How do you learn the craft of writing fiction.
February 11, 2019 by Randy Ingermanson 7 Comments
in Career Management , Craft , Fiction Writing Tagged: craft , fiction writing
What’s the best way to learn the craft of fiction writing? Should you get a book of exercises and work through it? Or should you just start writing?
Scott posted this question on my “ Ask A Question For My Blog ” page:
Hi Randy, freshman writer here. My question is around practicing craft. Do you recommend freshman looking to get started pick up a beginners guide to writing and work through the examples and practice writing prompts or start writing a novel if they have an idea? I have a beginners book that I am working through but I also have some novel ideas I am itching to get started on. Any recommendations would be helpful. Thanks Scott
Randy sez : Good question, Scott. There are any number of ways to learn the craft of fiction writing, but they all boil down to three core elements, which I’ll discuss below.
What’s a Freshman Writer?
But first, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page in terms of words. Scott refers to himself as a “freshman writer.” He doesn’t mean he’s in his first year of high school.
Scott is referring to a classic article on this website, Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Author! In that article, I explain the four basic phases of getting published. Writers who are just starting out are called “freshman,” and their main goal is to develop their craft.
Why craft? Because that’s the foundation of everything else. If you write well, it’s “easy” to get traditionally published. (Meaning that it’s possible.) If you don’t write well, it’s “hard” to get traditionally published. (Meaning that you need to be a celebrity.)
Of course , you don’t have to publish traditionally. These days, anyone can publish their work independently, whether they have good craft or not. But craft still matters. If you write well, it’s “easy” to earn some money as an indie author. (Meaning that it’s possible.) If you don’t write well, it’s “hard” to earn money as an indie author. (Meaning that you will only make money if you find some way to game the system.)
So then , the big question is this: how does a freshman writer learn the craft of fiction writing?
There are three main ways:
- Write the kind of book you want to sell.
- Read books or take courses or otherwise study the craft of writing from experts.
- Get your work critiqued by someone who understands craft AND knows how to give a critique.
Which of these is most important?
I have no idea. They’re all essential. Which of the four tires on your car is most important?
Let’s look at how each of these works.
Learning Your Craft by Writing
If you want to be a good swimmer, you need to swim. A lot. Reading the theory of swimming will help, yes. Getting a coach will help, yes. But you need to get in the water and do it.
Same with writing . If you want to be a good writer, you need to write. A lot.
You need to write the kind of fiction you want to publish. Every successful writer I know agrees with this.
Write and write and write.
By writing fiction , you develop the emotional muscles to move your reader emotively. And that’s what fiction is mostly about.
Make a writing schedule and stick to it. If you’re a beginner, this schedule might be: “Spend 10 minutes writing every day immediately after breakfast.” If you’re a professional novelist, your schedule might be: “Write 2000 words of new copy every day before lunch. No lunch until the 2000 words are written. No exceptions.”
You might think 10 minutes is too little. Actually, no, it’s fine for a beginner. The goal here is not to work yourself to exhaustion. The goal is to create a habit that will carry you through days of low motivation. Once you’ve built the habit, you can ramp up the time.
You might think professional writers can’t possibly get by on only 2000 words per day. Actually, they can. Stephen King writes about 2000 words per day, pretty much every day. That works out to over 700,000 words in a year, which is several large novels or a lot of smaller works.
In fact , 2000 words per day is too aggressive for many writers. I know professional writers who do fine with a quota of 1000 words per day.
Again , doing it every day is the thing that wins you gold medals.
Learning Your Craft From Books and Courses
I learned how to play chess when I was 8 years old. I learned it from a neighbor kid, and he had very little clue on how to play well, which meant that neither did I.
The summer I was 12, I bought a book on chess and worked through it. And that book was dynamite. I learned about a dozen rules of thumb that turned me from a terrible player into a very decent player. When I went back to school in the fall, I could beat every kid in the chess club.
So books have power.
Same thing happened when I started writing fiction. I just started writing without any instruction at all. I had some native talent, but I had no idea what I was doing. Then I bought Dwight Swain’s book, Techniques of the Selling Writer and worked through it. I applied it to my writing. That book was dynamite too.
In a few months , I began writing much, much better.
Eventually , I started going to writing conferences and taking courses with published novelists. Every time I did, I learned new stuff.
Not long after that, I got my first book published.
I continue to study the craft. Because books have power.
That’s one reason I write books on how to write fiction . Because nothing I do in this life will have more influence than the books I write.
Learning Your Craft by Getting Critiqued
There is nothing harder than getting your writing critiqued. I still remember my terror the first time I went to a critique group. And I still remember how I couldn’t sleep that night after getting critiqued.
Getting critiqued is painful.
Getting critiqued is necessary. You don’t know what you don’t know. You can’t be objective about your own writing.
I took a swim class once , many years ago. I had no delusions of grandeur. I just wanted to learn how to swim a bit better. On the first day, the teacher had each person in the class swim once across the pool. In front of a video camera.
The next class , the teacher showed us all every video and did an instant critique on each swimmer. I remember each person saying, “What? I’m doing that ? No wonder I’m a lousy swimmer.”
I couldn’t figure out how they could not know what they were doing wrong.
Then I saw the video of myself swimming, and the teacher explained what I was doing wrong. And I couldn’t believe I was doing that . No wonder I was a lousy swimmer.
An objective critique matters . An objective critique by someone who knows how to critique is pure gold.
Back to Scott’s Question
Now we can get back to Scott’s question. Should he continue working through the book? Or should he start writing one of those ideas burning a hole in his brain?
I hope the answer is now clear.
Writing is essential , so make it a habit to write every day.
Training is essential , so study good books on craft and master them.
But there’s one thing Scott didn’t ask about.
Critique is essential , so find someone who can look at your work and give you a little guidance.
A freshman who does those three things will soon move up to being a sophomore.
And then a junior.
And then a senior.
And then an author.
Most of the authors I know are still doing those three things regularly.
For extra credit , pass along what you learn to other writers. I’ve discovered that I don’t really know a subject until I’ve tried to teach it.
Got a Question for My Blog?
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “ Ask A Question For My Blog ” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.
February 12, 2019 at 6:54 am
I’ve heard several authors talk about avoiding critique for your novel at its early stages … when you are most vulnerable to self-doubt and discouragement (and giving up).
I’ve heard some authors recommend waiting to get feedback until your story is completed to the best of your ability.
I’ve also heard some authors get feedback on their writing chapter by chapter … although those were well-established writers, not newbies.
This is something I’ve been debating about a lot lately with my own writing … if it is time for some critique.
Is there such a thing as getting feedback too soon? Does the writer’s personality play into it? I’d be interested in Randy’s and others’ opinions on this.
February 17, 2019 at 12:00 pm
Randy sez: There is such a thing as getting bad feedback too soon, and I recommend against it. I recommend never getting feedback from a bad critiquer, because it’s likely to take you in the wrong direction.
But I think it’s never too soon to get good feedback. If you were just starting out on the violin, you wouldn’t wait until you could play Mozart before hiring a teacher, would you? Because if you’re going to wait until you’re good to hire a teacher, you’re going to be waiting a long time. Whereas if you hire a teacher, you’ll start reaching your potential much, much, much, much, much quicker.
As for that pesky self-doubt, it never goes away. If you are going to be paralyzed by self-doubt today, you’re going to be paralyzed by it ten years from now. Might as well find out quickly whether you have the inner strength to fight off the self-doubts.
My opinion only. Could be wrong.
July 16, 2019 at 12:57 pm
Fiction writing evolved from an oral story-telling tradition, and oral tradition depends on literary techniques appropriate for verbal transmittal–aphorisms, meter, rhyme, alliteration, rhetoric, etc. in order to jog the memory of the story-teller as the story is told. The accessibility of cheap novels and pamphlets marked a sea change in the dissemination of information, and by the mid-19th century, fiction was consumed by the ream.
November 6, 2019 at 9:44 am
Where can I get GOOD online writing courses, directing me toward a career in fiction writing?
January 20, 2020 at 10:09 am
I need to discover a book that can assist me with building up my fiction composing abilities…I don’t need a book about distributing on the grounds that I’m not going to distribute my story…
July 22, 2020 at 7:07 pm
Love your trips and advice for fiction writing. Thank you.
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How Rebecca Yarros Packed Dragons, Magic and Steamy Sex Into a Blockbuster Fantasy
Yarros drew on her experience with chronic illness and life in a military family to write “Fourth Wing,” a huge best seller that spawned a spicy fantasy series.
For Rebecca Yarros, writing Violet, the main character in “Fourth Wing,” was cathartic. Credit... Joanna Kulesza for The New York Times
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By Alexandra Alter
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When Rebecca Yarros pitched her publisher a sexy fantasy about telepathic dragons and their riders, she thought it might be a tough sell.
She’d built a career and a dedicated following writing romances, often drawing on her experience as a military wife. What she was proposing was wildly off-brand: an epic fantasy series with dragons, griffins, magic and political intrigue.
To Yarros’s surprise, her publisher, Entangled, loved the idea, and wanted to launch a new fantasy imprint with it. Over a feverish few months, Yarros crash-wrote “Fourth Wing,” an intricately plotted 500-plus-page narrative that takes place at an elite war college, where two dragon riders feud, then fall in love. She was stunned when she learned they were printing more than 100,000 copies and rolling out an elaborate marketing campaign with limited-edition hardcovers.
Yarros — who lives in Colorado Springs and has a busy home life, with six children, two dogs, a cat, two chinchillas and a bearded dragon — was exhilarated, but also felt as if she was “in a vise.”
“The pressure was utterly intense,” she said. “I was like, am I going to be personally responsible for dragging down this whole publisher?”
Her publisher assured her it would be a hit. Still, Yarros was unprepared for the frenzy that has erupted over “Fourth Wing” and its sequel, “Iron Flame,” which comes out on Nov. 7.
Since its release in May, “Fourth Wing” has sold more than two million copies globally, according to the publisher. It has been on The New York Times’s hardcover fiction best-seller list for more than six months — with three months at No. 1. It took off in Britain, Australia and South Africa, selling more than 600,000 copies in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, and translation rights have sold in around 30 languages.
On TikTok, hashtags for the author and the series have been viewed more than a billion times. Amazon MGM Studios has optioned the series for a TV adaptation, with Yarros as an executive producer.
“It was a slow, steady build, and then it went absolutely mental,” said Rebekah West, Yarros’s editor at Piatkus Fiction in Britain.
The novel’s runaway success stems in part from the boom in romantasy, a hybrid of romance and fantasy that is drawing fans from both genres. “Fourth Wing” is a steamy mix that blends fantasy elements (elaborate world building, an epic battle between good and evil, fire-breathing winged dragons) with popular romance tropes (the enemies-to-lovers plot, plus explosive sex scenes, including one that starts a literal fire).
“It’s just been massive,” said Shannon DeVito, director of books at Barnes & Noble, about the response from readers.
For Yarros, the escalating fame has been jarring.
“I’m not comfortable in the spotlight,” she said recently over dinner in Manhattan, the night before an appearance at New York Comic Con. “I would rather stay home with my kids.”
Navigating best-sellerdom is made even more complicated for Yarros by chronic illness; she has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a genetic connective tissue disorder. It can be difficult for her to stand or talk for more than an hour, which makes marathon signing sessions and fan events a challenge.
“Sometimes I feel like part of my job is to make sure she survives this with her health intact,” said Louise Fury, Yarros’s literary agent.
In “Fourth Wing,” Yarros wrote about her condition for the first time, giving her protagonist, Violet Sorrengail, many of the afflictions she suffers from, like dizziness, brittle bones and joints that easily dislocate. Violet’s mother, the commanding general, pushes her to join the elite dragon rider forces like her older siblings, but Violet struggles at the war college. Her condition, which is never named, leaves Violet so weak that she can’t stay on her dragon, nearly plummeting to her death before she grudgingly accepts a saddle that locks her into place. Other dragon riders belittle her as small and fragile, but Violet’s ruthless antagonist and love interest, Xaden, is won over by her determination.
“I read fantasy growing up and I never saw that, I saw these powerful heroines,” she said. “I wanted to tell a story about a girl who should not succeed, and who should not be able to endure an overly brutal environment.”
Yarros grew up as the youngest of four in a military family — her grandfather was a general, and both her mother and father are retired lieutenant colonels. Her family bounced around Washington, D.C., Oklahoma, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Germany and Colorado.
She took up writing poetry and fiction early, and wrote a novel for a high school English project. When she was a college student at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, she met her husband, Jason Yarros, a young private in the Army, at a karaoke bar one night. They got married and quickly had a child, and Yarros dropped out of college.
Jason, who flew Apache helicopters, was deployed five times, with four tours to combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. While he was gone, Yarros worked on her college degree in history. When she graduated, at age 29, they had five children.
In 2003, after Jason was injured by an antitank land mine in Iraq, Yarros developed insomnia. To occupy herself in the middle of the night, she read romance novels. Several years later, when Jason was on his third deployment, Yarros decided that instead of just reading novels, she would write one.
She knew so little about the publishing world that in 2011, when she wrote her first book, an urban fantasy, she bought “Publishing for Dummies” to figure out her next steps. She signed with an agent, but no publishers made an offer. Undeterred, she decided to write about a young woman in a military family. The result was her debut, “Full Measures,” a romance about a woman whose father is killed in Afghanistan. She sold it to Entangled, and it was published in 2014.
It was the start of a prolific career. From then on, Yarros worked at a breakneck pace, releasing two novels a year. But she often felt discouraged by her stagnant sales.
In the years after she was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos in 2020, she thought about quitting. A flare-up had left her so dizzy she could barely walk from her dining room to her couch without collapsing. Her four sons were also diagnosed with the disorder. The stress of writing, managing her illness and caring for her family felt overwhelming.
“I got to a point where I was like, is this worth it?” she said.
Then, in 2022, her pitch for “Fourth Wing” was accepted. She’d written 20 romances, but this was a chance to write fantasy, something she’d wanted to do ever since her first book failed to sell — and to write an otherworldly epic about a heroine with a chronic illness.
“Writing Violet is super cathartic, because she struggles to accept the accommodations that are given to her, and I have that same struggle,” Yarros said.
She wrote “Fourth Wing” on an accelerated schedule, working 12 to 14 hours on some days. Her husband, who had retired from the military after 22 years, looked after the household. When the book hit the New York Times best-seller list, they both cried. “He would kill me for saying that,” she said.
Soon after she was done with “Fourth Wing,” she wrote “Iron Flame,” the second installment of a planned five-book series.
Now, “Iron Flame” is shaping up to be another mega best seller. Barnes & Noble is holding midnight release parties at more than 200 stores, including one at the Union Square store in New York that Yarros plans to attend along with 600 fans; tickets to that event sold out in minutes. Independent stores, as well as bookstores in Britain and Australia, are also throwing midnight parties, a rare occurrence that booksellers say reminds them of the fan fervor around “Twilight” and “Harry Potter.”
At Comic Con last month, a crowd of ecstatic fans gathered at the Javits Center to meet Yarros.
One reader told Yarros she had skipped work to come. Another said his wife had sent him to get her copy of the book signed — and told him not to bother coming back if he failed. Some wore T-shirts and backpacks that said “Basgiath War College.” A few came as Violet, in leather bodysuits with daggers strapped to their thighs.
Several people thanked Yarros for creating a heroine with a chronic illness.
Ashley Sitarski, a “Fourth Wing” fan from New Jersey who was diagnosed with lupus last year, said it was refreshing to read about a character who lives, and thrives, with a chronic condition. “The fact that she wrote her illness into the book is huge,” she said.
Another reader, Evey Alvarez, who has had dire health complications from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, immediately recognized Violet’s illness, and was gratified to read about a character with her condition who is also “sassy,” she said. “The representation matters.”
The signing was taxing for Yarros, who felt a migraine coming. But she was beaming throughout, introducing herself to each reader, as if she still couldn’t quite believe that they had all come just to see her.
“Hi, I’m Rebecca,” she said over and over.
Alexandra Alter writes about publishing and the literary world. Before joining The Times in 2014, she covered books and culture for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to that, she reported on religion, and the occasional hurricane, for The Miami Herald. More about Alexandra Alter
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Writing Fiction For Dummies (For Dummies (Language & Literature)) Paperback – January 4, 2024
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From Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice to John Green's The Fault in Our Stars , fiction has long captured the imagination of readers. But what does it take to write great fiction?
With easy-to-follow, step-by-step instructions, along with helpful tips and advice, Writing Fiction For Dummies has exactly one goal―to help aspiring novelists develop the skills they need to write excellent fiction and to get it published.
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Peter Economy is a Wall Street Journal best-selling business author, ghostwriter, developmental editor, and publishing consultant with more than 125 books to his credit (and more than 3 million copies sold).
Peter’s latest book is Wait, I’m Working With Who?!? published by Career Press. He also helped create Unlearn: Let Go of Past Success to Achieve Extraordinary Results; Everything I Learned About Life I Learned in Dance Class; The Leadership Gap: What Gets Between You and Your Greatness (a Wall Street Journal bestseller); Managing For Dummies; User Story Mapping: Discover the Whole Story, Build the Right Product; The Management Bible; Peter Isler’s Little Blue Book of Sailing Secrets; and many more.
He is the Leadership Guy on Inc.com and for more than a decade served as Associate Editor for Leader to Leader magazine—published by the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Forum in New York City. Peter taught MGT 453: Creativity and Innovation as a lecturer at San Diego State University, is on the National Advisory Council of The Art of Science Learning, and is a founding member of the board of SPORTS for Exceptional Athletes.
A graduate of Stanford University (with majors in Economics and Human Biology), Peter has worked closely with some of the nation’s top business, leadership, and technology thinkers, including Jim Collins, Frances Hesselbein, Barry O’Reilly, Peter Senge, Kellie McElhaney, Jeff Patton, Marshall Goldsmith, Marty Cagan, Lolly Daskal, Guy Kawasaki, Emma Seppala, William Taylor, Jim Kilts, Jean Lipman-Blumen, Stephen Orban, Ken Blanchard, and many others.
Randy Ingermanson wants to teach you how to write excellent fiction.
He’s been teaching for nearly twenty years, and he’s known around the world as "the Snowflake Guy" in honor of his wildly popular Snowflake Method of writing a novel.
Randy is an award-winning novelist and publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine. He says that "Fiction Writing = Organization + Craft + Marketing," so he focuses on those three topics in his e-zine.
He also blogs when the spirit moves him. He is trying to get the spirit to move him weekly, but the spirit gets touchy about schedules.
Randy lives in the Pacific Northwest and works as a manservant to two surly and demanding cats. Visit Randy at AdvancedFictionWriting.com.
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