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Writing

Complete Guide to Writing a Good Story: For Fiction, Novels, Short Stories, and More

Written by MasterClass

Jan 31, 2019 • 14 min read

It’s certainly exciting to think about all the different options that could be explored in a story. But where to begin?

Every writer works in a different way. Some writers work straight through from beginning to end. Others work in pieces they arrange later, while others work from sentence to sentence. Don’t be afraid to try out different techniques, voices, and styles. Keep what works for you and discard the rest. Your material and process will guide you to your own set of rules.

Follow this step-by-step guide to work on your creative writing skills.

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Part 1: Research

  • Find Inspiration

Writers tend to be observant people. They watch others and they watch the world to look for the details, the quirks, the things that make someone or someplace stand out. You can draw inspiration from your observations. Inspiration can also strike anytime, anywhere. Keep your eyes and ears open to new and interesting people, places, and ideas.

  • Mine Experiences

“Write what you know” is a common refrain, and for a good reason. Mining your personal experiences for information and inspiration can help jump start a story. For example, you can easily describe how the air smells in your hometown during a certain time of year. These are the types of details that allow a writer to show the reader the story, rather than just telling them a string to details.

Some questions to ask yourself:

  • Did you have a particularly magical summer growing up where you fell in love with a new friend?
  • Is there a traumatic experience from your past that helped you grow as a person?
  • Is there a time when you were deeply embarrassed?
  • Can you think of when you regret something you did?
  • What is the saddest moment of your life? What about the happiest?
  • Name a secret you are afraid to talk about.

Many stories are written from personal experience, but that doesn’t mean that they have to be straight facts. You can always embellish the experience to make the story seem more exciting, to push the narrative, or to make the characters more dynamic.

  • Conduct Research

“What do I want to know?” is a crucial question. It draws forth our best energy with the desire to learn more about things we don’t know.

Whether you’re writing what you know or pursuing a fresh passion, research is a critical tool for developing the world of your novel. What you learn during research will allow you to immerse your reader fully in your setting. It will guide you in developing your characters and plot.

  1. Read everything. The preliminary stage of research is generally exploratory and involves reading anything that interests you. As you go deeper, you’ll find your research becoming more focused. You’ll begin asking questions about particular locations, histories, or scenarios that involve your subject matter. At this point, your interests will not only guide your choice of materials, they will also help you begin structuring your novel.
  2. Meet with everyone. Although reading is an invaluable research tool, it is seldom enough by itself. At some point it will be necessary to reach out to others. Talking to people about their passions can offer perspectives that you won’t find in books, and it can transmit an enthusiasm and authenticity that will come through in your writing. Meeting people in person may also inspire ideas for your characters.
  3. Go everywhere. Visit a location you’ve never been to before— either an actual place from a setting you’ve chosen or simply a place near you that you find interesting. When you first arrive at the location, don’t record or photograph or write anything down, just spend some time absorbing it through your senses. Pay attention to the things that strike you most. Go home later and write a description of the place. Remember to include the sensory details—what it felt and smelled and sounded like.
  4. Follow your interests. Your choice should always be informed by your interests, so immerse yourself in books, television, movies, and anything else that inspires you. You’ll be silently accumulating the building blocks for your novel. Trust your own tastes. You’re going to be working with these subjects for a long time, so choose things that interest you enough to sustain you over the course of a novel.
  • Consult the Building Blocks

Each story is made up of “building blocks” from other stories that have come before it, so part of your job as a writer is to know those building blocks so you can construct your own stories. Every culture has its own set of story building blocks. In Western anglophone culture, those building blocks include:

  • Greek mythology
  • Roman mythology
  • Indigenous stories
  • The Brothers Grimm fairy tales
  • The Bible

Deepen your knowledge of these classic stories and ask yourself: What can I take from these archetypes that will strengthen my story?

  • Think About Structure

Some writers are comfortable creating a detailed outline for a novel. New writers in particular find it helpful to have a road map. Others feel that writing an outline diminishes the pleasure of discovering the story along the way. They argue that working from an outline means you’re not creating anymore, you’re translating your ideas.

It’s challenging to create a cohesive plot that remains interesting from start to finish. This is why it can be helpful to build a detailed outline before you start writing. A strong outline lets you stay in control of the narrative structure as you establish the world of your story. But there’s value in creating strong characters and seeing where they take your writing, too.

Regardless of how you feel about an outline, it can be valuable to think about the story structure you want to have. The structure is how you choose to order the story. You might tell a story in a straight chronological manner, from beginning to end. Or you might begin from a moment in the future and jump back in time to fill a reader in.

If writing an outline seems like it might be a helpful exercise for you, learn more about how to create an outline here.

Part 2: Write

  • The Importance of Setting

Location is an enormously useful tool in novel-building. You should treat it as you would treat a character, allowing it to convey mood and letting it reveal more of itself over time. By selecting locations that excite you, you can transform relatively mundane scenes into more compelling ones. Your enthusiasm will come through in your writing, and your characters will view and interact with your locales in a more engaged way.

Location can also provide the inspiration for scenes and can even shape the course of your story. All the research you conducted in the first phase of writing will come in handy when you find yourself needing to describe a particular street, park, or other scene set somewhere previously unfamiliar to you.

To weave setting into your story, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What season is your novel set in? What is the weather like in your location at that time?
  • What are the elements of your setting like during this time? For example, was that business closed fifteen years ago? Did that street have a different name then? Was that statue erected before your characters arrived there?
  • Does your novel center around a major world event like war or natural disaster? How does this limit or define your time frame and impact your setting?
  • What cultural details belong to this time and location? Consider music, literature, entertainment, clothing styles, food trends, lifestyle trends, and big national events or crises that shape public sentiments.

Then, try to answer them in your prose.

  • Make Memorable Characters

Character and event are inseparable, because a person is what happens to them. You might think of this as a distinction from films, where actors are cast into pre-existing roles. But a novel is a character interacting with events over time.

Your job as a writer is to learn about your character by observing how they interact with the world around them. Characters—like real people—have hobbies, pets, histories, ruminations, and obsessions. It’s essential to your novel that you understand these aspects of your character so that you are equipped to understand how they may react under the pressures of events they encounter.

If you’re feeling stuck or are seeking a direction to take your characters in, consult this guide on character development or take a look at Judy Blume's lesson on creating memorable characters.

  • Conflict Equals Plot

Every story is made up of both events and characters. A story happens because a pattern is interrupted. If you are writing about a day that is like any other day, it is most likely a routine, not a story. In order to be a story, something has to happen. We call what happens in a novel the plot.

There are two types of conflict:

  • Internal conflict (a threat from within)
  • External conflict (a threat from outside)
  • Both types of conflict create tension in a narrative and help move the story forward. Conflict drives character development as well as plot. Conflict also adds layers to your story. Your main character can face an external conflict like destroying a sworn enemy while also battling a more subtle, internal conflict: her vow towards pacifism. Your plot will develop naturally if you give your character a motivation, then throw obstacles in her way.

No matter what combination of events you knit together to make the plot, each should be compelling and significant enough to pull your reader into the story and make them wonder what will happen next.

  • Give Plot a Twist

Include at least two or three twists in your story. These help keep readers engaged, especially in the middle of your book when your plot might otherwise start to drag. Carrying readers through the middle of a story is challenging, and there needs to be enough excitement to keep them reading to the end. A great twist will surprise the reader and turn their whole understanding of the story on its head.

Trick your readers by planting “false leads.” Also known as “red herrings,” these are details added to purposefully mislead people and prevent them from predicting an outcome. While adult mysteries are filled with carefully hidden clues, children’s horror novels should be packed with tricks to lead kids astray and thereby surprise them even more when something (like the true identity of a monster) is revealed.

A “cliffhanger” is a device that compels readers to find out what happens next in a story. Writing great cliffhangers is key to making your book a page-turner and it’s one of the easiest ways to make your writing more suspenseful. Some writers might feel it to be a “cheap trick” or an easy gimmick, but it’s a tried and true way to get people to read—and keep them reading.

  • Recreate Natural Dialogue

In real life, speech has lots of padding or “stuffing”: words like umms and yeahs. But dialogue in fiction must be both more incisive and selective. It is shorn down to reveal what people want from one another, reveal character, and dramatize power struggles.

When your characters are speaking, they should be trying to get something from one another, or make a power play. (Seduction is one form of power play.) As you draft each scene, ask yourself what your characters are trying to get. What are they trying to avoid? How do these wants inflect their speech and guide what they say—or don’t say?

There are often wide gaps between what people say and what they are thinking, between what one understands and what one refuses to hear. These gaps can collectively be referred to as subtext, and they are valuable territory for the fiction writer. Stay alert to a character’s thoughts, and let them generate drama in the scenes you write.

To get dialogue right, you must understand how your characters speak. This is likely influenced by where they come from, their social class, upbringing, and myriad other factors. Speech and tone are always bound up in what has happened and is happening to a character.

If you are setting your story in the past, your dialogue should accurately reflect idioms and speech patterns of the period. Words, like clothes, go in and out of style. Conversations need to be specific to the time you’re writing in without seeming contrived.

Dialogue is one of the more difficult challenges a writer faces. Learn more about how to write great dialogue here and in Aaron Sorkin's lesson on writing captivating dialogue.

  • Articulate Voice Through Point of View

One way to determine what point of view strategy to use in your novel is to ask: Whose voice is telling the story? To whom are they telling it, and why? Common point of view strategies include:

  • First person. This is the “I.”
  • Third person limited. This is the “he” or “she.”
  • Third person omniscient, in which a narrator who is not a character and who knows more than the characters relays the events to the reader.
  • Second person, which is structured around the “you” pronoun, and is less common in novel-length work but can work well for short stories.
  • You don’t have to be tied to one point of view throughout your novel; some novels move from first to third or first to second. Let your material guide your decision.

The only way to decide the best point of view strategy for your novel is to try different ones. Likely, you’ll know the right one for your story because the writing will begin to move more quickly, and you’ll feel momentum.

Point of view strategy is deeply bound up with what story you want to tell and will guide how that story unspools. So no matter where you are in the drafting process, devote some time to thinking through the risks and rewards of different POV strategies and consider who in your story may be best suited to hold the narrative reins.

Part 3: Revise

  • Add Dimensions

After you are finished with your first draft, flip to the beginning and start anew. Keep in mind that second drafts are still not for polishing. This is when you can go in and start refining all of your characters and different plot points.

As you write and edit more of your story, you may add different aspects to a character that might need to be mentioned in a section you already edited. You might add a part of the plot that should be alluded to earlier in your book. This is all part of the editing process. Writing is not a structured process in the sense that what you write is not totally set; you can always go back and revise, edit, rethink, and reconfigure to suit your needs and the needs of the story.

  • Embrace the Editing Process

Enjoy the process of creating your first and second drafts. Focus on getting through from start to finish, and remember that you can always go back and change things later. If a novel feels too intimidating, try writing a short story instead. But short stories can be deceivingly more difficult to write than novels, since they require a concise and extremely economical narrative containing all the elements of a novel—in a fraction of the space.

Once you’ve finished your draft, the first thing to do is go back to the beginning of your manuscript and carefully reread it. Look for a number of different things: scenes that drag, characters whose names change part way through, inconsistencies in setting (one moment it’s cloudy and the next it’s sunny), and of course, typos.

After you’ve made your first round of edits, seek out honest feedback. What does a reader think of the characters? Did it feel real? How was the pacing? Did it drag in some places? This is all important criticism you’ll need to move forward. If you absolutely can’t find someone willing to read your manuscript, look into paying someone to do it. In fact, some seasoned writers still hire their own editor to read through their material before sending it to a publisher.

7 Story Writing Tips

  1. Story ideas can come from anywhere and everywhere. Stay open to inspiration and follow your interests.
  2. Show, don’t tell the reader details about characters, settings, or plot.
  3. Create suspense in your story by withholding information or leaving cliffhangers.
  4. If you can, develop the end of your novel first. While this may not always be possible, it’s a trick that helps keep the readers engaged by skillfully directing away from what they might think the ending will be. Once you start writing, it makes it easier to start fooling people from the very beginning of the book.
  5. Edit your story and then edit it again. And when you think you have edited it enough, edit it more.
  6. It’s important to take criticism well and use it to improve your fiction writing. Don’t be too sensitive.
  7. Do not let writer’s block get the best of you. Keep writing when you think you can’t write any more.

While there’s no right or wrong way to write a story, writing a good story takes a lot of imagination, time, and practice on your part as a writer. Even the best writers practice writing different stories, just like athletes are constantly training at the gym. Train yourself to write a good story, and soon enough, one will come!