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These tips will help you polish your writing once you already have the plot structure in place. You can use them at any time in your process, but they’ll be especially useful when you’re working on your second draft.
1. Begin your novel (and most chapters) with action or dialogue.
The best way to begin a novel is in media res—in the middle of something happening. A lot of writers make the mistake of spending too much time “introducing” the main character and providing backstory before any action begins. Often, the character is just sitting around thinking, or driving and thinking, or walking and thinking—too much thinking and not much going on. Typically, these opening passages are what’s known as information dumps—they serve the writer but won’t grab a reader. Provocative dialogue or a dramatic event is what’s needed instead.
Of course, background info provides necessary context for understanding the story and must be provided. Part of your challenge is to find ways to gradually and gracefully work background details into the action of an engaging scene. Pick up a favorite novel and pay attention to how the pros accomplish that feat.
2. Be sure you have a handle on point-of-view before you start writing.
So many writers tell me they have trouble with PoV, and I do find inconsistency and confusion on this matter in many first drafts of novels that I’m asked to critique. Many writers alternate between an omniscient narrator and a character narrator without realizing they are doing so. It’s important to think about PoV, be sure you understand it, determine what rules you want to follow, and then be consistent.
For instance, it may sound simple, but don’t describe things that the PoV character can’t see. If the character wakes up hearing a noise, describe the noise, don’t tell the reader that it’s the bad guy lurking right outside the window. If you want to narrate from the bad guy’s PoV, then create a break (usually done with a couple of line spaces and a row of asterisks) and begin a new section that remains consistent with the new PoV—or start a new chapter. My advice is to avoid using the omniscient narrator because it presents too many inconsistencies and is less intimate.
Establish the PoV at the beginning of each chapter (or section of a chapter) and be sure to stay in that character’s PoV throughout. Sometimes I see narration that goes on for pages without any sense of PoV at all—the narration feels like fly-on-the-wall—but then it switches over to a deep-character PoV. Similarly, I often see head-hops: Jack is “feeling” excited and “thinking” about seeing Jane, and then in the very next sentence is being described through Jane’s eyes.
3. Get the right balance in descriptions—not too much, not too little.
Many classic novels from earlier times feature elaborate descriptive passages that focus on setting, history, clothing, etc. The contemporary trend is for less detail. Modern readers have less patience for that and are typically more interested in plot advancement, especially in genre literature (romance, mystery, thriller).
That said, some detail is essential, as readers need something to picture and enjoy being transported to a different time and place. The writer must find the right balance by being selective about descriptive details so as to create a realistic-seeming world without making readers feel like they are wading through long passages that delay the action for too long.
4. Avoid stage direction.
Many writers include too much of what I call “stage direction”—descriptions regarding characters’ movements as they walk from here to there or sip coffee or stare out the window. It slows the pace and bores the reader. Writers are tempted use stage direction to break up lines of dialogue: “She took a sip of wine,” or “She brushed a wisp of hair out of her eyes.”
While it is indeed a good idea to break up dialogue, it’s not a good idea to do so by mentioning every mundane gesture. Readers will subconsciously assume that if the characters are at a restaurant having a meal together, they are eating while they talk and occasionally brushing hair out of their eyes or scratching their nose or whatever. These kinds of gestures and behaviors should not be mentioned unless they hold some sort of significance. For instance, if the narrator notices that his dinner partner is constantly glancing around the room or watching the door, that would be worth mentioning because it might indicate nervousness.
When attempting to provide breaks in the dialogue, don’t resort to stage direction. Instead, find more meaningful bits of narration—such as interior monologue in which the character says what he’s thinking, especially if it’s at odd with what he’s saying—that add to characterization and to the richness of the scene.
5. Learn to recognize—and avoid—bland writing.
What is bland? Well, consider these two possible opening sentences for a murder mystery:
First, this one:
I was sitting at my kitchen table sipping coffee, thinking about the murder and trying to figure out what happened. I had a few clues, and I knew if I thought hard enough, I could make some sense of them.
Does this make you want to read more? In my opinion, meh. No, not really.
Now, this one:
A broken bottle. A blood-stained grocery list. Fuzzy memories of a brief conversation in a noisy parking lot two weeks ago. That was all I had to go on.
The first one is the epitome of bland. There is no imagery, no interesting vocabulary words, little to really grab the reader. The second one, even though it contains fewer words, is full of images as it hints at what is going on rather than spelling it out in a straightforward manner. This tactic excites a reader’s brain and is much more effective narration.
6. Use dialogue to convey subtle truths about the characters.
Most stories will (and should) involve characters interacting with each other. Some of the time, you will have your PoV character simply paraphrase the interaction (“I met with Darryl and we discussed the murder investigation. He told me he suspected the ex-boyfriend.”) But other times, you might choose to include actual dialogue to show the interaction directly.
“So, Darryl, who do you think killed her?”
“My money is on the ex-boyfriend.”
When might you choose to use dialogue? Usually, it will be an occasion to accomplish something meaningful for the story or show something about the personalities of the characters. Dialogue might provide subtle clues as to what is really going on.
For example, imagine the dialogue that might take place between the narrator and the prime suspect, the ex-boyfriend.
“You dated her for how many months?”
“Oh, only four months. She was cool, but we didn’t really click. I was content to move on.”
“Her friend said you were really pissed when she dumped you.”
“Well, yeah… not really…kind of…but after a few days I was fine about it. Relieved actually.”
In such a situation, it’s important to present the exact words, because they give the reader the opportunity to assess the suspect even as the narrator is doing the same. If he sounds nervous or unsure, that will come through in the dialogue so the reader can pick up on it.
What I often call out is dialogue that consists of too much boring small talk that slows the pace and serves no purpose. It’s best to skip the “Hello, how are you’s” and go right to the more meaningful part of a dialogue. This may seem obvious, but I’m surprised at how many writers leave that stuff in.
7. Don’t try to replicate a character’s accent in dialogue.
Dialogue must, of course, sound realistic. But many writers get a bit too hung up on trying to replicate a regional accent—dropping the final g’s from -ing words, for example. Generally, this gets a bit distractin’ and doesn’t really add much, as the tendency to drop g’s doesn’t say much about a person. Other ways of replicating an accent can become cumbersome and hard to read. If the intent is to show an informal or more “working class” style of speech, it’s better to use vocabulary and sentence structure to communicate that idea. For instance, instead of “I caint sim ta find tahm t’do no fishin’ these days,” try “Loves my fishing. Can’t seem to find no time for it. Ain’t fair.” The impression comes through in the latter without the attempt to phonetically replicate the sounds of the accented words.
8. Read through your novel to kill clichés.
Clichés are hard to avoid. I find that I use them all the time, especially in conversation. They slip out and then I can’t take them back. I’m sad to say, I sometimes even think in clichés. (Yikes, it’s raining cats and dogs!)
Dedicate one read-through of your novel solely to getting rid of clichés. I think you’ll be surprised by how many you’ll encounter. It might be that something is “right as rain” or that the search for the killer is like “finding a needle in a haystack.”
Now, it’s not necessarily so bad to have a cliché in the dialogue (as opposed to narration) because people do use clichés all the time, and so it might be unrealistic to have characters who never use them. But be aware of using them, have a good reason for using them, and for sure avoid having one cliché after another, which will make the writing sound stale. It’s also better if you provide a twist on a cliché. So if one characters says, “It’ll be like finding a needle in a haystack,” have the other character say, “No, it’ll be like finding a needle in a 40-acre field of hay.”
9. Be sure you’re writing a novel and not a screenplay.
A screenplay lays out the visual elements of its scenes in a straightforward manner. [John, dressed in a sharp-looking tuxedo, walks into the dining room, pulls a bottle of scotch out of a cabinet, etc.] These directions are not meant for the audience, but for the director, the set designer, the costume designer, etc. These production people take care of the visual aspect of the storytelling experience—they just need to have some idea what the writer has in mind. The audience follows the thread of the story by listening in on the characters as they talk to each other and by seeing where the camera takes them. The experience is enhanced through lighting, music, camera angles, etc., all of which manipulate the viewer’s emotions.
A novel, in contrast, relies entirely on narration—that inner monologue that shows a character’s thought process. If the narrator has personality, depth, wit, insight, then the novel will be engaging. But when a novel is written to feel like a script through overreliance on “set directions” (descriptions of the weather, the furniture, what people are wearing, how people look) and dialogue, the result can be a very shallow-feeling story. If this is what you’re doing, you might have chosen the wrong format.
If you are envisioning a movie, then write a script. If you want to be a novelist, focus on lively narration and relatable characters and maintain a good balance among narration, action, and dialogue in every chapter. Appreciate that the novel is a particular type of storytelling medium, and use that medium to its maximum effectiveness.
I hope these tips are helpful. I developed them through my 20 years of editing novels and noticing what separates polished novels from those that read as amateurish. I promise they’ll help you bring up the execution of your story from a B+ to an A+.