Action vs Descriptors
The saying ‘show, don’t tell’ is one of the standard segments of writing advice. While setting the scene and descriptors are required, the trick is to not over indulge – avoid the temptation! that some telling is necessary. The audience should understand what the world looks like. The descriptors and action scenes must be directly applicable to your specific central idea and other elements of your narrative. If dialogue and descriptors are well balanced this will create more tension.
When you’re worried that you’re telling too much and showing too little, ask: Is this information crucial to the story? Does it illuminate anything important about my characters and their world? If the answer is ‘no’ to both these questions, it’s not that you’re showing or telling too much but that the passage is irrelevant to your story. So cut it.
Are there enough active verbs? Instead of using adverbs, use verbs that carry descriptive power. Instead of ‘she stared bewilderedly’ say ‘she gaped’, for example. Sometimes you are too close to your own writing to know whether you’re striking the right balance.
Cast and Characters
Writing a good book also requires skilled characterization. Some genres do allow characters that resemble cardboard cutouts. In a typical spy novel there are femme fatales and duplicitous assassins. More compelling spy novels are those where the hero displays a surprising vulnerability or the characters are more than they original appear. The story doesn’t only peddle worn out tropes.
To make your characters diverse and well-developed, do at least some of the following: Give your characters flaws: Nobody’s perfect. Your hero might be brave in some circumstances but irrationally fearful in others. Sketch brief backstories for each important character: Real people have histories. They have upbringings, triumphs, disappointments, aspirations.
Create contrasts between characters: Characters who all talk the same, look the same or think the same are dull. Find interesting differences. Give your characters identifying attributes: Think of someone important in your life: Do they have odd sayings that nobody else uses? A distinct way of pronouncing a certain word? How do they walk and carry themselves? Give each character a signature detail or two.
Grow your characters: How do your characters change as the events of your novel unfold? A major event such as the discovery of a hidden superpower or a death in the family creates cause-and-effect ripples.
What do many of the best-loved books of all time have in common? Memorable dialogue. If you pay attention, characters in great novels and movies don’t talk as we do in real life. We might say ‘um’ a lot, or repeat ourselves, or make small-talk that would be completely mundane to anyone listening in.
Writing a good book demands that even incidental dialogue serves the story. So what does script-worthy dialogue do? It: Tells the reader something about your characters and their relationships; Adds to tension and conflict; Furthers the plot by letting the reader piece together a larger picture.
This third point is the ‘subtext’ of dialogue – the reasons, feelings, suspicions (and so forth) underlying characters’ conversations. Thinking about detail such as this and incorporating it in your dialogue sometimes will add depth and dimension. Why does a character not look another in the eyes while telling them an extremely important fact? What does the combination of speech, gesture, posture, movement tell your reader?
Develop a Story Arc
One of the most common features of ‘bad’ writing is that the story makes no overarching sense. Maybe the heroine’s actions completely contradict her psychological description and backstory. Or else there are sequences of scenes that don’t seem to contribute cohesively to the whole.
To ensure your novel has strong inner logic make sure that the bulk of your story answers the central questions you set up: The narrative purpose of a scene (why the author is sharing this event) should make sense when examined alongside the whole arc of the story.
Make sure your characters’ actions make sense: In the greatest novels, characters’ actions are a mix of inevitable (according to their motivations and personal histories) and surprising. If characters act completely against the personalities and backstories you create, they may seem inconsistent and confusing.
Whatever you want to call it – rising action and falling action or build-up and climax – tension and release keeps readers invested in the outcome of your novel. Because balancing action and tension release is key: Create a suitable amount of conflict and suspense for your genre: Your reader will naturally expect a greater amount of tension and suspense if your novel is a classic thriller.
Have mini-resolutions along the way: It could work to have your story just keep building to a single epic showdown between protagonist and antagonist. But you can create variety and interest by having mini-conflicts and resolutions on the way to the central conflict resolving.
Combine different types of tension: Your story might pit your protagonist(s) against other characters, the environment, or an internal struggle. Alternatively, tension might arise more out of plot uncertainty rather than direct hostility.
Do Something New
Many of the landmark novels of the last few centuries have built on their predecessors but also offered something new. An approach is to write about existing characters and place them into something entirely your own. To stay original make sure that you: Avoid common story clichés; Give borrowed characters or plot structures a personal twist: What matters to you?; Put your own unique background, history and points of reference to use. Nobody shares both your history and perspective so draw on both.