Fiction Writing Tips

** All these are taken from my book, WRITING BASICS FOR BEGINNERS and are copyrighted. **


Characters always act, think, feel and talk, so be sure to use a balance of these things. SHOW the reader how the characters feel, don't TELL. Words that end in ‘ly' tell. For example let's use the following sentence.

"Wow," she said excitedly.

What does this tell you? She is excited. How excited is she? We don't really know. This is basically TELLING and doesn't give your writing much zing.

Try rewriting this same sentence using her body language to SHOW us how she is feeling. How about something like the following:

"Wow," she said. Her eyes grew as wide as the pocket watch itself, and her mouth dropped open.

Can you see her in your mind as she responds to what is happening? This gives you more of an idea of how excited she really is.

Also, give your characters habits like running their hands through their hair or tapping their pen on the table when nervous, or clenching their teen then angry. Let the reader see the character's emotions through physiological aspects such as facial expressions, how they walk.

Below are some common responses your characters will experience. After the emotion are some physiological reactions to that experience.

  1. Anger – breathing speeds up, heart pounds, jaws tighten, the body prepares to fight or flee
  2. Sorrow – tears, stooped shoulders, eyes half closed, shaky voice, head down
  3. Embarrassment – flushed cheeks, looking down at the ground, avoiding eye contact, wanting to hide
  4. Happiness – big smile, eyes wide and bright, hands clasped, unstoppable tears, eager to hug and does so enthusiastically


Characters are tantamount to your story. Without interesting, believable characters, there is no story. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does the character fit the story?
  • Does the name fit the character?
  • After asking yourself these questions, create a character chart for each of the main characters. Cut and paste the character chart below into a MS Word document and print off as many as you need for each book you write. Feel free to add spaces or lines as you see fit. Keep each in your notebook for reference. You'll be surprised how many times you will refer back to it in the course of writing your book. Several times during the writing process, I'd forgotten what color eyes or hair my heroine had. Having it written down in an easy to find source will help your characters remain true to themselves.
  • The better you know your characters, the better your writing will be. We are all mixtures of good and evil, scars and handicaps (some emotional); so don't create perfect characters. A good novel is what's going on inside the character and how they react to change.
  • Get a book on color tones so that you know what colors your characters should wear (i.e. winter, spring, summer or fall).
  • Get pictures of your characters from whatever source you can. Magazines, photographs and drawings can be great resources. When you find a representation of what you picture in your mind how your character looks, glue it onto a sheet of paper and file it in your notebook along with their character chart.
  • Remember, villains must have some good in them and the hero some bad.
  • Frequently your character's weakest traits will be why they change in the end, and the strongest traits will often get them in trouble the most.
  • The more different your characters, the less boring your stories will be.

Now let's look at a basic character chart. This not only helps you remember what your character looked like, but some basics about them. This can be as detailed as you wish. I've known writers who write as many as fifty pages on their characters before they begin their book. Again, remember that this isn't a set formula. You need to develop writing habits that suit your writing style, not someone else's. But a basic character chart will help you build believable characters your readers will either love or hate.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _


1. Name of Book
2. Name of Character
3. What is this character's role in the book?
4. Age
5. Height
6. Weight
7. Hair Color
8. Color of eyes
9. Scars, handicaps (physical, mental, emotional)
10. Sense of humor - describe
11. Basic nature
12. What does this character want most (their goal)?
13. Philosophy of life
14. Hobbies
15. Kinds of music, art, reading preferred
16. Favorite colors
17. Educational background
18. Work experience/occupation
19. Best friend
20. Enemies and why
21. Family background (economic, social, nationality, religious, parents)
22. Description of home (physical, emotional atmosphere)
23. What are this character's strengths?
24. What are this character's weaknesses?
25. Sees themself as…
26. Seen by others as…
27. Most important thing to know about the character
28. How does character react when in the following situations: angry, sad, happy


Unless speech gets too long, keep speaker's actions/words in one paragraph and change paragraphs when speaker/actor changes.

Some people are teaching not to use the word said at all. The result is an annoying book filled with ‘clever' verbs like "retorted", "screamed", "joked" etc. Your writing should be strong enough so the mood of the speaker doesn't have to be explained. It is best to intersperse "said" with other tags and "beats."

Beats are sentences that break up a dialogue, usually showing action or emotion rather than telling them to the reader.

Here is an example of poorly written dialogue:

"This can't be right. My son is a good boy," Mattie insisted. "You don't believe this, do you, Mister?"
"Name's Braydon, Ma'am. Cyrus Braydon. It's not for me to judge whether it's true or not," he spat out.
"Then why are you looking for him?" She asked, warily. Then the man's purpose for standing on her doorstep came to her. "You're a bounty hunter, aren't you?"
"Answer me!" she shouted angrily.
"Yes, I'm a bounty hunter," he said.
She began to cry. "It's not true! Not one word of it! It's all lies!" she shouted at him.

Below is the same dialogue the way it appears in my WIP, The Plight of Mattie Gordon. Notice how the emotions are more intense, and the reader gets a clearer picture of how Mattie reacts to this news about her son. I deleted all tags and didn't use "said," but used beats instead.

"This…" Her voice became barely more than a whisper. She put her hand to her forehead to rub away the ache forming there. "This can't be right. My son is a good boy."
She looked into the stranger's eyes and saw something that hadn't been there before. Was it compassion? "You don't believe this, do you, Mister?"
"Name's Braydon, Ma'am." The man tipped his hat. "Cyrus Braydon. It's not for me to judge whether it's true or not."
Mattie helped herself to the rocking chair. "Then why are you looking for him?" With all the force of a locomotive, the realization of the man's purpose slammed her. "You're a bounty hunter, aren't you?"
Mattie's anger rose within her, and her breathing became shallow and rapid. She wanted to kick him and his calm resolve.
"Answer me!" She jumped to her feet and faced him squarely.
"Yes, I'm a bounty hunter."
Hot tears now stung her eyes and began rolling down her cheeks. "It's not true! Not one word of it! It's all lies!" She plopped backward into the rocking chair.

This is easier to do when there are only two people speaking, but when you have three or more characters talking together, you will need to help the reader keep straight who's saying which line. You can do this with tags and beats. "Said" is not a bad word, and sometimes is the best way of communicating who is speaking.

Once in a while, you don't even need tags. Consider the following example:

"Thanks. How much longer is it going to take?"
Cyrus plopped down beside her on the grass and she sat up. He looked everywhere but at her.
"Cyrus, did you hear me?"
"Yes. I heard."
"Is something wrong?"
"No. I'm thinking."
"About what?"
"About how I'm going to tell you what I need to tell you."
Mattie looked at him and frowned. "I've trusted you with the whereabouts of my son. Now it's your turn to trust me."

You knew exactly who was speaking, and to put "he said" and "she quipped" would have slowed down the scene and made it cumbersome to read. Whenever you can write dialogue without tags and beats, do it. The pace of your novel will flow better.

Unless one particular character's speech gets too long, keep the speaker's actions and words in a separate paragraph and change paragraphs when the speaker or actor changes.

Another quandary beginners find themselves in is whether or not to put thoughts in quotation marks. The answer is no. If the thought is a direct deliberation, use italics to set it apart from the rest of the story.

Tammy ran to her room and slammed the door behind her. How dare he say that to me! I've never lied to him in my life! She plopped onto her bed, allowing the hot tears to sting her eyes.

Another way to write thoughts is to place them into interior monologue. Switch from the action happening now to the character's thoughts without sudden changes.

Tammy ran to her room and slammed the door behind her. How dare he say that to her! She'd never lied to him before in her life. She plopped onto her bed, allowing the hot tears to sting her eyes.

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