Writing fiction: What skills make a writer's work better?

What Are the Qualities of Good Fiction Writing?

What Are the Qualities of Good Fiction Writing?

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Dec. 9 2014 7:51 AM

What Are the Qualities of Good Fiction Writing?

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Can anyone be a good writer?

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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Answer by Graeme Shimmin, author of A Kill in the Morning:

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Anyone can be a good writer. Most people have imagination, and most people have an idea for a story. What most people can't do is tell the story in a way that people want to hear.

Unlike a lot of writers, I take the view that anyone can be taught to write at least reasonably good fiction, because getting to that level is largely a matter of avoiding “schoolboy errors” that are easily understood. It takes a lot of work, but if you're prepared to work hard and listen to feedback, then you can be a good writer. If you aren't prepared to work hard and listen to feedback, then you may as well stop reading.

I tend to divide writing that I review into four levels: beginner, amateur, intermediate, expert. To me, if your writing is at the expert level, then you are good writer, though that sure as hell doesn't mean you don't make mistakes or you've got nothing to learn.

I'm going to try to distinguish in practical terms what makes a good fiction writer stand out from a beginner or amateur—and it's all down to what kinds of mistakes they make.

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Beginner-level mistakes

Beginner-level issues are things like not being able to punctuate properly, overusing exclamation marks, shifting tenses, and not formatting paragraphs properly. I won't consider these further. When I see issues like that in someone's work, I normally advise him that he needs to get Self-Editing for Fiction Writers or a similar guide to grammar and editing.

Amateur-level mistakes

These are the kinds of issues I often see at my writing group or on YouWriteOn. They're easily done and pretty easy to fix. They include:

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  • Unclear speaker attribution
  • Using clichés and hackneyed phrases (e.g. "knife through butter").
  • Run-on sentences
  • Too many adverbs and weak verbs
  • Strings of adjectives
  • Too much internal monologue 
  • Too many passive sentences
  • Using obscure tenses
  • Unnecessary explanation ("As you know, Bob ... ")
  • Using superlatives rather than more precise descriptive words
  • Not controlling point of view
  • Commonplace dialogue ("Hi, how are you?" "Fine.")
  • Telling not showing ("Bob was a funny guy.")
  • Too much dialogue, not enough description
  • Flowery writing or overwriting
  • Repetition of words or phrases
  • Mixed, forced, or jarring similes and metaphors
  • Too visual or audio, not enough of other senses
  • Authorial intrusion or bald exposition

Once you've got past those kind of issues, you can write stuff that at least some people will want to read. The writing will flow to an extent. The reader should be able to suspend disbelief and engage with the story without being stopped by the writing.

Intermediate-level (and above) mistakes

The next step is to take your reader on a worthwhile journey. Here's a list of possible problems to check your story for that might make that journey an unsatisfying one for the reader:

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  • Too much backstory before the inciting incident (this is the No. 1 problem I see in otherwise good stories)
  • Protagonist too eager or things being too easy.
  • Lurching tone ("Is is a comedy or a thriller?")
  • Loose ends ("What happened to Joe? He just disappeared in Chapter 10.")
  • Saggy second act
  • Digression
  • One pace (nonstop action)
  • Relying on deus ex machina to resolve the plot
  • Plot unfocused or the premise is unclear
  • Characters don’t change.
  • Weak themes
  • Weakly defined characters
  • Stakes too low or characters too dull
  • Setups not handled correctly ("Where did his radio come from?")
  • Plot too obvious ("I saw the ending coming miles off.")
  • Plot too convoluted
  • Believability ("It seemed a bit crazy.")
  • Character motivations not personal enough
  • Plot and character not entwined
  • Lacks emotional highs and lows
  • Unoriginal or clichéd plot
  • Stereotypical characters.
  • Plot holes

At this level, the issues are a bit subjective. For example, the line between being “too obvious” and “too convoluted” is more about the reader than the writer and more of a question of what audience you want to appeal to.

Getting published

If you are at the level where you have nailed the amateur mistakes and are addressing the intermediate issues, then you're probably as good a writer as anyone and ready to start trying to get published. Plenty of books get published with plot holes. (For example, and some people feel my book, A Kill in the Morning, gets a bit unbelievable toward the end.) Still, you are probably 90 percent there and writing publishable work.

That last 10 percent that takes you from a good writer to a published writer isn't really about the quality of your work. It's about luck, contacts, and persistence.

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