Great Fiction Comes From Writing Lightly

Great fiction appears effortless to the reader. The characters and setting are so real, the story so believable, that the reader is completely unaware of the author behind the words. The smoothness of the text belies the hours of hard work and practice that went into its creation. The authors who achieve invisibility have learned the art of writing lightly; of subtly inserting so much information into the story without adding any new words that the book can’t help but spring to life. Here are some tips to help you write lightly too: Work hard on your opening paragraphs.

Regardless of the age you’re writing for, your first one or two paragraphs set the tone for the entire book. They introduce the main character, point of view, setting, mood, and sometimes the story conflict. The story starts in these first paragraphs– not two or three pages down the road. Grab your reader instantly rather than boring him or her with unimportant background information.

Make your dialogue work for you. Good written dialogue contains the essence of speech, not conversation as it happens in real life. Dispense with the clutter and make your dialogue count. Dialogue should give a sense of the personality of the speaker (through word choices and speech patterns), move the story along (have your characters talk about what’s happening in the book, or what they’re going to do next), and contribute to the visual imagery of the story. The latter can be achieved with “stage directions”; gestures or movements by the speakers, physical reactions of the listeners, or other action that’s happening during the conversation. Break up long stretches of dialogue with action or attach stage directions to the dialogue itself (“I can’t leave now,” she whispered as she parted the curtains and peered down the dark street). Remember, how someone speaks and what they’re doing as they talk all give clues to their emotional state, thus adding layers of meaning to the spoken words.

Choose verbs wisely. Well-chosen verbs can also add meaning to a sentence. How someone moves can show what they’re thinking or feeling. Just as importantly, specific verbs allow you to communicate a scene exactly to the reader. If the wind is blowing outside, your reader won’t know if it’s a good day to fly a kite or if a storm is approaching. However, if that wind explodes through the valley, there’s no room for doubt. Know your setting. Even if your setting doesn’t play a main role in the story, it’s a good idea to have details set in your own mind. What does your main character’s room look like? How big a house does she live in? Does she walk to school or ride the bus? These details will find their way into your story, and add life to the book.

Only tell the reader what he or she has to know. This is important for any age of fiction, but it’s most often abused in picture book manuscripts. Your story takes place during a certain time frame–an extraordinary period in your character’s life. Use only those characters necessary to tell this story; introduce events, conflicts, situations that apply directly to this time frame. If a traumatic childhood incident affects your 15-year-old character’s relationship with her father, then it’s necessary. If her losing the spelling bee in fourth grade means nothing to her now, leave it out.

Write as you talk. You can admire and study other authors, but don’t try to imitate them. The best way to achieve your unique writing style is to write as you talk. Don’t search for words you’d never use in ordinary conversation. Author Stephen King said, “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word.”

Don’t worry about getting too complex with your writing either. Long, complicated sentences filled with dashes and semicolons, or descriptive paragraphs full of flowery prose won’t appeal to your audience. The trick, when composing your first draft, is not to think too much. Norma Fox Mazer, author of over 20 books, said she wears a hat with the brim pulled low over her eyes when writing a first draft. That way she can see her keyboard but not the computer screen, preventing her from getting “housewifey” and wanting to clean up the text. During the revision process you can choose your words more carefully, but if you find yourself stretching for a phrase or description, ask your-self if you’d ever use that in real life. If you were telling this story out loud, how would you tell it and what words would you choose? In the end, it all boils down to writing simply, directly, and making every word count. It doesn’t always come naturally, but if you practice the above techniques your writing will also achieve a light touch.

Laura Backes is the publisher of Children’s Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children’s Writers. For more information about writing children’s books, including free articles, market tips, insider secrets and much more, visit Children’s Book Insider’s home on the web at

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