How to Write Fiction
6 Key Categories

How to Write Fiction can't be learned from the bottom up.

One can't start with diagramming sentences and the structure of paragraphs any more than one can start with characterization or dialogue and simply work up from there - not if one expects to get anywhere.

That approach would be like trying to learn how to build a house by studying nails and boards.

One must start at the top with the broad concepts and then gradiently work down into the details. How to Write Fiction

Even Michel Angelo started a canvas with the broad strokes of the subject rather than painting in each blade of grass.

But what are the "broad strokes" of how to write fiction? How to Write Fiction
When we examine the subject of fiction writing, we find it subdivides easily into 6 major sub-categories.

  1. Correct Nomenclature
  2. Correct Valuable Final Product
  3. Correct Tools
  4. Correct Raw Materials
  5. Correct Sequences
  6. Correct Techniques

We have to put "correct" in there because one could have the wrong nomenclature, product, tools, etc. and cause themselves a lot of problems. How to Write Fiction
And what makes any theory "correct" in any given category of how to write fiction and the others "wrong"?

Any theory would only be correct to the degree that they work in regards to achieving the Valuable Final Product. How to Write Fiction

It is understood then, that acquiring workable theories and practices is only the start, as one must thereafter continuously work to refine those theories and practices to increase the quantity and quality of the product, while improving the economy of its delivery.

This is the core of learning how to write fiction.

Now let's examine each of these categories to see what they're about. How to Write Fiction
Learning how to write fiction - relies on knowing the key words of the subject.

1. Correct Nomenclature

Every subject has its nomenclature. "Nomenclature" is the collection of concepts expressed in words used to talk about the subject. The more proficiency one wishes to attain in a subject, the greater the quantity of nomenclature and the more precisely those words must be defined and understood.

Consider, for example, a carpenter who builds houses compared to a homeowner who only occasionally uses a hammer to hang pictures. They both use hammers; however the carpenter has a much more refined concept of a "hammer" and its many uses than the homeowner. How to Write Fiction

Just as the writer must have a much larger assortment of tools and their associated words than a reader - certainly if he ever hopes to learn how to write fiction - that sells.

The carpenter will have and be expert in the use of a dozen different hammers -- each designed and constructed for different specific tasks.

He will have everything from a small 5-ounce "finish hammer" for driving small nails into molding to a large 8-pound "sledge hammer" for demolishing walls -- and he will have a selection of specialized hammers in between.

And each of these "tools" has a different name. And even the parts of the tools each have names. Proficiency in the use of the tool starts with knowing and understanding its different components -- and that starts with knowing their names.

The homeowner, however, can get along quite nicely with only one concept of "hammer" and only one physical instrument. He will get along fine, that is, right up to the point where he attempts to use that little picture-hanging-hammer of his to do something it was not designed for -- like building a fence, or a dog house. How to Write Fiction

So it is with words relating to how to write fiction and the concepts they embody.

The reader of novels can get buy very nicely throwing around a small fragment of the nomenclature of fiction writers -- because simply reading novels does not require a precise understanding of the tools used to build them. But the fiction writer must have a much greater toolbox of nomenclature, and must be expert in selecting and using the correct tool for each task.

I am repeatedly appalled at the level of ignorance aspiring writers display in the most basic words of the craft. Well, I am now, but then I remember when I was groping my way around the subject -- as dumb as a fence post and lacking even the understanding that there might be words that I needed precise definitions for. How to Write Fiction

It is for that purpose that I've constructed this website so that you, dear writer, might waste far fewer years than I did in figuring out where to start.

And the place to start is with the nomenclature.

And the word to start with in the whole pile of words regarding the subject of writing fiction is -- the word "story". For it is that single word which stands for the Valuable Final Product that the fiction writer is attempting to construct.

And only to the degree that one knows what they are trying to do -- can one go about doing it. How to Write Fiction
Learning how to write fiction relies on knowing the correct product that you're going for.

2. Correct Valuable Final Product

The same applies to understanding the "product".

A reader of novels doesn’t need any better definition of what a "story" or what a "novel" is than someone who wears shoes. He or she is quite content with defining a "shoe" as something that covers their foot.

But if one is a shoemaker then he/she better have a very refined definition of what a shoe is, as well as knowing exactly how to make shoes quickly and economically that people are willing to buy -- or he won’t be in business very long.

So it is with the "novelist". We must have a much more precise and more complete definition and understanding of the exact product that we are producing, if we expect people to actually buy the novels that we produce. The customer may not be able to explain what a good novel is, but he sure knows one when he reads it.

And if the product sucks then he not only won’t buy any more from that particular author, but he will surely caution his fiends away from making the same mistake.

Therefore, the exact identification of the product one is attempting to achieve is crucial if one ever hopes to succeed at creating it.

How to Write Fiction
This brings up a very touchy subject for many writers - Publishing.

No mater how much you write or how good it is - it's not a "product" until its in the mind and heart of a reader.

In other words - its not a product until someone reads it.

But in this day and age "publishing" is no longer a problem.

Learning how to write fiction - depends on knowing your tools.

3. Correct Tools

Every craft has its tools. In our case, as fiction writers, aside from the more obvious "tools" such as "words" a dictionary, thesaurus, spelling, grammar, or word processor there are other non-physical tools such as plot, premise, theme, etc.

These are "tools" that we use to design and construct the story that we are going to "tell" in the composition phase of our writing project.

If one thinks of the definition of "tool" as "a devise used to achieve a specific purpose or perform a specific function", then one can begin to see that there is a whole class of concepts, and the words that define them, used by writers.

For a full understanding of this topic, one needs to see the Fiction Writers Dictionary and the Article Archive.

How to Write Fiction
Learning how to write fiction - depends on having your materials.

4. Correct Raw Materials

Raw materials are what any craftsman uses to make his product from. For the shoemaker his "raw materials" would be the various kinds of leather that he cuts and shapes into shoes.

For the carpenter, "raw materials" would be the lumber and nails that he builds a house with.

By definition, therefore, raw materials are those materials that the craftsman converts by cutting, shaping and fastening together to create his finished product.

But what of the author who wants to know how to write fiction? What possible "raw materials" could we be expected to use? What material is it that we cut, shape and fasten together to make our product?

Life itself is our "raw material". The lives that people live.

Things "happen", people take actions, things occur, people act and react to what happens. These are our "raw materials". From them we cut out the trivial in order to focus the reader’s attention on what matters -- we convert these happenings into incidents by determining or assigning significance (meaning) to them. Then we sequence those incidents so that collectively they add up to not only mean something, but that they end.

Thus our sequence of incidents achieves "finality".

How to Write Fiction
Life in and of itself has no "meaning" -- it just is. Stuff happens. How to Write Fiction

It is the storyteller that assigns the meaning. It is the storyteller that says, "Look at this, observe this sequence of things happening, here is what they add up to, here is what they mean, here is the comment that this sequence makes about this thing we call life, man, truth, love, justice or a thousand other topics."

The storyteller removes everything that does not contribute to the significance he/she wishes to convey, cuts out copious amounts of time, paints special importance on specific details, sketches only enough of the remainder to make the sequence hang together and walks us along a path that leads to a specific feeling, understanding, or consideration.

Man, woman, life, cultures, the universe are the raw materials with which the fiction writer works.

As such, we fiction writers must have considerable understanding of people, plants, geography, governments, factories and what they might produce, etc., etc. In fact there is nothing that we can leave unexplored because it's all "grist for the mill", as they say.

How to Write Fiction
Learning how to write fiction - relies on knowing your sequences.

5. Correct Sequences

There is a correct sequence for doing most everything. Alter that sequence and the results usually suffer.

We are used to following directions. One of the primary components of any set of directions is the sequence of actions to follow.

Anyone that has baked a cake or assembled a bicycle is familiar with the necessity to follow the correct sequence of actions and the results if they don’t. The cake doesn’t rise, tastes "bad" or the bicycle doesn’t work and has to be taken apart and put back together -- correctly, this time.

Why then should we be surprised that there is a correct sequence for constructing something as sophisticated as a story? We would even expect to be given such a set of properly sequenced directions. They certainly come with the box of pieces that constitute a bicycle. The box even says, "Some assembly required".

Yet in all my years learning how to write fiction I never came across a set of directions. So, I was finally forced to create my own.

Could it be that the sequence for creating a story or the correct sequence in telling one doesn’t exist? Could it be that one can just sling the chapters, words, actions, and characters together any which way, in whatever sequence suits us at the time, and we will still wind up with a perfectly good story? NO! Not in a thousand years.

Despite the fact that neither you nor I ever received a set of directions for creating, designing, or composing a story -- it exists.

How to Write Fiction
A correct sequence exists for how to write fiction. It exists not because I say so but because the readers of stories say so.

Readers expect a certain thing when they plunk down their $20 to buy a novel, because they expect a certain thing when they plunk their backsides down in a chair to read what they bought.

And they get rather cantankerous when they don’t get what they expected.

We've all heard this classic definition for a story -- it has a beginning, a middle and an end. Well, that’s fine as fare as it goes, but that hardly serves as a set of directions for creating one.

That would be like telling a carpenter that the sequence for building a house is: you start nailing wood together in the morning, take a lunch break in the middle and you end when you nail the last boards together. While technically correct, as far as it goes, it’s hardly adequate to learn how to build a house.

The thing to know here is that there is not only one correct sequence - but a number of correct sequences.

Just as in building a house, there are a number of sequences and they each need to be correct if one wishes to wind up with a nice, livable house.

(See the "Elements of Fiction", item #5 "Writing is not one activity" for an overview of the 8 different areas involved in writing and selling fiction -- and realize that each of these areas have their own "Correct Sequences".)

How to Write Fiction
Learning how to write fiction - relies on having your techniques.

6. Correct Techniques

Technique, now there is a word.

The dictionary defines "technique" as "Procedure or skill required. The procedure, skill, or art used in a specific task."

And by "procedure" we mean the method or methodology.

Therefore the "correct techniques" would be, not just those specific actions that one takes, but exactly how one does them.

When it comes to how to write fiction, words sometimes fail, so let’s look at an example.

Consider for a moment a principle of effective storytelling. The writer must pull the reader through the story. That’s a good, "solid" principle because it is quite true. However correct, the statement of a "principle" it does not tell us how to go about achieving it.

From this we look to technique. For "pulling the reader through the story" there are several, but for simplicity sake let’s just consider one of them. But to get there we must first refine the principle down a little further to a procedure such as "ending each chapter with the reader hanging".

From there we can refine further to a technique, which would be a simple statement of exactly how one accomplishes this such as:

"End each chapter with the first sentence of the next chapter". That would be a technique. Or one could conceive of another technique.

"End each chapter with a sentence or phrase that hints at or implies that something is about to happen -- and the more dire the better."

So, it could look something like this:

"She knew she would never survive another attack."

Well, that leaves the reader hanging -- right.

Which is exactly where you want your reader -- hanging -- which is an excellent technique for how to write fiction.

This is an example of a technique. In and of itself it won’t make good fiction any more than the technique of "drop-setting" a nail will turn a rookie into a journeyman carpenter. But when one adds a number of correct techniques to the list above, it can turn a merely adequate performance into the truly professional.

And this is why technique comes last in the list. It’s the icing on the cake. Because icing won’t do one any good if the cake (the fundamentals) are lousy.

How to Write Fiction
Which is one of the problems that I've observed over the years with many of the books that attempt to teach how to write fiction. They focus on a few techniques while completely ignoring the fundamentals.

If you think I exaggerate -- find, if you can, any book on the subject of how to write fiction that defines the product of the fiction writer as a "story" -- let alone defines what a "story" is.

I searched for 5 decades. I rest my case.

The above is only an overview.

Each of these items is a topic unto itself regarding how to write fiction and is discussed in detail in other articles in the Archives and in the Book, Manual, and Writers Courses.

How to Write Fiction

  • If you're going to write - Publish.
  • If you're going to publish - Self Publish.
  • If you're going to Self Publish - Get The Facts before you dive in and waste a lot of time and money, and make a damn fool of yourself.

The Truth about Self Publishing

"Self Publishing – the Dangerous Opportunity"
Get this FREE 79 page Special Report

  • Separate the hype from the opportunity
  • Self Publish without getting ripped-off
  • For a limited time only
  • Download this $37 dollar value

  • *** FREE Now ***

    Self Publishing

If the info on this site helped you in any way, you can leave a tip by hitting the "donate" button below.

If you can’t afford to donate, that's OK too.

You're also welcome to pass this page along to any friends who might benefit from the information.

For those with a website or blog you can link to this site by simply copying and pasting the following paragraph:

See this site for some great info on writing fiction.

Thank You to all the writers who've donated and helped spread the word about this site over this last year. Your donations, comments and referrals are what inspire me to keep going.



© copyright 2010 - Richard A McCullough is the creator & editor of the Fiction Writers source for Writing Better Fiction Faster and Selling More of What You Write.

Copyright - you may freely republish this article, provided the text, author credit, active links and this copyright notice remain intact.

Top of "How to Write Fiction"

Back To "Fiction Writing"

Back to "Home Page"

Share this page:
Enjoy this page? Please pay it forward. Here's how...

Would you prefer to share this page with others by linking to it?

  1. Click on the HTML link code below.
  2. Copy and paste it, adding a note of your own, into your blog, a Web page, forums, a blog comment, your Facebook account, or anywhere that someone would find this page valuable.

Get Your
Free Resource Guide
For Writers

Click Here For Your Free Resource Guide For Writers