As I sat down to write this article—and to cull through all the tips I’ve learned through my many years and sixty-plus novels as a writer—I tried to think about which ones would have been most helpful to my rookie self.
It wasn’t easy—because the list is long, and every single thing I’ve learned has allowed me to grow and mature in my use of words and in my storytelling.
But if I have to choose among them, the following are certainly among the top three.
Two caveats first, though. These tips are predicated on the assumption that every writer knows how important it is to get the basics of grammar, punctuation, formatting, spelling, etc. right. The fastest way to turn off an editor or agent is to submit a manuscript rife with problems in these fundamental areas. Right or wrong, their conclusion will be that if you don’t know enough—or care enough—to send in a technically clean manuscript, you’re not going to know the basics of storytelling, either.
So don’t shoot yourself in the foot by neglecting these basics.
The other caveat? I’m assuming everyone out there knows that one of the premier rules in fiction is to show, don’t tell. So I won’t repeat that here.
Now, on to the three tips I wish I’d known as a beginning novelist.
First—start in right place.
What, you may ask, is the right place? It’s the moment when everything changes for one or both of the main characters. The precipitating incident that launches the story. Reader should immediately find themselves in the middle of that moment, which lets them know something big is at stake—and that nothing may ever be the same again for the characters involved.
Bottom line, the first sentence or paragraph should compel the reader to keep reading to find out what is going on and what will happen next.
Why is this important?
Well…according to a survey I read some time ago, 95% of editors and agents make their decision about a book in the first seven pages.
To be honest, I think readers decide more quickly. In this fast-paced era we live in, I doubt authors have more than a paragraph or two to catch a reader’s interest.
So use those early lines to suck readers in and give them a reason to keep reading.
How does this work in practical terms? Let me give you two examples, from the two genres in which I write—romantic suspense and contemporary romance.
Here’s the opening line from my most recent suspense novel, Point of Danger:
“The package was ticking.”
If that line doesn’t compel readers to keep reading, I don’t know what would!
And here’s the opening line from my new contemporary romance, Blackberry Beach:
“The mystery woman was back.”
In both cases, those lines capture a precipitating incident and leave readers wondering what will happen next—which encourages them to keep reading.
This is also a good rule to follow for chapter and scene endings. Leave readers with a question or a cliffhanger that induces them to keep reading to find the answer or the outcome. Make it hard for them to put the book down.
Second tip: Never take readers out of the story.
I see this mistake a lot with rookie writers, who often do a data dump of backstory or other information. In suspense novels, I’ve seen authors insert an explanation about a piece of equipment or a government agency—at which point the action comes to a dead stop.
Those kind of data dumps disrupt the narrative flow, hit the pause button on the action, and slow the story down. They’re also very jarring for readers, who have to shift gears and leave the story behind to absorb the information.
Again, bad news.
Authors should always do their best to keep readers fully engaged every minute.
So how do you convey important information or backstory?
First, only weave it in as needed, in bits and pieces. A character’s history, for example, can be fed to readers here and there as the story progresses. It doesn’t have to be downloaded in one fell swoop. And both backstory and technical information should be provided in the context of the action taking place in the scene.
For example, in my suspense novel In Harm’s Way, some paranormal phenomenon seems to be going on, including psychometry—the ability to read the history of an object and its owners by holding it. Most readers aren’t familiar with that, so I needed to explain it—along with the scientific opinion about such occurrences. Rather than doing a data dump, I had the hero discuss it with a psychologist, allowing the information to come naturally as part of a dialogue exchange.
And dialogue brings me to my third tip. Rather than resort to narrative, use as much dialogue as possible to advance the plot, deepen characterizations, and share background information. Dialogue keeps the story active and immediate and helps the reader feel engaged and in the middle of the action. Many readers skim through a book before buying it—and plentiful dialogue is a selling point.
Before we leave dialogue behind, one other suggestion. Make limited use of dialogue tags (he said/she said). Most of the time they’re not needed, especially in conversations between two people. Those extra words slow the pace.
There will, of course, be times when a tag is needed to clarify who’s speaking, especially during a long exchange or in a scene with multiple characters. But rather than resort to dialogue tags, think of those situations as an opportunity to give readers an insight into the speaker’s character.
For example…rather than this:
“No way am I getting anywhere close to Heather Callahan,” Jake said.
“‘No way am I getting anywhere close to Heather Callahan.’ Jake shoved the leftover chili in the microwave and slammed the door, stroking the yellow lab at his side when the dog flinched at the noise.”
In neither example is Jake happy with Heather Callahan, but in the second version readers not only find out who is speaking, they get an insight into Jack’s character—his comforting gesture toward his dog suggests he has a kind heart. (Also a good example of show, don’t tell.)
So there you have it. Three tips I wish I’d learned years earlier. I can’t guarantee they’ll make you a bestseller—but I can promise they’ll make you a better writer!
Irene Hannon is the bestselling author of more than fifty novels, including Hope Harbor, Sea Rose Lane, Sandpiper Cove, Pelican Point, Driftwood Bay, and Starfish Pier, as well as Point of Danger and the Code of Honor, Private Justice, and Men of Valor suspense series. Her books have been honored with three coveted RITA Awards from Romance Writers of America, and she is a member of that organization’s elite Hall of Fame. Her many other awards include National Readers’ Choice, Daphne du Maurier, Retailers’ Choice, Booksellers’ Best, Carol, and Reviewers’ Choice from RT Book Reviews magazine, which also honored her with a Career Achievement Award for her entire body of work. In addition, she is a two-time Christy Award finalist. Learn
more at www.irenehannon.com.