Fiction Writing Basics

I’m in a number of online writing communities and many of them have beginners, setting out on their fiction writing journeys. I see very basic questions posted in these venues and frequently, the poster will use incorrect terminology. I’ll explain some terms that will be helpful to new writers.

First, some common acronyms:

  • WIP: Work In Progress. Whatever you’re currently writing.
  • POV: Point of View. This is a complex subject, but for starters, you should know it’s who’s telling the story. A first person narrative would read like this: “Hello,” I said to John as he entered my room. Third person, basically, is: “Hello,” Jane said to John as he entered her room. There’s a lot more to POV, but that’s your one paragraph introduction.
  • YA: Young adult. A marketing category of fiction.
  • HEA: Happily ever after. A term used for how romance novels must end. (Or alternately, HFN: happy for now.)

There are other terms you should learn:

  • Dialog: That’s the stuff in quotes. The convention is to use double quotes (“) but I’ve seen an author use single quotes (‘). Please don’t do that. “Hello,” Jane said. Not: ‘Hello,’ Jane said. (I know in some countries, the standard is to use single quotes for dialog. Even if you feel compelled to publish a version of your work with single quotes in those countries, it’s still a good idea to write with double quotes if you intend to publish in North America or any other double quote country. Search and replace can easily convert doubles to singles, but not the reverse due to single quotes used in contractions and for possessives.)
  • Dialog tags: These let the reader know who is speaking. “Hello,” Jane said. The tag is: Jane said. The preferred syntax is to put the name first, then the tag word. And 90%+ of your tags should be said or asked. (Assuming past tense narrative. Present tense would be: say/says or ask/asks.) Other standard tags that can be used as needed include: whispered, shouted, continued, replied. Don’t get creative with tags. Stick to said most of the time.
  • Tense: Speaking of tense, that’s another decision you must make as you write. Most conventional fiction is written in past tense and that is what beginners should start with. Some readers won’t read present tense at all. But due to its high prevalence, readers are used to past tense.
  • Narrative: The rest of the prose that’s not dialog. Such as: It was a dark and stormy night.
  • Genre: the type of fiction you are writing. Examples include: Romance, science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction. These should not be confused with marketing categories, such as YA.
  • Adult: a marketing category of fiction, not to be confused with the same term applied to films. Adult films are generally understood to contain sexual material. Adult bookstores sell sexual material. Adult books, as a marketing category, don’t have the same sexual connotation. They may, or may not, have explicit material. It simply means the book is written to be consumed by people who are adults, mainly because younger readers would not find it of interest, necessarily.
  • Plotter: A writer who outlines a story before writing it.
  • Pantser: (as in seat of the pants) is a writer who discovers the story while writing it.
  • Short story, novella, novelette, novel: These are terms that refer to the length of the work. For word counts, use an internet search.

Fiction writing conventions are the subjects of whole books. Keep in mind that this post is to introduce you to the subjects just enough to give you the terms you can use in search engines. Also, before you post questions on social media, do an internet search. I’m surprised how many people post simple questions that can easily be found in a matter of seconds through a search.

The most basic writing conventions follow:

  • Use paragraphs. This may seem obvious, but some beginners mess this up.
  • When writing a scene with dialog, don’t have more than one person speaking within the paragraph. A new speaker gets a new paragraph.
  • For the answer to almost every possible question you can have on the style conventions, you will want to see The Chicago Manual of Style. You can learn things like, book titles should be italicized.

Additional advice for beginners:

  • Read the type of books you want to write (if they exist), or the closest you find.
  • Learn the conventions of the genre. If you write romance, you must have a HEA, or a HFN ending. Fantasy almost always has magic. A mystery has a dead person. You don’t have to write to the genre, but don’t call it a romance if you don’t follow the rules.
  • Plotter and pantser are not either or. Most writers fall somewhere along a spectrum, but early on, experiment with them and see what works for you.
  • Developing a habit of writing probably will make you more productive. Writing just 200 words per day will get you a draft of a novel in a year.
  • The first novel you write will likely be crap. Write it anyway. Writing a lot is one of the cornerstones of becoming a good writer.
  • What works for one author might not work for you. Be open to finding what works best for you.
  • There are a lot of scammers out there trying to make money off of hopeful writers. Before you spend money on something, do get a reality check. This is where social media can be helpful. Remember, if it sounds too good to be true…
  • Have fun! If you don’t enjoy writing, experiment with ways to make it more fun. And if you just can’t find joy in it, that’s okay. You don’t have to be a writer.
  • Most writers don’t make any significant money writing, let alone enough to live on. Don’t do it for money. Do it because you have a story to tell and a need to tell it.