The Style Rules of Writing Fiction

After spending so much of my business career writing reports, books and letters in a plain style of English, writing fiction for the first time was quite a challenge for me. If you’re contemplating writing your own novel for the first time, you might be struggling with the same kind of issues. Below I’ve set out some of the principal style rules of writing fiction. They’re not exactly rules; as Barbossa said in Pirates of the Caribbean said, they’re “more what you’d call guidelines”. But if you don’t understand the guidelines, and why they are there, you won’t get very far.

Point of view.

When writing a novel, a writer needs to choose a point of view and normally stick to it. I touched on point of view in my last blog. It’s probably one of the main differences between writing fiction and non fiction. A fiction writer has a choice to narrate a story from perspective of a number of different points of view, and the choice that he/she makes will have a profound effect on the way the story is told. The key question is ‘who is telling the story?’ Is it written from the perspective of the author themselves as an objective narrator, or is the story being told from the perspective of one or more main characters in the story? Where the story is written in the first person (I/we) it will always be told through the eyes of the main character narrating the story. This is useful when the author wants to reveal the inner dialogue and feelings of the main character and build empathy for the character; but it is restrictive in that the writer cannot reveal what the main character does not see or experience themselves. Therefore, the main character has to be present in every scene. When the story is written in the third person (he/she), it is still possible for the writer to reveal the thoughts and inner dialogue of the main character in a scene if that’s what the writer wants to do. This is called limited third party point of view, or sometimes third party subjective point of view . Each scene could have a different point of view character depending on who was the main character in that scene. But the scene could also be written from the perspective of some detached objective observer without looking intot the heads of any of the characters. This latter objective third party point of view is a kind of cinematic viewpoint where the reader is given a cold objective view of characters and the reader has to make their own mind up about what the characters might be thinking. Lastly, there is an omniscient third party point of view, less common among fiction today, where the point of view expressed is some invisible god-like all-knowing narrator who can see into the minds of all the characters and comment on their behaviour. No particular point of view is necessary right or wrong. But the choice the writer makes will have a profound effect on the way the story is told.

Dialogue.

A writer should use concise and effective dialogue. Good dialogue should have the purpose of advancing the story, developing character, or creating dramatic tension; it shouldn’t be used as an information dump. Good dialogue has been described as conversational English, but with the boring parts removed. The normal convention is to start each piece of new dialogue as a new paragraph, so it is obvious when someone new is speaking. Dialogue tags (he/she said) should be used to distinguish who is speaking. Avoid descriptive tags such as ‘shrieked’, ‘shouted’, ‘exclaimed’, ‘groaned’, ‘whimpered’ and other similar sounding words. A simple tag such as ‘said’ will normally suffice. The reason is that even when ‘said’ is repeated, it is relatively invisible to the reader’s eye. Other speech tags tend to stand out too much, and duplicate what should be obvious from the dialogue. Where a paragraph starts with a character action (or beat) (e.g. ‘He turned towards her.’), it is presumed the following dialogue relates to the same character and a dialogue tag is not necessary. Good use of beats is therefore a way reducing the number of speech tags. Also if there are only two characters present and it is obvious which character is peaking a speech tag is unnecessary.

Contractions.

In fiction contractions such as shouldn’t, it’s, I’ll etc are all quite acceptable. In the business world it would be unusual to see them at all. Similar, certain grammatical constructions normally avoided in business English can be relaxed in writing fiction, when it is seems natural to do so. So starting a sentence with a conjunction such as and or but or ending a sentence with a preposition such as on is acceptable. But don’t over do it.

Adverbs

Good fiction writers tend to minimise the use of adverbs (words generally ending –ly). Why? Because there is usually a stronger verb that is more effective. For example, ‘The man ran quickly’ could be written ‘The man sprinted, or darted’. Also when used as part of speech tags, adverbs can overstate the obvious. For example: ‘Well so what if I did!’ he shouted loudly. He said would suffice; the adverb loudly adds nothing to the meaning.

Punctuation

Good punctuation and good grammar are much the same in fiction and non-fiction. But don’t be tempted to use punctuation for dramatic effect. Exclamation marks should be used sparingly and multiple exclamation marks should never be used.
That’s the end of my list of style ‘rules’ that are different from business English. I am sure there are more. Feel free to comment.

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