Monday, July 26, 2010

10 Steps to a Better Story

I evaluate fiction for a publisher, using the publisher's standard set of questions, with the last question being: thumbs up or down? It's a tough list of standards, and I see a pattern of common problems that keep manuscripts from being accepted. The most significant problems involve the bond between story and character. If you want an agent or editor to get past the first chapter of your story, here are 10 things to keep in mind:

1. Make your main character want something. Desire is the engine that drives both life and narrative. Characters who don’t want anything are rarely interesting.

2. Make your main character do something. Your story can start with a character who is the victim of circumstances, but afterward the character needs to move quickly into action. Readers like characters who take charge.

3. Let your readers know the story’s premise right away. If they get to the end of the first chapter and still can’t answer the question—what is the story about?—they probably won't keep reading.

4. Get conflict into the story early on. It doesn’t have to be all-out bickering or deception between characters, but let your readers know things will sticky.

5. Skip the omniscient POV. Let the reader experience as much of the story as possible through the eyes of your main character. This is how readers bond with protagonists. If you shift POVs, put in a line break.

6. Introduce characters one at a time with a little physical detail and a little background information for each. (Ella was five-eight, bone thin, and worked for IBM.) Too many characters all at once in the first few pages can be overwhelming.

7. It’s okay to tell sometimes, instead of show. Not every character reaction has to be described in gut-churning, eyebrow-lifting physical detail. Sometimes it’s okay to simply say, “Jessie panicked.”

8. Don’t over write. Nobody agrees on what constitutes good writing, so trying to make your writing stand out will probably work against you. The best writing doesn’t draw attention to itself; it just gets out of the way of the story.

9. Avoid word repetitions when you can. Read your story out loud. You’re much more likely to hear the repetitions than see them.

10. The components of a novel that readers (and publishers) care about most are, in order: story, characters, theme, setting. If you have to sacrifice something, start at the end of list. Never sacrifice the story for anything else.


L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist, editor, and the author of the Detective Jackson mysteries, The Sex Club and Secrets to Die For. Her new novel, Thrilled to Death, is available on Kindle now. She also loves to edit fiction and works with authors to keep her rates affordable. Contact her at:
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  1. Great post, L.J. I'm working on a book right now where this list will come in handy.


  2. Fantastic post- LJ. Love pratical advice like this.

  3. windeGreat list. It will be habdy for various forms of writing.
    Thanks, LJ.

  4. I wrote down every one of these points (even the extra #5). They are all things we know - sort of - but I at least rarely actively consider them when writing. I think that will be useful. Thanks for sharing :)

  5. Thanks for sharing these points, LJ! They're great to think about before starting a novel (and also when revising).

  6. Excellent tips! This should be a must-see list!

  7. Huge! Huge! Huge! Even for those of us who choose to go with a small press or self-publish, these points are equally important. We are all vying for the interest of the reader, so our method of publication has nothing to do with how to write a compelling story. L.J., this is fantastic information—a solid keeper that we all need to refer to often.

  8. Great advice. Stuff we know, tend to forget, and need to be reminded of again and again. Thanks! Christa

  9. Excellent advice, L.J.! I'm glad you mentioned it on Facebook, as I often forget to check out this great site.

    Jodie Renner

  10. What a great list! They seem to be things that writers all claim to know, but are good tips to brush up on every now and again.

  11. Good reminders, L.J., especially since I'm in that revision stage of a manuscript.

  12. Great tips. I especially like what yo said about not overwriting the book. I just stopped reading one that had that problem,. The author was trying to hard to use vivid language the story was overshadowed.

  13. That's a great list. I believe it even more because I've read a few of your books and I know you can write.

  14. What a great concise 'list'. I so appreciate your posting.

  15. This is excellent advice L.J. I think some literary writers might argue with you that "characters" should go ahead of "story" in your list.

    Word 4 Writers on HearWriteNow
    Blood-Red Pencil

  16. Dear LJ,
    Thanks for sharing such great advice in a straightforward way. Step #10 got my attention.
    I always learn something new on The Blood-Red Pencil.
    I'm going to link to this post on my blog so others can learn.
    Donna Volkenannt

  17. These are excellent tips! As a reader, I agree with them. As a writer, I'll be sure to apply them!

    Thanks for sharing!

  18. I like your straight forward list. Thanks, I'm sharing this with my FB writer friends. Plus a retweet.

  19. I saw this on Jon Gibbs' livejournal, and it was exactly what I needed. Thanks!

  20. The link was shared by a friend, and I'm glad I came by. Great post and some effective tips I tried hard to follow as I completed my latest WIP. I think I managed to adhere to most of them.

    I especially appreciated your mention that we don't always have to use explicit descriptions of the character to show their emotions. I appreciate reading a simple tag once in a while. :)

  21. Reading out loud is a great tool for finding mistakes and word repetition as you pointed out - it sometimes can give you a laugh too, as you realize how hokey it sounds.

  22. Thanks for sharing L.J. Nice check list for before, during, and after editing.

  23. On #3 I think you're right when it comes to most readers.

    For some sick reason I find it a challenge and I refuse to stop reading until I have figured out what it is about.

    Results have been mixed. Sometimes it turns out to be a really excellent story. Others a long, frustrating waste of time.

  24. What a wonderful post. I have a blog for teen writers and they could certainly use this information. Would it be alright for me to use this blog with a link back to you or would you interested in placing it on our site? We're just getting started.

  25. Great points. I especially like #7. It doesn't get touted enough.

  26. Thanks for sharing. I looked again at my outline and the leisurely pace seems laughable now!

    Great advice.

  27. Hi L.J., thanks sooo much for this list. I'm in the editing stage of a mg, and this list will really come in handy.


  28. Excellent advice, L.J. - common sense, but oh, so easy to ignore! :)

  29. I'd like to take exception to #6. It's boring to read straight description; " She was blond with blue eyes and spent her days reading Harry Potter." I say sprinkle descriptions through the conversations and narrative. For example, "She only gets away with reading her stupid Harry Potter all day because she's blond and bats her big blue eyes so Dad will fall over her like a damn puppy."

  30. Love this advice. thank you!


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