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Always give them a compelling reason to keep reading. They have a thousand alternatives—why should they read your book? Give them uncertainty and create anticipation. “What’s next?” keeps them turning the pages. Predictability is fatal. (Figure out the parts readers will skip over, then cut them out.)
Fill your novel with conflict. If there’s no conflict, there’s no plot. No one wants to read about flawless blissful people whose lives are just peachy. It’s not real. Great fiction raises moral dilemmas, good versus evil, where the character goes through gut-wrenching setbacks before victory. (e.g. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. The all-time best-seller is the Bible; it’s full of conflict, failure, and truth—the tragedy of Christ’s death followed by his resurrection victory and awaited triumphant return.)
Create at least one unforgettable character. Forgettable characters make forgettable stories. Plot, setting and characterization are the greatest elements of fiction, but the most important is characterization. There are plot-driven novels and character-driven novels, but while most plots aren’t remembered in detail, great characters are-Scarlet O’Hara, Captain Ahab, Huckleberry Finn, Sherlock Holmes, even Darth Vader. In my novels, memorable characters are Little Finn (Deadline), Obadiah Abernathy (Dominion) and Shad (Edge of Eternity).
Make sure your central characters are three dimensional, round not flat. Characters shouldn’t disappear when they turn sideways. In a short story, you can show just one side of a character, e.g. his anger or determination or fear. In a novel, if he’s the viewpoint character, you have to show (not tell) his intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual sides, including his fatal flaws. Characters shouldn’t be props or puppets or robots. (What makes Data, the Star Trek android, so intriguing?) Three dimensional characters don’t just serve the plot, they drive the plot—e.g. Captain Ahab & Scarlet O’Hara. Ask yourself, “Is my main character someone I’d want to spend 300 pages with?” If readers don’t care about the character, they don’t care what happens to her-so plot no longer matters.
Don’t just construct characters, create them. As we are created by God as whole and unique human beings, a character is a living whole, not just a collection of traits. She must be more than the sum of her parts. Characters are real—they have backstories, histories, childhoods, events that shaped them. The writer must know all the details even though he won’t pass them all on. If the character is not real to the author he’ll never be real to the reader. Try to create memorable “tags” for your characters. Fred Holevas, former Barlow VP, was described in the Oregonian as “Dirty Harry with the heart of Mother Teresa.”
Show, don’t tell. ”Jacob was strong-minded and argumentative; Marguerite was painfully shy.” That’s laziness. Don’t tell it, show it. Character and mood is shown in action and conflict and dialogue. If you show Jacob being argumentative, you don’t have to tell the reader he’s argumentative! (Examples of character development through action and dialogue in Dominion: Clarence Abernathy, pages 9-10; Obadiah Abernathy, pages 350-353.)
Be specific, not general; concrete, not vague. Don’t say “He held a gun,” but “He slowly raised a .38 Smith and Wesson revolver, admiring his reflection in the stainless steel.” The more specific, the more real. Don’t say, “A man walked into the room and ordered a drink.” Say, “The one-legged red headed dwarf marched up to the bar and ordered a Bloody Mary.” Detail requires more time and thought and research. But a believable story is the payoff. (For character detail, see Chaim Potok’s The Chosen.)
Never compromise on research. It’s the reservoir from which you draw your story, so make sure the reservoir is full! And be sure you get the facts right—e.g. don’t put a safety on a revolver, or the wrong size engine in a 1972 Chevy Impala. Don’t believe the myth, “It’s fiction, so you can just make up the details.” Every factual error loses readers-why should they trust you? Always run it by experts.
Don’t ever let readers see the “strings.” They will if someone acts out of character. Actions must be credible—when you have a surprising dramatic action, make sure you’ve built a sufficient foundation for it. The climactic action scene in Deadline requires Jake to be a certain kind of person-stubborn, proud, strong, brave, a battle-experienced veteran from Vietnam. Otherwise the scene wouldn’t be believable. The climactic scene in Dominion requires that Clarence be angry and capable of revenge and violence. The surprise ending of Edge of Eternity demanded that I plant related evidence earlier in the book.
Define your character through dialogue; make your dialogue authentic, but concise. Don’t let all your characters sound alike. Unless they’re stiff and formal, be sure they use contractions, like real people do-”Let’s,” not “Let us,” “can’t,” not “cannot.” Make sure dialogue sounds true to life, but make it more concise than real dialogue. (Spoken dialogue is wordy, repetitive and boring when reduced to writing.) Don’t bootleg into dialogue information you want the reader to know, but characters wouldn’t ever say.
Resist the urge to explain. (R.U.E.) One of the greatest writing mistakes, especially of beginning fiction writers, is over-explanation. (See Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Browne & King, pages 8-10.) Strive for subtlety. Don’t explain everything to readers. Let them figure it out-they want to. Avoid prolonged internal monologue—”Here’s what’s going on, dear reader, in case you’re too dumb to figure it out.” Don’t interrupt dialogue with explanation and commentary. Not “Please be quiet,’ he said angrily,” but “Shut your mouth or I’ll shut it for you.” (Now you don’t need the adverb “angrily.”)
Stay invisible; avoid all author intrusion—it pulls readers out of the story. Imagine watching a play in which the director stops the action and comes out on stage, points to the characters and says, “See, she loves him, but he doesn’t realize it; he’s still thinking about his old girl friend. Get it?!” Writing is like the Wizard of Oz—the guy behind the curtain doesn’t want to be seen! Don’t try to impress the reader with your vocabulary—he’ll know you’re there. When you keep using the same phrase (e.g. “a thin smile”), readers start thinking about you, not your story. Now the magic is broken-the story’s not real.
Rewrite again and again. First drafts are the lump of clay, repeated revisions shape it into art. Someone asked Hemmingway why he rewrote an ending 37 times. His answer was, “to get the words right.” Beginnings and endings are critical-and middles are extremely important too! Don’t lower the bar. Don’t think editors or readers won’t notice whether you’ve done six rewrites or only one. It will show up. Consciously or unconsciously they’ll sense how much work you put into this. Search for the perfect word, maybe a surprising one—it makes the setting, the character, the action real. Don’t say “the sky was dark gray,” but “the sky looked like it had been rubbed hard with a dirty eraser.” Some pages will be better than others, but every page will be good, because a good writer won’t tolerate anything less.
Don’t buy the myth that writing is easy. It’s not. I heard one author say, “Writing is like giving birth to barbed wire.” Writing is 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration. Many books that are hard to write are easy to read. Books that were easy to write are invariably hard to read. Some writers seem so natural, so effortless. Don’t be fooled. It takes a lot of effort to appear effortless. With everything else competing for your reader’s attention, you must work to earn it. Rewriting and laboring over words is difficult. Many people say they want to write a book, but what they really want is to have written a book. Big difference!
Write to bring the reader to an “ah-ha” experience, where some new and important perspective or value emerges. People are reading for escape and entertainment, sure, but also for enlightenment, to fill some inner voids, to come back better prepared to face “the real world.” A test of depth and substance is whether a book lends itself to rereading. C.S. Lewis said that the best book is the one you want to read again and again. Try to write a story that doesn’t yield up all its treasures in the first reading.