Ria is an avid writer, teacher, and current graduate student. She loves helping other creatives and soon-to-be teachers.
The best novels and novellas out there have some key elements that make them resonate with a wide range of readers. They show epic stories and complex characters who are unique and have their own goals and relationships, even if they fit an archetype that's common for the genre.
Creating a unique and riveting story takes practice, but there are some key elements that almost always win over readers. Here are tried-and-true tricks for writing better fiction, whether you're writing romance novellas or a sci-fi epic.
Don't Neglect the Supporting Cast
One of the reasons why series like Harry Potter and A Song of Ice and Fire are so popular is because everyone has a character they can root for. Not everyone can relate deeply with Harry, Ron, or Hermione, but side characters like Neville and the Weasley twins got their own fan clubs in due time.
The reason for this is because well-written supporting characters do more than move the hero's plot along. They must grow at least a little bit in their own way and even switch sides if needed. In longer stories, they should have their own high stakes at some point.
Neville was able to rise up and become stronger, even when the painful truth about his family was revealed. He helped Harry out at times, but ultimately had his own struggles and growth, even fighting with Harry at times before ending up as one of his greatest allies. Fred and George were comedic relief, but they still worked hard, opened their own store, and then joined in the final tragic fight against Voldemort.
The possibilities vary by genre, of course. Romances can have roommates, rivals, and siblings who have their own struggles and help the heroine with hers. High school dramas should allow supporting characters to experience the central conflict in their own way.
Even when the story is a hero's journey that takes place across a wide world, it's best for at least a few minor characters to persist throughout the book. In a fantasy story, traveling merchants can pop up and play a complex role at multiple points. Sci-fi stories might include mercenaries or pirate who cause problems for the heroes, yet are revealed to have similar goals and motivations.
Change Point of View
Whether you're writing third-person past tense or first-person present tense, your story could get a little dry if you're only showing one point of view. Head-hopping too frequently will leave your readers disoriented, but occasional POV switches are great for seamlessly skipping parts of the story that don't add anything to the plot.
You'll want to stick to the main handful of characters, and while you don't have to use them all equally, you also don't want to use one much less than the others. This is also a great way to help flesh out your supporting cast.
You'll have to decide for yourself whether or not you want antagonists' POV to ever be included. At the very least, though, consider including some morally-gray supporting characters or rivals' POV to add suspense and let the reader know that not everything is as it seems.
Make Your Journeys Have Obstacles
The old adage "Two steps forward, one step back" applies to fiction as well. Journeys should never be completely linear, and it's perhaps even better if the characters get booted halfway back to the starting point.
Of course, after that, it would be for boring to the characters to just retrace their steps. With their new knowledge, skills, and experiences, the characters might be able to forge a new path that gets them to their destination faster than before.
Romance stories should have plenty of minor conflicts in addition to one big misunderstanding at the plot's climax. Sci-fi and fantasy stories with long journeys should have the heroes fail spectacularly, and force them to regroup and deal with the consequences of their loss before proceeding.
Even detective stories should have plenty of subplots and small conflicts that flesh out the characters' lives, especially if they're novel-length. If the investigation goes as smoothly as an episode of CSI, your readers might just end up turning on the TV instead.
Add a Dash of Pessimism
Put simply, there needs to be a sentient driving force behind at least some of the conflicts in your story. Unless you're writing a fluffy rom-com where all conflicts are caused by misunderstandings, having some not-so-nice-characters in your story will go a long way.
Though having the hero triumph over evil is a little cliche, you can still incorporate toned-down versions of the trope in a variety of ways. If the only antagonist is an asteroid that is hurtling towards Earth, the conflict of the story will feel flat and forced.
We live in a world that is full of greed and malice, and readers are keenly attuned to that. At the very least, your story needs to have a secondary antagonist, like a corrupt bureaucrat or a morally bankrupt rival, who makes deliberate choices that get in the protagonists' way.
Though painting your antagonists as 100% evil is somewhat boring, the readers need to see someone—or a group of someones—making selfish choices in the story. Plus, including at least one "bad guy" in the story gives your characters someone to outwit.
Allow Some Hedonism
Your heroes can't be all work and no play. If all they do is chase bad guys and solve problems, your readers may struggle to relate to them.
Let your characters relax and let their hair down occasionally. This can include drinking, gambling, partying, retail therapy, or anything else that's in-character for them. It's also a good way to add subtle worldbuilding to sci-fi and fantasy stories.
You can have it contribute by the plot by having it be a source of conflict. Alcohol brings out the worst in people, sometimes, and even an innocent shopping trip can result in trouble if your characters run into the wrong people.
Hedonism and shallow motivations can also play a more long-term role in your characters' lives. Hedonism can result in some morally gray characters, shifting loyalties, or juicy backstories.
Some of your characters need to be deep and relatable, of course, but it's okay if some characters are simply greedy or motivated by a vice. In fact, giving your protagonists some shallow motivations gives them lots of room to grow over the course of the story. Challenge yourself to write a hero who is likable, but ultimately motivated by a vice until he or she discovers something greater.
Let Heroes Be Imperfect
Even if you keep your characters' motivations relatively pure from the start, you'll want to find another way to make your characters relatable. Your character needs to have a flaw that gets them into trouble at some point in the story.
Maybe your character runs from her problems and has zero charisma, or maybe she tends to overestimate her abilities. Making your character too flawed will make it difficult to make her likable, but depending on the story, it may be better for her to be too flawed than not flawed enough. Dramas in particular may benefit from a character who has to claw her way out of a mess she created herself.
Whatever you decide, make sure that your main characters have a variety of flaws between them. It's okay if two love interests share a flaw, but other people in the group need to have their own unique problems over the course of the story.
Have a Race or Time Limit
Some stories suffer from a lack of urgency, and the reader is left not knowing how long the plot will stretch on for. While some stories can turn this into a sweeping and epic tale, others simply can't.
Forcing your characters to race against an antagonist or beat a doomsday countdown is a great way to add urgency and high stakes. It also provides a palpable source of tension among your characters, who may bicker and disagree over the fastest and best way to get something done.
Another way to do this is to have a deadline for a decision. For example, a romance story could have a set date for the love interest's departure for another country. In the end, of course, this deadline would be circumvented by the character deciding to stay, or leaving and immediately returning once he or she regretted it.
Whatever you decide, let the stakes be high and personal. That way, your character's journey won't fade from readers' memories even after the clock has run down.
Karen A Szklany from New England on May 21, 2020:
This article has given me some great ideas for twists in my novels. Thanks!
Liz Westwood from UK on May 21, 2020:
You have given great tips here for aspiring writers. Your article also makes me look back and analyse successful books that I have read.
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on May 20, 2020:
A very interesting and informative article. I think you are spot-on in most of these tips. Thanks for sharing.