9 Tips for Writing the Next Great American Novel

Tips and advice from a writing instructor and Novelist

Everyone thinks they have a great novel inside them just waiting to burst out onto the page. The unfortunate truth is that most of these novels never get written. They wither and die in the mind because, well, how do you even begin to write a novel—let alone a great one?

hands typing on old typewriter
(Image: Kitja Kitja/Shutterstock)

But our summer—and likely fall, and likely winter—of social distancing and self-isolation is the perfect time to sit at your desk and get cracking on that great story that’s just begging to be released.

No more “what ifs” or “one of these days.” Not when you’ve got Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques and a powerful teacher, coach, and motivator to help you make that next great American novel become a reality.

Novelist and writing instructor James Hynes, author of several New York Times notable books and a former visiting professor at the renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop, has created a toolkit for writing beautiful, compelling fiction that connects with readers. A powerful teacher, coach, and motivator, he’s just the person you need to start that next great American novel brewing and bubbling inside your imagination.

Check out his 9 tips for great storytelling:

  1. Balance Detail and Economy. Evocation works because it gives a nice balance between detail and economy. Evocative writing provides significant detail—but doesn’t overwhelm the reader. The point is to draw something out of your readers, which you can’t do if you pour in too much.
  2. Make a Good First Impression. How you introduce characters depends on the novel you’re writing. Five ways are through straightforward description, showing the character in action, through first-person narration, through reports by other characters, and by placing the character in a specific time and place.
  3. Round Your Characters. Round characters can do all the things a flat character can do—come vividly to life, be memorable and instantly recognizable, be engaging and entertaining—but they can also surprise, delight, and disappoint us in the same way as real people.
  4. Use Dialogue Tags Sparingly. The more you can rely on speech to convey emotion and reveal who’s saying what, the better. In general, you should use dialogue tags (the name of a character or a pronoun standing in for the name) only when it would otherwise be impossible to tell who is speaking, or when the context needs clarification.
  5. Refer to Aristotle. The basic structure of a traditional plot was first codified by the ancient Greek philosopher in his Poetics. Aristotle was the first to state that a story should have a beginning, middle, and end; that events should be causally connected and self-contained; and that the ending should provide closure and catharsis.
  6. Foreshadow, Don’t Flash-Forward. A good writer plants hints in the narrative early on to prepare the reader for what comes later. You want your resolution to be unpredictable but satisfying. Pulling that off requires a balance between withholding information and revealing just enough so your reader doesn’t feel cheated.
  7. Pace Yourself. Every narrative has a tempo, which, in fiction, is called pacing. Good writers consider the length of time a story takes place in the world versus the time it takes someone to read it. A long book depicting a short period of time, for example, will probably be slower paced that a short book covering a long period of time.
  8. Write a Bad First Draft. First drafts aren’t intended to be a finished work of art. They’re not even supposed to be very good. Think of writing a first draft as mining for gold. Expecting your first draft to be perfect is as likely as the possibility of picking nuggets of gold from a river with your fingers.
  9. Know When to Stop Researching. Knowing when to back off from research is important for the writing process. A novel may be backed by extensive research, but it still needs vividly imagined scenes and characters. If it’s filled only with useless detail at the expense of the story, your novel will be monumentally dull.

In just 24 insightful videos, Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques offers you these and plenty other tools, tips, strategies, and techniques for writing your great novel. Filled with excerpts from well-known novels as examples and with practical writing exercises to get your creative juices flowing, this series is a master class in the art of storytelling that’ll have you reaching for pen, pencil, or keyboard with confidence and excitement.