How to Write Fiction: 9 Steps From a Bestselling Novelist

by Jerry Jenkins
How to Write Fiction

Guest Post by Jerry Jenkins

That you’ve landed here tells me you have a story—a message you want to share with the world. You just need to know how to begin.

Writing fiction isn’t about rules or techniques or someone else’s ideas. It’s about your story well told.

Writing a novel can be overwhelming.

I’ve written nearly 200 books (two-thirds of them novels) and have enjoyed the kind of success most writers only dream of. But the work never gets easier.

I’ve found no shortcuts, but following certain steps help me create books in which my readers can get delightfully lost.

Is that the kind of novel you want to write?

9 Steps to Writing Captivating Fiction

  1. Come up with a great story idea.
  2. Create realistic and memorable characters.
  3. Choose a story structure.
  4. Home in on the setting.
  5. Write your rough draft.
  6. Grab your reader from the get-go.
  7. Trigger the theater of your reader’s mind.
  8. Maintain your reader’s attention with cliffhangers.
  9. Write a resounding, satisfying ending.

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Step #1 — Come up with a great story idea.

Do you struggle to generate ideas?

Maybe you have a message to share but no story idea to help you convey it.

Ideas are everywhere. You have to learn to recognize the germ of an idea that can become a story.

My first novel was about a judge who tries a man for a murder that the judge committed.

That’s all I had—along with its obvious ramifications.

I knew guilt. I recalled being caught in a lie. So I could imagine the ultimate dilemma—desperate to hide the truth while being assigned to oversee its coming to light.

That imagining became Margo, the novel that launched my fiction career.

I know a story idea has legs when it stays with me and grows.

I find myself sharing the idea with my family, embellishing the story more every time I tell it. If it loses steam, it’s because I’ve lost interest in it and know readers would too.

But if it holds my interest, I nourish and develop it until it becomes a manuscript and eventually a book.

Always carry something on which you can record ideas, electronic or old school. (I like the famous Moleskine notebooks.)

Jot or dictate ideas that strike at any moment for these elements:

  • Characters
  • Settings
  • Plots
  • Twists
  • Dialogue
  • Anything that might expand your story

And if you’re still having trouble conjuring an idea, see Step #2 below for an exercise writers everywhere have told me works to stimulate their thinking almost every time.

Step #2 — Create realistic and memorable characters.

Creating realistic and memorable characters

Ironically, Fiction (though you know its definition) must be believable, even if it’s set in a land far, far away or centuries before or since now.

That means characters must feel real and relatable so readers will buy your premise.

If you don’t know where to begin, consider creating characters who are composites of people you know.

You might use one person’s gender, another’s looks, another’s personality, another’s voice …

Now here’s that exercise I promised above:

Imagine you’re at a rural intersection in the middle of nowhere. Maybe there are cornfields all around.

A Greyhound bus appears on the horizon and rumbles to a stop. One passenger disembarks.

Now ask yourself who this character is:

  • Male or female?
  • Young or old?
  • Rich or poor?
  • Laden with luggage or empty-handed?
  • Are they waiting to be picked up or heading somewhere on foot?
  • Where are they going?
  • Are they escaping someone or something?
  • Are they running to someone or something?

By now you should have an idea of a main character and, bottom line, start imagining a story.

You need a villain too, but be fair to him (or her; I use he inclusively to mean both genders and avoid the awkward repetition of he/she; I know the majority of writers—and readers—are women).

So what do I mean by “be fair to your villain”?

Simply this: don’t allow him to be one-dimensional (evil just because he’s the bad guy).

In real life, villainous people rarely recognize themselves as evil. They think everyone else is wrong!

Give him real, credible motivations for doing what he does. That doesn’t make him right, but it can make him real and believable.

One thing that contributed to the success of my Left Behind series was that I determined early on to have credible, skeptical characters.

It’s so easy to build straw men and shoot down their arguments and logic like shooting fish in a barrel.

Make them credible! Give them opinions and arguments that are hard to counter.

Give your skeptical reader someone he can identify with and force him to acknowledge you were fair to his side.

Our goal as writers should be that the stories and characters we create will live in the hearts of readers for years.

How you develop your characters will make or break your story.

Outliners have an advantage here, and we Pantsers (who write by the seat of our pants as a process of discovery) do well to learn from them.

Outliners map out the backstory of each character, getting to know them before starting to write.

Some even conduct imaginary interviews, simply asking the characters about themselves. Readers will never see most of what comes from this information, but it does inform the writing.

Whether you get to know your characters in advance or allow them to reveal themselves as you write, make them human, vulnerable, and flawed—eventually heroic and inspiring.

Just don’t make them perfect. Nobody relates to perfect.

Consider some of literature’s most memorable characters—Jane Eyre, Scarlett O’Hara, Atticus Finch, Ebenezer Scrooge, Huckleberry Finn, Katniss Everdeen, Harry Potter.

Here are heroes of both genders, vastly different personalities, widely varying ages, and even from different centuries. But look what they have in common:

  • They’re larger than life but also universally human
  • They see courage not as lack of fear but rather the ability to act in the face of fear
  • They learn from failure and rise to great moral victories

Compelling characters like these make the difference between a memorable story and a forgettable one.

Keys to Developing a Memorable Character

1. Introduce him by name as soon as possible.

Your lead character should be the first person on stage, and the reader should be able to connect with him.

His name should reflect his heritage and maybe even hint at his personality. In The Green Mile, Stephen King named a weak, cowardly character Percy Wetmore. Naturally, we treat heroes with more respect.

2. Give readers a look at him.

You want readers to clearly picture your character in their minds, but don’t make the mistake of forcing them to see him exactly as you do.

While rough height, hair color, and maybe eye color should be established—as well as whether he is athletic or not—does it really matter whether your reader visualizes your hero as Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio or your heroine as Gwyneth Paltrow or Charlize Theron?

Now, similar to what I’ll advise later about rendering settings, it’s better to layer in your character’s looks through dialogue and action rather than using description as a separate element.

Whether you’re an Outliner or a Pantser, the more you know about your character, the better you will tell your story.

  • Age?
  • Nationality and ethnicity?
  • Scars? Piercings? Tattoos? Imperfections? Deformities?
  • Tone of voice? Accent?
  • Mannerisms, unique gestures, tics, anything else that would set him apart?

Avoid the mistake of trying to include in your manuscript everything you know about your character.

But on the other hand, the more you know, and the more you know, the more plot ideas that might emerge.

The better acquainted you are with your character, the better your readers will come to know and care about him.

3. Give him a backstory.

Backstory is everything that has happened in your character’s life before page one of chapter one. What has made him the person he is today?

Things you should know, whether or not you include them in your story:

  • When, where, and to whom he was born
  • Brothers and sisters and where he fits in the family
  • His educational background
  • Political leanings
  • Occupation
  • Income
  • Goals
  • Skills and talents
  • Spiritual life
  • Friends
  • Best friend
  • Romantic relationship, if any
  • Worldview
  • Personality type
  • Anger triggers
  • Joys, pleasures
  • Fears
  • And anything else relevant to your story

4. Make him real.

Even superheroes have flaws and weaknesses. For Superman, it’s Kryptonite. For Indiana Jones, snakes.

Perfect characters are impossible to identify with. But don’t make his flaws deal breakers—they should be forgivable, understandable, identifiable, but not irredeemable.

For instance, don’t make him a wimp, a coward, or a doofus (like a cop who either misplaces his weapon or forgets to load it).

Create a character with whom your reader can relate, someone vulnerable who subtly exhibits strength of character and potential heroism.

Does your character show respect to a waitress and recognize her by name?

Would he treat a cashier the same way he treats his broker?

If he’s running late but witnesses an emergency, does he stop and help?

Some call these pet-the-dog moments, where an otherwise bigger-than-life personality does something out of character—something that might be considered beneath him.

And you can add real texture to your narrative by even giving your villain a pet-the-dog moment.

5. But also give him heroic potential.

In the end, he must rise to the occasion and score a great moral victory.

So he needs to be both extraordinary and relatable. He can’t remain a victim for long.

He can and should face obstacles and adversity, but he should never act the wimp or appear cowardly.

Give him qualities—or at least potential—that captivates the reader and compels him to keep reading. For example:

  • an underdog with surprising resolve that allows him to rise to the occasion
  • a character who reveals the hint of a hidden strength or ability and later uses it to win the day

Make him heroic and you make him unforgettable.

6. Emphasize his inner life as well.

The outward trouble, quest, challenge—whatever drives the story—is one thing. But every bit as important is your character’s internal conflict.

What keeps him awake at night?

  • What’s his blind spot?
  • What are his secrets?
  • What embarrasses him?
  • What is he passionate about?

Mix and match details from people you know—and yourself—to create both the inner and outer person.

When he faces a life or death situation, you’ll know how he should respond.

7. Draw upon your own experience.

The fun of writing fiction is getting to embody the characters we create.

I can be a young girl, an old man, a boy, a father, a grandmother, of another race, a villain, of a different political or spiritual persuasion, etc. The possibilities are endless.

Become your character.

Imagine yourself in every situation he finds himself, facing every dilemma, answering every question—how would you react if you were your character?

If your character finds himself in danger, even if you’ve never experienced something so terrible, you can imagine it.

Think back to the last time you felt in danger, multiply that times a thousand, and become your character.

  • Imagine being at home alone and hearing footsteps across the floor above.
  • Have you ever had your child go missing?
  • Have you ever mustered the courage to speak your mind and set somebody straight?

All those feelings and emotions go into creating believable, credible characters.

8. Give him a character arc.

The more your character transforms, the more effective and memorable your story.

Classic stories plunge their main characters into terrible trouble, turn up the heat, and turn those characters into heroes—or failures.

That’s the very definition of character arc.

How your character responds to challenges determines his character arc.

Step #3 — Choose a story structure.

Choosing your story structure

Structure is the skeleton of your story. Regardless whether you’re an Outliner or a Pantser, you need a basic structure to know where you’re going.

The story structure you choose should help you align and sequence:

  • The Conflict
  • The Climax
  • The Resolution

Discovering bestselling novelist Dean Koontz’s 4-step Classic Story Structure catapulted me from a mid-list genre novelist to a 21-Time New York Times bestselling author.

It’s simply this:

1. Plunge your main character into terrible trouble as soon as possible.

Naturally, the definition of that trouble depends on your genre, but, in short, it’s the worst possible dilemma you can think of for your main character.

For a thriller, it might be a life-or-death situation. In a romance novel, it could mean a young woman having to choose between two equally qualified suitors—and then her choice proves a disaster.

Whatever the scenario, this terrible trouble must bear stakes dire enough to carry the entire novel.

One caveat: whatever the trouble, it will mean little to readers if they don’t first find reasons to care about your character. Implant reasons to care.

It’s not just the trouble but the ramifications, the stakes.

2. Everything your character does to get out of this terrible trouble makes things only worse. 

Avoid the temptation to make life easy for your protagonist.

Every complication must proceed logically from the one before it, and things must grow progressively worse until …

3. The situation appears hopeless. 

Novelist Angela Hunt refers to this as The Bleakest Moment. Even you should wonder how you’re ever going to write your character out of this.

The predicament becomes so hopeless that your lead must use every new muscle and technique gained from facing countless obstacles to become heroic and prove that things only appeared beyond repair.

4. Finally, your hero succeeds (or fails*) against all odds. 

Reward readers with the payoff they expected by keeping your hero on stage, taking  action.

*Occasionally sad endings work too.

Step #4 — Home in on the setting.

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The setting of a story includes the location and time period but should also include sights, smells, tastes, textures, and sounds.

Thoroughly research your setting, but remember: such detail should be used as seasoning, not become the main course.

The main course must always be the story. Research details just lend credibility and believability.

One of the most common and avoidable errors is to begin by describing your setting.

Don’t get me wrong—description is important, as is establishing where your story takes place.

But we’ve all read snooze-worthy novels that promise to transport us, only to begin with some variation of the following:

The house sat in a deep wood surrounded by …

Gag.

Pro tip: modern readers have little patience for description as a separate element. 

So how do you describe your setting?

You don’t. At least not in the conventional way.

The key is to layer description into the action.

Show, Don’t Tell

Instead, make description part of the story. References to how things look and feel and sound register in the theater of the readers’ minds (more on this later), while they’re concentrating on the action, dialogue, tension, drama, and conflict—things that keep them turning the pages.

They’ll barely notice that you worked in details of your setting, but somehow they have all they need to fully enjoy the reading experience.

Example:

London’s West End, 1862

Lucy Knight mince-stepped around clumps of horse dung as she hurried toward Regent Street. Must not be late, she told herself. What would he think?

She carefully navigated the cobblestones as she crossed to hail a Hansom Cab—which she preferred for its low center of gravity and smooth turning. Lucy did not want to appear as if she’d been tossed about in a carriage, especially tonight. 

“Not wearin’ a ring, I see,” the driver said as she boarded. 

“I beg your pardon?”

“Nice-lookin’ lady like yourself out alone after dark in the cold fog

“You needn’t worry about me, sir. I’m only going to the circus.”

“Piccadilly it is, ma’am.”

The location tag at the beginning saves us a lot of narration, which lets the story quickly emerge.

The reader learns everything about the setting and the character from the action and dialogue instead of a separate piece of description.

Notice how, without the description of the city of that era existing as a separate (and potentially boring) element, we learn in passing of horse dung, cobblestone streets, Hansom Cabs, cold weather, fog, Regent Street, Piccadilly Circus, and even that it’s after dark.

But, hopefully, what keeps our interest is our perspective character—a single young lady headed for a rendezvous with a man we want to meet as much as she does.

Showing (instead of telling) forces you to highlight only the most important details.

If it’s not important enough to become part of the action, your reader won’t miss it anyway.

Step #5 — Write your rough draft.

If you wear a perfectionist cap, now’s the time to remove it and hit the off switch to your internal editor. Allow yourself the freedom to write without worrying about grammar, cliches, redundancies, or any other rules. Just get your story down.

Separate your writing from your revising. You’ll have plenty of time at that stage to play perfectionist to your heart’s content.

Step #6 — Grab your reader from the get-go.

The best way to hook your reader immediately is to plunge your character into terrible trouble as soon as possible instead of wasting your first two or three pages on backstory or setting or description.

These can all be layered in as the story progresses. Cut the fluff and jump straight into the story.

Done properly, this virtually forces your reader to keep turning the pages.

Step #7 — Trigger the theater of your reader’s mind.

Triggering the theater of your reader's mind

When comparing a book to its movie, don’t most people usually say they liked the book better?

Even with all its high-tech computer-generated imagery, glitz and glamour, Hollywood cannot compete with the theater of the reader’s mind.

I once read about a woman who was thrilled to discover in her parents’ home a book she cherished as a child.

She sat to thumb through it in search of the beautiful paintings she remembered so vividly, only to find that the book didn’t have a single illustration.

The author had so engaged the theater of her young mind that her memory of that book was much different than reality.

Your job as a writer is not to dictate what your reader should see but to trigger his imagination.

Examples:

  • The late, great detective novelist John D. MacDonald once described one of his orbital characters simply as “knuckly”—that was his entire description. I don’t know what image that conjures in your mind, but I immediately remembered a hardware store clerk in the town where I grew up. The guy was tall, bony, and had a protruding adam’s apple. I got all that from “knuckly.”
  • In one of my Left Behind novels, I described a computer techie as “oily.” My editor said, “Can’t you say he was pudgy, with longish blond hair, and kept having to push his glasses back up on his nose?”

I said, “If that’s what you saw, why do I have to say it?”

Millions read that series, and I’m sure a few saw the guy exactly as my editor did.

Others saw him as I did, while others no doubt saw him as something completely different. So much the better.

The more detail you leave to the theater of your reader’s mind, the more he’ll be engaged in your story.

If you want to give details that distinguish your main character, fine—work them into the action.

Just don’t tell your readers exactly what to think.

Important:

1. Always think reader-first. 

Don’t spoon-feed your reader. He wants to learn, so don’t do all his work for him. Let him imagine and deduce things as he sees them in his mind.

He’s a partner in your story, so give him a role. That’s what makes reading enjoyable.

2. Resist the urge to explain (RUE).

If you write, “I walked through the open door and sat down in a chair,” you’re explaining a lot that doesn’t need explaining.

You don’t need to tell your reader someone walked through a door—but even if you do, you certainly don’t need to tell him it was open.

And unless you need to clarify that “I flopped on the floor” or something similar, your reader will assume he sat in a chair.

Instead, you could write: “I walked in and sat down.”

Eliminate details that can be assumed.

Give readers just enough detail to engage their mental projector—that’s where the magic happens.

Step #8 — Maintain your reader’s attention with cliffhangers.

I’m talking about a setup, because setups demand payoffs. And anticipating a payoff keeps your reader with you.

Ask yourself:

  • What withheld from my readers will best keep them riveted?
  • How long can I make them wait for that payoff without unnecessarily frustrating them?

Cliffhangers need not be reserved for only the ends of chapters.

Envision your entire story as one big setup with a series of smaller ones layered in to keep the reader engaged.

Every scene can, in essence, serve as a cliffhanger leading to a payoff.

When your hero confronts his best friend over an apparent insult, we keep reading.

Will the accused deny everything or break down and confess? Maybe we know his response is a lie, which results in a new cliffhanger—when and how will your protagonist learn the truth, and then what will happen?

Every sentence, every scene, should serve as a mini-cliffhanger—a setup that demands a payoff.

Be constantly giving your reader reasons to stick with your story.

Step #9 — Write a resounding, satisfying ending.

You have one job: delivering a memorable reading experience.

Readers have invested their time and money, counting on you to uphold your end of the bargain—a story that wholly satisfies.

That doesn’t mean every ending is happily-ever-after with everything tied in a bow.

It just means the reader knows what happened, questions are answered, things are resolved, and puzzles are solved.

And because I happen to have a worldview of hope, my endings reflect that.

If you write from another worldview, at least be consistent. End your stories with how you view life, but don’t simply stop.

That said, a story can end too neatly and appear contrived. And if it ends too late, you’ve forced your reader to indulge you for too long. Be judicious.

In the same way you decide when to enter and leave a scene, carefully determine when to exit your story:

  • Don’t rush it. Give readers a satisfying conclusion. And give it the time it needs so you’re thrilled with every word. Keep revising until it feels just right.
  • If it’s unpredictable, it had better be fair and logical so your reader doesn’t feel cheated. You want him delighted with the surprise, not feeling tricked.
  • If you have multiple ideas for how your story should end, aim for the heart rather than the head. Readers remember most what moves them.

Writing fiction well is hard, exhausting work. (If you don’t find it so, you may not be doing it right.) But, oh, the rewards.


Jerry JenkinsJerry B. Jenkins is a 21-Time New York Times bestselling novelist (including The Left Behind series) and biographer (Hank Aaron, Walter Payton, Billy Graham, and many others) with sales of over 71 million copies. He teaches aspiring authors at JerryJenkins.com.