5 (Not-So-Little) Additions to the Great Novel-Writing Checklist

5 (Not-So-Little) Additions to the Great Novel-Writing Checklist

5 (Not-So-Little) Additions to the Great Novel-Writing ChecklistLearning how to write a successful novel is largely a matter of memorizing and mentally tracking the vast number of “parts” that make a story run. Honestly, this alone is sometimes the hardest part of the entire job. There’s a lot to remember—which is why, today, we’re going to look at the second part of our Great Novel-Writing Checklist.

Two weeks ago, I started off the checklist with the five most important “big” or foundational elements you need to make sure you’re including and acing in your writing. They were:

1. Structure

2. Character Arcs

3. Theme

4. Setting

5. Point of View

Without these beauties, you either (worst case) don’t have a story at all or (best case) don’t have a story that works.

However, as we all know, there’s more to a great book than just solid structure and a deep theme. There’s also a host of not-so-little “little” things we have to keep track of. And, really, this is where it’s easy to start going crazy. Structure may be big and complex, but it’s one thing; at least, it’s easy to remember. But then you have to start juggling a bazillion odds and ends—everything from proper grammar and punctuation to action beats and dialogue tags to scene transitions and chapter hooks.

As I mentioned in the previous post, there’s really no such thing as a “complete” novel-writing checklist, for the simple reason that such a list is all but infinite. Certainly, you could read the entirety of this blog, all my books, and all the other writing-craft books ever written, and you’d probably still miss a few necessaries for your list. But by breaking all the important integers of writing down into categories, you can simplify everything and increase your odds of remembering as many of the important little bits as possible.

The 5 (Not-So) Little Things on Your Novel-Writing Checklist

I’ve come up with five major categories for the “little” things that need to be on your novel-writing checklist. Unlike the previous five things on our “big” list, these items are primarily cosmetic. However, they are no less crucial.

The elements of story theory create the story itself, but they then require narrative skills to bring that story to life in a way that connects powerfully with readers. This actually requires two very distinct skill sets on the part of the author (as I talked about in the post “Are You a Writer or a Storyteller?”). Learn to master both, and you’re on your way to becoming a master author.

Let’s get started!

1. Showing and Telling

In ye olden days, Thomas Hardy could open Return of the Native with a full chapter of poetic setting descriptions. But as novel writing has evolved as an art form over the centuries, it has become less and less about elegiac exposition (or “telling”) and more and more about skillful dramatization (or “showing”).

If you think about it, mastering “show vs. tell” is pretty much just code for mastering great narrative. This is the essence of good storytelling in prose form. It’s the art of crafting sentences that allow readers to fully inhabit the story. Instead of merely observing that a character “watched something happen,” readers get to watch that thing happen for themselves.

But showing is also endlessly tricky, and it’s easy even for experienced authors to get confused and fall back on the crutch of simply telling readers what’s what.

As you examine every paragraph of your novel for the proper balance of showing, use the following checkpoints to help you nail this crucial device.

  • Avoid “Telling” Verbs

Telling verbs create a needless barrier between your readers and a vivid experience of the story. Instead of writing that your character “saw a car accident,” engage your readers’ senses by describing the skid marks on the road, the stench of gasoline, and the shriek of sirens.

Search your manuscript for the following “telling” verbs and see if you can show readers instead:

  • Asked
  • Begin/Began/Beginning
  • Feel/Felt/Feeling
  • Hear/Heard/Hearing
  • Look/Looked/Looking
  • See/Saw/Seeing
  • Smell/Smelled/Smelling
  • Sounded
  • Taste/Tasted/Tasting
  • Think/Thought/Thinking
  • Touch/Touched/Touching
  • Wonder/Wondered/Wondering

>>More Here: Most Common Writing Mistakes: Are Your Verbs Showing or Telling?

  • Dramatize, Don’t Summarize

Sometimes the terms “show” and “tell” seem vague and confusing. Instead, think of showing as “dramatizing” a scene and telling as “summarizing.” It’s the difference between “I experienced a car accident” and “the semi slammed into my Volvo out of nowhere.”

>>More Here: Showing and Telling: The Quick and Easy Way to Tell the Difference

  • Balance Showing and Telling

Showing is preferable. It should provide the meat of your story. But that doesn’t mean a balanced meal doesn’t also need the veggies. Telling sometimes gets a bad rap, but only because so many authors overreact in their struggle with learning how to show and think they have to avoid telling altogether. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Telling is a tremendously important storytelling technique. You need it as much as you need showing, just in lesser proportions.

You can successfully use telling to summarize:

  • Tedious or extraneous events.
  • Reiteration of information readers already know.
  • Scene transitions.
  • Passage of time.
  • Change of settings.

>>More Here: Three Places Where You Should Tell Instead of Show

  • Focus on Showing the One Right Detail

Be careful not to get so carried away with showing that you dramatize everything, rather than seeking out the one right detail that will bring the scene to life for readers and let their imaginations fill in the rest of the blanks. This can be especially tempting when trying to evoke body language or facial expressions. You want readers to see what you see, so you describe every twitch. Not only does this rarely convey what you’re hoping, it also unnecessarily clutters your story.

>>More Here: Show What Your Character Is Feeling and Thinking (and Do It Like a Writer, Not a Director)

2. Description

What’s the difference between showing and description? Admittedly, it’s a bit arbitrary, since they work hand in glove. But here’s how I look at it: showing is about conveying action; description is about conveying static detail. In short, if it’s not moving, you’re describing it.

Like showing, good description is all about choosing the right details to fire readers’ imaginations and bring the scene to life in their minds. To do that, you’ll want to keep the following in mind.

  • Opt for Less Description Rather Than More

Few of us can go all Thomas Hardy and survive as modern authors. Description is a condiment, not the main dish. As such, sprinkle it on with loving care. A few well-chosen descriptors can pull ten times the weight of an info-dumping paragraph. This doesn’t mean you can’t include an entire paragraph(s) of description, but it does mean you should always evaluate lengthy descriptions to determine whether they’re truly pulling their weight—or if they can be effectively slimmed down.

This also goes for descriptions on the sentence level. You may think you’re doing all right since you’ve only got two descriptors in that sentence—but do you really need two? Are they enhancing one another—or is the one detracting from the true power of the other?

>>More Here: Most Common Writing Mistakes: Too Much Description

  • Seek “Images” Rather Than “Abstractions”

Description should be concrete and specific. Avoid abstractions that generalize about the object. Instead of “the couch,” say “the seaweed green mid-century daybed.” This can require more words, but it’s almost always worth it for the ability to grant readers a vividly visual scene.

>>More Here: 3 Ways to Make Your Writing More Visual

  • Organize Your Distribution of Details: Far to Near and Large to Small

Arguably, the most difficult part of description is distributing details so they all makes sense to readers. The best way to approach this is to start big. Set the scene at large—describe the general purpose and vibe of a room (i.e., “a vast living room”) before zooming in on specific details (i.e., that couch).

And how do you know which specific details are pertinent? Think of your description as a movie camera zooming in on the scene’s central action. Start large to set the scene, then draw in close to the elements characters will be interacting with (i.e., a stainless steel coffee set on the coffee table).

>>More Here: Most Common Mistakes Series: Ineffective Setting Descriptions

  • Choose Vivid, Unique, or Ironic Descriptors

The key to writing lean but evocative descriptions is all about choosing the right words. You want words that leap out at readers and grab them by the throat. Often, this means looking beyond the obvious to find words that make readers think. You’re looking for vivid words, unique words (when appropriate), and even ironic words—words or details that, at first glance, seem dichotomous to the rest of the setting, as explained by Richard Price:

The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying on the road. You pick the smallest manageable part of the big thing, and you work off the resonance.

>>More Here: How to Write a Gut-Wrenching Tragic Scene—Thanks to One Surprising Detail!

3. Dialogue

The prosaic bones of a story are made up of two aspects: dialogue and not-dialogue. Dialogue is an art form unto itself, since it breaks many standard narrative rules, while also using its own set of rules to evoke real speech.

  • Avoid Info Dumps

Good dialogue is lean, mean, and usually avoids using over three or four sentences at a time. It’s no place for info dumps. Can you disseminate information through your dialogue? Absolutely. In fact, dialogue is one of the single best tools for sharing information in a way that is both entertaining and “showing.” But this requires a careful set up of opposing character goals and back-and-forth conversation, so one character isn’t simply “as-you-know-Bob“-ing the other.

>>More Here: How to Write (and Not Write) Expository Dialogue

  • Avoid Fillers

It’s true “realistic” dialogue is full of fillers such as the following:

  • Like
  • You know
  • Um/uh
  • Well
  • Look
  • Er/ah
  • Huh?
  • What?
  • I didn’t hear you
  • I don’t understand
  • Could you repeat that?

But in fiction, these words and phrases should be used sparingly and only to characterize.

>>More Here: Want Fantastic Dialogue? Flee These 6 Fearsome Fillers

  • Use Dialogue to Advance the Plot

Conversations between characters are so much fun to write that it can be easy for writers to get carried away. But remember: dialogue, like all of fiction, is a technique designed to advance the story. This means all your characters’ conversations must have a plot-pertinent point (even if it’s subtle). Check your dialogue scenes to make sure every line either:

  • Advances the plot
  • Informs the character
  • Applies to the theme.

>>More Here: The Four Different Types of Conflict in Dialogue

  • Avoid “On-the-Nose” Dialogue

At the same time that you’re ensuring all your dialogue is about the plot, you also get the extra tricky (and awesome) task of making sure it does’t seem like that’s the only reason it’s in the book. The best dialogue is never on-the-nose. Rather than spelling out characters’ intentions in every line of dialogue, look for ways to make the subtext—i.e., what they’re not saying—as important as the context.

>>More Here: Get Rid of On-the-Nose Dialogue Once and For All

  • Skillfully Apply Dialogue Tags and Action Beats

Technically, dialogue tags (she said) and action beats (he looked at her before speaking) aren’t dialogue. But they’re crucial for punctuating the dialogue and providing necessary physical and emotional context. The two rarely need to be used in the same paragraph together and only need to be used ever in order to accomplish one of the following:

  • Clarify the speaker
  • Provide physical context (e.g., someone moves)
  • Provide emotional context (e.g., tone of voice)

>>More Here: Most Common Writing Mistakes: How Not to Use Speaker Tags and Action Beats

4. Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing is often an afterthought in storytelling discussions. But it shouldn’t be. Foreshadowing is the frame for the entirety of your story. It will be present on almost every page—as either setup or payoff. Foreshadowing is what pulls your story together and makes it seem like a resonant and meaningful whole. Foreshadowing ensures the story’s ending is, in fact, present in its beginning.

Foreshadowing can be conveyed in any number of ways, including the most seemingly casual use of description or dialogue.

More Here>> Setup and Payoff: The Two Equally Important Halves of Story Foreshadowing

5. Voice

The final important element to check off your novel-writing checklist is voice. Voice will be inherent in every one of the above elements. On a dry, technical level, voice is simply the cumulative effect of word choice. But, really, it is so much more than that. It is the “it” factor James Scott Bell often talks about. It is what raises your story above mere words on the page to an unforgettable experience.

Many writers will tell you voice is something you can’t learn. But what’s closer to the truth is that voice is something you create by learning to be good at every other part of writing. As you’re using all the above techniques to craft your narrative, you should also be constantly seeking to inject a vibrant and specific energy into your writing. This will guide your words choices, as well as your plot choices, and help you deliberately craft an unforgettable voice.

>>More Here: Writing Voice: 6 Things You Need to Know to Improve It

***

This little novel-writing checklist is only enough to get you started. Each of the ten elements of good writing listed in both this post and the previous one will lead you to hundreds of smaller ideas and techniques. But if you can nail the basics mentioned here, you’re well on your way to writing an excellent novel. Even better, you’ve started yourself down the road toward memorizing and internalizing the checklist into your personal writing mindset.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Is there any other writing must-have you would add to the novel-writing checklist? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Whew, I’ve got a lot of work to do to write a great novel. Outlining and structuring are only parts of it. But at least I’m getting started!

    Madi

  2. Yes!! This is just the thing I needed to share with a client this morning. Perfect timing, Katie. Brilliant!!

  3. I’ve been having an existential crisis re: my writing for the last month. Discovering and reading your books and blog has really calmed me down and made me remember why I love this hobby again. 🙂 Thank you so much!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s great. Existential crises are the stuff of life. They’re tough but they teach us so much.

  4. wowee, there sure is a lot to think about when crafting a novel. it’s a fun kind of challenge though 😉

  5. On the list of verbs to avoid:
    “taste/tasted/tasing”

    What if my character is a police officer and actually is tasing somebody? 😉

  6. I appreciate your organization and help so much. Thank you.

  7. I decided to go back and write a new opening scene to better establishing the setting and the main character – his personality as well as how he struggles around girls and has a strained relationship with his father.

    I listed the pieces of info I wanted to share and wrote a fine piece of telling (well, about 70% telling, according to one friend who read it.)

    I intended it to be more of an outline but that wasn’t sufficient. It needed to be ‘normal’ scene, a tale of one day in media res. I took out the last two, short, paragraphs and replaced them with 450 words of dialogue – first with his mother and then with a teammate at his baseball game. Not only was I more satisfied but the showing brought out things I hadn’t planned on. The scene with his mother was touching and gave the sense that she knows her son is a bit different but she tries to work with him, while the father is less understanding and more confrontational. Additionally, instead of mentioning the teammate in passing, their banter on the bullpen bench shows how his male peers can be less understanding of him and can veer into taunting.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      And this is exactly why first chapters are so challenging! We have to ace a “checklist” of items that need included and yet do it in an effortless way that presents a compelling situational scene.

      • I accomplished the checklist but it was too much telling. What struck me when I was finished showing was that I’d discovered new things about the characters, even two years into the project.

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