Basic Strokes for Writing Great Fiction

Guest blog by Lynne Lloyd

As experienced writers, we leave the basics of language and written expression far
behind us. Or do we? I am a believer in the basics, not only at the learning stage but
also revisiting them at regular intervals. It is akin to resharpening our saw which
otherwise may become blunt and ineffective. Refreshing our basic writing techniques
can also overcome the human tendency towards complacency. It is easy to fall into
familiar patterns and rely on our comfortable habits. Becoming complacent, we may
fail to question ourselves, “Is this still working?” “What could I do differently?”

In the editing process, it is often the basics which are incorrect, poorly written or missing from the manuscript.
Highlighted in this article are three basic writing techniques which are often not
handled well, or at all, in the manuscripts we edit.

1) Using the Full Palette of Senses
Our strongest sense is our eyesight and therefore it is natural for what we see to
take centre stage when we describe a setting, a scene or a character. What is not
so fine and natural is when the visual is the only sensory information we write.

In major scenes, along with the visual, include one of the other senses of smell,
taste, sound, touch and movement.

To illustrate, please read this little scene:

“… this was a lot nicer than her own flat. Here there were plants and pictures
and cookbooks, there were blankets, old and threadbare but colourful still,
folded neatly in the corner. It smelled lovely, of woodsmoke and lemon. All the
surfaces were spotless.” (From Paula Hawkins: ‘A Slow Fire Burning’ p.187)

Here we have the visual sense paired with the olfactory. It would be an OK scene if it
only had the visual description but the little sentence, “It smelled lovely, of
woodsmoke and lemon” lifts the writing to a richer sensory level and makes the
scene work really well for the reader.
The basic equation ‘V + 1’ is visual plus one other sense. Visual plus smell (as
above); visual + touch; visual + sound; visual + taste. Increasing the sensory load in
our writing also applies to writing dialogue.
Over the length of our novel or memoir, with increased awareness, we can make use
of the full palette of our senses.

2) Recognising Habitual Words and Repeated Expressions
In a recent editing project, all the major characters showed their surprise or shock by
the exact same facial expression of ‘his eyes widened,” or ‘she had wide eyes’
‘widening eyes.’ It was a double repetition effect, not only was it the same
expression but it was used by all the characters.
The reader will not fail to
recognise this constant repetition which strains credulity, is distracting and may even
pull the reader out of the world of the story.

  • What are some of these oft-repeated expressions? Here are a few from recent
  • editing projects:
  • furrowed brows / furrows
  • bit her lip
  • smiled / smiling
  • flickering / flicker
  • widening eyes / eyes wide
  • smell his breath
  • as best they could.

For a list of over-used words in recent fiction manuscripts, click here.

3) Showing Our Characters’ Emotions
There is a world of difference between stating an emotion, for example, a character
is terrified of what is about to happen and showing the emotion through selected
physical and psychological symptoms of their terror. It is their emotional
symptoms we write, not the illness.
As an example, in the following passage,
George Johnston could have written that his protagonist, David Meredith, was
wracked with fear, but he didn’t. He wrote:

‘Meredith, staring through the brambles, could feel the breath choking in his
throat, could hear his heart hammering, and in the dry cavities of his nostrils
the dust clotted and mingled with the stale sour smell of the Chinese captain.’
(From George Johnston: The Far Road – p. 191)

Reading the above visceral description, we feel the absolute terror and panic rising
in Meredith who is concealed by the side of the road where he cannot hide for long.
The Chinese soldiers at the roadblock are armed and he must run onto the road to
reach his vehicle. Is he about to die?

Another tendency we writers have is to focus our characters’ emotions solely
on their faces, particularly the eyes and eyebrows.
Again this is not wrong; it is
only when we neglect to include other parts of the body which, in real life, are also
affected by our emotions. As we write, we seem to forget we have arms, legs, feet
and hands. The absolute best resource I have found to expand a fiction writer’s
emotional territory is The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character
, 2nd Edition, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

In summary, we have looked at three of the basic yet critical techniques for writing
great fiction: first, how to enrich our readers’ experience by adding more senses into
our descriptions; second, we have highlighted the repetition of words and
expressions which become habitual and repetitive and third, how we cannot simply
name the emotion, we have to show it in our character’s face, voice and body
language. Paying attention to the basics is not confined to writers. The basics are
practised in many other disciplines: the prima ballerina continues to go through her
daily stretching and dance moves; the tennis champion continues to practise his
basic strokes for the whole of his career. For as long as we write, practising and
refreshing the basics will continue to matter.


Lynne is managing editor and publisher at LLOYD MOSS publishing. Based on the Gold Coast, they assist writers, published and unpublished, Australia wide. Their author services include writing skills development, editing (structural, copyediting and proofreading) and self-publishing.

At University, Lynne studied English literature and communication. My career took me into the world of educational publishing for ten years which was full of variety, challenges and personal achievements.  As part of my role, I was responsible for signing new Australian authors to write for us.  Subsequently, I held leadership positions in two HR consulting firms.  In 2008, I wrote and self-published my first book entitled ‘Personal Best Selling’,’ which I wrote to demonstrate my knowledge and expertise in the field. I have also written and self-published two books of short stories.

I love storytelling but I am even more inclined towards fine writing, the kind that lights you up inside and gives you joy.

One Comment on “Basic Strokes for Writing Great Fiction

  1. Loved this Lynne! especially this – “The basic equation ‘V + 1’ is visual plus one other sense. Visual plus smell; visual + touch; visual + sound; visual + taste. Increasing the sensory load in
    our writing also applies to writing dialogue.”

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