The Nexus - A Compendium of Writing Guides
I've seen a lot of threads on this forum giving some good advice, and I've written dozens of articles myself on other websites on many aspects of writing, but all of that information seems difficult to access even with the search function. After all, one might use the wrong keyword and find nothing there or they might just want to be browsing to get better without a specific interest in mind.
I envision this thread to be a compendium of what I consider to be the best writing advice I've seen on the forums, as well as my own writings on the matter.
Others are free to post recommendations here as well, alongside materials from outside royalroad. The point is to create a centralized nexus and easy reference for writers to get better at writing. I am not guaranteeing I will be accepting all suggestions though, especially if I find the advice superflouous or covered better elsewhere.
If you're the type to ask why I feel qualified to be giving this advice, it's not really my advice for the most part. A lot of what I've written is based on the advice of older, better authors like Brandon Sanderson, the folks at the Writing Excuses Podcast, multiple youtube channels, and also from another private writing forum. I use my best judgment, based on my over a decade of writing experience (from fanfiction and now to original fiction), what helped me get better, and testing the first principles behind said advice.
Title and Link. (Author) Brief summary
Author - When the content in question is a link to someone else's work, I will not be giving credit to the royalroad profile as it was not their effort to summarize that info.
Worldbuilding - Information to help flesh out your world and setting.
Meta - Guides that are useful to helping you out as an author, such as artwork, how to get reviews, etc. Does not involve itself with the actual art of writing.
Resources - Useful materials to help you write with.
These last three difficulty categories refers to how quickly I believe a new writer can implement the advice being given, factoring in effort vs payoff in reader experience. This should guide newer authors specifically on what "progression" they need to be going at. No sense trying to learn pacing if you can't even format your story properly and all that.
Basic - Everyone should be doing this. It's pretty easy to do, and it pays off tremendously
Intermediate - While good to round out your foundation, only try to tackle these once you're fairly sure of the Basics.
Advanced - More niche topics.
List of Articles:
- Showing vs Telling and Adverbs Sequel (David Musk) With plenty of good examples on how to show instead of tell. Sequel covers adverb usage.
- Showing vs Telling (HaltWrite) Unlike above, this goes into the theory behind WHY showing is preferred to telling (though not always), and covers the cases where telling is useful
- Dialogue 101: Talking Heads (fleeny13) Covers speech tags, and how to build step-by-step from just plain dialogue into mixing in prose and description.
- Dialogue: Approximations of Reality (HaltWrite) Tips on how to write good dialogue, and pitfalls to avoid.
- Emphasis Techniques and Fatigue (HaltWrite) A discussion on how to emphasize, and a warning of not doing it too often.
- Purple Prose or Lyrical Writing? (HaltWrite) When is too much, too much
- Engaging Characters: Sanderson's 3 Slider Model (HaltWrite) Paraphrased lessons from Writing Excuses on how to analyze characters across three criteria - Sympathy, Proactivity, Competence
- Start Strong (HaltWrite) The principles of a good summary
- The Three Types of Villains (DarthKirby) A good way of breaking down the types of villains, and how to mix and match those archetypes. Discussion which follows is also useful.
- Cheeky Guide on Romance and Flirting (Endless Paving). Very comprehensive guide ofnhow to show flirtation and chemistry between romantic leads.
- Disassociation and Association (Endless Paving) A discussion on two contrasting prose styles and their uses in story telling
- Scent Description How to describe aromas.
- Writing With Color - Words for Skin Tone Pretty much what it says on the label
- The Evolution of Money (HaltWrite) Covers the evolution of economics systems from barter up to digital currency, and the reasons for those changes.
- Premodern Travel Times If you need help figuring out travel in your fantasy / medieval setting.
- Create Cover Without Stolen Artwork (artsymarsy) How to make your own cover art.
- Knock-off photoshop online programs (strand W)
- Checklist for New Stories (David Musk). Comprehensive rundown on what you should be looking at before posting.
- Royal Road Author Premium | Youtube Link (Joan_Ninja_Hen). This 30 minute video covers what benefits Royal Road Premium Membership gives for authors and readers.
- Writers Block: The Cause and the Cure (Mage of mess)
You've probably heard the phrase "Show, Don't Tell" by now. This advice is everywhere - but most new writers don't understand why this rule is a rule, and as a result, don't know when they can or should break this rule. It's common for people to know it on a theoretical level, but struggle to apply it in their actual writing, or go too far and show everything at the expense of murdering a story's pace.
Something is "bad" when it makes the story harder to read.
Walls of Text are bad because they engage an automatic skim in the reader and it takes that much more effort to read. Sluggish Pacing is bad because readers get bored slogging through thousands of words with nothing happening. Hyper Pacing is bad because readers don't have enough time to digest the chain of events, nor are there enough words to create emotional weight.
Telling too much is bad because it makes it difficult for readers to immerse themselves in a story, but telling by itself is not bad. All stories are a mix of showing and telling.
A story that shows every minute detail will bog down the reader. A story that tells everything doesn't allow the reader to form an emotional connection with anything and is an inferior device for reader immersion.
Showing is when you let the reader experience a story through dialogue, action, thoughts, senses, or feelings. Telling is when the story is summarized, described, or told via exposition.
Showing - "How dare you," Harry said, eyes narrowing into slits.
Telling - Harry was angry.
The trick with showing is to leave the reader enough hints that they "get" what you're going for. You can use word choice in dialogue, actions and reactions, a character's stream of thought, the sensations experienced, and context (everything you've written before in the story forms this). If you are too heavy-handed with showing (i.e. giving them too many clues), it's not good either.
A heavy handed example of above would look like this:
"How dare you," Harry shouted. His eyes narrowed into slits and his fists clenched. Something blinding hot seized his chest.
This necessitates a sort of respect for the reader to be able to fill in the gaps, so to speak.
"But readers are stupid!" is not an excuse to tell or be heavy-handed with your showing. Most of this occurs at a subconscious level. A reader may not be able to tell you the exact reasoning why they knew Harry was angry, but they'll know and that suits our purposes jut fine.
Chuck Palahniuk's article advocates for a total ban on "thought verbs" (Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, etc.) in favor of sensory specific detail - action, taste, sight, smell, sound, and feeling - as an exercise to practice showing and learning to "unpack" a scene.
Telling, of course, has its uses.
Do we really need to know what Harry ate for breakfast on his third day at Hogwarts or the exact type of wood every piece of furniture in 12 Grimmauld Place is made of? Probably not. This is where telling becomes useful, because it allows you to paint the scene without dumping a ton of useless information on the reader.
When in doubt of whether to show or tell, it can be helpful to ask questions.
Is what I'm showing important to the plot or development of a character? Is the scene or place I'm describing important and recurring as a setting? If yes, show. If not, tell.
Quote:Purple Prose or Lyrical Writing?
“Purple prose!” the reader cries, pointing a finger at your ten dollar word.
But purple prose isn’t about using thesaurus words, nor is using thesaurus words bad, per se. Purple prose is when your words become so over-embellished with adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors that it becomes difficult to understand and hurts your story. When the reader has to stop and take a minute or five to process what the fuck you just wrote, that’s purple prose.
Using thesaurus words can be a characteristic of purple prose, but it is not, by definition, purple prose in itself. Only when you use too many that it takes away from the story does it become one.
“I’m heading to the abattoir for some venison,” Hermione said.
Harry rolled his eyes. “Literally no one talks like this.”
Harry stared into her verdant orbs, his soul as weak as a summer’s breeze. Her smile was decadent, filled with promises of carnal vices from her sweet-red lips. Her allure drew him in, visions of his hand running through her golden locks, her enchanting laugh escaping her lips at one of his jokes. He could already see it: Them together, living on a rocky, French precipice. They'd sleep late into the mornings, only ambling out of bed when the golden sun reached its crest at midday. They'd live; they'd laugh, and they'd spend their afternoons stretched out, lounging on the soft snowy sands of a French beach. He and Fleur, a communion of unfaltering love.
The first is character defining and relatively unobtrusive, the second is pointless and overbearing.
On the other side of the spectrum, we have people who say that purple prose is just “a matter of opinion”. That lyrical writing and purple prose are merely two sides of the same coin.
These people are just as wrong as the first.
While lyrical writing can appear similar to purple prose, there are several key distinctions between the two.
Remember our first and foremost rule: Something is "bad" when it makes the story harder to read.
Lyrical writing has to immerse the reader. The moment it goes from being immersive to making them confused is the moment it turns purple.
2) Quality and rhythm
Purple prose is, in general, sloppily put together with little thought spared for the rhythm of your prose. Quantity of thesaurus words is used as a proxy for a well-chosen one. When trying to write lyrically, you have to consider and control even when the reader is allowed to pause and breathe — and you have to get it right.
3) A light touch
Some of the best lyrical prose I’ve encountered don’t just go all out poetry on the paragraph, but actually blend their poetic words with simple ones. The reason this works is because simple lines help highlight the poetic ones, while serving to clarify the meaning of the passage.
4) Authorial Intent, Authorial Voice, & Character Voice
An interesting test is to ask yourself why you’re writing poetically. If it’s to impress your friends or in the hopes of getting your dick sucked, this is probably purple prose.
When a line also starts to sound more like the author and not something that character would ever say or think, it becomes purple. A normal twelve year old child should not be using big words like “unfathomable” to describe normal, everyday things.
5) Emotional Climax, Meaning, and Character Moments vs Superficial Description
Being lyrical has to be earned and they have to mean something.
Usually, you want these things to be aligned with the emotional climax of a story or character arc, or to be used in a way that helps the reader understand what kind of person the character is.
Waxing lyrical about pointless things that bear little significance to the plot or to the characters is superficial, boring, and wasteful.
None of the rules I’ve mentioned above are hard rules — in writing there is no such thing, it’s just a matter of knowing when you can get away with breaking rules — but if you find your prose is taking on two or more symptoms, it’s time to take a good, hard look at it.
And maybe apply a chainsaw to it liberally.
Not everything in your story can be lyrical for reasons beyond being disruptive to the reading experience. Lyrical writing draws attention to itself because it is a technique of emphasis.
When you emphasize everything, you emphasize nothing.
A writer has many tools at his disposal for emphasis. Common techniques include:
1) Adverbs and Adjectives
3) Metaphor and other figures of speech
4) Italics and other forms of editing text
6) Action beats
Unfortunately, what most writers don’t get is that When you emphasize everything, you emphasize nothing. It’s common for writers to try and eliminate the word said when characters are speaking — everything has to be shouted, exclaimed, rumbled, thundered, whispered — no one ever just says things anymore. Or everyone has to say things a certain way — quietly, quickly, loudly, angrily, surprised, frustrated.
Adding lots of metaphors is less common, but still a trap a significant amount of people fall into.
The first three techniques, when overused (and they often are) results in purple prose and reader fatigue. When you add emphasis, the reader has to expend more brain power to process this change from the status quo. Emphasis by itself isn’t bad obviously. Without it, reading would be dull!
But if you end up using a said-synonym more than 90% of the time, when you have an adverb modifying said every other line, when you have metaphors in every paragraph...it gets exhausting to read.
Not only is this bad practice because it violates our golden rule (Something is "bad" when it makes the story harder to read), this is also problematic because it’s breaks show, don’t tell and is purple prose. Techniques for emphasis are what spices are to cooking. Less is more. If you add too much, it not only ruins your story, it also reduces the impact of every subsequent emphasis you try to make. But if you use too little (beige prose), the story is bland.
Like many things in writing, it’s about striking the right balance.
The other four techniques are less common. Italics and other forms of editing text include, but are not limited to: Bold, Underline, Different Colors of Text, using different formats to signify different things (a common example is ~Parseltongue~) and even using different fonts and sizes of text.
In the vast majority of cases, italics, bold and underline are the only ones you should ever be using.
Different colors of text are hard to read and strain the eye. Relying on this to convey emotion (as is common in Lantern SI fics) is lazy. Different formats are never good as well. One can rarely keep it straight in their heads, creates additional work for the author, and adds nothing of value to a story. Fonts and sizes should, almost always, be kept standardized as well for ease of reading. There is an argument to be made that fonts can convey different feelings, but unless you have an eye for this sort of thing, it’s rarely worth the effort for the potential marginal improvement to your story (nevermind that there are better tools in our repertoire to address this).
Italics, Bold, and Underline
Italics are my favorite form of emphasis in this class. It’s versatile as a means of adding stress to a sentence and, when paired with context, can eliminate the need for said-synonyms, adverbs, and adjectives.
For example: "How dare you," Harry said.
Even with nothing but the choice of words and an italics, you still understand intuitively that Harry is angry/outraged here. Imagine how much more you can get away with when you have a couple hundred words before that building up the scene and context.
Bold and underline are less versatile in that they tend to come off as a strong, in your face, statement. There’s a lot less room to play around with these, but can still be useful in some cases when an italics’ versatility works against itself by becoming vague in its subtext.
It goes without saying that these can be overused as well and are bad when such is the case. Again, less is more.
This, I find, is an overlooked and much ignored tool in our arsenal. Often, people think of spacing as just a means of breaking up Walls of Text, not realizing the power proper spacing can have as a means of emphasis. Words or short sentences that form their own paragraph naturally draw attention to themselves.
Action is good tool for emphasis as well. It tells us a lot about a character’s emotional state. Posture, gestures, facial expressions, among other things are powerful clues — just make sure that everyone isn’t smiling or scowling for ten lines straight. Communications is 80% non-verbal as they say.
Specifically, colons, exclamation points, parenthesis, em dashes and en dashes. Without bogging us down in the specific rules that dictate their use, all of these break up text and, therefore, draw attention to themselves. Colons are useful for making powerful declarations and to signify importance.
Exclamation points are for volume and emotion! (Parenthesis act as kind of little notes or addendums. Use these sparingly, if at all). Em dashes — and en dashes — can be used to draw attention to things within a long sentence.
But be warned. Punctuation can be overused and are just as annoying when it happens. I'm looking at you, dashes, semicolons and exclamation points.
Quote:Engaging Characters: Sanderson’s Three Slider Model
Readers are simultaneously the most forgiving and least forgiving people on earth, and the only difference is if you can get them to invest in your story emotionally.
The easiest way is through your characters. Engaging characters are the heart of any story. It is, quite probably, the single most important writing skill to develop, because it’s who your readers are going to root for.
Having engaging characters creates reader buy in.
You can have the most beautiful prose in the world, the most fascinating world building, the greatest plot, but if you don’t give your readers someone they can get behind, they will never love your story. On the other hand, if you have engaging characters, but nothing else, you’ll find they’ll turn a blind eye to your faults a lot more often (this margin of mercy shouldn’t be taken as a bottomless pit — bad writing can and will frustrate them, so obviously just having good characters isn’t everything).
Brandon Sanderson first introduced his idea of the Three Slider Model in Writing Excuses 9.13.
The Three Slider Model views how likable or engaging a character is through three variables that you can slide up and down, mix and match. These are: Sympathy, Competence, Proactivity.
This is how sympathetic the reader is towards your character. This includes how relatable they are (do they act like real people? Do the events that happen to them resonate with your readers?), how nice they are, how “moral” they are (are they the “good guys”), and how funny they are (having a character that can make readers laugh consistently is an amazing tool in creating buy in).
A sympathetic character is someone that’s likable, but it doesn’t necessarily mean a character that you want to emulate yourself.
This is all about their efficiency and success. Are they intelligent or street smart or adaptable? Do they get shit done?
Proactivity is simply how well your character “protags” (While there is quite a lot of overlap, the Protagonist — the one who “protags” — is not necessarily the same as the hero or the viewpoint character). Proactivity is all about character agency and initiative. Does your character make choices that matter and affect the plotline (i.e. if the character were to disappear, would the story be radically different?). Second, does your character cause the change (proactive) or do they only react to change (passive)?
Mixing and Matching
Have a character that’s highly competent and proactive, but not sympathetic? That’s a classic villain archetype. Or perhaps you have a villain that’s not quite as competent but a bit more sympathetic.
Make a character that’s highly proactive and sympathetic, but maybe not as competent and you have the Indiana Jones formula. If you have only someone who’s really high on sympathy, but maybe just so-so in the other two, you get someone like Samwise Gamgee or Harry Potter.
Characters can grow as people as the circumstances they find themselves in challenge them. Using this framework, it becomes easy to see in what areas you should have your character grow. Someone highly likable and proactive would need to become competent (growth of ability). A character that’s competent and proactive would need to become likable (growth of character). A character that’s likable and competent, but not proactive needs to be more involved (growth of agency). The examples I’ve given here are but a few of the many ways you can mix and match a character.
If you have a character that’s high on all three sliders, does that mean you have a bad character? Not necessarily. While it’s possible for you to end up with a Mary Sue, it’s also possible to have characters that are competent, likable, and sympathetic that fail due to circumstances beyond their control.
Similarly, characters high on all three sliders generally need to be challenged by external forces or moral dilemmas (such as with Superman) or have their power level reduced — because people like rooting for underdogs.
You don’t necessarily have to think about creating characters this way, nor is it the be all end all to it (characters are far too complex for any one model to fully encompass). In my opinion, this is best used to troubleshoot a character and analyze how to fix them when they feel lacking in terms of progression.
Good dialogue sits somewhere between entirely unnatural conversation and an exact mimicry of it. Really, it’s an approximation of reality.
Why on earth would making dialogue “closer” to how real people talk be a bad thing, you might wonder. It has to do with the magical thing that our brains. When people talk, we usually have a lot of filler words and sounds to fill in the silence while we’re thinking — ah, um, er, I think, well, yeah and many, many more. Your brain automatically filters these sounds out when you hear them (and even then, any public speaker of note will tell you to cut these out when talking).
The thing is, your brain only does that when you hear them, not when you read them. Those, er filler words, uh when you put them into writing, are, well, I think really annoying.
No one wants to read that shit.
Alfred Hitchcock described good stories as “life, with the dull parts taken out.” Dialogue is the same.
In that vein, unessential dialogue should also be kept to a minimum. There are two questions essential to answer when deciding what to keep and what to cut.
What does this do for my plot? What does this show about my character?
Remember, what a character says (or doesn’t say) in any scene reflect the why — they always have some motivation coming in and what they say should drive towards achieving that goal (Plot!). How they say something, on the other hand, reflects their upbringing, social status, education and intelligence, personality, nationality, and a host of other things about them (Character!).
Dialogue is, in my opinion, the best tool for plot progression and characterization you have. You’ll be amazed how many emphasis techniques you can bypass when the dialogue is on point simply because the subtext says so much by remaining unsaid.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have writers that struggle with making dialogue sound authentic enough, what people refer to as wooden dialogue.
Usually, wooden dialogue is a result of having your characters speak too stiffly and formally. This is more often than not an overcompensation for having a weaker grasp on English. The thing is, real people don’t speak with perfect grammar! They like contracting words, fragmenting sentences or running them on to death, using slang (or jargon), and using shortcuts that have entered the everyday lexicon. These might not be grammatically correct, but that shouldn’t matter.
Dialogue, more than anywhere else, is where you can break the rules of grammar.
Not all people have extensive vocabularies either. A University Professor using “exquisite” is fine. A four year old doing the same is jarring.
This doesn’t mean you should just throw away all the grammar rules. If the sentences you construct are incomprehensible gibberish, you’ve still broken the the golden: Something is "bad" when it makes the story harder to read.
There’s really no quick fix for this, nor is there a definitive guide showing which rules you should break and which rules you shouldn’t when it comes to grammar in dialogue. It’s something that you have to learn through immersion in the languages nuance — listen to how people talk, eavesdrop on daily conversations, consume media.
When in doubt, read your dialogue out loud. If you ever find yourself stumbling over something, it means something’s wrong.
Obvious exposition is also another thing to avoid in dialogue. Real conversations have so much left unspoken and implied that people just naturally pick up on. When your characters start stating the obvious every single time, it starts to feel like everyone in the story is retarded.
Having walls of text is also weird. Natural conversations don’t usually have one-sided lectures, but a sort of back-and-forth dance between people. Nor do conversations follow a strict question answer question answer format (something many writers use in place of walls of text to infodump on readers). Instead, dialogue often has multiple threads running through at the same time — you can be discussing the meaning of life while at the same time talking about what to get for lunch.
People don’t just talk at each other like set pieces either. They act and interact with their environment and use body language. They get sidetracked, mishear, misunderstand, interrupt themselves, interrupt each other, get stuck in awkward silences, and aren’t always sure of what they know.
In short, your characters are people.
There are 782,000+ Harry Potter fanfiction stories on fanfiction.net alone as I write this. That means the probability of a reader randomly picking out your story from the teeming hordes is lower than you being killed by fireworks.
Fortunately for you, readers don’t tend to pick stories at random, but rather develop their own strategies for finding “good stories”.
Here’s the thing: We live in an age of instant gratification. Your prose could be Shakespearean but if your Title, Summary, Opening Lines, and Chapter One suck, you’ve already lost them.
The beginning is paramount to ensure that readers keep reading.
Of course, if the rest of your story sucks readers will eventually wise up and leave, but that’s a problem for another day.
Titles are two-fold in this regard. First, they must act as a catchphrase that encompasses your story. They are your branding so to speak — when people hear that title you want them to think of you. That’s pretty hard to do when there are a couple thousand other stories that have similar names to yours. Here, and here alone, do I actively encourage people to break open their thesauruses to find a word that hasn’t been used before (or at least, not as overused).
This was a strategy I used for The Magnate so it’s definitely not impossible to have a unique title (and your odds increase exponentially with phrases). A quick google search reveals it’s the only Harry Potter fanfic with the name. There are two other stories with similar-ish names: an Elder Scrolls story and some K-Drama thing.
In this regard, Google is a useful tool for gauging how popular a title is, and conversely, how bad it is as a means of differentiation.
There are quite a few techniques that can help you with naming your story. I’ve already mentioned the thesaurus trick. One can also use simple translations if they feel thematically appropriate. Important and uniquely named plot devices in a story are also good choices (The Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings, Skitterleap, Dreamcatcher). Titular characters are also something to consider (but not for fanfiction because that shit is overdone).
When in doubt, always ask yourself what the story you want to tell is about and extrapolate from there.
Having a bad title isn’t the end of the world, but having a bad summary is. This, more than your title, determines whether or not someone reads your story. You have to get this one right.
Luckily for you, most people are shit at writing summaries, so avoiding common pitfalls is enough to get yours above average.
First and foremost, never ask your reader questions explicitly. It’s annoying in the extreme and kills their curiosity in a story to be forced to ask questions. Instead, your words should be strong enough to make them ask the questions.
Never give away your whole story, and never give the readers nothing. A summary is actually a misnomer in the sense that it isn’t meant to summarize the story so much as give you just enough to want to read, but not enough to kill any reason to read. If your story gives your readers all the answers, they won’t read. If your story is too pretentious trying to be poetic, they won’t read.
I write primarily massive AU fics, so that is my story’s unique selling point. Thus, my summaries tend to highlight this fact and give readers a sense of the changes I’ve made. When unsure of what to write, always ask yourself what makes your story weird or different and try to emphasize those things. Your story might just be playing on an age-old trope but with (hopefully) better quality writing, but we expect you to at least have some small twist in there to change up the dynamic.
One technique I’ve grown fond of is quoting my own story in the summary, when I can find a passage that can encompass what to expect. Quoting real life people is, for the most part, ill advised.
Another thing to pay attention to is Efficiency of Words. If you can something with less words, do so. Fanfiction.net allows you around three to four sentences given the character limit, so you need to be able to condense your point. This often means having to cut down on overly flowery language and using shortcuts (AU, HP/Initials of Arbitrary Romantic Interest of Choice) to condense some ideas. Ideally, one should never use Slytherin!Harry (and similar tags) because if it’s important enough a point to make, readers should get an idea that that’s the case from your actual summary.
And that’s all you really need to not be completely shit at summaries. To recap: don’t be too flowery, don’t ask explicit questions, and focus on differentiating your story.