Writing Techniques

woman writing on her notebook. Writing Techniques

Here are the best Writing Techniques that have worked or me.

Character Agency

‘Character agency’ in fiction is used to describe the ability a character has to take action to affect the events of the story. It’s often used in a negative sense. Rejection letters may refer to the ‘lack of agency’ of the main character as the reason a literary agent passes on a submission. Character agency falls under the show don’t tell umbrella and to fix it: use goals to propel the character, both overarching and immediate. And keep the action visceral and immediate by using your active voice.

Active voice: As ‘good practice’, aim to write actively for extra impact and engagement. It easily grabs the reader’s attention and keeps their mind on what the writer wants.

Active voice: Jerry knocked over the lamp.

Passive voice: The lamp was knocked over by Jerry

The first example of active voice comes from one of the many important quotes from J.D. Salinger’s masterpiece, The Cather in the Rye. In these lines, the speaker is introducing details about his childhood. 

 They’re nice and all—I’m not saying that – but they’re also touchy as hell. Besides, I’m not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything.

The following lines come from Fitzgerald’s best-known novel, The Great Gatsby. In this passage, the writer describes how Daisy reacts after receiving a letter from Gatsby. She’s engaged to another, but through this description, it’s clear how emotionally torn she is. 

She wouldn’t let go of the letter. She took it into the tub with her and squeezed it up into a wet ball, and only let me leave it in the soap dish when she saw that it was coming to pieces like snow.

Here is a general comparison of showing and telling:
Conveys more focused detailConveys a broad overview
Slows down narrativeSpeeds up narrative
Character is dominantNarrator is dominant
Foregrounds perceptionsForegrounds context
More personal/intimateMore impersonal/universal
Writer works moreReader works more

How vs. Whatshowing is more likely to explain and describe how something occurs, whereas telling can simply state what happened.

Detail vs. Overviewshowing focuses on providing details in an effort to imitate the character’s experience, while telling is more useful for providing a broad overview or generalization of the situation.

Verbose vs. Succinct – since showing requires more detail, it’s usually wordier than telling.

Slow vs. Fast – another consequence of providing more details is that the pace of the narration slows down. Telling, in contrast, usually speeds up the story.

Character vs. Narrator – because showing often relies on the way the action of the story is perceived, the character becomes more dominant. However, this character may be the narrator themselves.

Perception vs. Context – even if the perceptions are shown from the point of view of a disembodied narrator, they’re usually more focused. Telling, in contrast, is better suited to provide context.

Personal vs. Impersonal – because it foregrounds perceptions, showing can feel more personal, whereas telling can impart a universal quality as exemplified by the fairy-tale formula: “once upon a time, in a kingdom far away, there lived a…”

Writer vs. Readershowing requires a writer to expend skill, time, and words. Although it can help to draw the reader in, I think telling a story demands more of the reader, who has to fill in the details through the work of their own imagination.

Point of View

The term point of view, or POV, refers to who is telling a story, or who is narrating it. A writer can present the underlying action of any scene in countless ways, depending on who’s observing it. If you narrator is not your main character, this can serve to lend your protagonist an air of mystery.

Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is famously told from the POV of Nick Carraway. Nick recollects the summer he moved to New York and befriended Jay Gatsby. A mysterious millionaire on the Long Island social scene, Gatsby’s secrets and intentions are gradually revealed to the reader as Nick tells his friend’s story. As a character himself, his bias filters and colors our perception of the other characters and their actions. This is why we usually write unreliable narrators in the first person.

For a POV character to provide a point of contrast, they don’t have to exist in an entirely separate circle. If you’re writing a historical romance set in a society governed by convention, for example, a viewpoint character who recognizes the snobbery of the company they keep (think Lizzie Bennet from Pride and Prejudice) can prevent the reader from becoming too enmeshed in its way of thinking. And add an element of social commentary or even satire to your writing. 

A viewpoint character who’s thoroughly embedded in their community or a veteran in their industry, for example, can provide an illuminating perspective — even if it means initially throwing readers in at the deep end.

The best thing about these characters is that their insight allows you to observe shifts, nuances, and finer details of your setting. This is particularly useful when your story explores a community where insiders are the only ones to know the secrets — like your fantasy world.

Related: Levels of Editing

Writing Sensory Details


Like smell, tastes can have the effect of transporting the reader. In Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, our narrator savors a freshly baked cookies that unlocks a trove of childhood memories. This shared experience of taste — both delicious and repulsive — evoke a sensory response that draws the reader into the story.


We rarely mention how something smells unless it’s exceptionally pleasant or foul. But our noses can remember things our eyes have long forgotten. A carefully invoked smell can summon a reader’s own sense-memory: the smell of freshly buttered popcorn can take you to the lobby of a movie theater; a whiff of bodily fluids masked by disinfectant can transport you to a hospital.

Tactile Imagery

Using the sense of touch is about much more than describing the feeling of sand through your fingers or a silk scarf on your shoulders. Though textures are crucial to building a full descriptive picture, touch also encompasses sensations we usually think of as beneath the skin, like sweltering in the heat, prickling with fear, or writhing in agony. Get it right, and tactile imagery can move readers to have a physical experience that’s completely immersive. 

Experimenting with different forms

Writers choose all sorts of different ways to deliver a narrative — poems, screenplays, novels, essays. But no matter what business you’re in, crossing boundaries and experimenting with the formal structure of your writing is always a great way to keep things fresh. 

Though a medium like a letter or a newspaper clipping may seem restrictive — due to the added constraints of formatting, and perhaps tone — experimenting with form is a writing technique that has the potential to unlock boundless creativity.

Something every writer dreads is a loose and meandering middle: a narrative that loses tension. To avoid this common faux pas, heed the advice of two short fiction masters, Ernest Hemingway and Kurt Vonnegut, and restrict your narrative to as short a timeframe as possible.

Epistolary narratives

In an epistolary narrative, the writer tells the story in the form of letters. They can be written by a single character to someone whose responses aren’t heard or sent between two or more characters, whose points of view are all represented. A good example of this is Frankenstein. The story is narrated through the first-person accounts of Captain Walton, Victor Frankenstein, and the monster himself.

The effect of an epistolary narrative is an intimate kind of voyeurism. Because of the style’s inherent authenticity, we feel as though we’re peering into the personal life of the character. This brings us closer to the character and creates a sort of conspiratorial relationship. 

Emails and instant messaging

The way we communicate with each other is constantly changing — indeed, most of the letters we receive these days go straight in the trash. So some more recent epistolary narratives reflect this change by swapping letters out for emails. 

Logs and other formal documents

When experimenting with form, don’t be afraid to think outside the box. As long as it helps to tell the story, anything is valid — be it a doctor’s report, a questionnaire, an interrogation, or a ship’s log. 

Featuring a mix of forms in your writing can also be an interesting way to experiment. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for example, relies on newspaper clippings, a ship’s log, a medical journal, telegrams, and diary entries to build a cumulative picture of events. His use of form lends credence to an otherwise improbable story.

Get in late, leave early

Kurt Vonnegut’s golden rule of writing is that every story should start as close to the end as possible. So as not to cut out the meatiest part of the narrative, you might interpret this to mean in the middle of the action — or in medias res. By skipping over the inciting incident, and folding any necessary exposition into the rising action, you cut down your story’s timespan and keep your writing snappy. 

Another story structure that kicks off with rising action is The Fichtean Curve. This structure sees the protagonist come up against several obstacles in anticipation of the climax. Exposition is seamlessly folded into the action, and everything is left unresolved until the very end — when you tie things up and make a swift exit. 

This tension-packed approach works particularly well for mysteries and thrillers. But if your writing tends to be lighter on plot, this writing technique might still be a fit. Literary fiction that focuses on mood, attributes importance to the mundane, or dives into a character’s psyche might benefit from the “vignette” approach. A concise yet evocative account of a moment in time is often the best way to capture a memory.

Hemingway’s iceberg theory

Writers who try to restrict their word count will soon find that a lot of what they would have said upfront, now needs to be implied. The idea that the reader might have to infer some of your story’s details is exactly what Hemingway was getting at with his “Iceberg Theory”. The theory posits that you should only provide readers with the most essential element of your narrative.

While it’s great to know your characters’ backstories, and have plans for their futures, readers only need to know the here and now. So try to keep most of what you know about a character’s past and future to yourself. Include only what’s directly relevant. By doing so, not only do you keep some plot in the bank for a sequel, you also hold the interest of your readers by drip-feeding insights. 

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