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Six Key Elements of a Good Story

Updated on July 7, 2014

We Are All Storytellers

Name a master storyteller for me. Take your time. I’ll wait.

For me, the quintessential storyteller only told one story during her career. Harper Lee set the standard for this writer, and “To Kill A Mockingbird” will always be the grail that I seek.

Let’s take a look at one passage from her masterpiece. After that, we’ll discuss the six key elements of a good story.

“Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy

weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse

sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a

summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering

shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the

morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall

were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.

People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the

stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long

but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy

and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb

County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb

County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Make these characters real
Make these characters real | Source

CREDIBILITY

Now that you have read the passage, let’s take a closer look at it. There is an economy of words in that passage. There are no large words to confuse the reader, and although it is written about a time and place most readers today cannot imagine (a small southern town during the Great Depression) it is very recognizable and believable.

Why?

Because Harper Lee achieved credibility through her writing.

Author David Rhodes explains it this way:

“If the characters don’t seem to naturally belong in the place they are imagined to be living, the story will lack credibility.”

It makes no difference whether you are writing about a space colony in a science fiction piece, or a cave in an adventure novel. Your job, as a writer, is to make it appear that the characters belong in the setting of the story, and that they are quite comfortable there. If the characters are comfortable then your readers will be as well.

CHARACTER

The longer I write the more I am convinced that your main characters are every bit as important as your story. In fact, I am leaning toward the characters being more important than the story itself. I am also willing to bet that your favorite books are your favorites because they have outstanding and memorable characters.

I first read “To Kill A Mockingbird” fifty years ago. Still today I can name at least seven characters from that book. If you stop and think about it, that is remarkable.

Name a mystery writer and I’m fairly certain I can name the main character in his/her mystery series. James Lee Burke/Dave Robicheaux…..Harlen Coben/Myron Bolitar….Lee Childs/Jack Reacher….John D. MacDonald/Travis McGee.

Yes, these writers were superb in their skills, but more than that, their characters came alive in my imagination, and I was able to relate to them on some level.

That, my friends, is good writing.

What is the atmosphere of your story?
What is the atmosphere of your story? | Source

EMOTION

A writer who ignores the emotions of his/her readers is a writer doomed to fail. You can quote me on that.

If readers become invested in your story then you have done your job well. Tears….laughter….fright….remorse…..these are the common bonds shared by all….tap into those and then give yourself a pat on the back.

On the flip side, if your story does not tap into those emotions, then sit down and rewrite it until it does.

I have written several articles about this element in the past, so let’s move on.

ATMOSPHERE

What is the mood of your story? Is it foreboding? Is it mystical? Is it filled with wonder?

If a story is told well, there will always be an underlying tone to it, a visceral experience for the reader as they turn each page. The great writers are well-aware of this fact, and they use it masterfully to their advantage.

Word choice, of course, plays a part in establishing atmosphere, as does rhythm and setting.

Before you sit down to begin your story, ask yourself what the atmosphere should be, and then keep that in the back of your mind as you write each chapter. If a chapter does not fit the atmosphere that you seek, then keep writing until it does.

The theme of my latest novel is redemption
The theme of my latest novel is redemption | Source

All six elements appear in this novel

SYMBOLISM

Adding symbolism to a novel is not an easy task, primarily because it is not a concrete task. Setting a scene, fleshing out characters, writing dialogue, these are things that flow in the telling of a story. Not so, symbolism. Writing symbolism is trekking through the abstract, and as such is much more difficult to do….but….if your story or novel is going to rise from average to good, then symbolism is necessary.

What is symbolism? Simply stated, symbolism is using one thing to symbolize, or represent, something else. For example, if I am writing about the death of a family member, and at the end of the passage I say that dark clouds appeared over the landscape, and the rains beat upon the window, I am using the dark clouds and the rain to symbolize depression and tears.

Again, it is not necessary to have symbolism in your story, but if you want your story to move to the next level, I highly recommend using it. One word of caution: if the symbolism is so abstract as to confuse the reader, it either has to be simplified or eliminated. As storytellers, the last thing we want to do is confuse our readers and leave them in a permanent state of confusion.

THEME

Again with the abstract. Writing the description of a character is pretty straightforward. I describe the physical characteristics of a person….how tall is she, is she thin or heavy, what color is her hair, how does she walk, and so on. But I cannot do that with theme. The theme of a story should be obvious without the author stating it.

Good vs evil is a common theme, but nowhere in a book will you find it stated as such. A good writer will make the theme apparent through the storytelling.

Does a writer need a theme? Most definitely no, but a story or novel without a theme will be pure pablum for the uninspired, and certainly not entertaining or rewarding for those readers who require a little bit more than bland.

Keep These Six Elements in Mind

Do you need all six of these elements in every story you write? No!

Do you need all six of these elements if you want an exceptional story? YES!

There is a very good reason why excellent writers are excellent writers. They take no shortcuts. They do not take little breaks from quality. Every single sentence that they write in a short story or a novel serves a purpose. There are no throwaways.

Just something to think about. Go check one of your short stories and see if it contains all six of these elements. If it doesn’t, you might want to consider doing a little fine-tuning.

2014 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”

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    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 3 years ago from New York, New York

      I truly try to keep all of these in mind when I do write even short blog passages that describe something in my life now or in the past with all the wonderful people I have met along the way (so I guess I try even in my non-fiction writing to remember this). That said thank you for the reminder and Happy Monday after the long holiday weekend!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Good for you, Janine, if you keep these in mind. They will make a better writer of anyone willing to follow them. Thank you as always dear friend.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      These are all very important elements to a good story Bill and 'Resurrecting Tobias' definitely displays them all. It certainly tugs at the emotions and is an interesting and enjoyable read. I try to incorporate all these elements in my writing. Symbolism is probably the one I sometimes have the most trouble with or requires more thought to make effective.

      Another great hub.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      John, symbolism is the stumbling block for many a writer, so you are in good company. Thanks buddy and I'm glad you are enjoying the book.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Fuller 3 years ago from Southern Illinois

      Seems like when i write a short story i only write the hair color or if they're tall or short. I'm learning there's more to do. Thank you Bill.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 3 years ago from England

      Hi Billy, so true, unless we have all these ingredients it can be a bit bland, I am reading an awesome book at the moment, its called the Mark of Cain, and the writer, Tom Knox has it all. Not only that he gives us information about things we had no idea of! I have spent most of the morning checking the cagots, basters, and the mark of cain on the pc, fascinating, and I learned so much from him too, you should check out the book, its amazing! Great advice as always bill, nell

    • breakfastpop profile image

      breakfastpop 3 years ago

      You are an invaluable resource, billy. I may have already told you that, but I don't mind repeating myself. Voted up, interesting, useful and awesome.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Ruby, just a smidgin' more to do. LOL it will come for you if you want it to my friend. Thank you and Happy Monday.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks for the recommendation, Nell, and I will check out that book. I hope you have a great week my friend. Thank you.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Breakfastpop, repeat all you want. I love hearing it. :) Thank you!

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 3 years ago from Central Florida

      These are good tips to keep in mind as I continue with my novel. I recognize the clouds and rain from Resurrecting Tobias. I spent the better part of this weekend reading. I'm enjoying Toby, Pete, and Maria and the journey they are on collectively and separately.

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      MizBejabbers 3 years ago

      Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird is a beautiful piece of writing with descriptive prose that is poetic. I would say that this is mainly a lost art, but I recently found a fantasy writer, Juliett Marllier, who writes a beautiful poetic prose, and I am devouring her books. I recommend her even to people who don’t care for fantasy.

      I heartily agree that your main characters are as important as the story. Have you read Game of Thrones or watched the TV show on HBO? There is one character, Daenerys, in that series who is as out of place as a snowball on a hot sidewalk, and I wish she had disappeared like one. Even my unimaginative brother who watched the series on HBO agrees. I know that if the author ever gets around to finishing the tale, the whole series will probably climax around her, but just getting there is a royal pain and made me want to skip those chapters.

      I’m going to go back and look at some of my short stories to see if they have these elements you mentioned. It is difficult sometimes to get them all in when you have a word limit, but a writer can make sure the most important ones are there.

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 3 years ago from Wales

      More great advice Billy ;some tips I already use but some I don't but certainly will keep them in mind from now on. Voting up, across sharing and saving. Here's wishing you a wonderful day my dear friend.

      Eddy.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

      Symbolism is perhaps my favorite as I read others' work, although the other factors that you mention must be there as well.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you as always, Sha. Symbolism is not my forte, but that doesn't give me an excuse for not working on it. :)

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      MizB, I have not seen that show or read the book, but your comment is a classic. I'll have to watch it now just to see what you are talking about....thanks for the laugh by the way. Descriptive prose that is poetic....no, we do not see much of that anymore...of course, that just means it is up to us to produce it. :)

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Eddy. I'm slaving away on the computer trying to write the next great novel....I suspect I'll be after that quest for quite some time. :)

      billy

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Flourish, I would probably lean toward strong characters, but symbolism is beautiful when done well.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 3 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      I am getting the bits and pieces now I have to work on putting more meat on the bones.

    • mpropp profile image

      Melissa Propp 3 years ago from Minnesota

      Great information Bill! I think the symbolism would be the hardest part for me, although sometimes you might include symbolism almost unintentionally. I remember taking a thematic writing course in high school, and we analyzed different books and it was amazing to me how many different interpretations (especially in regards to symbolism) could be found by each reader. Hope you had a Happy 4th!

    • mdscoggins profile image

      Michelle Scoggins 3 years ago from Fresno, CA

      Great pointers that will definitely help guide at least the planning portion of writing. I always enjoy your articles as they are packed full of helpful information. As an aspiring writer this will be one I will reflect on :)

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Eric, you use the same approach that I use..do the bare bones first and then go back and give it some depth. Carry on my friend.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Good point Melissa and yes, symbolism is the toughest for me as well. I did have a nice 4th, thank you, and I hope you did as well.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you mdscoggins...if I'm helping someone then I'm a happy writer and old teacher. :)

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 3 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      Yes, for sure, these elements, masterfully crafted, are what make an exceptional story.

      One time I read a book on screenwriting that said that plot is external objectives, motives, conflicts, events—e.g., everyone wants to find the hidden treasure; theme is internal objectives, motives, conflicts--e.g., greed corrupts humans.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      An excellent summary, Brian, and I found myself nodding my head while reading it. Thanks for that my friend.

    • lrc7815 profile image

      Linda Crist 3 years ago from Central Virginia

      Kindred, writing a novel has not made it to my bucket list yet but you had me from the introduction on this one. To Kill A Mockingbird is one of my top five favorites of all time. It did indeed have all the elements you have described. Despite my having no burning desire to write a novel, your hub gave me pause. I thought of some of my favorite writers and did a mental check of their work. They too had all the elements you have mentioned. I think it's important to examine the reasons we enjoy a particular author from time to time. I think it makes us better writers whether we're writing a poem, a short story, or a how-to article. Loved this one. Hugs coming your way on this Monday of a new week.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 3 years ago from SW England

      I'm hard pushed to find exceptional writers these days; most of the ones I really enjoy are children's authors or a few from the era of Harper Lee.

      Great résumé of what's needed. What I like about your tutorial hubs is that you put together the nitty-gritty in a compact form; easy to read, easy to understand, easy to remember.

      My writing has dropped off lately and I'm having difficulty getting back into the groove. Your voice at my elbow says 'come on, get on with it!'

      Hope you have a great week, bill!

      Ann

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Very informational and useful hub, Billy -- and you chose an excellent novel , To Kill a Mockingbird, as an example. I felt so much a part of that story because the author made it so real and interesting. When I write fiction, these elements come forth for me to ponder on and I find that without these important considerations the story falls flat. Wonderful job you do in helping others on their way.

    • tobusiness profile image

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 3 years ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

      Bill, every time I read one of your articles, I'm compelled to make drastic overhaul to my story, I'll never get pass the first chapter at this rate. :) Your hubs are excellent resources for all would be writers, this is exceptional.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Awww, thanks for the hug, Kindred. They are always welcome. Novel or no novel, we can always work to improve our writing, as you well know and practice. That's just one reason I hang with you. :)

      hugs back atcha

      bill

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Ann, I think that is a common trait of teachers, as you well know. We are used to compressing a lesson into a given number of minutes, so we whittle down to essentials. I've heard that before about my writing hubs, and I'm sure that's where it comes from.

      And of course, i thank you for the kind words. Enjoy your week my dear.

      bill

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Phyllis, and bravo to you for pondering these elements when you write. Good things happen to those who make the effort to improve. I believe that.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you, Jo, but now I feel guilty for holding you back. LOL Just ignore the next twenty articles and get to writing. :)

      bill

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Useful advice Bill. Descriptions - How about when you're the central character? Let others describe you during the course of dialogue. Period? Language is the key to period. Never mind the old 'thee' and 'thou' as in Sir Walter Scott's epics. Or 'ambling' narrative as in Dickens (more like Civil Service or Legal English).

      Try straightforward prose like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with observations. It wasn't just Sherlock Holmes. There were historical novels like 'Micah Clarke', Professor Challenger stories such as 'The Lost World' and novels like 'Beyond the City'. No fancy rhetoric, just cracking story- telling.

      As Ivar Ulfsson, Harold's kinsman, I let my friends and kinsmen describe me through observations.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Perfect, Alan. I have nothing to add to those excellent suggestions.

      I hope all is well in your little corner of the world.

      bill

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Back again. This hub, comments and your love of "To Kill a Mockingbird" have convinced me to pull it from my bookshelves, dust it off, and read it when I finish "Resurrecting Tobias". I have had it for years but just never got around to reading it. I know that's a sin, I'm sorry. Maybe it will be the revaluation I need... :)

    • DrBill-WmL-Smith profile image

      William Leverne Smith 3 years ago from Hollister, MO

      I do need to work on these. Thanks for the specific reminders, and some things to do about it. Very helpful!! ;-)

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 3 years ago from United States

      I always learn so much when I read your hubs. I am currently reading your new book and enjoying it as well.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      John, if you don't like it, I will be astonished. Enjoy my friend.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      It's always a pleasure, Bill. Thank you!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Awww, Pamela, thank you for buying my book. I am so glad you are enjoying it.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the suggestions, Bill. I will check one of my stories to see if it contains all six elements!

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 3 years ago from Shelton

      Billy what an interesting and well defined hub..a hub of the day if you ask me.. useful and very well written

    • Hankscita profile image

      Sandy 3 years ago from Florida

      Very useful. I'm sure I will refer back to this Hub. Thank you.

    • CyberShelley profile image

      Shelley Watson 3 years ago

      Thank you for succinctly setting out pointers for those of us writing or proposing to write a novel. Appreciate your guidance.

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 3 years ago from New Delhi, India

      Thanks for listing the six key elements, if one wants to write an exceptionally good story.

      Very useful as always! Thanks for sharing!

    • Cyndi10 profile image

      Cynthia B Turner 3 years ago from Georgia

      Extremely valuable information in this article. Fiction writers should be aware of these elements and use them. If the ignore them, they are not going to have much success capturing their reader. As writers, believability and the the ability to transport the reader into the story are rarely achieved without some of the elements you write about.

      Thanks for sharing your expertise with us. Sharing.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Alicia. I hope these help you.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Frank, thanks my friend. The HOTD will forever elude me I'm afraid. :)

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Hankscita. I'm glad you found this useful.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      It is my pleasure, Shelley. Good luck with these.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      You are very welcome, ChitrangadaSharan...thank you for the visit.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Well-stated, Cyndi....and thank you for summarizing it all so well.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 3 years ago

      I know I keep saying it, but your work is valuable and appreciated by all writers. Thank you!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Well, Dianna, I never get tired of hearing it, so thank you.

    • vkwok profile image

      Victor W. Kwok 3 years ago from Hawaii

      These are definitely elements to keep in mind. Thanks for sharing more of your wisdom, Bill!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      vkwok, you use them well in your books. Thank you!

    • carrie Lee Night profile image

      Kept private 3 years ago from Northeast United States

      Voted up with a useful and interesting ding :) Thank you so much for sharing your thoughtful advice through a lifetime of experience. Developing characters makes writing fun and engaging. Readers love characters that speak to them and that is why we do what we do. Have a wonderful day and thanks again for the guidance :) PS Should I call you the fairy Godfather of hubpages ? :) LOL

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Carrie, I've been called a lot worse. LOL Thank you for your kind words. I'm just an old teacher doing what comes naturally.

    • lifegate profile image

      William Kovacic 3 years ago from Pleasant Gap, PA

      Hi Bill,

      I see I've missed several more notifications over the past week. Glad to have read this one. I just sent my manuscript to the editor, but I hope I've included your six points. Thanks again for writing what we need.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Well done lifegate, and best wishes on that publishing journey. Don't be dejected by rejection. Some of the greatest writers ever were rejected on a regular basis.

    • Anna Haven profile image

      Anna Haven 3 years ago from Scotland

      Hi Bill

      Great advice and off course great examples to help to illustrate it.

      My favourite use of symbolism was in Jane Eyre.

      I was so impressed with how it inter-wound right through the novel and how powerful it was.

      I am still spellbound with the sheer skill of it.

      Anna

      Anna

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      You said a mouthful there, Anna. Sheer skill. Writing like that is not luck...it takes years of practice and dedication. Thanks for that observation.

      bill

    • Genna East profile image

      Genna East 3 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      Nell Harper Lee is the lady who drew me into writing. I first read her miracle of a novel when I was youngster. I was hooked. Your sections on character development are spot-on. I’m currently struggling with one of my characters in a long story…he’s the antagonist and I need to research his field of endeavor in order for him to translate to the reader from a more realistic perspective. Atmosphere is also critical as it is synonymous with “being there.” Excellent, hub, Bill. As always. :-)

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you again, Genna. It's good to know someone else to recognizes the genius of Lee. Have a wonderful weekend my friend.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      As I read a novel, I like to visualize everything in my head as I am reading it. If I can do that, the story is worth reading again later. A story that good, is worth passing on to friends.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I do the same thing, Deb. I put myself into the scene...I think it makes the reading process very enjoyable.

    • Nikkah Lubanga profile image

      Nikkah Lubanga 3 years ago from Cebu City Philippines

      i am an aspiring novelist myself. these are really helpful tips to improve my fiction writing. I am actually maintaining a blog site for my short stories aside from writing in here. i will surely take note of these tips.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Nikkah, and best wishes with your blog and future novels.

    • Lisawilliamsj profile image

      Lisa Williams 3 years ago

      This is great advice. I have been at a stalemate with my book for a couple of months now, maybe I will take these pointers and look over my story to see if I can get my creative juices flowing again. Thanks for the advice Bill!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks, Lisa, and good luck with it. When the time is right, the words will flow my friend.

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Glimmer Twin Fan 2 years ago

      You do realize that the more of these you write the less money you'll make when you write your How to write a novel? Just kidding, but now I think you need to write one for the 6 key elements of a good craft article and the 6 key elements of a good recipe. Then I'll be set. I ought to write a story if only to use your helpful advice.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      LOL...Glimmer, I'll get to work on those six elements of a good craft article. I figure with my knowledge of that topic, the article should only take me about ten years. :) Thanks for the laugh.

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