Matt Gemmell

My new book CHANGER is out now!

An action-adventure novel — book 1 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon

Writing Fiction Online

Writing 6 min read

I read quite a lot of fiction, and in recent years I’ve taken to reading a fair bit of it online during odd moments; maybe a chapter of an amateur novel with lunch, or some fan fiction while waiting for the coffee to brew.

Amateur fiction is a wonderful thing, and the internet is a great publishing medium, but you naturally run into the issue of quality control - there’s a lot of bad fiction out there. Perhaps not quite as much as you’d think, but still a lot. If you’re writing such stuff and your problems are those of triteness, illogical plot points, indecipherable or tired dialogue or any of dozens of other problems, I can’t really help you.

But there’s a far bigger group of writers out there whose problems are those of style, and I can give some advice on that. Here are a few stylistic guidelines to follow for readable, smoothly flowing online fiction.

Emphasis only

You only need one kind of emphasis, and it should be this kind. Call it italics or whatever else, but stick with just that style. Don’t use boldface or underline or anything else, as a general rule. You can, of course, very sparingly use all-capitalised words for suitable effect.

Use the same emphasis for thoughts

If someone is thinking, use the same old emphasis - and don’t use quotation marks around the thought either. Do it like this:

I would rather out-think them than out-fight them, he thought. Violence must be our last resort.

If you need to emphasise something within a thought, then you remove the style, like this:

I will never forgive him for this.

Use blank lines between paragraphs

Separate your paragraphs with a blank line. Don’t indent them; that’s antiquated, harder to read and more suitable for print.

Avoid sound effects

Any attempt to render a sound in text will come across as corny and bizarre; don’t even try. Instead, either describe the sound in passing or simply make reference to the fact that a sound was heard.

This is bad:

Picard didn't even glance up from his computer terminal as the familiar BEE-DEE-BEE-DEE sound announced that someone was requesting entry to his Ready Room.

This is better:

Picard didn't even glance up from his computer terminal as the familiar sound of the door chime announced that someone was requesting entry to his Ready Room.

Don't let characters babble

Writing dialogue is very difficult, for two different reasons. First, you have to decide what the characters actually say - and that part is up to you. Second, you have to figure out how to make them say it in a believable and tolerable way.

So many amateur writers spew dialogue onto the page and end up giving the reader the impression that the characters were having a verbal tennis match. I see stuff like this a lot:

"Is there something wrong, T'Pol?" asked Archer. "I am uncertain what you are referring to, Captain," she replied. "You've seemed even more withdrawn than usual over the past few days." "Have I not been performing my duties adequately?" "I didn't say that. I'm just concerned, that's all. I wanted to see if there was anything troubling you." "I appreciate your concern, but there is nothing the matter. I have simply not had sufficient time for my regular meditation during our ongoing negotiations with the Andorians." "Well, if you say so."

It’s not awful, but it’s a bit disconnected and confrontational. It gives the impression of quite a rapid and unanchored exchange, whereas the actual dialogue itself tends to suggest a more nuanced and cautious conversation. There were probably pauses and contemplative silences, and meaningful looks flying around, but we missed them all - and that’s a real shame.

I even sometimes see prose written like a screenplay, simply because many people don’t know how to write and pace dialogue. It does take some work, but it’s not difficult. Feel free to space out the dialogue; really visualise the people who are speaking. They don’t stand facing each other and robotically deliver rapid-fire retorts like two computers playing chess against each other. Slow it down, and describe what’s happening as well as what’s being said.

Taking the same conversation between Archer and T’Pol, we can make it much more interesting to read and less jarring by doing something like this:

She took the indicated chair only reluctantly, and if anything she looked even less comfortable seated than she had when standing. Sitting ramrod straight and perched on the very edge, Archer thought. You'd think there was no Vulcan word for "relax". He sighed, noticing one delicate eyebrow rising momentarily at the sound, and began. "Is there something wrong, T'Pol?" he asked, almost immediately regretting his choice of words. She visibly tensed up even further, though he wouldn't have thought it possible. "I am uncertain what you are referring to, Captain," she replied, her voice measured and calm. Her facial expression was a picture of control, but her large eyes betrayed a hint of uneasiness. "You've seemed even more withdrawn than usual over the past few days," he replied, trying to keep his tone relatively light but knowing he wasn't entirely succeeding. He was worried, and a part of him wanted her to know it. "Have I not been performing my duties adequately?" she dissembled, fully aware that it was a stalling tactic at best. Jonathan Archer was remarkably perceptive for a human, and he was usually quite proficient at seeing past her cool, logical exterior. "I didn't say that," he replied, his tone slightly strained; "I'm just concerned, that's all. I wanted to see if there was anything troubling you." He gave her a small smile, and saw her glance away for a moment before once again meeting his gaze. "I appreciate your concern, but there is nothing the matter," she said, and this time it was his turn to raise an eyebrow. "I have simply not had sufficient time for my regular meditation during our ongoing negotiations with the Andorians." He looked at her in silence for a long moment, scanning her face for the slightest weakening of the barrier she always kept in place. As usual, there was none to be found. He sighed once more. "Well, if you say so," he said, again offering a weak smile for a moment before turning and crossing to the window. She knew this was her cue to leave, so she stood up and went to the door, pressing the small panel to make it slide open. She was about to step out into the corridor when he spoke again. "If you ever want to talk, you know where to find me," he said. She looked round and saw he was once again facing her, but his expression was hidden in the glare of the stars behind. She simply nodded, and after a pause which was perhaps a moment longer than necessary, she stepped through the doorway.

Now yes, that’s quite a bit longer, but it’s also a lot more interesting and less like some kind of verbal duel. It’s better paced, and it doesn’t cause as much confusion or shortness of breath.

Pace your dialogue; focus on the entire interaction, not just the spoken words. People think and gesticulate and pause and sigh and fidget and frown and a million other things; they don’t just chatter at each other. Slow it down.

Use an authentic voice

Don’t make characters say things they wouldn’t. This is particularly important when writing fan fiction; you’ve got to keep the characters in character. This, for example, is bad:

"That sounds pretty freaking dumb, Geordi," said Picard.

This is considerably more believable:

"I believe that may prove unwise, Commander," said Picard.

Make your story as crazy as you like, but make your characters believable.

Use breaks

Chapters are your largest organisational units; use them appropriately, but don’t overuse them (like Dan Brown). There’s also a natural type of break which can occur within a chapter, to indicate that the time and/or location has changed: it’s called a scene break. If you’re writing fiction online, it’s conventional to just insert some kind of horizontal separator - you should feel free to do so with abandon, and always to mark changes in time or place.

You can use an HTML horizontal rule, or a few centered “+” symbols, or whatever you like - just be consistent. You do not need any other kind of break besides scene and chapter. When you reach the end of a chapter, take an entirely new page (if you’re publishing online, do consider literally linking to another page on the web where the next chapter can be found).

Avoid inappropriate cultural references

This one is a very common problem, and it’s a sure-fire way to make your writing sound cheesy. No matter how ideally a pop song expresses the sentiment you want your protagonist to have, do not make him or her listen to it, mention its aptness, or (god forbid) sing it to another character.

Those things will seem like a really wonderful idea if you’re thirteen years old, but for the vast majority of your readers they’ll be agonising. Instead, describe the character’s actual feelings - by all means using analogy to do so, if you feel it’s appropriate - and don’t cheapen the moment by reducing it to a quotation of someone else’s lyrics.

Relatedly, if you’re shamelessly copying a plot point from a TV show in your own fictional world, resist the temptation to have one of your characters remark on how similar the events are to what happened in that show. It sounds self-conscious and adolescent, and it’s considerably less amusing than you think it is.

Get a proof-reader

This is blindingly obvious, but it’s also universally ignored: get someone who isn’t you to read your work. Not your mother, unless she’s likely to give constructive, honest feedback. Others will see problems that are invisible to you, particularly with regard to pacing and logic. Take their suggestions and criticisms on board, and revise accordingly.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of this topic here; feel free to suggest more tips (not just pet peeves, please; offer the solution to the problem too) in the comments below.