Manuscript Writing Best Practices Guide
This guide contains tips from Relay editors, designed to help you write strong, compelling manuscripts, tailored for our target audience.
Most of these tips are not hard-and-fast rules, but principles to keep in mind as you dive into your writing.
Table of Contents
1. Dialogue tags
A dialogue tag is a short phrase that identifies the speaker—“he said,” “asked John,” et cetera.
* “Said” is largely invisible, and can be used frequently without becoming monotonous.
* Save your more expressive dialogue tags (“he shrieked,” “she pleaded,” et cetera) for those moments when nothing else will do. (If you find those moments cropping up a lot, take a look at your dialogue. Are your characters’ feelings coming across in their words? If they are, emotional dialogue tags may be redundant. If they aren’t, work on your dialogue.)
* Try substituting action, reflection, or description for standard dialogue tags: “I couldn’t eat another bite.” John pushed his plate away. One more bite and he’d puke.
* You don’t need a tag for every line of dialogue. If the speaker is clear from context, it’s fine to go tagless (especially if a tag would only detract from the power of what’s being said):
“But you love me, right?” Her eyes were wide and pleading. She just needed a yes, and then they’d work the rest out.
“No. I don’t love you.”
2. “As you know, Bob” vs. “Hey, Bob! Check this out!”
Sometimes, you’ll want to use dialogue as a vehicle for exposition—but avoid turning your characters into impromptu narrators, rattling off plot/worldbuilding details like a gaggle of tour guides. People don’t go around recapping information that, to them, is established knowledge. But they do comment on what’s happening right in front of them, and they’re not neutral or clinical in their observations. Add immediacy and emotion to expository dialogue to make it sound natural.
BAD: As you know, Bob: “I feel sorry for those kids,” said John. “They only get one chance to write the exam, and only the top three percent are admitted to the Walled City. For ninety-seven percent of them, this is the closest they’ll ever come to leaving the Outlands.”
GOOD: Hey, Bob! Check this out: “Now, that’s what I call a sea of humanity.” John leaned over the balcony and jerked back with a grimace. “Or a sewer. Jesus Christ.”
Bob surveyed the crowd. “Third row from the back, in the rugby shirt. Ten bucks says he cracks.”
“I nearly freaked out myself,” said John. “I remember sitting where he’s sitting, one fish in that sea. I remember doing the math, three thousand kids in my district, and ninety would make the grade. One flub, one brainfart, I’d never see the Walled City…”
* Resist the temptation to spell out everything at once—YES, readers will want to know what the Walled City is, and why everyone wants in. But they don’t need the whole backstory in one greasy gob. Parcel out tidbits on a need-to-know basis: let readers form a picture as they progress through the story.
3. Keep it flowing!
* Watch out for filler words—your ums and ahs, your “So…”, “Well,” “I mean…”. They’re part of natural speech, but when you include them in dialogue, they read as uncertainty, hesitation, or in some cases, annoyance. Only use filler words when you intend to convey these things.
* Avoid conversational full stops (curt yes/no answers, short statements that discourage follow-up), except where you WANT to bring a conversation to a jarring halt.
* Use contractions. Contractions are part of natural speech, so not using them makes your characters sound like they’re either speaking formally of speaking very emphatically—maybe even being dishonest. (“I did not have sex with that woman” resonates differently from “I didn’t have sex with that woman.”)
* Keep accents and dialects to a minimum. Pronounced accents and dialects can trip the reader up, and even sound racist/classist, depending on context.
* Avoid the temptation to have characters constantly use each other’s names. People don’t call each other by name all that often in regular conversation—especially when only two speakers are involved, and it’s clear they’re addressing each other.
4. Keep it interesting!
* You know how on TV, nobody says goodbye when they hang up the phone? That’s because fictional dialogue is distilled to the fun parts—the parts that move the plot forward, reveal truths about the characters, or get a reaction from the audience. Dialogue that doesn’t accomplish anything doesn’t belong in your book. The best book dialogue accomplishes more than one task at a time: it builds character while foreshadowing a coming twist, reveals plot details while building atmosphere, gets a laugh from the reader while establishing backstory.
* Let it get messy. In the grip of strong emotion, people say things they don’t mean. Or they avoid saying what they want to say, in fear of a negative response. Show your readers the contrast between what your characters are feeling and the words coming out of their mouths. This helps build tension and a sense of momentum. This is one advantage books have over TV: we CAN peek inside characters’ heads to reveal complex conflicts and emotional reactions. We don’t have to rely on an actor to convey all that nuance through body language.
* Avoid reported dialogue—don’t tell the reader “They talked about the old days.” Let them experience the conversation. The more readers feel what your characters are feeling, the more they’ll be drawn into the story.
* Dialogue gets your characters out of their head and interacting with their world. Scenes without dialogue should be the exception, not the rule—and if you do need to write one, make sure your POV character is doing something interesting, not sitting around lost in reflection. A scene where a character sneaks past a sleeping security guard, for example, shouldn’t involve dialogue…but it’s definitely not boring.
Unless you’re writing in tight first/third person (the reader is only told what the POV character experiences directly), or in a highly detached, cinematic style (the reader is only told what a camera would see), you’ll generally balance showing and telling throughout your narrative. But what are showing and telling?
Telling is relating information directly to the reader—preferably in a crisp, concise manner.
Showing is pulling the reader into a scenario where they can deduce that information for themselves. Showing is where you’ll engage the reader’s senses and emotions, and make them feel like they’re part of the story.
Showing and telling occur both at a language level and a story level. At the language level, you’ll choose between direct and expressive language (“It was raining” versus “I was drenched in an instant, shivering in my boots.”) At the story level, you’ll choose when to use telling to set your scene quickly, with a few to-the-point sentences, and when to set up a more involved scenario, using action or dialogue to show what you want to convey.
1. Striking a Balance
* Good places for telling: the start of a chapter (setting the scene); basic worldbuilding; setting up backstory (especially involving characters with limited impact on the story); reminding the reader of how imaginary things work; anything you’d like to cover as quickly and efficiently as possible.
* Good places for showing: highly emotional scenes, charged conversations, immersive worldbuilding, anything you want to make sure your readers remember. The more visceral your depiction, the better it sticks.
* Sometimes, you just want to get to the point. “I was happy and you ruined it” is telling—but it’s simpler and more powerful than “I got out of bed this morning and I couldn’t wait to start my day. I was floating on air, then you…how could you, with my mother?” (Especially if the reader already knows what happened.)
2. You don’t have to show everything.
* It’s okay to skip from one interesting thing to the next. Your characters might need to walk across the whole desert, but your readers only need to experience the highlights.
3. Using Language to Create Immediacy
* Intermediary phrases (“I was,” “I saw,” “he could feel,” et cetera) create distance between the reader and what the characters are experiencing. These types of phrases are associated with telling, and can be used to imply that the character is feeling detached from what they’re experiencing (by transferring that detachment to the reader). They can also be used to show that the character is experiencing something so alien or upsetting they’re not sure what to make of it, and that they (and the reader) should catalogue it in terms of disparate sensations and thought fragments. This does not make them “good” or “bad,” it just makes them distancing. Use them when you want distance—avoid them when you don’t.
* Strong verbs do the opposite—they’re associated with showing, and create a visceral connection between the reader and the scene. “The wind sliced through his overcoat.” “He rammed the throttle.” “Her guts churned and boiled.”
* Trust your reader: assume they can take in what your character is experiencing and draw the conclusions you want them to draw. You don’t need to show something happening, then follow up with a recap.
4. Additional information
* “Show, don’t tell” is probably the most common advice given to writers—and the most poorly understood. If you find yourself struggling, here’s a great resource: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Understanding-Show-Dont-Tell-Builders-ebook/dp/B01M0BE4UP/
1. Setting the Scene
* Working with a limited wordcount, it’s tempting to jump straight into a chapter without setting the scene…but don’t. Try to ground your reader in the scene within the first couple of paragraphs. Cover your five Ws—who’s involved, what’s happening, and where, when, and why? NOTE: you CAN use dialogue/action/interaction to do this! You don’t need to start every chapter with a dry explanatory paragraph. Just make sure whatever you put in those first few lines conveys a sense of who, what, where, and when. (You can build to the “why.” It’s less urgent than the rest.)
* Setting the scene doesn’t have to be boring. You can use chapter openers as opportunities for character building, or for creating an immersive atmosphere.
* Part of setting the scene is posing a question or central conflict: what’s this chapter about? What does your POV character want to accomplish, and what’s standing in their way? This question should a) be answered or b) gain urgency by the end of the chapter.
* As long as the reader has a sense of the five Ws, you don’t have to reveal everything at once. You can start your story or chapter in medias res (in the middle of the action) and drip-feed readers backstory as you proceed. This is a good way to break up info dumps, while still conveying everything you need to convey.
2. Chapter Endings
Every chapter should end with a hook—something that makes the reader want to keep going. But that hook can take a number of forms, and it’s important to aim for variety.
* A cliffhanger is the most obvious hook—your character’s entered a dangerous situation, posed a fraught question, or stepped into the unknown…and the reader has to keep going to find out what’s next. Ending one or two chapters on a cliffhanger can build a sense of urgency. Ending every chapter on a cliffhanger becomes old-hat and feels manipulative to the reader.
* Your character receives new or game-changing information. This is distinct from a cliffhanger, in that no immediate threat or hanging question is involved. Instead, readers should wonder what your character is going to do with what they’ve learned, and read on to find out.
* Your character is questioning or meditating on a recent event. This shouldn’t just be a recap—that’s boring. Rather, it’s a space for you to delve into your character’s feelings, especially uncomfortable or negative ones. Readers will keep going so they, themselves, can move past the bad feelings. (Like when you stay up all night reading a horror book because you have to get past the awful bits before you can close your eyes.)
* Posing a new question, which is addressed over the following chapters. This often takes the form of a “now what?” moment—your heroine has agreed to marry the sheikh, and has moved into his palace. But…what does the bride of a sheikh actually do? Your hero has caught a thief…but what’s he going to do with him?
* Some chapters may end on a resolution: your character comes to a realisation or understanding, and must now act upon it. (For example, in romance, the hero and heroine will realise how much they need each other at the end of their dark nights of the soul, setting the reader up for the grand gesture to come.)
3. Lead the reader—but don’t moralise.
* Chapter endings should help the reader process what’s happened in that chapter and come to a conclusion—but avoid whacking them over the head with it. Stick with your characters’ immediate thoughts and feelings…think of it like they’re livetweeting, not writing an essay. Give us their feelings, not their thesis statement.
* Though characters may be shown to draw conclusions, the events of each chapter should speak for themselves, leading the reader to form their own opinions. That way, you can also build tension by having characters come to conclusions that differ from the reader’s—even arriving at decisions that are clearly mistakes. It’s important that the reader understand where the character is coming from—they’re not required to agree.
Narrative resonance is difficult to define, but at its core, it’s when your plot, your theme, and your storytelling come together to yield a story that rings true on every level—a story that creates an emotional reaction that lingers well past THE END.
In order to achieve narrative resonance, your story must be powerful, coherent, and direct, with every new development building on what’s come before, heading toward a strong and inevitable conclusion.
1. Cause and Effect
* When forging ahead with your story, never lose track of what’s come before. If your character was horrified by the sight of a dead body in chapter 3, that’s going to affect their reaction to finding a close friend in peril in chapter 9.
* Transformative experiences don’t just affect characters’ behaviour at the most obvious moments. A character who’s seen death firsthand, for example, might be unexpectedly unnerved by the moonlight in their lover’s eyes—it reminds them of the same moonlight reflected in a dead man’s eyes. Smaller moments of cause and effect help bind your story together and create the resonance you’re aiming for.
2. Avoid throwaway characters.
* Characters involved in scenes that prove transformative for your protagonist should never be ciphers. If the reader doesn’t care about them, they won’t be invested in your protagonist’s reaction. This is true even if the secondary character isn’t named in the outline you’ve been given. For example, if your protagonist discovers a dead body, pick a friendly side-character you’ve devoted some time to—someone readers will remember—and that’s your DB.
* Give minor characters (the kind who might appear in your outline as “a shopkeeper in the Underground” or “a helpful engineer”) small arcs of their own, where possible—arcs that back up your protagonist’s development at various points in the story. This helps reinforce your central theme and remind readers of your protagonist’s struggles without harping on them. This does not mean adding pages of them talking about their lives, hopes, goals, and dreams while the story grinds to a halt. But if you come back to them several times, show in small ways how things are progressing for them—how interactions with them shift based on the story’s events.
Sometimes, especially in non-romance genres, you’ll need to feed your reader a lot of new information in fairly short order. Dumping it all on them, textbook-style, will have their eyes glazing over. Here are some better ways to do it:
- Draw the reader into an interesting scenario. Begin your story in medias res—something interesting is happening, and here it is. You don’t have to get to why or how right away, but you should definitely set up your where, what, and who, and feed your readers enough fascinating tidbits to have them wanting to read more. For example, starting out in a courtroom, with your protagonist on trial, will get your reader invested in how they got there, and whether/how they’ll escape the death sentence that’s just been handed down.2. Focus on setting. Create a vivid sense of place and time—most Relay books are character-driven, so this approach won’t work for chapter 1. But it can absolutely work for later chapters, once your characters are established. Using vivid imagery and powerful sensory cues to establish your setting can help your reader feel grounded in the story, while also allowing you to communicate background information. For example, in a billionaire romance, a chapter opener describing the hero’s opulent Manhattan office tower is a great place to slip in some background on how he built his empire, or the contrast from his childhood home in the projects.
- Focus on character. Delve straight into the essence of your POV character, what makes them who they are. Do this well, and you won’t even have to spell out how they got that way. Your reader will begin to draw their own conclusions, which you can then back up with evidence as you proceed with your story. For example, in a sports romance, you might start out describing your hero’s pre-game routine—his intense focus, the ritual he goes through to prepare for his game, his reaction when somebody interrupts him. Use sensory, body-focused language to help the reader step immediately into your character’s shoes and experience the world he inhabits.
- Dive straight into your inciting incident. This would be uncommon in a Relay book, but one way to deliver a LOT of exposition at once is to throw the reader straight into the action and let them puzzle it out. Ted Chiang does this in many of his short stories: he delves straight into the story, dropping terms that make absolutely no sense…until you read on and all becomes clear from context. (This only works if your cause and effect still make sense—you don’t need to tell your reader what a gizzlepoof is, but it needs to be clear what it does. Goals should also be 100% clear, as should your protagonist’s personality.)
- Set up your central conflict. Ideally, you should do this in chapter 1 of every book, preferably by the end of the first paragraph—set the pieces in motion for an eventual big boom. Delving into those opposing forces is a great way to establish characters, setting, and atmosphere all at once, with a nice balance of showing and telling. This approach works well for both book openers and chapter openers—setting up a question or conflict, then making it go.
Chapter/scene structure is generally handled at the outline stage, but the basic funnel is this: your POV character interacts with a problem or question, establishes and pursues a goal, encounters obstacles that create conflict, and arrives at a resolution (success, failure, or a new question to consider).
1. Building Tension
* Foreshadowing doesn’t just happen on a whole-book level. It should happen at a scene level as well: a character headed for a breakup might sense something “off” about their partner—their stance, their tone of voice, the way they hesitate before offering a hug. A character about to be caught in a fire might be distracted by a faint, unpleasant smell—it reminds them of something, but what? Try to escalate that initial kernel of tension as you build to your climax.
* Human beings are, by nature, resistant to change. The suggestion that something’s about to change, with unknown consequences, is a great way of building tension. Every chapter should change the story in some way, and directing the reader’s attention to that change will help keep them hooked.
* Focus on the tension between your characters’ goals and the roadblocks standing in their way. Keep the reader rooting for their success. Make it look like they might succeed, even if the ultimate outcome is failure. Nothing should ever feel like a foregone conclusion.
* Zoom in on the “good parts”—on the events leading directly to change. We don’t need to hear about the two hours your hero spends grooming his horse…just the one-sided conversation he has with his horse about last night’s squabble with his lover, and how that conversation helps him work out his next move.
Here, as with chapter endings, variety is the name of the game. Too many long sentences lull the reader into a stupor. Too many short ones begin to sound choppy. Short paragraphs provide breaks for the eye, but make them too short—or have too many in the span of a few pages—and they start to seem disjointed. Striking the right balance isn’t an exact science. It’s largely a matter of feel.
- Let the action dictate the flow. Use longer sentences and paragraphs to describe a pleasant day at the beach. Use shorter, more breathless prose to describe a frantic chase scene, or the seconds before an orgasm. Long sentences can suggest contemplation, wistfulness, uncertainty, formality, or a gradual change in opinion, among other things. Short sentences may denote decisiveness, anger, excitement, or a surprising development.
- Consider the POV character’s state of mind. A frightened, desperate character might think in sentence fragments—“In the roof! No, the walls! A rat! Fuck me!”—but describe the situation in long, run-on sentences—“I thought I heard squeaking, and then a ceiling tile fell down, and there’s rats in the walls and I can hear them and they’re everywhere, and dear God, GET THEM OUT!”
- Beware of excessive “impact paragraphs”. These are single-sentence paragraphs designed to jar the reader—for example, “I stood on the bridge with my face to the sun. The wind blew, sweet and fragrant, from somewhere in the south.
Then the earth tore open.”
A few “impact paragraphs” per manuscript are fine. More than that, and they start to lose their oomph. If you want to do one, make sure it really is shocking…and that it actually works better on its own. Often, the effect is greater if the shocking event comes at the end of a generally soothing sentence, with no warning or preamble whatsoever.
- Read your manuscript aloud. One great way to check your flow is reading your manuscript aloud. Does it flow off the tongue, or does it sound stilted? (If you can’t read aloud, Word can do it for you. Highlight the section you want read, go to the Review tab, and hit Read Aloud.)
- Avoid excessive filtering phrases. Unless you want to put distance between the reader and what the character is experiencing, or imply that the character wants to dissociate from their experience, avoid phrases like “he saw,” “he felt,” “he could smell,” et cetera. Just get to the good part.He looked out the window and saw that the leaves had turned yellow. >>> He looked out the window. Yellow leaves stirred in the breeze.
The dress felt like a vise constricting her waist. >>> The dress pinched at the waist. Her breathing went shallow.
- Avoid clunky “stage directions.” When describing a character’s actions, eliminate anything that’s obvious from context. “She turned to look over her shoulder and saw that…” becomes “She whirled and the dog was there, ripping up her couch.”
- Avoid clichés/convenient phrases. We’ve all rolled our eyes at a “she let out a breath she hadn’t realised she was holding” or a promise of “no more secrets”. If you catch yourself about to deploy an overused phrase, ask yourself, is there another way to say this? Can this be left out?
- Avoid redundancies. Be on the lookout for phrases like “shrugged his shoulders,” “continued on,” “nodded his head,” et cetera. You wouldn’t shrug your foot, continue any way but on, or nod your genitals, so you don’t need to clarify further.
- Use strong, specific verbs. Instead of walked slowly, try trudged or meandered (depending on mood). Instead of “The wind made a whispering sound in the trees,” try “The wind soughed, murmured, or sighed in the trees.” Using strong verbs cuts down on the need for adverbs. Similarly, a single strong adjective often works better than several less evocative ones.6. Be aware of your own pet phrases. Do all your characters have “startlingly” green eyes? When they’re surprised, does their heart “skip a beat”? Is their pulse always “thundering in their ears”? Try to vary it up.
A sentence in passive voice is one in which the subject is acted upon, rather than performing an action. A quick and hilarious test for the passive voice is to add “…by zombies” to the end of your sentence. If it still makes sense, you’ve probably used passive voice.
“The old man was burgled…by zombies.” > passive voice.
“The old man surprised a burglar…by zombies.” > not passive voice.
NOTE: some writers confuse any use of the verb “to be” with passive voice. “It was cold” is telling, and it’s not very exciting, but it’s not passive voice. Same with “He was a person who liked to be comfortable.” It’s a good idea to avoid excessive use of “there was,” “it was,” et cetera, but if no subject is being acted upon, it’s not passive voice.
ANOTHER NOTE: Sometimes, you’ll want to use passive voice for effect. For example, a suspect trying to distance themselves from a crime in a police interrogation might use passive voice to avoid revealing too much: “I was dragged into it. I was told it was okay.” And sometimes, it’s just convenient—like if a character’s describing something that was done to them, but they’re not sure who did it: “I was stabbed.” “I was robbed.” It can also be used as a deliberate character choice, particularly to demonstrate someone who doesn’t “own” their actions or who deflects responsibility: “Mistakes were made” rather than “I made mistakes.”
- Be aware of psychic distance. Psychic distance is how subjective you want to get with your narration. A distant POV describes a character and their actions entirely from an outside perspective: “Every Sunday, John went to the basement and oiled his knives. He started with the big ones, the clunky cleavers and machetes. From there, he…[et cetera, et cetera].” A deep POV is limited entirely to that character’s feelings and observations, and is great for unreliable narrators: “Sunday morning. Time for THE SHARPENING. John rolled out of bed—too hot, then too cold—and shuffled to the basement. To the oil-heavy dark.” For Relay books, you’ll want to land somewhere between the two—connect emotionally, but don’t get swallowed up. For more info on psychic distance, try these links:
- Use all five senses to connect the reader to the character’s world. Don’t just describe what your character can see. Tell us what they smell, what they feel, what’s going on inside their body. Does their stomach hurt? Are their eyes stinging? The more you can connect the reader to your character’s physical experience, the easier it’ll be for them to connect to their emotional state.
Slice-of-life scenes are scenes that don’t directly advance the plot, but allow for worldbuilding, character development, and building tone and atmosphere. These scenes are also a great place to hit your readers’ pleasure buttons.
A pleasure button is a topic that, when introduced, gives readers a jolt of pleasure and makes them want to read more. Pleasure buttons are universal—triggers that evoke a positive response in almost every reader. Major pleasure buttons include:
You’ll want to hit these buttons wherever you see the opportunity, but in slice-of-life scenes in particular, they should take centre stage—the heart-pounding thrill of skydiving; the delicious comfort of digging into a warm rabbit stew; the tranquil beauty of a hike in the mountains.
For more information on pleasure buttons, please see pleasure buttons (password = r3lay).
- Characters’ speech patterns should match their backgrounds.
* One common complaint from reviewers is that all the characters sound the same. They shouldn’t. Each character’s background and personality should be reflected in their speech patterns—their education, their interests, where they’re from, what impression they’re trying to convey. Their core personality traits should also come through—are they friendly or reserved? Sweet? Sarcastic? A billionaire, a sheikh, and a cowboy should not sound alike, nor should a queen and a peasant. (Note: don’t go too far, into the realm of caricature. Think more…would your character say “Hey” or “Good afternoon”? Would he “rent a limo,” “hire a car,” or is he on first name terms with his driver? Deployed thoughtfully, small details are enough.)
2. Keeping your characters likeable
* Relay’s character profiles allow a lot of room for interpretation, but keep in mind, readers need to like these characters! An alpha male should be confident, but not overbearing—a man who constantly throws his weight around just reads as insecure. Romantic heroines should likewise stand up for themselves, but they should do it with humour, grace, dignity, or all of the above.
* Avoid reliance on stereotypes—it’s easy to go for emo teens, doddering grandparents, angry ex-Marines, et cetera—but these stereotypes aren’t interesting, and are often outright derogatory. Instead, focus on who each character was and on who they’re trying to become—their overall arc. What’s made them the way they are, and what would they like to change? What are their goals? Put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself, what would you do? How would you want to be seen?
* Go for universality. Even an annoying character becomes a little more appealing when they mention something we can all relate to—a frustration, a dream, a hidden anxiety. An already-beloved character starts to feel like a friend.
* When writing an emotionally charged scene, ask yourself, how would I react if someone spoke to me that way? It’s okay if your answer is “badly”—but it shouldn’t involve outright disgust or loathing. Characters can get mad, and they can make big mistakes, but they have to be understandable and forgivable, under the circumstances. If they’re not, rethink.
* For more information, try this article on writing likeable characters. https://shannondonnelly.com/2016/07/06/likeable-characters/