Wednesday, October 19

2 Rules of Thumb for Character Creation

2 Rules of Thumb for Character Creation

With NaNoWriMo around the corner I thought I'd go over two rules of thumb for character creation that have served me well.

Two Rules of Thumb for Character Creation

Readers need to be able to identify with your characters. You know that.

In order for a reader to identify with your character the reader needs to feel she understands them. In order for that to be the case characters need to make sense. People might not make sense, but characters need to. Even when their desires conflict, they need to make sense. If they don’t, readers will become bored and stop reading.

The First Rule of Character Creation

So, with that in mind, here’s what I think of as the first rule of character creation:

Characters, like people, are led by their emotions, by what they love and hate. 

If you don’t think you are led by your emotions that’s fine. Look at the people around you. Are most people led by their emotions or by their rationality?

Let me give you an example:

A friend offers me a piece of chocolate. I know I shouldn’t have that piece of chocolate because it will ruin my diet, but I still greedily devour every scrumptious calorie! Why? Because I love chocolate! I know how good it will taste. Even though it will mean I can’t fit into my new dress on my birthday I still eat the chocolate, and I really really want to fit into that dress. So why do I eat the chocolate? Because, despite what I tell myself and my friends, at that moment I love chocolate more than fitting into the dress. It’s all about emotion.

The Second Rule of Character Creation

Here’s the second rule of character creation:

Thought doesn’t rule emotion, it picks up after it. 

After I eat the chocolate I rationalize that even though I ate the chocolate I’ll be okay, I’ll still be able to achieve my goal of fitting into my new dress. All I have to do is exercise more. And then of course I don’t and it isn’t!

Cashing This Out

How can we cash this insight out in our story?

What do people care about? We care about our significant others and our friends, we care about food and comfort, we care about having fun new experiences, we care about the work we do. We care about beauty. We crave novelty.

My friend, Sue, wants to be rich. Why? Because then she can afford to go travelling and have a beautiful apartment. When I was a teenager my friend, I’ll call him Brian, wanted to own a Chevrolet Camaro with leather seats and a top notch sound system. Why? Because he loved driving fast, thought the car looked beautiful and liked girls.

Having a character who wants to rob a bank because then he’ll be rich is fine, but that needs to be grounded in the messy particularities of the character, what they love, what they hate.

If someone is going to risk it all, you’ve got to show why that character passionately loves that thing and the only way to do this is to break it down and show what they love and what the hate.

Get intimate with the character. Have them whisper their deepest, darkest, secrets to you and then, at the appropriate moment, splay them across the page.

You might be thinking, “That’s all well and good, but I’ve written stories that I liked and I didn’t do that.”

This kind of deep character development isn’t for the writer. These characters live inside us and so we know their intimate details. When I ask a writer, Would your character do X? They answer me right away, no hesitation. No, we make these things explicit for the reader. Because they don’t (yet) have the character living inside them.

Here’s another article I’ve written on character creation: Be Fearless: Make Your Characters Real.

Writing Exercise

What do you care about? You’ve got goals, perhaps you want to buy a home or earn a certain amount of money a year or spend next summer in Spain or lose ten pounds, but why?

Dive into the particular emotions behind your goals. Do you want to own a home because it would make you feel secure? Do you want to lose weight because you want to find someone to love, someone who will love you back?

After you’ve done this, take those emotions and give them to the main character of your current work in progress. You don’t have to incorporate them into the story, you can just do this as an exercise. Take your main character and give him a mini-adventure, write a piece of flash fiction, where you give him or her your own goals. Then show the reader the messy loves and hates these goals emerge from.

I’ve decided that I’m going to try, every post, to pick a book or audiobook I personally have loved and recommend it to my readers. This serves two purposes, I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar, at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored that you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

Today I would like to share a link to a book I have in my own digital library, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. Ackerman writes, "One of the biggest problem areas for writers is conveying a character's emotions to the reader in a unique, compelling way. This book comes to the rescue by highlighting 75 emotions and listing the possible body language cues, thoughts, and visceral responses for each." An excellent reference!

That’s it! As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what I’ve said. I will admit to drawing a wee bit from Saint Augustine and his idea that we can only have one true great love and that this love will order everything else in our lives—or something like that, it’s been a long time since I took philosophy. (grin)

I'll talk to you again on Friday. Till then, good writing!

Monday, October 17

Story Structure: What Are Pinch Points?

Story Structure: What Are Pinch Points?

Today I want to focus on one particular aspect of story structure: pinch points. In what follows I have a lot to say about them so let's start by looking at what they are.

Pinch Points Are Reminders

A pinch point reminds the reader of five things:

  • Who the antagonist is.
  • What the antagonist wants. 
  • Who the protagonist is.
  • What the protagonist wants.
  • What is at stake.

Often, the first Pinch Point comes directly after the Fun & Games/Tests & Trials part of a story and serves to bring it back to the main storyline, reminding readers of the core conflict. Sometimes this can quickly take the reader from bemused chuckling to a gut wrenching feeling of loss.

Pinch Points Are About Truth And Transformation

More abstractly, pinch points are about exposing the truth. The truth about the protagonist, the antagonist, and their situations/realities. Realizing, understanding, the truth of one's situation often causes pain and destruction but, in the end, transforms the protagonist (or the protagonist fails to transform and has a tragic end).

It has been my experience that truth/transformation pinch points are much more common in literary works, dramas, romantic comedies, and so on, than they are in action/adventures, mysteries and thrillers.

Where Are The Pinch Points?

In a four act structure the first pinch point comes in the middle of the second act and the second pinch point comes in the middle of the third act.

In a three act structure the first pinch point comes in the middle of the first part of the second act and the second comes in the middle of the last part of the second act.

If that’s confusing (and it is!) there’s a helpful diagram in this post: Using Pinch Points To Increase Narrative Drive. As with everything, this is only a general guideline. Fit them in where it feels appropriate for your story.

Now let’s take a look at each pinch point in more detail.

Pinch Point One

The two Pinch Points serve the same purpose:

  • Bringing the focus back to the core conflict between the protagonist and antagonist.
  • To ensure the stakes of the conflict are crystal clear to the reader. This often means that this scene should be vivid. Dramatic. 

Also, we can take this opportunity to remind the reader of the essence of both the protagonist and antagonist, of who they are, what they want and how far they'll go to get it.

Truth & Pain

Additionally—and whether this is true of the pinch points in your story may largely depend on what kind of story it is (see the examples below)—a pinch point can also be a moment of truth leading to intense pain and radical change (perhaps not right away, but it puts events in motion).

I find that in an action/adventure the pinch points are more about showing the protagonist and antagonist (or the antagonist's agents) in physical conflict while, say, romantic comedies are more about how the protagonist and antagonist (the two lovers) destroy each other’s (false) worlds, destroy each other’s illusions, the lies they tell themselves, by forcing each other to see the truth about their lives, about themselves.

Books could—and have!—been written about this (McKee’s Story, Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey, and so on) but the idea is that it’s easy to get comfortable with one’s life. It’s easy to coast. You have a job, a place to live, perhaps a significant other, perhaps a family, and you’re genuinely happy.

But then things you’re not so thrilled about start happening—you’ve been putting on weight, but that’s okay. You’re older but, hey, that’s no reason to start exercising. Sure you haven’t bought new clothes in a year but that’s not really so important. After all, being swayed by a person’s looks is so superficial. Okay, sure, you’ve been disconnecting from your friends, choosing to stay home and watch TV. And so on. Then you wake up, look in the mirror and realize: I’m my mother!!!!!! (* cue screaming violins *)

Things happen, life events, that you’re not thrilled with but you say, well, that’s okay. I’m happy, or at least not unhappy. Why rock the boat? And, slowly over the years it’s like a game of telephone. You go from being genuinely, authentically, happy with your life to disgruntled, disillusioned. It’s the death of a million cuts, it’s the frog being slowly boiled to death.

Of course your protagonist isn’t a frog being boiled to death! Instead of a frog we could talk about the postal worker who goes on a murdering spree. Or we could talk about the man or woman who gets up one morning and walks out on their family.

Speaking generally, the protagonist is on a trajectory from true happiness to destruction. If not their personal, physical, destruction, the complete and total destruction of their life, their world.

Truth as Destroying/Cleansing Fire

Every once in awhile we need a shock. We need to re-connect with how things really are, with how other people see us, warts and all. The truth, like fire, strips everything away and takes us back to our most elemental, most real, form. And it’s agony because we lose all those lovely illusions that were most dear to us. Here’s how I picture it:

Truth -> radical change/agony -> transformation or failure

At the beginning of a romantic/dramatic story, the protagonist is somewhere in the middle of this arc. What the pinch points do—this isn’t the only thing they do, but it’s one of them—is reveal this truth to your character.

That is, they reveal to the character that they are living a comfortable, happy, lie. In revealing this, the protagonist is forced to deal with it. (When this happens in real life it hurts like hell but you’ve been saved from something far worse. At least, that’s how I look at it.)

In this kind of pinch point you show readers how disconnected the protagonist is from the way things really are. You show the protagonist (and the reader) their perception of the world and then you show them their world (/their life) as it really is. The pinch point itself is about the protagonist being hit with this revelation.

This clash between mental image, between their current belief system and how things really are can be extremely painful. Truth hurts. But in return they get to see how they’ve gone from genuine happiness to something else. Something dark. They see they’re headed for destruction.

Sometimes this destruction can be averted, but not without a cost. If your protagonist is a workaholic who continually puts his family second because he thinks that’s what’s best for them, this revelation can save his relationships with those he loves but it might cost him his business, his dreams for the domination of the corporate world. Truth always exacts a price.


Okay, that was a lot of information! Let me try to bring this into perspective with two examples. The first is of a classic action/adventure, Star Wars IV: A New Hope. The second is of a romantic comedy—You’ve Got Mail—where the conflict, the tension, between the protagonist and antagonist revolves around using truth to destroy illusion.[1]

Star Wars

I know I use examples from Star Wars IV: A New Hope quite a bit, but the movie has the advantage that almost everyone has seen it! In Star Wars the first pinch point occurs when Imperial Forces, sent to recover R2-D2, menace Luke Skywalker and his allies.

Here the Pinch Point is split over two scenes. In the first scene Imperial Stormtroopers stop Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan to question them about their droids. This is where Obi-Wan says, “These aren’t the droids you are looking for.” It's a great scene!

The second scene (or, really, sequence) in the first pinch point has the Imperial Stormtroopers shooting at Han Solo as he’s going through the preflight check. The Millennium Falcon then takes off only to be chased and shot at by what looks like an Imperial battleship.

So here we’re reminded of the protagonist and antagonist (Luke and his band of allies vs the powers of the Empire exemplified by Darth Vader), what their goals are (Luke wants to deliver the plans of the Death Star to the rebel alliance, the forces of the Empire want to prevent this) and what the stakes of the conflict are (the Empire can blow up your planet!)

You’ve Got Mail

Just before the first pinch point we see Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan’s character) in all out denial about the likelihood that Fox Books is going to put her small independent bookstore (The Shop Around The Corner) out of business. Everyone else sees that her bookstore is in trouble and thinks she’ll be forced to close, but Kathleen is living in a dream world. She believes she can compete. “Everything is fine!” she says and smiles.

The first plot point occurs when Kathleen discovers that Joe (played by Tom Hanks)—the charming guy who came into her bookstore earlier—is Joe Fox of Fox Books (the big chain of bookstores that is putting indie bookstores out of business). They then have a passionate exchange in which Joe tells Kathleen the truth. What Joe says to her begins to destroy Kathleen's comforting world of illusion.

Let me set this scene up. When Kathleen discovers that Joe’s last name is Fox she accuses him of spying on her because she’s his competition. Here’s where they become passionate and the truth comes spilling out:

“It’s a charming little bookstore,” Joe says. What do you sell? About 350 thousand dollars worth of books a year?”

“How did you know that?” Kathleen asks, astonished and oh-so-very suspicious.

“I’m in the book business,” Joe says. He smiles at Kathleen but there is no warmth, only condescension.

Kathleen’s face grows hard. Joe has made a direct hit. She shakes her head. “I am in the book business.”

“I see,” Joe says. “And we are the Price Club, only instead of a 10 gallon vat of olive oil for $3.99 that won’t even fit under your kitchen cabinet, we sell cheap books.”

Joe pauses a moment then shakes his head. “Me, a spy?” Oh, absolutely. I have in my possession the super-duper secret printout of the sales figures of a bookstore so inconsequential yet full of its own virtue that I was immediately compelled to rush over there for fear that it’s going to put me out of business.”

Kathleen is so utterly shocked and completely undone by Joe’s words that she can only make an inarticulate squawking sound.

In my opinion, that’s the first pinch point. It’s a moment of truth and unspeakable pain for Kathleen. Joe is saying: It’s not personal, but the thing you love most in life is going to go away and I’m the one who is going to take it from you. And there’s nothing you can do about it.

Kathleen’s loss doesn’t happen all at once, but that’s where she begins to wake up, begins to realize what her situation really is.

Wow, this post is long! I need to stop here. I’ll pick this topic up again later.

I’m intensely interested in what you think about what I’ve said about pinch points. Do you agree? Disagree? Is there something you’d like to add? An example you’d like to share? Please do! I love it when you contribute to the discussion. That’s how I think of these blog posts. We’re sitting somewhere having coffee, chatting, and I’m laying out my thoughts. But it can be awfully one-sided! I want to hear your thoughts too. :-)

I’ve decided that I’m going to try, every post, to pick a book or audiobook I personally have loved and recommend it to my readers. This serves two purposes, I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar, at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored that you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

Today I would like to share links to a series which has become my number two favorite series, behind Jim Butcher's Dresden Files (which I cannot recommend highly enough, the books just keep getting better). Anyway, the series is Kelley Armstrong’s Cainsville: Omens, Visions, Deceptions, Betrayals. Cainsville is a mystery crossed with horror crossed with romance. (BTW, I’m NOT saying that if you like the Dresden Files that you’ll like Cainsville. They are very different. But they are both what I would call urban fantasy.)


1. I should mention that, as near as I can tell, You’ve Got Mail has four pinch points, two for each main character’s arc. So, above, when I talk about the first pinch point, this is really the first pinch point of Kathleen’s arc. Just FYI.

Friday, October 14

The Structure of a Murder Mystery

The Structure of a Murder Mystery

I’ve written many stories in many genres but I’ve never finished writing a murder mystery. Which is odd given that I absolutely LOVE murder mysteries.

I’ve often wondered why I have this particular disconnect. Here’s what I think:

In writing there's 'head smarts' and what I think of as ' heart smarts.' When we write a zero draft we draw from our heart smarts. This means that, no matter how much we know about story structure, that's not what guides us when we write. (It's what guides us when we edit.) And if we try to impose some sort of structure (head) on our words as we're in the creative moment (heart), it can block the words.

But we should still make sure our stories are properly structured! But I think it's best to leave that to the first draft.

Elisabeth S. Craig's Take on The Structure of a Mystery

I love Elisabeth S. Craig’s blog—Mystery Writing is Murder. What a great title! ESC is a bestselling mystery writer. When I started reading her blog years ago she was published by Penguin but has now transitioned to a hybrid author.

One of her latest posts is “Pre-Writing.” I encourage you to head over there and read ESC's article for yourself.

In what follows I’m going to go over ESC's structure for a cozy mystery and study it. Maybe—maybe!—this will inspire me to try, once again, to write a mystery. (Perhaps I’ll attempt a short story this time!)

A Mystery Structure in Three Acts

In what follows I try to keep very close to what ESC says, though I have inserted some information drawn from the many mysteries I've devoured.

Act One

1. Setup/Status Quo

Introduce all your characters starting with the sleuth. ESC writes: It’s “best to start out with [the] sleuth so that [the] reader knows who to identify with right away.”

2. Inciting Incident

You have two choices here:

(a) Write a “... scene showing [the] interaction of [the] future victim and future suspects ...”


(b) Introduce a body.

3. Call To Adventure & Acceptance of the Call

If the sleuth isn’t part of the police force then they have to get pulled into the case somehow. A friend has to beg them to become involved, or perhaps the person who died was someone they cared deeply about, or perhaps the sleuth is a suspect, or ... You get the idea.

Act Two

4. Tests & Trials/Fun & Games

  • The Sleuth interviews suspects.
  • The suspects provide alibis.
  • A red herring or two is thrown out by the writer.
  • Some of the suspects lie. Perhaps some lies are lies of omission, perhaps other people simply are confused, they mis-recall things. Some lies have to do with awful things they've done, but these things have nothing to do with the murder. And, of course, one person is lying because they're the murderer.
  • And perhaps one of the suspects actually tells the truth!

5. Midpoint

Another body is found. In my experience as an avid reader of murder mysteries, the second murder whips the story around in another direction. (Another way of saying this is that the midpoint is a plot point, it introduces a complication that twists the story.) For example, often the victim was the chief suspect. Another possibility is that the second death mystifies the sleuth because it doesn't fit into his/her theory of the crime.

6. Setback

The second murder puts the sleuth back to square one.

ESC writes, “Give suspects [the] opportunity to refute [the] evidence pointing to them from the previous murder.” See (4) above.

The sleuth’s previous plan is shot. He/she never thought that the second victim would be murdered. Or perhaps he/she doesn’t have a firm theory but he/she is devastated by the death because he/she had some personal connection to the victim, or perhaps the victim reminds the sleuth of someone he/she cared a great deal about, or perhaps the victim was an exceptionally good person and an enormous loss to the community. And so on.

Act Three

7. A New Plan/Theory

This is what I think of as the lightbulb moment. The sleuth has an epiphany, puts two and two together, something sparks a revelation, etc. But the sleuth has to confirm it. He/she has to be sure.

8. Climax

Put the sleuth in danger. Increase the tension, increase the stakes.

From my reading and viewing experience, the sleuth is sometimes stalked by the killer. But sometimes the sleuth isn't threatened with death. Sometimes his/her job is on the line. Sometimes it's 'just' his/her reputation. Sometimes the life of someone the sleuth cares a great deal about is threatened. There are many different kinds of stakes that can be raised.

Eventually, though, the sleuth will turn the tables on the murderer and bring him/her to justice.

9. Wrap-Up

This is the denouement. The sleuth draws the curtain back and, clue by clue, explains how he/she solved the mystery.

ESC writes, “Are there other components in the story? Of course. But this is the basic structure of a mystery, just as other genres have their own skeletons.”

The Characters

Before you sit down to write your zero draft, think about:

  • Who will your sleuth have as a sidekick?
  • What are the potential motives of the characters?
  • How were the murders done? What weapons were used?
  • Think about what kind of subplot you’ll have. ESC writes that at this point you’re “just brainstorming.” I’ll add here, courtesy of Lester Dent, that you might want to make the murder method big, bold, dramatic, unusual, exaggerated, shocking, different. Think about all the different ways characters were done away with in Midsomer Murders.
  • The murderer. ESC writes that she doesn’t worry too much about the murderer’s identity. Sometimes she doesn’t know this until she’s at the climax of the story! She writes, “The killer’s identity? Not really.  I have an idea who I think may be a good killer, but I frequently change my mind 3/4 of the way through the first draft.  It’s always good to be flexible.”

The Suspects

How many suspects should you have? The suspects are going to be characters who have a reason, a motive, to want the victim dead. In ESC’s example she lists five suspects: the niece, daughter, son, husband and friend.

Did the victim have a lot of money that his/her family and friends had a lively expectation of inheriting?

Did the victim use their money and power to manipulate others? If so, who?

That’s it! I hope you have a great, productive, weekend. I’ll talk to you again on Monday. In the meantime, good writing!

And now, my pitch. :-)

The blog posts on this site—all 1,300+ of them—are completely free. Each post takes me between 4 and 6 hours to write, edit, publish and distribute. And I love it! But if you like my articles and want to give me a tip, or buy me the equivalent of a cup of coffee, please consider becoming a Patron and donating one dollar a month to support this blog. You will have my eternal gratitude! If that’s not your thing, please consider clicking this link: Writing Reference. If, after clicking that link, you buy something from Amazon I will receive a tiny percentage of the purchase price, at no cost to you. And if you decide to do neither, that’s okay! Thank you for reading my blog and I hope you’ll continue to do so. :-)

Wednesday, October 12

How To Write Characters Your Readers Will Love: Character Checklist

How To Write Characters Your Readers Will Love: Character Checklist

I read one of my old short stories yesterday. It’s one of my favorites but it’s far from my best. At the time I wrote it I knew a little about story structure, but I didn’t apply the knowledge I had. Why?!

I can tell you from experience that knowing what to do is a long way from doing what you know. Implementing what you know, weaving that knowledge into the warp and woof of your story, that’s a tricky thing. And, for me, it has been the number one source of massive rewriting.

One of the reasons I’ve gotten better at dreaming up stories, stories that are easier to structure, is that I have a checklist! Never doubt the power and usefulness of checklists. Here's mine:

Character Checklist

I’ve written quite a bit about story structure but character development is just as, if not more, important. In order to get readers excited about what happens in your story you need to get them excited about who it happens to.

(By the way, these points are drawn largely from Jim Butcher’s article on character development.)

Our Goal: We want the reader to identify with the character. We want the reader to cry when the character’s heart is broken and rejoice when it mends.

Here are various traits or techniques that can help nudge the reader toward identifying with your characters.

1. Exaggeration

Sherlock Holmes isn’t just smart, he’s brilliant. He’s possibly the second smartest person in the world—behind his brother Mycroft, of course. In other words, his intelligence is exaggerated.

Exaggerating a trait makes it memorable. Generally speaking, a trait won’t make much of an impression on a reader if they don’t remember it.

2. Exotic Position

Make the setting exotic. Fun. Different.

Jim Butcher mentions four kinds of environments your characters can be in: social, geographic, intellectual, moral. Make sure each of these types of situations is interesting. Memorable.


- Social: Your team is training to win an important tournament this fall. Or perhaps you are part of a team preparing to climb Devil’s Mountain.
-  Geographic: A far flung region of the globe. That is, far flung for your readers!
- Intellectual: I think of Sherlock Holmes and Mycroft's club. What does the smartest person in the world do for companionship? He creates a club and then makes sure there’s a strict no talking policy!
- Moral: A couple goes on what they think is a retreat to discover they’ve joined a cult!

3. Active Introduction

Communicate the essence of your character, through action, in a memorable way.

Jim Butcher calls a "characteristic entry action" an action that can communicate the essence of your character. For instance, take Mr. Monk from the TV Series of the same name. The beginning of every episode reestablishes the essence of the character.

Recall that Mr. Monk mourns the loss of his late wife, Trudy, and that he is a bundle of phobias and neuroses which all stem from his acute observational abilities combined with his fear of germs. He even has a saying: It’s a gift ... and a curse. One of his characteristic entry actions is straightening something—a pillow for instance—that is just a wee bit tilted. Once he had a cold and put his used kleenex in plastic baggies before he threw them out. Why? So that they wouldn't contaminate anything else.

The TV Show, Archer, is especially good at communicating the essence of the characters through action. At the beginning of every episode their tags and traits (for an explanation of tags and traits, see below) are reintroduced. Also, often, there is a humorous ending where the tags and traits are reinforced again. And it works beautifully!

4. Verisimilitude: Make your characters believable.

In order for a character to be interesting they must act believably. A big part of acting believably is acting consistently.

Butcher writes that:

“The single most important technique for doing that is through showing your character's: 1. EMOTIONS 2. REACTIONS and 3. DECISIONS. When something happens in your story, a character with a decent V-factor [verisimilitude] will react to it. The reader will see his emotional reaction played out, will gain a sense of the logic of a question or problem, and will recognize that the character took a believable, appropriate course of action in response.”

Butcher notes that most of this work, making your character act believably, is going to take place in sequels.

Tags and traits ... so much could, and has, been written about them. Briefly, a tag is a very short description of one concrete aspect of a character. Blue eyes, uses a whip, wears a cool hat. Jim Butcher advises having about one to three tags per character. For example, when I think of Indiana Jones I think of his whip, his hat and his leather jacket. When I think of Neo I think of his leather jacket and his sunglasses. A tag or trait can also be a mental attitude, for instance if someone is always glum or always chipper. Basically, anything that will make your character stand out from the rest, anything that will make them memorable.

A terrific book on tags and traits is “Techniques of the Selling Writer”. I’ve written about it here: Dwight V Swain On How To Write A Novel.

5. Empathy. Get readers to identify with your characters.

Jim Butcher writes, “if you can make people love who you want them to love and hate who you want them to hate, you're going to have readers coming back to you over and over again.”

Sure, but how? One way is through shared experience. Chances are, what makes you angry (or sad or happy or ...) makes your readers angry (or sad or happy or ...). Give those kinds of experiences to your characters and they will become real to your readers.

Dramatic experiences

- What angers you? Think of a time when you were angry.

- What saddens you? Think of a time of deep loss.

- What irritates or frustrates you? Think of a specific instance. What happened? What did you react to?

- What makes you joyful? Giddy? What has made you grin from ear to ear? What sort of things have made your day?

When we see other people behave in ways we can relate to—when we watch them experience deep loss, transcendence, happiness, and so on—we identify with them. We begin to care about them. This is true for characters as well.

But it doesn’t have to be BIG things. Even the little, small, events in life will do as long as they’re more-or-less universal. For example ...

- You’re driving to work on a day when you ABSOLUTELY can’t be late and, of course, you’re a stuck behind a slow driver.

- It’s late, you’ve had a grueling day, you walk to where you parked your car in the parking lot but it’s not there. You stand in the middle of the vacant parking spot and look around like maybe it’s still there and you’re just not seeing it.

A couple more ways to make your character more interesting:

A) Persecution. Have the protagonist be unfairly treated and lose something achingly important to him.

B) Big Challenge. Have the protagonist take on something that takes him so far out of his comfort zone that he's on a different planet. Most folks won’t be able to keep from wanting the guy or gal to succeed. Also, humans being the curious types we are, we won’t be able to help wanting to know if the character will succeed or whether he will be a spectacular failure.

For example:

- A character trying to protect something of great value puts herself in jeopardy by fleeing down a dark, dangerous, alley.

- A character on a mission to find a great treasure ignores grievous bodily peril while using his experience and intellect to defeat the traps between himself and his prize.

Does My POV Character Have to be Nice? 

Before I end this post, let me address one often asked question about characterization:

Does a character have to be nice for a reader to empathize with them?

I don’t think so. There are many characters who, though while not at all nice, are easy to identify with, empathize with.

I love Sherlock, the TV Series. Benedict Cumberbatch portrays Sherlock as brilliant, egotistical and definitely not nice. But we can relate to both Sherlock and to his ‘everyman’ Watson. We can understand Sherlock’s occasional bouts of boredom as well as John’s impatience with them.

 That's it! I apologize for the long post. And for skipping Monday. Truth is, I'm working on a non-fiction ebook and I'm hoping (* cross fingers *) to get it out this weekend.

I'm sponsoring this post with an affiliate link to Stephen King's marvelous exploration of good writing: On Writing. If you click that link my blog will get a tiny percentage of anything you buy on Amazon for the next 24 hours.

Cheers! Talk to you Friday. :-)

Saturday, October 8

The Zero Draft: How To Beat Writer’s Block

The Zero Draft: How To Beat Writer’s Block

Have you ever had writer’s block? I have. After my dad passed away the words wouldn’t come. It took me months to start writing fiction again. But, that’s not the kind of writer’s block I’m talking about.

All my life, when I’ve sat down to write fiction, a mean little munchkin would stir to life inside me. “You can’t write,” he’d say. “Look at that sentence. So amateur hour. Face it, no one is going to want to read this drek. You’re wasting your time. Your life. No one but me has the balls to tell you this but, girl, you’re never going to get anywhere as a writer. Given your limited skills, it’s just not possible.”

When a writer has the munchkin’s top 40 looping through their mind it’s no wonder she becomes paralyzed. The ideas flee.

SO MANY TIMES I would stick at it for a while, perhaps hours, but my writing session would consist of scribbling a few sentences, thinking, “That’s so bad it’s embarrassing!” then I’d delete what I’d just written or—as we’ve seen in so many movies—crumple up the piece of paper I was writing on and throw it in the general direction of the waste paper bin.

But there is a solution: give yourself permission to write complete and utter drek. That’s what a zero draft is. Remember, this is only a draft, not the final product. The final draft will not be complete and utter drek and here’s why: You have several drafts to make your story better and, if you’re so inclined, you can ask readers you trust to read a draft of your story and give feedback. Finally, when your manuscript is as presentable as possible you send it off to the best editor you can afford and receive their feedback.

That was a rather long lead-in! Whew. In what follows I take a closer look at what a zero draft is and why it’s a good thing, then I talk about my own writing process and the tortured path I take from zero draft to first draft.

What a zero draft is and why it’s a good thing.

I first heard the phrase “zero draft” in 2012. I know because I blogged about it! That said, the way I think about a zero draft has changed over the years. These days I tend to think of a zero draft as a vomit draft. Sound gross? It’s supposed to!

The idea behind the zero draft is that it doesn’t count as writing. It’s a mind-dump, it’s scribbling. You’re never going to show the vomit draft to anyone and, when it has served it’s purpose, you can ceremoniously burn it!

The zero draft is amazingly useful because it will help you write your first draft. The first draft isn’t going to be perfect, but it probably won’t be completely cringeworthy.

I’ve been using zero drafts for a few years now and it has definitely boosted my actual output. The key, I think, is that after awhile (* knock on wood *) one begins to accept that what you write (or type) doesn’t have to be perfect. This isn’t your final draft, it’s just the beginning. But it gives you a beginning! If you don’t have words down on paper there’s nothing to polish.

Okay. So. That’s a zero draft. What follows is an idealized version of my own process. I want to stress that (think of me jumping up and down waving a neon sign with this on it:) this is just what I do. Each writer has a different process and, often, one’s process differs from story to story.

An idealized version of what I do—or try to do (* knock on wood *).

a. Write a zero draft.

This doesn’t even have to be prose. Sometimes it might be more of an outline, or various loosely connected ideas. Just get words down on paper.

b. Take a break.

When the zero draft is more-or-less complete (remember the 80/20 principle) I take a shortish break. I’ll get a coffee, go for a walk, do some gardening, whatever. It may sound odd, but I need to get out of the office and away from words.

c. Read your zero draft all the way through.

I try to set aside a chunk of time so I can re-read my zero draft—the whole thing, all the way through—in one sitting. While I’m reading I take notes about what needs to be changed, about what could be added, but try not to edit the document until I’ve finished reading it through. I find that I’m much more productive when I do things this way because a lot of material in the zero draft will be cut since I don’t yet know the overall structure of the story (goals will change, and so on). Which brings us to ...

d. Think about the overall structure of the story.

Ask yourself: Who is the protagonist? What does she want? What person or force opposes her? What genre is this? Does what the protagonist wants, her goal, her need, fit into the genre I want to write in? And so on. I’m not going to go over this in great and gory detail here since I’ve done that elsewhere:

e. Fill in plot holes, characterization, etc.

After I have the general shape of the story I’ll start to see where the plot holes are as well as which characters are too much like each other, where I'm missing a character, and so on. Part of the beauty of outlining is that I can make major changes to the story and not have to go through the excruciatingly painful process of throwing out thousands of words.

d. Write the first draft.

I’m going to stop there. If you would like to read more about how I see the writing/editing process from first draft to final draft see: 11 Steps To Edit Your Manuscript. Edit Ruthlessly & Kill Your Darlings.

I’ve drawn from my own experience in this article, but we’re all different. If your process works for you that’s the only thing that matters.

So please share! I’d love to know what your process is.

I’ll talk to you again on Monday. Have a great weekend and good writing!

If I could recommend only one book on writing it would be On Writing by Stephen King. Part autobiography, part creative writing advice, this book helped me improve my writing in concrete, measurable, ways. If you only read one book on writing in your life, let it be this book! The link to On Writing is an affiliate link—as are many of the links on my blog—but I only link to books and programs I deeply believe in. Clicking the link won't cost you any money but I will get a small percentage of anything you buy on for the next 24 hours. Thank you!

Wednesday, October 5

How To Write A Choose Your Own Adventure Novel, Part 4: Structure

How To Write A Choose Your Own Adventure Novel, Part 4: Structure

Over the years I've written a few articles about the various ways a story can be structured (see: Short Story Structures: Several Ways Of Structuring Short Fiction, A Story Structure In Three Acts), but CYOA stories are in a class by themselves. (Google CYOA structure to see what I'm talking about). If you do, you'll see dozens upon dozens of CYOA branching structures.

This multiplicity reinforces something Chuck Wendig said: at the most concrete level there is no such thing as one story structure. Rather, each story's structure is unique. [2]

You might ask: Well, if that's the case, Karen, why do you go on about story structure like there is one, and only one, structure that all stories have?! ('One structure to rule them all and in the darkness bind them.' Sorry, couldn't resist!)

Great question! It's all a matter of specificity. It depends on to what extent we abstract away from the specific details of the story to more general details. For example, I think it's a safe bet that no two coastlines are exactly the same and yet, when mathematicians compare their shapes they can be seen to exhibit the same fractal pattern. The same can be said for leaves, the shells of certain snails, and so on. [3]

My point is that—as with the hidden geometric structures of coastlines—it's only when we pull back from the particular details of any story that structural commonalities between them emerge.

The Unique Structure of a CYOA Story

This post is about two kinds of structure. The first kind is the sort of structure I just talked about.

The second kind of structure I'll discuss is unique to CYOA stories and has nothing—or at least very little—to do with the first kind. To make this less confusing, I'll call the first kind of structure, "story structure" and the second kind of structure, "branching structure."

I want to stress that everything I say here is given with the intention of providing a person new to writing CYOA stories a place to start. If you write a story that doesn't fit into the kinds of structures I talk about, that's great! The important thing is not that your story has a certain kind of structure as opposed to another—or any kind of structure for that matter!—it is that you've written a story you love, that you're excited about. One that, when you read it, works. Ultimately, that's the only test that matters, whether you and your intended readers feel that reading your story was time well spent. (see: Kurt Vonnegut's 8 Rules For Writing)

The general structure I'm going to talk about is—and I want to stress this—given purely as a place to start. If you have your own ideas about how you want to write your CYOA story, go for it! Ignore everything I say here. On the other hand, if you're looking for a place to start, like an oyster using a grain of sand to form a pearl, then take what works for you and ignore the rest.

CYOA Terminology

First, let's get some terminology out of the way. This is how I think about CYOA stories, but I'm not saying this is how anyone else thinks about them!

Narrative block: What I have been calling a narrative block is also a node on the decision tree. For example:

Narrative Chain or Path: A narrative chain is composed of linked narrative blocks. For example, the following narrative chain is composed of 21 narrative blocks:

Narrative Chain or Path. (Click for larger image.)

Complete narrative chain. A complete narrative chain represents a complete story. These narrative chains reach the lowest level, in this case level 21 (see my discussion of levels, below).

Cut narrative chain. What I call a cut narrative chain tells a full story too, in it's way, but the player doesn't reach the lowest level. An example of a cut narrative chain would be one in which the character died before she reached the end of the adventure. A cut narrative chain is a narrative dead end.

Clusters: The CYOA stories I've looked at seem to have 2, 3 or 4 main clusters. For example, the following structure has two clusters ...

Narrative Clusters. (Click for larger image.)

... while the following structure has four clusters:

Narrative Clusters. (Click for larger image.)

You get the idea. Each cluster has a branching structure of narrative blocks inside it. In what follows I'll talk about a structure with only two clusters because it's simpler.

Levels/Depth: What I'm calling a level refers to the depth or length of the narrative chains. Generally speaking, the longest narrative chains seem to be 20 narrative blocks in length. The figure, above, has 21 levels.

The sort of structure I will discuss, below, has two clusters and 20 levels. At least, we'll start off with that. If we need to tweak the structure as we go along—and I'm sure we will—then that's what we'll do.

Next Time: CYOA Stories and Their Unique Story Structure

That's it for today! In the next installment of this series I'll discuss the unique story structure of a CYOA novel.


1. "Writing Tips how to Write a Choose Your Own Adventure Story," by Len Morse.

2. Chuck Wendig uses language in uniquely creative ways which makes most of his blog posts NSFW. Be warned. But this particular blog post is truly excellent (as most of his posts on writing are): 25 Things You Should Know About Story Structure.

3. "Earth’s Most Stunning Natural Fractal Patterns", by Jess McNally, Wired Magazine.

Monday, October 3

7 Steps: How to Write a Story Description

7 Steps: How to Write a Story Description

I like writing descriptions for my stories about as much as I like eating day old spinach. So! In the best tradition of procrastinators everywhere I decided to write a blog post about how to quickly write a good description. 

By the way, if you think this topic sounds familiar, I’ve written about it before, though with a slightly different focus. Here are links to those posts: 

Let’s get started!

How To Write A Pain-Free Story Description, Quickly.

If you outlined your story this process should be relatively pain-free. If you didn't outline, answering these questions may help strengthen your story's structure.

i. Who is the main character?

In J.K. Rowling’s wildly popular children’s story, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we’re given the main character’s name right in the title!  Harry is an orphan who lives with his odious Aunt Petunia, her intolerant husband, and their spoilt child Dudley.

ii. What is unique about the main character? What is their special gift? What can they do that no one else is able to? Has their special gift marked them in some way?

Harry Potter had been able to mortally injure Voldemort. In Lord of the Rings, only Frodo could carry the One Ring to Mount Doom. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson gives Lisbeth Salander elite computer skills, she can do things that none of the other characters in the novel can do.

iii. What is the initial setting?

As a baby, Harry was left with his obnoxious Aunt Petunia Dursley, Uncle Vernon Dursely and their bratty child Dudley Dursley. Harry is not accepted for who he is and he is constantly reminded that his aunt, uncle and Rodney all hate having him around and wished he would leave.

iv. What is the main character’s initial goal?

Harry’s initial desire—the thing he wants most when we’re first introduced to the character—is to be part of a family. He desperately wishes his parents weren’t dead, that he was living with them. Or even that he knew more about his parents. Harry, like all of us, wants to find people who accept him for who he really is.

v. What person or force opposes the main character achieving his/her initial goal?

In Harry’s case, his Aunt, Uncle and their spoilt son Dudley oppose Harry. They are his antagonists, his tormenters. 

vi. What is the story goal?

The story goal is the main character’s overriding goal. Whether the main character will attain the story goal is determined at the climax of the story.

Harry Potter’s overriding goal in the first book is to protect the only home/family he has ever known, the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, from harm. He wants to figure out how Voldemort is endangering the school (and the world in general) and stop him. Specifically, he wants to prevent Voldemort from getting hold of the Philosopher’s Stone and getting back his power.

vii. Description of Antagonist.

What person or force opposes the main character achieving his/her story goal?

Voldemort opposes Harry. Or, to put it another way, it is impossible for both Harry and Voldemort to both achieve their main goals. 

viii. Positive stakes: If the main character achieves his/her goal what would the consequences be for the main character, the main character’s allies, the antagonist, the antagonist’s allies and the world in general?

- Harry: Will be able to stay at the only place he’s ever felt accepted, it’s his only real home.
- Voldemort: If Voldemort doesn’t get the Philosopher’s Stone then he won’t be able to get his power back which means he won’t be able to take over the world and remake it in his image.
- Harry’s allies: Life can go on as normal.
- Voldemort’s allies: Their dreams of attaining wealth and power will be dashed.

ix. Negative stakes: If the antagonist achieves his/her goal, what would the consequences be for the main character, the main character’s allies, the antagonist, the antagonist's allies and the world in general?

- Harry: Harry would be dead.
- Voldemort: Voldemort would, eventually, rule the world and kill billions of people including Muggles.
- Harry’s allies: Dead.
- Voldemort’s allies: Bloated with wealth and power.

x. Break into Act Two.

What happens, what occurs, to transition, to carry the main character into Act Two?

Hagrid arrives to grant Harry one of his wishes: he tells Harry what he really, truly, is—a wizard—and gives him the incredibly welcome news that he will be attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the fall. The school, or rather the people there, become Harry’s new family and give him the sense of belonging he sought.

xi. The Special World of the Adventure. 

Hogwarts school of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry Potter discovers he’s a wizard and that he has been accepted into a school created just for people like him. Not only will he fit in, he is regarded as  something of a hero.

xii. Complication/Antagonist/Pinch Point.

Voldemort is attempting to get his power back. If he does he will destroy the entire world, Harry and Hogwarts included.

xiii. Test and Trials.

While in the Special World of the Adventure, the main character learns about his parents and himself. He discovered how his parents died, why and how he came to live with the Dursleys, why he has the scar he does, and Ron Wesley’s family accepts him.

Putting the Description Together

Okay! You will notice that not all of the above points directly contribute to the description, but they help lay out the essential structure of the story, it’s backbone. 

By this time you should have one or two sentence descriptions for each of the above points. Now let’s knit this information together into a description. (Not each and every point will be used, but they allow us to  double-check that our story is well-formed.) By the way, I’ve taken this particular description from the publisher’s book page.

Initial setting: “Eleven-year-old Harry Potter is an orphan living with his cruel aunt and uncle when ...”

Break into act two: “... he makes a discovery that will change his life forever: he is a wizard. He is whisked away to the mystical Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry ...” 

The Special World of the adventure: “... to learn magical skills, from potions to spells to flying on broomsticks.”

Complication/Antagonist/Pinch Point: “But an evil power is rising, the same one that threatened to destroy the entire world when Harry was only a baby. 

Test and Trials: “As Harry learns the truth about his family, his childhood, and his mysterious lightning-bolt-shaped scar, he finds unforgettable friendship, a loving surrogate family, and ...”

Description of Antagonist: “... the courage to face the darkest force ever to menace the wizarding world.”

That's it! If you'd like to read more about story structure, here are a few links:

Saturday, October 1

Writing Prompt: Her parents had always been odd, but ...

Writing Prompt: Nicky's parents had always been odd. Different. But she didn't realize how different until her 21st birthday.

Hi! I thought we'd do something a bit different today, so here's a writing prompt.

It was inspired by a story I've been rushing to finish. Currently, I'm at the stage, my least favorite, where I have to write the description. Arg!

Anyway, here's the prompt:

Nicky's parents were always odd. Different. But she doesn't realize how different until her 21st birthday.

That's it! I'd love to read what you come up with. :-)

If you love writing prompts as much as I do and want more, here a few books with write-worthy prompts:

642 Things to Write About
1,000 Awesome Writing Prompts
The Amazing Story Generator: Creates Thousands of Writing Prompts

Disclaimer: Yes, those are affiliate links, but I have each of those books. Affiliate links are a great way to contribute to a blogger's caffeine habit because, while the cost of the product doesn't change, the blogger gets a few pennies/crumbs from the sale.

Wednesday, September 28

How To Write A Choose Your Own Adventure Novel, Part 3: Keeping A Reader's Interest

Have you ever wanted to write a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) story? I have! But I had no idea how to begin. I'd never written something with the unique branching structure these stories have. Though, one would think, it can't be that hard. Right? (Yep. I have a feeling that falls into the category of famous last words.)

(How to Write a Choose Your Own Adventure Novel, Part 1)

I had been planning to dive into the technical side of the branching structure today—how many nodes (/narrative blocks) should I include, what shape should the decision tree be, what kind of choices should be presented? How many choices should there be? And so on.—and I will! But there's just too much material to cover in one post, so I'll pick this discussion up again next time.

Today, let's concentrate on the branching nature of a CYOA story and how to capture, and hold, a reader's interest. By the way, a terrific article that influenced my thinking about CYOA stories—and which has informed many of the points I make below—is "Writing Tips: how to write a choose your own adventure story," by Len Morse. [1]

CYOA Stories: How to Entertain Readers

Here are three tips on how to keep your audience's interest:

1. Don't make it too simple, have your plotlines intersect.

In a choose your own adventure story the branching nature is an essential element of the story. It's part of the fun! A CYOA story isn't meant to be read once then put aside. Readers want to finish and then go back and try alternate routes.

This means that if your story doesn't provide an interesting enough structure, a tempting structure to explore, that they'll be disappointed. For example, you want to use a structure where various timelines occasionally intersect. For example [1]:

See also [2]:

I'm not going to say too much more about this right now since I'll be revisiting the unique structure of a CYOA story in my next post.

2. Think about the stakes.

Briefly, the stakes of a story are the possible consequences of a course of action. What will happen if the protagonist achieves her goal? What will happen if she doesn't? Stakes generate conflict and, therefore, suspense.

I've written a blog post about stakes and their importance so, rather than re-writing that post here, if you'd like to read more about this and see an example of how stakes generate suspense, head over to "Stakes: How To Make Goals Matter."

In CYOA stories (and this applies to any genre story) the goal of the writer is to entertain the reader. If we can give our readers an epiphany concerning life the universe and everything while we're at it, then great! But, primarily, we want to entertain them.

Mix up the stakes. This part is common sense, but I'm going to say it anyway. Stakes should vary. Readers don't want every choice to be life or death and they don't want every choice to be unimportant (often humourous choices are trivial, or seem trivial). It's good to have a mix. Even if you're writing a serious end-of-the-world supernatural horror CYOA, throwing in a bit of humor is a good thing. (Think of Breaking Bad.)

Have stakes follow structure. One thing to keep in mind when creating these branching choices is the protagonist's overriding goal. It is often more effective to have a greater percentage of trivial stakes in the beginning and have most of the stakes toward the end be more weighty.

If you look at the structure of a story this makes sense. The beginning of a story is slower. You have to introduce the characters and the setting. This takes time and, although you can definitely include action, it's not as action packed, not as intense. And, of course, it couldn't be because reader's aren't yet invested in the characters. If you put the protagonist's life in danger too early your readers might shrug and think, "Who cares?"

In the final act (this is true whether one uses a three or four act structure) all the characters have been introduced and (quite likely) we're somewhat familiar with the setting. Now there is nothing to do but pit the antagonist against our protagonist. As a result this part of the story generally moves quite quickly.

3. The number of choices.

If any of you have played a D&D game, this will be familiar to you. You've just begun playing and you walk up to another  character. After some text that orients you in the situation—who they are and who they are to you (to you personally, as well as to folks like you). In D&D certain classes and races react in certain ways to each other. One class looks down on another, etc. So, anyway, after the setup your character meets someone. You have a choice: be the rebel badass by giving her zingy (or belligerent) one-liners. You could be conciliatory or you could try and fight her.

But at base, a choice involves at least two choices. That said, I've noticed that many choices I've come across in games involve three choices:

First choice: An option.

Second choice: The opposite of the first choice.

Third choice: Something completely different.

For instance: 1) Fight. 2) Flee. 3) Negotiate.

4. Drop hints about what lies on the other side.

Let's say the protagonist is standing in front of portals. Maybe two portals, maybe three. Perhaps—writers gone wild!—even four. But let's say there's only two. Sometimes you want to give your readers a clue about what lies on the other side of the portal.

And then of course you can set up your own kind of language, your own meaning. For instance, if two portals appear before your character you could have a red gem before one and a blue gem before another (Yes, I'm thinking about the Matrix!). That could give your readers a hint about what lies beyond.

Part of the beauty of this is that the writer can lie to (er, I mean misdirect) readers.

For instance, the person who placed the gems wants to fool you. They've reversed them so, now, the blue gem would lead to enlightenment and the red pill would be reality as normal.

Obviously that's just an example, and perhaps not the best one! Perhaps you can think of a better one. If you do, tell us! Leave a comment.

Okay, that's it for today. If you'd like to incorporate a writing prompt into your writing workout, check these out. (Or not!) I'll talk to you again on Friday when, fingers crossed, I will finish this series on how to write a CYOA story. Until then, good writing! :-)


1. "Writing Tips: how to write a choose your own adventure story," by Len Morse.
2. This seems to be from what is an analysis essay assignment. Here's the link to the assignment, and here are links to the maps (first, second).
3. This is from the article: ETEC540: Text Technologies.

Monday, September 26

C.S. Lewis: Writing Advice

C.S. Lewis: Writing Advice

To say that C.S. Lewis is one of my favorite authors, while true, doesn't begin to cover the enormity of my debt to him.

When I was a child he was the writer. I read the seven Chronicles of Narnia books in a gasp, one a day. My parents didn't see me for a week!

Mom would knock on my door and try to lure me out of my room every once in awhile—her efforts were NOT rewarded. But that's okay. She was a reader too and C.S. Lewis was on her 'approved writers' list. And she knew there were only seven books!

Today I was going to continue my series on how to create a Choose Your Own Adventure story (see here and here), but I'm not going to do that. Something happened on the weekend that I'm still reacting to and, as a result, I have the attention span of a gnat and the emotional stability of ... hmmm, well, say, of someone watching "The Fault is in Our Stars" for the 10th consecutive time!

Instead, I'm going to write about C.S. Lewis' advice to writers. For me, this is a bit like hugging a favorite blanket. I loved Lewis' work as a child; his novels are exemplars of what I consider interesting, absorbing, well-written stories.

C.S. Lewis' Writing Advice:

C.S. Lewis gave many different kinds of writing advice over the years. What I share, below, is his advice as it relates to language use. This advice comes from a wonderful blog post over at, Writing Advice from C.S. Lewis.

1. Clarity is King

C.S. Lewis writes,

"Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else."

A similar piece of writing advice, one that Stephen King often gives, is to kill your darlings. In other words, remove those bits of text that don't do anything to further the story but which the writer is inordinately attached to. This is advice to ruthlessly de-clutter our writing in an effort to make our story as streamlined, as clear (and therefore as compelling) as we possibly can.

King follows the rule of thumb to reduce his manuscript word count by 10% before he submits it. Excellent advice, and not just for fiction writing.

2. Be direct. Forceful.

C.S. Lewis writes,

"Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them."

In other words: use language like an athlete training for a big race. Make your sentence a sprint, make your scene a five minute mile.

What does the athlete want? Often the goal is either to win the race or beat their own best time. A writer's goal is similar. We want our books, our stories, to reach the number one spot on the bestseller lists or, failing that, we want our work-in-process to be the very best we've ever written. The way to do this is, I would argue, similar in both cases: be intentional. As you write, hone your skill. Try out new things. Do you feel most comfortable writing in the third person? Try it from the first person! Do you write best using the past tense? Then try writing from the present tense. Do you normally write from one point of view? Next time, try alternating points of view. And so on.

Words and paragraphs are tools a writer uses to create and communicate meaning. Be ruthless. Pair down your words, hone the meaning and in so doing you will expose the story.

3. Favor concrete nouns over abstract ones.

C.S. Lewis writes,

"Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean 'More people died' don’t say 'Mortality rose.'"

Again, clarity is king.

4. Don't let fear drive you to use adverbs.

C.S. Lewis writes,

"Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was 'terrible,' describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was 'delightful'; make us say 'delightful' when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers 'Please will you do my job for me.'"

I know this post is about C.S. Lewis' writing advice and yet I keep turning to Stephen King (if you haven't read On Writing you really, really, should), but what Lewis says here is very close to what King says in On Writing BUT Lewis' comment is more explanatory. I'll give you a quote from On Writing and then I'll say a few words about how Lewis' advice helps explain what King is on about. I'm devoting time to this because I've often been puzzled by King's assertion of the link between fear/timidity and adverb use). King writes:

"Adverbs, you will remember from your own version of Business English, are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. With the passive voice, the writer usually expresses fear of not being taken seriously; it is the voice of little boys wearing shoepolish mustaches and little girls clumping around in Mommy’s high heels. With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

"Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me … but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?"

Lewis is talking about adjectives while King is talking about adverbs (at least those that end in -ly), but I think the point each writer is trying to make is, essentially (ack!), the same.

When we write things like, "She jumped up and down. It was delightful," it IS like we're giving our readers stage direction. We're telling them what they should see in their mind's eye, we are telling them what they should feel. We say: This event is delightful, that is how you, Dear Reader, will think of it.

But, of course, that's telling not showing. As Lewis says, we're sloughing off the job of picturing this to the reader. Why? We do this because of fear. We do this because we're scared that, otherwise, our writing won't be able to communicate the meaning we want to express, the thought we want to express. Fearful and perhaps a bit embarrassed, we reach for an adjective or adverb that will tell the reader how they should feel, rather than using language, using our writing, to drag them into the world of the story and the mind of the narrator.

(Stephen King: What is writing? Telepathy, of course!)

5. Use the right word for the right job.

C.S. Lewis writes,

"Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say 'infinitely' when you mean 'very'; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite."

This is KISS: Keep it simple, silly. Again, go for precision. Choose simple words that cleanly and clearly express your meaning.

If you would like to read about C.S. Lewis' daily routine, here's a blog post about just that over on C.S. Lewis's Ideal Daily Routine.

My hope is that you will find something in this post that inspires you to continue writing strong, fearless, prose. (That's also my hope for myself!)

Just as athletes must train, so writers need to hone their craft. I like to use short writing exercises to try out new things (for example, to write in a different tense or from a different perspective). Here is a list of writing prompts if you'd like to try it out.

That's it! I'll talk to you again on Wednesday. Until then, good writing!

By the way, if you love listening to audiobooks (I do!) as well as radio plays (I do!) here is the best of both: the Chronicles of Narnia turned into a radio play! The best part is that you get it for free if you subscribe to Audible.

(Yes, that's an affiliate link, but this is a product I would love to buy and so don't hesitate to recommend. Also, clicking this link won't increase the price you pay for the product, but Amazon will put a small amount of money in my account, and every little bit helps to sustain this blog. If you'd like to contribute in another way, I also have a Patreon page.) Thanks!