Monday, December 30

Testing Your Story Concept

I've been following screenwriter Matt Bird's blog, Cockeyed Caravan, for a couple of weeks. Recently Bird wrote a post, The Ultimate TV Pilot Checklist: Mad Men, chalk full of useful information.

Here are what, for me, were the highlights.

1. Is your story concept strong enough?

It makes sense that if you're going to write a book--something that is going to take, for most people, a few months (or years!)--it's a good idea to make sure you're starting off with a story idea that can go the distance.

Let's put our story ideas to the test by asking these questions:

"Does the concept contain a fundamental (and possibly fun) ironic contradiction?"

I'd come across this notion of an ironic contradiction previously when I read  Blake Snyder's excellent book, "Save The Cat!"

Blake Snyder writes about irony in relation to the logline, or one-line, that summarizes your story. He writes:

"The number one thing a good logline must have, the single most important element, is: irony."

Here are Snyder's examples:

Die Hard: "A cop comes to L.A. to visit his estranged wife and her office building is taken over by terrorists."

Pretty Woman: "A businessman falls in love with a hooker he hires to be his date for the weekend."

A Note About Irony

(If you don't care whether those loglines really are ironic, then you might want to skip this section.)

I admire Blake Snyder. When he wrote Save The Cat! I'm sure he'd forgotten more about screenwriting--and writing in general--than I'll ever know. That said, the idea that either of those loglines is ironic doesn't sit well with me.

Here's one of the definitions, or senses, of "irony" that I think comes closest to how Snyder used it:

"(1) :  incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result (2) :  an event or result marked by such incongruity. (Merriam-Webster)"

I think this usage note gives voice to my reservations better than I could:

"The words ironic, irony, and ironically are sometimes used of events and circumstances that might better be described as simply "coincidental" or "improbable," in that they suggest no particular lessons about human vanity or folly. Thus 78 percent of the Usage Panel rejects the use of 'ironically' in the sentence, "In 1969 Susie moved from Ithaca to California where she met her husband-to-be, who, ironically, also came from upstate New York." Some Panelists noted that this particular usage might be acceptable if Susie had in fact moved to California in order to find a husband, in which case the story could be taken as exemplifying the folly of supposing that we can know what fate has in store for us. By contrast, 73 percent accepted the sentence, "Ironically, even as the government was fulminating against American policy, American jeans and videocassettes were the hottest items in the stalls of the market," where the incongruity can be seen as an example of human inconsistency. (The Free Dictionary)"

So it seems that what Snyder and Bird call "ironic" many would call "improbable." But, enough about terminology!

Ironic Contradiction

Another way to think about irony, and ironic contradictions, is as a hook

A hook is a familiar idea to most writers. The hook introduces a question that your reader will want answered. Snyder writes:

"[A] good logline must be emotionally intriguing, like an itch you have to scratch."

Lee Child mentioned that one way he hooks readers' interest is by asking a question he leaves unanswered until much later in the story.

Before I leave this point, I think that Breaking Bad had one of the best hooks I've ever heard. You have a genius teaching chemistry, sleepwalking through life, until he's told death will claim him in a few months. Then, as the result of a desire to provide for his pregnant wife and children, to leave them some money before he dies, Walter White starts to use his genius to make meth. And money. Lots and lots of money.

Is the protagonist going to have a happy ending? Um ... no. That's obvious right from the beginning. This is a doomed character. But we're interested! Walter White is doing something very bad but for the best of reasons. He's a weak guy putting it all on the line, finally (tragically) fighting for something he wants.

I was going to go through more points but it seems I've reached my word limit!

I encourage you all to read Matt Bird's article and, if you haven't, to pick up a copy of Blake Snyder's Save The Cat!

Photo credit: "This Is The Construct" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Saturday, December 28

12 Archetypes

Sometimes it's difficult to settle on what to write about but (thankfully!) today was not such a day.

Lately, I've been consumed (obsessed?) with exploring various character types so I was thrilled when I discovered "The 12 Common Archetypes" by Carl Golden.

Golden, from his reading of Jungian Psychology, believes there are 12 archetypes, each divided into three categories. (From my writerly perspective, whether this is the case is immaterial. I only need the archetypes to be interesting, not true.)

Types of Archetypes: Ego, Soul, Self

One thing I love about Carl Golden's presentation of these archetypes is that he gives for each a motto, core desire, goal, greatest fear, strategy, weakness and talent.

For instance:
Archetype: The Innocent
Motto: Free to be you and me
Core desire: to get to paradise
Goal: to be happy
Greatest fear: to be punished for doing something bad or wrong
Strategy: to do things right
Weakness: boring for all their naive innocence
Talent: faith and optimism
"The Innocent" is also known as: Utopian, traditionalist, naive, mystic, saint, romantic, dreamer.
I'll let you read Golden's article for the details on the rest of the archetypes, but they are worth looking at.


1. The Innocent
2. The Orphan/Regular Guy/Gal
3. The Hero
4. The Caregiver


1. The Explorer
2. The Rebel
3. The Lover
4. The Creator


1. The Jester
2. The Sage
3. The Magician
4. The Ruler

One of the cool things about these archetypes is that you can mix and match. For instance, one of my characters, a secondary character, is both a Regular Guy and The Lover.

The Four Orientations: Social, Order, Ego, Freedom

Here's where things get interesting. We've seen that the archetypes can be broken into three types (Ego, Soul or Self). But they can also be given an orientation: Social, Order, Ego or Freedom. ("Social" and "Ego" are opposites, as are "Freedom" and "Order.")

For instance, the archetype "Ruler" has the orientation of Order. "Hero" of Ego, and so on.


a. Lover
b. Caregiver
c. Everyman


a. Innocent
b. Ruler
c. Sage


a. Magician
b. Hero
c. Creator


a. Explorer
b. Outlaw
c. Jester

Fun Exercise

Find out where you think each archetype fits. Here's how I arranged them:

I think the most valuable thing is finding out which orientation you think each fits since that'll help expose how you think about characterization.

Interesting Articles:

- Major Archetypes and the Process of Individuation
- And now for something different! Elizabeth Spann Craig shared this link and it's so good I wanted to include it. The Murder Mystery Arc

Photo credit: "Season's greetings!" by Marina del Castell under Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

Friday, December 20

Time Management Tips For Writers

Keeping up with my writing during the holidays has been, in a word, maddening! Another word would be: impossible.

Sometimes I feel like giving in and wading into the sea of social media and losing myself in LOL Cats and miscellaneous weird, and weirdly entertaining, facts. (Did you know that Google bought eight companies working on robotic technology in the last eight months?)

But Elizabeth Spann Craig has saved me from that fate with her post, "Tips for Writing in Short Blocks of Time." 

I know I often say, "Folks, this post is a must read," but, honestly, if you've ever wondered how some writers can turn out three or four books a year while working in 20 or 30 minute sprints (and, believe me, I have!) Elizabeth's post is one you'll want to read.

I've given you a link to Elizabeth Craig's original article, but here are the points that resonated with me and that now hang above my desk:

Two Time Management Rules For Writers

Rule 1

"You have to actively look for these pockets of time or else they disappear while we check email on our cell phones."

Rule 2

"You have to be prepared for writing…with writing materials and your writing mindset."

How To Prepare

Elizabeth Craig doesn't leave us hanging, she gives practical--helpful!--advice about how to prepare for these writing jags:

Ways to prepare for any size block of writing time:

1. Prepare an outline

"Have an outline or a mini-outline (for that writing day only and what you want to accomplish with the upcoming scene [...])."

"Either have a full outline or at least know what you want to write for the day (a mini-outline) and a brief summary of where you left off the day before."

2. Create a list of writing tasks

"Maintain a to-do list of writing-related tasks to accomplish. Mine may have anything from 'brainstorm more character names/last names' to 'write descriptions of Lulu’s house' to 'research Destroying Angel mushrooms'.”

I have an errand to run in a few minutes time so I've just jotted down a few things I need to accomplish today because I just know I'm going to have at least 5 minutes in a long lineup. Why not be productive rather than bored? (Or, even worse, bored and grumpy because I haven't written. Bah humbug!)

3. Make your outline and your lists ACCESSIBLE

Lists and outlines are great but they won't do us much good if we can't access them when we can snatch a few minutes of time for ourselves. Like, for instance, while waiting in line at the supermarket.

Elizabeth Craig writes:

"Make sure your writing to-do list is available to you for the shortest periods of free time that you might encounter.  I like to upload mine to my online calendar so it’s on my phone if I need it. You could also upload it to SkyDrive or Google Drive. Or just copy that sheet of paper and keep copies in your car or laptop bag or purse."

I use Dropbox. These days everything I write, or need to remember, gets saved to Dropbox or iCloud. For the first time in ... forever! ... I'm not panicked at the loss of my journal or iPad or laptop. (Though, don't misunderstand, I'd miss them! But, unlike my work, they can be replaced.)

4. The magic of lists

If you only have five minutes to do something, have several lists on hand that need populating.

As an example, Elizabeth gives the headings of lists she might work on:

“5 ways to describe my protagonist,” 
“7 ways to describe the main setting,” 
“5 potential subplots involving secondary characters,”  
“5 possible endings for this book,” 
“7 ways my protagonist can grow,” 
“5 things my protagonist fears more than anything,”  
“my protagonist’s biggest goals”…you get the idea.

When I read this part of Elizabeth Spann's post a light went off. I've been re-(re-re-re-) reading Donald Maass' marvellous (I-can't-recommend-it-highly-enough) book: Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, focusing on the questions he asks at the end of each chapter. 

I'm going to make a list of all Maass' questions relevant to my character and try to answer them in whatever odd moments I have during the day.

Stalled? Here's Elizabeth's tip:

"If you’re stalling and don’t want to write the next scene:  Skip the next scene and go on to the following one… the idea is to keep pushing through.  Or make a list of ways to approach the scene and pick the best one from the list in your short block of writing time."

Tomorrow I'm going to spend a few minutes getting organized so that I'll have something writing related to do when five, or ten, or fifteen minutes unexpectedly opens up.

What is your strategy to keep writing--to preserve your writing momentum--through the holidays?

Photo credit: "Spitfire" by Daniel Zedda under Creative Commons Attribution.

Wednesday, December 18

A Beat Sheet For Scrivener

A Beat Sheet For Scrivener

How to use Excel and Scrivener to build a beat sheet for your work in progress.

Ever wondered how to use beat sheets with Scrivener? I have! If you have too, rejoice and be full of tasty Christmas cheer. Jami Gold has written an article that does all the heavy lifting: "Ask Jami: Can We Use Beat Sheets with Scrivener?" (The answer is a most emphatic, "Heck Ya!")

I'm going to let you read Jami's article, she walks you through what she's done in great and glorious (yet interesting!) detail.

Here, though, are a couple of links you're not going to want to miss:

Jami Gold's basic beat sheet

That link will take you to an Excel file. Jami has set it up so all you have to do is plug in the number of words you'd like your finished manuscript to have and her spreadsheet calculates what beat should appear where. It's incredible.

Even if you don't use beats in your work, it's interesting to see where they would go.

Another must have is Jami Gold's Scrivener template.

I was slow to adopt Scrivener--I was a dyed-in-the-wool MS Word user--but now love it and wouldn't write in anything else.

SO. I was very VERY excited to see that Jami adapted her (brilliant) Excel spreadsheet to Scrivener by transforming it into a template.

And all for Christmas! What a wonderful gift. Thanks Jami. :-)


Photo credit: "Dreams" by Marina del Castell under Creative Commons Attribution.

Friday, December 13

How To Evoke Emotion Through Your Writing

How To Evoke Emotion In Your Writing

Jami Gold is one of my favorite bloggers, and posts like this--How to Strengthen Emotions in Our Writing--are why.

I encourage you to read Jami's entire post, but here's the bit (see below) that resonated with me. I've been working on punching up the emotion in my writing; I printed off these tips and hung them on my wall, above my writing desk.

The Causes of Unemotional Writing & How To Correct Them

The following list is a quotation from Jami Gold's article, How To Strengthen Emotions in Our Writing.

Lack of response to a stimulus

If characters don’t react when something happens in the story, readers will see a “robot” instead of a character.

Misplaced response to a stimulus

If characters react before readers know the stimulus, the reaction won’t resonate as strongly.

Weak response to a stimulus

If characters seem underwhelmed, readers—unless they have reason to doubt the character—will assume the character knows the situation isn’t a big deal and will tone down their reaction.

Clichéd response to a stimulus

If characters react in a clichéd way, readers may skim over the response, lessening its impact.

Chopped/compressed response to a stimulus

If characters’ reactions feel cut off or compressed, readers won’t feel the full emphasis of the stimulus.

Superficial response to a stimulus

If characters react with only a physical or an internal or a mental response (rather than a combination of responses) to a major stimulus, the reaction can feel superficial.

Inappropriate response to a stimulus

If characters react wildly different from what readers expect (outside of societal norms or out-of-character) with no explanation, readers can distance themselves from the character because they no longer relate to them.

Melodramatic response to a stimulus

If characters overreact to a stimulus, readers can distance themselves from the story due to a lack of believability.
Great list! Any discussion of how to evoke emotion can be augmented by Dwight V. Swain's discussion of the subject. I touch on this in my own article: How To Create Characters That Evoke Emotion.

I hope you have a great writing day. Remember, it doesn't matter if you think you're writing crap: write!

Photo credit: "Love grows in hearts, not uteruses" by Ansel Edwards under Creative Commons Attribution.

Thursday, December 12

Using Index Cards To Outline A Novel

"The card system is your map and your guide; the Plot Points your checkpoints along the way, the 'last-chance' gas station before you hit the high desert; the ending, your destination." (Syd Field, Screenwriting)

I've been changing how I write. These days I use (virtual) index cards to create a detailed outline of my novel before I put pen to paper to create a first draft.

That said, I do write bits and pieces of scenes here and there, as the ideas come to me, so I have a feeling for my main characters' voices while I'm doing the cards.

Filling out index cards--approximately 56 index cards--will be familiar to just about anyone who has written a screenplay.  

Writing A Novel Using Index Cards

The first question I was asked after I explained this method to a friend was: That's too detailed. Are you nuts?!

But, hey, this is working for me (so far), maybe it'll work for you.

Before I go on, I'd like to mention that I'm not using physical index cards, I'm using the Index Cards app. I've been using this app for a few months now and can't recommend it highly enough. But one word of warning. I've had the program crash on me a few times, so I've learnt (the hard way) to back up my outlines. Be thou warned.

The Structure of a Novel

Although I love writing novellas--they are so much quicker--my first love is the novel, and I think this is also true for many readers. For my purposes, a novel is 80,000 (or so) words.

I've structured my current novel as follows:

First Act:
Trailer: 4 cards
First sequence: 5 cards
Second sequence: 5 cards

Second Act:
Third Sequence: 7  cards
Fourth Sequence: 7 cards
Fifth Sequence: 7 cards
Sixth Sequence: 7 cards

Third Act:
Seventh Sequence: 7 cards
Eighth Sequence: 7 cards

Total: 56 cards. That comes out to about 1,400 words per card (/per scene).

Those numbers are approximate. At the moment I have more than 56 cards, and the scenes are going to vary in length. When I roll up my sleeves and get writing I'm confident that not all scenes are going to be between 1,400 and 1,500 words! Some are going to be longer--much longer--and some much shorter.

These cards aren't meant to act as a straight jacket, just an approximation. After all, I'm writing a novel not a screenplay. They are a tool I can use to expose the bones of my story and let me suss out the gaps, the enormous gaping plot holes. As many, many, writers have said, it's much easier to change an outline than to change a completed first draft!

The Three Act Structure

I've written about the three act structure here: Story Structure.


Each sequence, like the story itself, will have a beginning, middle and end. In the beginning we introduce the characters and setting. Also, we might foreshadow at least a few of the conflicts to come. 

In the middle we have conflict and try-fail cycles. Characters strive to achieve their goals and are thwarted. They devise new strategies and try again. They are thwarted again, and so on.

At the end there is a resolution. Either the character achieves their goal or they don't. Usually they don't. Stakes are raised (and clearly spelt out).


Each scene is a lot like each sequence. Each has a beginning, a middle and an end. In the beginning we establish the characters and setting, in the middle conflict is generated by characters striving for goals and falling short. And, at the end, though there is a resolution of sorts, most commonly the hero will not reach their goal, the stakes will be raised, and they'll have to try, try, and try again.

Elements of an Index Card: Scenes

Each index card is either a scene or a sequel. (Here are two excellent articles by Jim Butcher which explain scenes and sequels.)

If the index card is a scene, then here are the categories I use:


Who is in the scene? List each character.

Character's goal

For each main character in the scene, list his/her goal for this scene. Each character's goal should be concrete/specific enough to take a picture of. (Each character's goal will tie into their goal for both the sequence and the story as a whole.)

Character's stakes

For each main character in the scene, if the character wins/achieves her goal, what will he/she win?
If the character fails to achieve his/her goal, what will he/she lose?


What happens in this scene?


Where does it happen? Indoors? Outdoors? 
Is this setting interesting on its own? Does it have any significance to any of the characters? To the theme?


When does the action in this scene take place? What time of day or night is it? What date is it?


Why must this goal me accomplished now? If there is no sense of urgency, conflict is undermined.


What opposes the character's acquisition of their goal? 

Elements of an Index Card: Sequels

Dwight V. Swain in his invaluable text, Techniques of the Selling Writer, writes that:

"A sequel is a unit of transition that links two scenes, like the coupler between two railroad cars. It sets forth your focal character's reaction to the scene just completed and provides him with motivation for the scene next to come."

Swain goes on to note that the functions of a sequel are threefold:

a. "To translate disaster into goal."
b. "To telescope reality."
c. "To control tempo."

I'm only going to touch on the first of these functions--turning disaster into goal--here.

So, if a particular scene is a sequel, then these are the questions I ask:


How does the viewpoint character--as well as the other main characters--react to the resolution of the previous scene? If the hero achieves his goal is he happy or is he devastated because it's not what he thought it would be? If he didn't achieve his goal, is he angry, resigned, depressed, emotionally devastated, etc, etc, etc?

Remember, this is unfiltered emotion. The hero is just reacting. (Although how a character reacts can tell readers an awful lot about your character.)

Review hero's situation and enumerate his/her options

After your POV character (which for the sake of brevity I've been assuming is your hero/protagonist) stops reacting they need to figure out what to do. So they'll need to review their situation (what were the stakes?) and think of several things they could do next. For each possibility make sure the goal is clear, as is the opposition and the new stakes.

The main thing: Make the goal for each possible alternative scenario crystal clear.


The hero must decide. Which option the hero picks should be consistent with their strengths and weaknesses, who they are as a person. Which is just another way of saying that it should be plausible.


That's almost it. As I go through my cards I try to remember to ask myself these questions:

- Have I shown that the protagonist is clear and resourceful?
- Have I given readers a clear idea of what the hero's wound is?
- Have I shown the hero's special talent?
- Have I shown the hero's primary strength and weakness?
- Have I shown the hero's quirk?
- Have I demonstrated the hero's guiding principle?
- Is the protagonist pursuing justice?
- Is the hero active? Does he/she act of her own volition or is she pushed into action by plot events?

That's it! Good writing.

PS: I just listened to The Narrative Breakdown podcast and picked up these tips:

1. Surround your hero with characters that lack his/her particular strength.
2. Give the hero three rules to live by, whether stated or implied.
3. A catchphrase (Poirot: I do not approve of murder) can go a long way to communicating character.

Photo credit: "Index card pic" by Karen Woodward under Creative Commons Attribution.

Tuesday, December 10

How To Create Distinct Characters: An Exercise

Have you ever had trouble telling two characters apart? Either in your own work or others? I know I have, which is why I was thrilled to find this exercise: Guest Author Bryan Cohen: 60 Seconds of Hell: An Improv Character Exercise Adapted for Writers.

How to improvise your way into creating distinct character voices

This writing exercise started off as an acting drill, a brutal one guaranteed to turn your brain into mush in 30 seconds flat!

Why put yourself through this creative torture?

Because, just as this helps actors portray distinct characters on the stage, so it will make it easier for you to craft unique, fresh, lively, characters upon the page.

Here's the improv version:

"The coach of the improv team would hold a stopwatch and send one of the performers to the stage. The performer takes a one-word suggestion and starts a scene as a certain character. After 10 seconds, the coach says, "Switch!" and the performer must start a new scene as a completely different character. The goal is to create six distinct characters that speak different, move differently and are only connected by the fact that it's the same improviser performing all the roles.

"Most of the time, a performer will have no problem with the first two or three characters. By the third or fourth character, there will be a pause or a similar character to the first couple will rear his or her head. While the first few characters are triumphant, the last couple are often a stumble. (60 Seconds of Hell)"

5 Ways To Make A Character's Voice Distinct

1. Pace

Is your character's speech hummingbird fast, sloth slow, or somewhere in-between?

2. Dialect

Does this character use standard English? Are they educated? Where were they educated? Do they have an English accent? Cockney? Or perhaps their accent is American? Where are they from? Boston? Does this character use contractions?

3. Movement

Does your character move quickly? Are her movements jerky? Sudden? 

Often a person's movements are indicative of what he or she wants. For example, if your character is a femme fatale she'll move one way, if she's a single mother of five young children just home from her second minimum wage job, she'll move in quite another. Or think of the cautious, stealthy, precise, movements of a burglar.

4. Emotion

Is your character happy? Sad? Worried? Angry? Scared? Despairing? Think of how to communicate each of these emotions through dialogue (remember: show don't tell.)

Here is a list of emotions.

5. Pitch

Everyone's vocal range is different.

In her article, "The Human Voice--Pitch," Tonya Reiman writes that:

"Everyone has a distinct voice, different from all others; almost like a fingerprint, one's voice is unique and can act as an identifier. The human voice is composed of a multitude of different components, making each voice different; namely, pitch, tone, and rate."

Recall the character of Moaning Myrtle, played brilliantly by Shirley Henderson, from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Shirley Henderson's voice is distinctive and was a significant part of what made Myrtle unforgettable.

60 Seconds of Hell: The Writing Exercise

What you'll need:

- A piece of paper (or electronic file) divided into six sections.

- A timer set to mark six increments of ten seconds each. If you don't have such a timer, a friend with a stop watch would come in handy!

I did this exercise without the aid of a timekeeping friend by using a stopwatch app on my iPad and then hitting the 'lap' button every ten seconds. It was awkward but doable. That said, if anyone out there knows of a timer/counter/doodad that can be set to emit a beep every X seconds, please let me know! :-)

What you'll do:

Write a dialogue for six characters, switching to a new character every ten seconds.

Your goal is to make each character distinct by making each character's voice distinct. Remember, this is dialogue only.

Bryan Cohen encourages writers to experiment with this exercise. Try varying the amount of time or characters. Stipulate that one of your characters has to use a British accent. Be creative!

Cohen writes:

"Don't worry, this exercise is meant to make your brain feel like jelly. With enough practice, it should help you to differentiate your characters to keep them from sounding alike. By going through six characters at a time, you may also find a new person you want to spend time with in your next story. So try going to hell and back. You might return with a lot more than you bargained for. (60 Seconds of Hell)"

An excellent exercise! Good writing.

Article links:
- The Human Voice - Pitch, by Tonya Reiman

Photo credit: "Los Habaneros #10" by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution.

Thursday, December 5

How To Build Vivid Characters

How To Build Vivid Characters

Deborah Chester, in her latest blog post, "Writing with Flair" argues that we should not attempt to make our characters true to life. Instead our characters need to be:


No real-life individual could possibly exemplify all those traits. Nevertheless, our characters--especially our main characters--need to.

DC writes:

"When I sit down to read fiction, I don’t want characters that are modeled closely on real life. Real life is boring, mundane, filled with endless banal tasks, the drudgery of chores, and meaningless small talk."

The task of the writer is to craft characters that make an impact on readers. She writes:

"How does one of your characters enter the story? How does she exit a scene? What does she do while she’s [...] on the page, involved in the story’s action?

"Is she making ANY impression on readers?

"If not, why not?

"One of my favorite old-movie actresses is Bette Davis. You may or may not have seen any of her films, but you’ve probably heard of her.

"Even in her earliest films, when she was just a studio player and miscast in little roles of flighty society girls, she carried a presence with her. She knew how to walk, how to carry herself, how to move about so that she held the audience’s eye. That’s stagecraft, and she learned her acting from the stage before she ever went to Hollywood.

"All actors of that era were trained to do that. They weren’t trying to be natural or realistic. They were driving the story action forward and doing their best to make you remember them.

"One of my favorite film entrances of a character is in the William Wyler film, THE LETTER, based on a short story by Somerset Maugham. The audience is shown the moonlight shining down on a peaceful rubber plantation. All is quiet. The workers are sleeping in hammocks under thatched sheds. Then a pistol shot rings out. A man bursts from the bungalow and staggers down the porch steps. Bette Davis follows him.

"She’s wearing an evening gown. She holds a pistol in one hand. Her arm is extended and rigid. She fires into his back. And fires again, emptying the revolver into his dying body. As she shoots, she descends a porch step, then another, until she’s standing over him.

"The camera zooms in on her face. She’s intent, cold-blooded, lethal. There’s no hesitation in her, no fear, no regret. She knows exactly what she’s just done, and it was precisely what she intended to do. She has shot this man down the way I might destroy a rabid dog.

"Then, as the plantation workers wake up and run toward her in alarm, the predator in Bette vanishes. She pulls on a mask of teary weakness and begins to lie about what just happened and why.

"But the audience has seen the truth and can settle in to watch what she does next in trying to trick the police and the prosecutors.

"'Realistic?' Not at all. Vivid and effective? You bet!"

Deborah Chester writes that "Characters have to be exaggerated in order to ignite readers' imaginations."

. . . .

"The desire to avoid the bold, seemingly unnatural character is understandable. It’s also fatal to a story’s success."

. . . .

"Stories–particularly genre fiction–are not realistic. They are entertainment, and they are structured in certain ways to fulfill that function.

"That’s why fictional characters need to be exaggerated into creatures that are weird or wild or zany or colorful or predatory or just more darned courageous than anyone else."

. . . .

"Just ask Janet Evanovich, who creates old ladies who carry Glocks strapped to their walkers and monkeys that escape research laboratories wearing little hats made from aluminum foil.

"Silly? You bet.
"And she laughs all the way to the bank."

Writing with Flair is a terrific article, and just what I needed to read at this point in my WIP. Cheers! Good writing.

Photo credit: "Breaking through..." by Vinoth Chandar under Creative Commons Attribution.

Wednesday, December 4

Sean Platt's and Johnny B. Truant's new book: Write. Publish. Repeat. The No-Luck-Required Guide to Self-Publishing Success

Sean Platt's and Johnny B. Truant's new book: Write. Publish. Repeat. The No-Luck-Required Guide to Self-Publishing Success

Yesterday +John Ward--with the blessings of the authors--passed along a copy of Sean Platt's and Johnny B. Truant's new book: Write. Publish. Repeat. The No-Luck-Required Guide to Self-Publishing Success (link to the book on Amazon). You may know the authors from their weekly Self Publishing Podcast.

I was frazzled when John talked to me. I felt intimidated and more than a little anxious about my deadlines but ... well, what can I say, I was curious (and, hey, procrastination!), and John's an online friend, so I took a gander and, boy, am I glad!

Write. Publish. Repeat is a blueprint for establishing effective patterns of behavior. For getting us to think like writers and business people. 

Writers--authors--need a strategy for success. Writing--the telling of a story, the creation of a manuscript--is art, but selling your writing, whether this is to a traditional publisher or to the public at large, is a business. They write:
"Don't ask, 'Is Amazon the place to be?' Instead, ask if selling on Amazon fits well with and best serves your strategy of selling as many books as possible to your ideal readers."
Notice the mention of "ideal readers." I love this concept. Here's how the authors explain it:
"Try to imagine your ideal reader--a concept that were shamelessly stealing from Stephen King in On Writing. Theres one person you're writing for, and that person represents your perfect reader. [...] Your ideal reader will help you make the decisions you need to make when writing."
Also, if you've ever gotten a one star review on Amazon, this idea of your ideal reader can help explain that. This school of thought holds that one star reviews are a sign that your book is reaching the wrong audience, not that your book stinks. For instance, many of my science fiction friends would give any romance book a one star review.

Of course there are books which are truly horrid in the sense that they contain bad grammar. And, certainly, there many stories--whether traditionally or indie published--that contain plot holes, flat characters and impossibly purple prose. 

That said, I think usually these kinds of books sink silently without garnering mention. A one star review, especially a scathing one, is evidence that, with your prose, you reached out and touched someone. Just not in a way they found pleasant! But, so what? Your story elicited strong emotion. Put that in the win column and move on.

I want say more--a lot more!--about ideal readers, but the best thing to do is buy the book, Write. Publish. Repeat, and read it for yourself. At the moment it's on sale for $2.99 until December 7th, 2013.

Again, here's a link to the book on Amazon.

Good writing!

Photo credit: "desert highway" by Robert Couse-Baker under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

Monday, December 2

HarperCollins Mystery Writing Contest: Write Your Own Agatha Christie Mystery

HarperCollins Mystery Writing Contest: Write Your Own Agatha Christie Mystery

HarperCollins, in conjunction with Agatha Christie's estate, offers writers a chance to play a game of Consequences by writing a chapter in the voice/style of the Queen of Crime. A theme is given for each chapter and contestants have three weeks to finish their entry and submit it.

The winning entries are placed online for others to read and, together, they will constitute a mystery story written collectively.

Entry Fee: None. This is for fun and the contest is free to enter.

The Background

This competition is based on the game of Consequences Agatha Christie played with the other members of the Detection Club.

"In 1931, in a literary game of Consequences, Agatha Christie and thirteen other members of the Detection Club contributed a chapter (and a proposed solution) to a collaborative detective novel ultimately called The Floating Admiral."

This time around you can contribute a chapter.

The Contest

"In 2013, we are inviting all comers, wherever they live, whether they have read a Christie novel or not and whether they are a published author or not, to contribute a chapter, and an end solution, to a similar (and we hope equally enjoyable) concept: Write your own Christie.

"Our novel will take ten months to complete so there will be ten chances to enter a chapter and win."

For complete instructions, see the link at the bottom of the page (Write Your Own Christie).

Chapters One and Two have already been written but Chapters 3 to 10 lie ahead. You're given chapter titles. The title for chapter three is "Enter the Detective" (for a complete list see "Write Your Own Christie" in the list of links).


a. Your chapter must be between 1,500 and 3,000 words long.

b. You must have a clear denouement in mind. Write one or two sentences describing:

a) the identity of the murderer,
b) their motive,
c) how they committed the murder.

Your description should be consistent with all the clues given in the previously published chapters

c. "The murderer must be one of the characters introduced in Chapters One, Two or Three."

d. Don't reveal the murderer till Chapter Ten.

e. Only one entry is allowed per chapter, but you're encouraged to submit an entry for each of the remaining chapters.

How To Submit Your Entry

You must fill out and sign the entry form--it's available in the PDF file "Write Your Own Christie" (see the links section, below)--and include it with your entry (this applies to whether you're submitting by email or by traditional mail). 


If submitting your entry by email, send it to:

Don't forget to include:
- your full name as well as 
- the chapter number 
in the subject line of the email.


Send your chapter to:

Agatha Christie Limited, 
4th Floor, 67 - 68 Long Acre,
London, WC2E 9JD, 

The Judges

Entries will be judged by Mathew Prichard, Christie's grandson, David Brawn, Christie's British publisher, and Daniel Mallory, Christie's American Publisher and one of her biggest fans. "They're looking for originality, plenty of plot twists and perhaps a little gentle humour."

The Prize

If your entry is selected the judges will invite you to dinner. In addition, authors of highly commented chapters will "receive a copy of a Christie novel of their choice," one signed by Agatha Christie's grandson, Mathew Prichard.

The Fine Print

With contests of any sort one always has to worry about the fine print. On submitting your entry are you also 

"All entrants agree to not publish their entries in any form and anywhere in the world until September 15th 2014 without ACL's express written permission."

Seems reasonable.

I just found out about this contest today. Sounds fun! I'm currently writing two books, but this is something I'd love to try and squeeze in. Agatha Christie is one of my favorite authors, I've enjoyed her work immensely over the years, in all its many and varied forms.


- Write Your Own Christie (webpage) (twitter page)

Photo credit: "Copper Eyes" by Karen Woodward under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike Licence.

Saturday, November 30

How To Write A Short Story

How To Write A Short Story

A beginning writer recently asked for advice on how to write a short story. My answer to her query was far too long for her post but I thought, well (silver lining) it's just the right length for a blog post!

The Question: Any comments, suggestions, tips or tricks for a beginning writer on how to write a short story?

If I could go back in time to when I first grappled with this question, here's what I would tell myself:

Before you start writing, have a good idea of the following:


- Who is your protagonist? Male? Female? A CEO? A Barista? Is she confident and capable or cringing and awkward?
- What does your protagonist want? What is his goal? Every protagonist should want something, need something, desperately.
- Your protagonist doesn't have to be nice, but she does have to be interesting. Your reader needs to be able to identify with her.
- It sometimes helps if you give your protagonist a quirk (a fear of snakes or an affinity for round numbers, and so on).
- Make your protagonist exceptionally good at something. It can be something relatively trivial like being able to tie the stem of a cheery in a knot with his tongue.


- Who is your antagonist? He will probably be a lot like the protagonist (every villain is the hero of his own story). 
- Make them a person. In the beginning I think it helps to make the antagonist a person rather than a tornado or the creeping evils of old age. I'm a person so it's easier for me to write about people. I just put myself in that characters shoes and change a few things.
- Make them strong. IMHO one of the easiest things to do in the beginning is not to have enough conflict. Interesting conflict requires a strong antagonist. Try-fail cycles are your friend. The hero has to fail a lot. This is easier and more believable if your villain is strong/powerful/wonderfully menacing. (Dan Wells mentions that one of the reasons Inigo Montoya killing Count Tyrone Rugen was one of the best scenes in the movie was that he tried 10 times to do it and failed.)

The Stakes

- Spell out the stakes--what will happen to the protagonist if she fails, what will happen if she wins.

Know The Ending

- Know how the story is going to end. If you know how the story is going to end then you can figure out the stakes.

Short Story Structure

In a short story the structure can be simplified. Sometimes it's just 

- The beginning. This is the setup. It's where you'll introduce the characters, the setting, the heroes goal, the antagonist (generally: whatever it is that is preventing the hero/protagonist reaching their goal.)
- The middle. The hero tries to achieve his goal three times. The first two times the antagonist successfully blocks him/her but on the third try, because of what the hero has learnt, because of who he/she is, the protagonist succeeds. (Or perhaps they fail, that's up to you.)
- The end. Show the aftermath (we see the result of the hero either obtaining or failing to obtain his/her goal).

As I said, this is the advice I would give to myself if I could go back in time. Everyone's different. That's why it's important to write (a lot!) and find out what works for you. If something strikes you as true/helpful/useful in the above, take it, use it. If you disagree with any of it, ignore it. There's no one way of writing (thankfully!).

Photo credit: "IMG_5186" by Savara under Creative Commons Attribution License.

Wednesday, November 27

Writer's Block and Perfectionism

Ever stared at a black piece of paper while any semblance of an idea bled away? I think we all have. 

Writer's block is insidious, a very real villain that can sneak through your mental shields in all too many ways. It has many causes, but chief among them is the evil of perfectionism.


It's not necessarily that we lack ideas; sometimes, occasionally, this is the case but often it's not. Often we're simply hypercritical of ourselves: with emphasis on "OUR". 

We look at someone else's work, someone who has been published by a publisher we respect and admire, by a publisher we would love to be published by, and we are less critical. 

When I was in school our class was given two poems to read, one composed (this is what we were told) by a famous poet and the other composed by an undergrad. Invariably more people said they liked the published poet's work. Then we were told our teacher had switched the attributions. The poem we had been told had been written by a famous poet had actually been written by an undergrad, and vice versa.

The moral: don't be hard on yourself. Your perceptions of your own work are biased. Even if you're a successful writer, each new manuscript feels like a fresh step into the abyss and there are never any guarantees. 

Don't edit yourself.

Don't edit yourself. Not on your first draft. Not when you're still at the stage of finding--to use Stephen King's metaphor--the bones of your story. 

Yes, absolutely, put your prose--and your story, your plot--under the magnifying glass of editorial critique, your own and others, before you let your literary creations out into the world, before you set them free to run where the many critics of this world can, and will, find them.

Time and time again professional writers have said they doubted themselves for much of their first draft, doubted that anyone else would want to read their scribbles.

But they continued.

Perseverance. That's the key.

Perseverance and a certain mulish obstinacy. Stubbornness.

I said that to one of my non-writing friends the other day, I said that writers had to be stubborn, and his eyes bugged out. "Don't say that!" he said. "It's not a good thing to be stubborn." Well, it is for someone who is churning out, scribbling out, ripping out, their first draft. 

Writing, that act of creation, is painful and messy and often produces something ugly, though (one hopes) not irredeemably so. That's what second and third (etc, etc) drafts are for.

No Ideas

What's that you say? What if you, really, honestly, have no idea what to write about?

I find that if I ever feel at a loose end about what to write, if I sit down to write and I hear the empty hiss of static and my mind turns as white and bland and devoid of creative energy/impetus as a white dry erase board, then I like to play with idea generators (see: Seventh Sanctum's Idea Generators).

Always--well, so far at least--what I've written as a result of this sort of writerly exercise bears not the slightest relation to the prompt I began with but it has, inevitably, coaxed my own ideas to come out and play.

In that vein, here is an article +Elizabeth S. Craig shared: Simple Solutions to Ten Common Writing Roadblocks. In it Leslie Lee Sanders lists a multitude of ways to help generate ideas and kickstart your creativity.

Happy reading and writing!


Photo credit: "Baby Bear" by Laura D'Alessandro under Creative Commons Attribution.

Tuesday, November 26

Lester Dent's Master Fiction Formula: The Second 1,500 Words

Lester Dent's Master Fiction Formula: The Second 1,500 Words

This is the third post in this series. In the first post I went over the sort of things Dent said should be clarified before pen touches paper. In the second post we dove in and wrote the first 1,500 words.

Dent's master fiction formula applies to a 6,000 word story divided into four sections of 1,500 words each. Today, let's look at writing the second quarter.

Lester Dent's Master Fiction Formula

As we saw before, Dent wrote:

"This is a formula, a master plot, for any 6000 word pulp story. It has worked on adventure, detective, western and war-air. It tells exactly where to put everything. It shows definitely just what must happen in each successive thousand words.

"No yarn of mine written to the formula has yet failed to sell."

The second set of 1,500 words

Last time
- Introduced the characters.
- Talked about tags and traits. (Dent writes: "Characterizing a story actor consists of giving him some things which make him stick in the reader's mind. TAG HIM.")
- Set the hero's goal and demonstrated the stakes.

We introduced all our characters in the first 1,500 words. Last post, when we discussed how to introduce characters, I talked about tags and traits. Now, whenever we re-introduce a character we just mention one or two of their tags and traits to make sure the character is clear in the readers mind.

The Steps

This 1,500 word chapter should include:

1. "Shovel more grief onto the hero."

2. "Hero, being heroic, struggles, and his struggles lead up to:"

2a. "Another physical conflict."

2b. "A surprising plot twist to end the 1500 words."

The Midpoint

Remember that this 1,500 segment/chapter will bring up to the midpoint so the surprising twist should probably change the way your character views the problem/the opposition. Often critical information is revealed to the hero, information that changes his (and our) perception of the antagonistic force.

Also, there is often a death (a symbolic death, or an ending of some sort) at the midpoint. (Keep in mind, too, that if the story has an upbeat, happy ending--if the hero achieves his/her goal--then this should be reflected in some way at the midpoint.)

Check your work.

Written it? Great! Now double-check to make sure you're on track:

- Is it suspenseful?
- Is the hero being menaced? (Is there strong opposition and high stakes?)
- Is the hero being battered about? Being knocked down? Endangered? Beaten up? If so, great!
- Do the events flow naturally from one to the other? Are your character's responses reasonable? Believable?
- Do you tell our show? SHOW!! Dent writes: 

"DON'T TELL ABOUT IT***Show how the thing looked. This is one of the secrets of writing; never tell the reader--show him. (He trembles, roving eyes, slackened jaw, and such.) MAKE THE READER SEE HIM."

A Minor Surprise

Dent holds: "When writing, it helps to get at least one minor surprise to the printed page."

I take this to mean: Include a minor surprise or twist. 

Dent reveals that one way he accomplished this was to be, as he puts it, "gently misleading." For example:

"Hero is examining the murder room. The door behind him begins slowly to open. He does not see it. He conducts his examination blissfully. Door eases open, wider and wider, until--surprise! The glass pane falls out of the big window across the room. It must have fallen slowly, and air blowing into the room caused the door to open. Then what the heck made the pane fall so slowly? More mystery."

An example from Sleepy Hollow

A recent episode of Sleepy Hollow (S1, E8: Necromancer) had us suspect (SPOILER ALERT) Andy Brooks (played by John Cho) of being completely controlled by the headless horsemen; it turned out (surprise!) Andy was under orders from the demon (the one he sold his soul to) to keep Ichabod Crane from harm. Why? Because the demon had plans for Ichabod (cue diabolical laughter). 

Great show, very fun. Anyway, that's another, more recent example, of writers being gently misleading.  

Photo credit: "first rain" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution.

Friday, November 22

Dan Brown's AMA on

Dan Brown's AMA on

I'm going to do something different today. Instead of continuing with my series on Lester Dent's Master Short Story Formula, I'm going to post the highlights--what I think are the highlights--of Dan Brown's AMA.

Naturally, since this is a blog about writing, that's what I've focused on. 

Dan Brown's AMA on Reddit

What follows are direct quotations. I have, occasionally, broken text up into paragraphs so it will flow better, but I haven't altered the content. Whenever you see "..." in the text, below, it occurred in the original.

Throckmorton_Left asked:
Your work receives a lot of criticism from the world of literary "experts," and yet is incredibly well-received in the marketplace. Ignoring both your critics and your financial success, what has been the most rewarding aspect of your career as a writer?

Dan Brown:
People for whom creativity is a profession have little choice but to take their critics lightly. The alternative is to care deeply what people think… and, in doing so, lose all spontaneity and creativity.

As crazy as this may sound, I would much prefer to write a book that sparks passionate reaction (even a negative one) than to write a book that evokes apathy or indifference.

Yes, I wish everyone loved the books I write, but that’s not how it works for me… or any author, for that matter. When you’re a creative person—whether a writer, a painter, or a composer—all you have to guide the process is your own taste. You create the novel/painting/symphony that you yourself like, and then you pray like hell that someone shares your taste. Those who do are fans…and those who don’t are your critics.

As for the aspect of success that is most rewarding to me…it is the luxury of engaging in the creative process every day as a job. I learned long ago that if I’m not actively creating something, I’m not happy.

Philbo1985 asked:
George R.R. Martin stated he feels here are two different types of writers, the architects and the gardeners, do you believe this to be true? If so which type are you?

Dan Brown:
I've never heard that said, but I'm a huge Martin fan, so I guess I owe you an answer. I'm an architect, without a doubt, even though so many ask me to garden more.

JohnAnderton asked:
What is your advice to aspiring authors?

Dan Brown:
Choose a topic about which you feel conflicted. That way, you will be able to argue both sides of the equation. Gray is always more interesting than black and white.

Another great one-liner:
Create something and throw it out before anyone can see it. Repeat the process until you create something that you can't bear to throw out.

PolkadotPink asked:
What are your views on religion? Are they the same as Robert Langdon's?

Dan Brown:
I believe that both religion and conspiracy theory stem from the same human need to believe that life is not random...that is, our need to feel like someone is driving the bus.

The idea that everything is random is a terrifying thought for most people, and when bad things happen, we prefer to believe that it was either "part of God's plan" or that the Illuminati did it.

Again, these words of writerly wisdom were taken from Dan Brown's AMA.

6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You A Better Person

Or not. Whether they're truths I'll leave to you to judge.
In the course of reading Dan Brown's AMA, I can across this link: 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person. (Thanks to ratolibre1 for recommending it.)

6 Harsh Truths was written by bestselling author David Wong (/Jason Pargin) and is guaranteed to offend everyone who reads it, but probably for different reasons. And it's riddled with NSFW language. That said, he writes this toward the end of the article:
[M]isery is comfortable. It's why so many people prefer it. Happiness takes effort.

Also, courage. It's incredibly comforting to know that as long as you don't create anything in your life, then nobody can attack the thing you created.

It's so much easier to just sit back and criticize other people's creations. This movie is stupid. That couple's kids are brats. That other couple's relationship is a mess. That rich guy is shallow. This restaurant sucks. This Internet writer is an asshole. I'd better leave a mean comment demanding that the website fire him. See, I created something.

Oh, wait, did I forget to mention that part? Yeah, whatever you try to build or create -- be it a poem, or a new skill, or a new relationship -- you will find yourself immediately surrounded by non-creators who trash it. Maybe not to your face, but they'll do it. Your drunk friends do not want you to get sober. Your fat friends do not want you to start a fitness regimen. Your jobless friends do not want to see you embark on a career.

Just remember, they're only expressing their own fear, since trashing other people's work is another excuse to do nothing. "Why should I create anything when the things other people create suck? I would totally have written a novel by now, but I'm going to wait for something good, I don't want to write the next Twilight!" As long as they never produce anything, it will forever be perfect and beyond reproach. Or if they do produce something, they'll make sure they do it with detached irony. They'll make it intentionally bad to make it clear to everyone else that this isn't their real effort. Their real effort would have been amazing. Not like the shit you made.
That I believe. It expresses something I've felt for a long time about many of the criticisms leveled against creative efforts.

Writing this post lightened my spirits. While the feeling sticks I'm going to rush off and continue work on the first draft of my WIP. Cheers!

Photo credit: "Grungy-Furry" by Karen Woodward under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

Wednesday, November 20

How To Write A Gripping Scene

How To Write A Gripping Scene

This material is drawn from Chapter Four of Dwight Swain's book Techniques of the Selling Writer.

Dwight Swain writes:

"What I offer here is merely a beginning. [...] Once you've mastered the elements of the form; experience and study of published copy will teach you how to vary it in terms of your own taste and judgement."

In other words, this is just a beginning, a hasty sketch. In the end, you are your own best teacher. As in writing, so in life: as you come upon new information extract what resonates with you and ignore the rest. 

Today, I'm going to share my notes from Techniques regarding scenes. The next post in this series will be about sequels, and how scenes and sequels work together to create a story.

What is a story?

A story is a chain of scenes and sequels. 

Scenes are units of conflict, of struggle.

Sequels are units of transition that daisy chain scenes together.

Today I'm going to talk about scenes, what they are and how to make them more gripping.

What is a scene?

A scene is the powerhouse of conflict and struggle that moves your story forward.

As Dwight V. Swain writes:

"[A scene is a] blow-by-blow account of somebody's time-unified effort to attain an immediate goal despite face-to-face opposition."

And, of course, by "somebody" we mean the focal character.

What does a scene do? What are its functions? 

a. To provide interest for the reader.
b. To move your story forward.

Let's take these in turn.

a. A scene captures the readers attention.

How does a scene capture a reader's attention? Glad you asked!

A scene pits the hero--or at least the point of view character--against an opposing force.

DS holds that each and every scene must provoke this question in the reader: "Will the character win against the opposition?"

b. A scene moves the story forward.

DS writes that each and every scene you write should change your character's situation. Note, though, that change doesn't always constitute progress toward the character's goal. (But progress always involves change).


A scene is unified by time. There are no pauses, no breaks, in its flow.

Scene Structure

Here is the skeleton of a scene:

a. Goal
b. Conflict
c. Disaster

Boxing Example

This is DS's example.

Goal: Our protagonist wants to knock out the other boxer.

Conflict: Wary circling, "feinting, punching, counterpunching".

The protagonist lands a blow, the other boxer goes down. 
The protagonist slips up, the antagonist lands a knockout punch. 
The protagonist goes down.

Disaster: The protagonist tries to rally but he can't. He loses the fight.

The three parts of a scene:

a. Goals

In a scene your hero will want one of three kinds of things.

a. Possession of
Possession of something. A girl, a job, a jewel. Possession of treasure, of something desired.

b. Relief from
Relief from blackmail, domination by others, fear, and so on.

c. Revenge for
Revenge for a slight, a lost, a betrayal, and so on.

Goals are concrete

i. "A goal is not a goal until it's specific and concrete and immediate enough for you to take some sort of action toward achieving it."

"Ideally, this decision should focus on a target so explicit that you might photograph your hero performing the act to which he aspired."

ii. Your character must decide to act.

He can't be forced into action. Even if the hero is being blackmailed, they have to decide to purse the goal of their own free will (or so it must appear).

Goals: Explicit and Implicit

There are two kinds of goals:

- Goals of achievement (explicit)
- Goals of resistance (implicit)

This example is courtesy of DS:

John, our focus character, is on a date with Suzy, the girl he wants to ask to be his wife. (Keep in mind Techniques was originally copyrighted in 1965.)

George, John's rival for Suzy's affections, breaks up John's date and tells him never to see Suzy again.

Immediately, John acquires a goal: to prevent George from taking Suzy from him. This goal is implicit. It is one of resistance. 

George, John's nemesis, has a goal of achievement: to win Suzy's hand. 

Goals of achievement and goals of resistance complement each other.

Whenever the villain acquires a goal of achievement the hero acquires a goal of resistance, and vice versa.

b. Conflict

DS repeats this several times: Conflict is opposition.

Conflict implies "two entities struggling to attain mutually incompatible goals. For one to win, the other must lose."

The hero struggles against the antagonistic force that opposes him, or her, attaining the goal. This opposition between the hero and the antagonistic force, this clash, provides the opposition that represents the engine of a story, it is the fuel that generates narrative drive


When a character meets with opposition the hero must state his case. Your readers need to know what your hero is going to attempt.

If your hero lets the opposition get the better of him, if he walks away when he meets resistance, then we conclude either:

i. The hero didn't really have that goal.
ii. The hero lacks strength of character. In this case, the reader will lose interest.

After the initial opposition has played out, additional difficulties must be brought into the situation to keep up the momentum.

- More hindrances
- More obstacles
- More complications

Make it harder for the hero to win his goal.

How is this accomplished?

The difficulty level must be increased and the stakes must escalate.

DS writes: "Emphasize the strength of the opposition. Build up the forces that block ... [your hero]."

For example, let your hero "receive new and unanticipated information that makes the situation worse."

c. Disaster

Disaster is a hook.

"A hook is a devise for catching, holding, sustaining, or pulling anything--in this case, a reader."

Here's the question we want the reader to ask when he/she is presented with a new obstacle to the hero achieving his/her goal: What will the focal character do now?

Also, a disaster is a "[s]udden and extraordinary misfortune; a calamity."

The end of a scene must "raise an intriguing question for the future--a question designed to keep your reader reading. / To that end, no better device has ever been conceived than the confrontation of your focal character with disaster."

(DS notes that the disaster doesn't have to be actual, it can be potential.)

A reverse disaster

A reverse disaster is where your focal character launches "some diabolically clever scheme to do in his foes," one that you just know is going to backfire in some way.

In this case the hooks you use to pull along the reader will be through questions like:

- "Are things really going to work out this well, this easily, for Hero?"

- "Will Villain fall for such a stunt? Or has he some trick up his sleeve with which to turn the tables?"

Disadvantages of the reversed disaster.

- It takes "initiative away from your focal character and gives it to the opposition. This forces your hero to wait [...] passively to see how said opposition is going to react."

The Scene: A Summary

Whatever you do, always conclude your scene with the story "pointed into the future: some issue raised that will keep your reader turning pages, ever on the edge of his chair as he wonders just what's going to happen now!"

That's it for scenes. In the next post in this series we'll look at sequels and then, finally, turn to how scenes and sequels fit together in such a way that they generate a story with just the right amount of narrative drive.

Stay tuned!

Photo credit: "Its Big Country" by Zach Dischner under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.