Monday, October 31

Preparing For NaNoWriMo

Every day in November I’m going to lay out the structural bones of a crucial story scene.  I'll then break this scene down for three genres: Action, Romance, and Mystery. Then I'll talk about the different requirements of each. Today I'm kicking things off by talking about what we can do to prepare for the insanity that is NaNoWriMo.

At least, that’s the plan! This is going to be an adventure for me as well since, over the month of November, I’ll be blogging a book, only a non-fiction one. That’s something I’ve never done before!

My hope is that my daily blog posts will provide you with a seed, a start, something to hang your story ideas around—if you want it. Folks have been writing stories for millennia without all this explicit talk of story structure, so if you don’t feel you want or need it, that’s great! Go you!!

But, if you’d like to get an idea regarding what you might want to write on any particular day, or if you want to read something that might help get you started, then please drop by, pull up a seat and let’s write! :-)

Planning for NaNoWriMo

Here are a few things to consider as we head into the month of November (I expand on each of these, below):

1. What is your writing plan? How many words would you like to write a day?
2. What point of view will you write from? First, second or third?
3. What is the core of your story?
4. What is the essence of your protagonist and antagonist?
5. What genre, or genres, will you write in?
6. What is the setting?

1. Designing a Writing Plan.

How many days per week do you want to write?

For instance, you might want to plan on writing six days a week so you can have one day of wiggle room. Life has a way of derailing even the best laid plans, so giving yourself one day off a week isn’t a bad idea. That would give you 26 days to write 50,000 words which means your word count per writing day would be 1,924 words. This is what I did when I participated in NaNoWriMo and it worked out well.

On the other hand, if you plan on writing every day, your word count per day would only be 1667 words.

2. What Point of View Will You Write From? 

Will you write from the first, second or third person perspective? If you choose the first person perspective (which is my favorite!) then, although there are exceptions, you will likely have one viewpoint character throughout. Many of the first person perspective narratives I’ve read include short chapters written from a third person perspective featuring an important secondary character, but this is the sort of thing we’re not going to worry about on the zero draft.

If you choose to write from the third person perspective, then although one character will be the protagonist/hero, you will often have multiple viewpoint characters. For instance, many romance stories involve two viewpoint characters—the two lovers—and alternate their viewpoints every second chapter. Generally speaking, the point of view you open your story with will be that of your protagonist.

3. What is the Core of Your Story?

Generally speaking, a story is about a person (the protagonist) who wants something desperately but is repeatedly prevented from acquiring it by a person/force (the antagonist). Finally the matter comes to a head and the protagonist and antagonist face off in a final confrontation that will settle things once and for all.

If you would like to read more about story structure, here are a few articles:

A Story Structure In Three Acts
STORY STRUCTURE: 10 Simple Keys to Effective Plot Structure
Short Story Structures: Several Ways Of Structuring Short Fiction
Short Stories And Their Structure

4. Character Development

Let’s start thinking about our characters:

  • Who is your protagonist?
  • What does he/she do for a living? What would he/she like to do for a living?
  • Is he/she romantically involved with anyone? Does he/she want to be romantically involved with anyone?
  • Does he/she have children? If so, how many and what are their ages?
  • What is his/her biggest fear?
  • What is his/her darkest secret?
  • Is he/she an optimist or a pessimist?
  • Does he/she have a hobby?
  • Is he/she obsessed with anything?
  • What does he/she fear above all else? What does he/she love above all else?
  • Is he/she religious? Superstitious?
  • Does he/she own a vehicle? If so, what kind?
  • What special skill or talent does he/she have?
  • What could he/she NOT do, even if their life depended on it?

Here’s the most important question of all: What does this character want more than anything else? This is important because it determines the story question that everything else revolves around.

The character's main desire could be something your character doesn't know they want. For example, in the movie Titanic, Rose wanted freedom more than anything else, though I'm not sure she was aware of this at the beginning of the story. On the other hand, Frodo knew exactly what he wanted: to return the One Ring to Mordor.

After you’ve answered these questions with reference to the protagonist, try to answer them with reference to the antagonist.

Keep in mind that the goals of the protagonist and antagonist must be mutually exclusive: if the antagonist gets what he wants then the protagonist can't. Similarly, if the protagonist gets what he wants then the antagonist can't.

Here are additional questions that can help you get to know a character:

Character Question List
Character Checklist
Writer’s Digest: A Checklist for Developing Your Hero and Heroine

5. The Genre

Let's take a look at what Shawn Coyne has to say about genre:
"A Genre is a label that tells the reader/audience what to expect. Genres simply manage audience expectations. (The Story Grid)"
If you're writing a love story then your readers are going to expect a first meeting between the lovers, a confession of love, a first kiss, a break-up, and so on. (See: 6 Scenes Any Love Story Must Have)

In this sense a genre is a bit like a promise you give your readers. If your title is, "Murder at Whitemill" and the back blurb identifies it as a cosy then no matter how inspired your prose your readers are going to come for you with pitchforks if, say, no murder occurs or no one is brought to justice for the crime.

This is why it's important to know which genre, or genres, you are writing in and what the conventions of that genre are. That is, what readers of that genre will expect of your story.

6. The Setting

What is the setting? Where do the events of the story take place?

For instance, in The Matrix the Ordinary World is an illusion—an illusion of cities and office jobs and juicy steaks—and the Special World (reality) is one of human batteries and war between humans and machines. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone the Ordinary World is (roughly speaking) England and the Special World is Hogwarts.

The world of the adventure (this includes both the Ordinary and Special Worlds) is sculpted by the writer to provide a crucible for the protagonist. The setting is a cauldron, a crucible, designed to test the main character’s strengths and force him to face, and overcome, his weaknesses. Or, if it’s a tragedy, to fail and die.

Rather than go into this now, here's a post I wrote on this topic: Mind Worms and the Essence of Drama.

See also:
How To Give Your Character Meaningful Flaws
The Key To Making A Character Multidimensional: Pairs of Opposites

Just Breathe

If thinking about all this makes you hyperventilate, don’t worry about it! NaNoWriMo is about writing a zero draft, so it is about creativity and discovery.

I think the object of NaNoWriMo is to get as much of your story developed as possible in the month of November.

For some of us, that will involve writing 50,000+ words. For others, it will mean writing 40,000 or 30,000 or 20,000 or 10,000 or 5,000 or even just 1,000 words. And that’s okay!

If you develop a plan for your story, and begin implementing that plan, then you’ve won in the sense that you've pushed your story forward. If participating in NaNoWriMo gets you to write even one word more than you would have otherwise then, in my books, you’ve won!

For tomorrow: Try to figure out what it is your protagonist wants more than anything. Try to figure out the story goal.

Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love 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 you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

For a different perspective on NaNoWriMo here is the excellent, No Plot, No Problem!, by Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo. From the book blurb: "Chris Baty ... has completely revised and expanded his definitive handbook for extreme noveling. Chris pulls from over 15 years of results-oriented writing experience to pack this compendium with new tips and tricks, ranging from week-by-week quick reference guides to encouraging advice from authors, and much more."

That's it! Enough preliminaries and preparation! Got your writer's cap on? Awesome! Know what your character wants above and beyond all else? Excellent! I'll talk to you tomorrow. :-)

Friday, October 28

Writing to Entertain

Writing to Entertain

I’m going to pick up the thread of my last blog post where I talked about two things that drive us to write: First, the desire to communicate. This is the desire to share ourselves, our thoughts, our souls, with others. Second, the desire to entertain.

Today I cash out what exactly I mean by entertainment and look at how, as writers, we can entertain our readers. The answer: To evoke a reader's emotion, the reader needs to identify with the character. Which means she has to have clearly defined goals, obstacles to those goals, she needs to have something to lose and something to gain, and there needs to be some sort of urgency.

In short, eliciting emotion has everything to do with story structure.

Entertainment: The Evoking of Emotion

Most readers want to be entertained. To entertain another person is to evoke their emotions. Even in some of Agatha Christie’s more cerebral whodunits there was the sedate emotion of curiosity.

Stephen King writes for many reasons but one of them is to entertain others, especially his wife. The following passage is from his book, On Writing:

“When I write a scene that strikes me as funny (like the pie-eating contest in “The Body” or the execution rehearsal in The Green Mile), I am also imagining my I.R. finding it funny. I love it when Tabby laughs out of control—she puts her hands up as if to say I surrender and these big tears go rolling down her cheeks. I love it, that’s all, fucking adore it, and when I get hold of something with that potential, I twist it as hard as I can. During the actual writing of such a scene (door closed), the thought of making her laugh—or cry—is in the back of my mind. During the rewrite (door open), the question—is it funny enough yet? scary enough?—is right up front. I try to watch her when she gets to a particular scene, hoping for at least a smile or—jackpot, baby!—that big belly-laugh with the hands up, waving in the air.”

Making someone else feel good—or feel anything for that matter!—is a thrill. Seeing them laugh or even smile. Seeing them tear up, it’s ... well, as King says, I just love it. It’s a high.

That’s entertainment.

And if you give people a story that makes them laugh and cry, love and hate, they will think their time well-wasted.

But how does one do that? How does one manipulate a reader’s emotions?

The Writer’s Quest

The question of how to evoke a reader’s emotions has defined my writer’s quest for most of my adult life. I want to write a story my father would have loved so much he would beg me to tell another.

Being able to make another person laugh is a valuable skill. Being able to make everyone within earshot hang on your every word has always been advantageous. Even before we had currency, travelers who could tell engaging stories bartered their skill for food and lodging. (In fact, this still happens. My friend was nearly killed on her last vacation—she’s fine now—and, in her words, ‘ate out on that story for a month’!)

What entertains us? You might think that the obvious answers are: sex, violence, death, and so on. And that’s probably right as far as it goes but I think it misses the point.

If I showed you the picture of someone who had been brutally murdered, my guess is that you would not be entertained. In fact, you’d likely be vaguely nauseous and not at all happy with me.

But, yes. For obvious reasons death interests us. A few days ago a friend called to tell me his dog, Zeus, had passed away. I had walked Zeus for years and, of course, had become attached. We both cried and reminisced. But then I asked: How did he die? That mattered to me. As it happens, he died peacefully in his sleep at the end of a long life. I took some solace in that. But I would have felt very different if, say, he had been hit by a car.

Yes, we slow down to gawk at the van with the crumpled front end on the side of the road, but what question do we ask: What happened?

I believe that humans aren’t interested in death as much as we are the story behind it. We want to know: Why? When? What? Where? How? We don’t want that horrible thing to happen to us. We think if we know, maybe we can avoid it.

Going back to something I touched on a moment ago, if I showed someone—let’s call her Beth—a picture of a gruesome murder, I doubt she would be happy with me. The picture itself isn’t entertaining. But Beth would be very interested in the answers to the following questions:

  • Who was the victim? Was he a stranger or did I know him? 
  • Where did the victim die? Next door or two states over?
  • When did the victim die? 50 years ago or yesterday?
  • Who killed the victim? Is the killer a stranger or do I know him?
  • How did the victim die? Was it a quick death or was it slow and painful?

Reading this, putting myself in Beth’s place, it isn’t the photograph of the dead man that entertains me, it is that one of my goals is put in jeopardy: keeping myself and those I care about safe. It is that automatic, vicarious, sense of danger that puts all my senses on high alert.

These are also the kinds of questions we ask when we’re writing a story.

Beth’s goal: To protect herself and her family from the killer.
The opposition: The killer.
The Stakes: The lives of her family.
Urgency: If the victim lived next door and was killed a few hours ago, then the situation is urgent.

As I see Beth act I identify with her. I care whether she achieves her goal. I care when she suffers a setback. I care when she reaches the All Hope Is Lost Point and it seems she cannot succeed. And, finally, I have a warm cozy sense of well-being as the hero/protagonist bests the forces of opposition and, against all odds, achieves her goal.

My point is that entertainment isn’t static, it comes from the structure itself, from the arrangement of the many parts.

Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love 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 you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

Today I would like to share a link to one of Dwight V. Swain’s excellent books, “Creating Characters: How to Build Story People.” I bought this years ago and it has helped me enormously. Here’s the blurb:
“The core of character,” he [Swain] says in chapter 1, “lies in each individual story person’s ability to care about something; to feel implicitly or explicitly, that something is important.” Building on that foundation—the capacity to care—Swain takes the would-be writer step-by-step through the fundamentals of finding and developing [characters].

That’s it! I hope you could make some sense of my ramblings. NaNoWriMo is starting soon! My next post will be on Halloween, Monday, October 31 and then I will post every single day in November, outlining a key scene in a novel. So, if you’re NaNo-ing this year, swing on by!

Thursday, October 27

How to Write Something Others Will Want to Read: In Defense of Constraints

How to Write Something Others Will Want to Read: In Defense of Constraints

Are you competing in NaNoWriMo this year? I am! Although I’m putting a twist on it. Each day I'll blog about a key story scene as well as what elements it should have. My hope is that my post will provide inspiration and help you organize your story, like an oyster producing a pearl because of the irritating piece of sand that got inside its shell. (Not that my blog post is an irritating piece of sand! Perhaps I need to re-think that analogy. ;)

As my readers know, I’ve been interested in and written about the structure of stories for years.

One question I’m routinely asked is:

You say there are only two hard and fast rules of writing (you must read and you must write) but then you go on about the structure of stories. Sure, you say it’s optional—that wonderful stories can be written which conform to no recognizable structure. But then WHY spend so much of your time blogging about story structure if a story can be perfectly good without it?

This NaNoWriMo I’m going to be writing a lot about structure and so it’s important for me to answer this question. That’s what this post is going to be about, a defense of structure as well as an explanation of why this topic is so important to me on a personal level.

In Defense of Structure: Constraints Aid Creativity

When I was a child I had horrible nightmares.

To try and prevent these nightmares, my dad would tell me a story before I went to sleep, a different story every night. Sometimes he told me about the tiny village he grew up in, the chickens he raised, the pair of wolfhounds that defended him against rabid wolves, or the mean camel his parents made him take care of.

Other times Dad would put his own twist on folktales (how the lion got to be king) but, often, he would just make up a story.

Whatever story he told me there was one constant: I wanted more. I would always beg him to tell me another, and another. Dad would complain: “Karen, I'm going through all my material! I have to save something for tomorrow.”

Well, one day after I’d started kindergarten the inevitable happened. I decided I would tell my dad a story. It went something like this:

This morning Mom made my breakfast and then I put on my coat and that was good because it was SO COLD. Then I saw Jan and we ran to the door and I won! Then Mrs. Bloom taught English but no one likes her because she smells funny. Then the bell rang and I came home!

My dad was not impressed.

My dad was a natural storyteller. He never read an article about how to write, nothing about “Three Tips to Build Suspense” or anything having to do with The Hero’s Journey and if you asked him what an arc was he’d talk to you about Noah!

And yet he told wonderful, interesting, suspenseful stories.

That first, failed, performance changed me. It gave me a desire, a goal, that has lasted my entire life: I want to do what my dad did, I want to be able to tell a story he would want to listen to as much as I wanted to listen to his stories.

My Writer’s Journey

My parents were readers so it was natural that I became one. It was also natural that I began to write my own stories.

After reading C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien I was all about the soft magical silence of a lonely glade, or the feeling of aloneness—but not loneliness—that comes from sitting on the art gallery steps downtown and letting the sights and sounds of the crowd sweep over me.

When I was a tween I would write hopelessly atmospheric non-stories and foist them off on my mother to read. She always came back with, “Oh it was lovely, Dear.”

“Really!?” I would say, excited beyond all reason. “Which part did you like best?" I asked. "Was it the part about the leaf turning yellow?”

“Err... Yes, yes, I think it was,” my mother said, her smile a shade too tight, too stretched.

Then one day I became suspicious and, after Mom said she liked my story, I asked, "What did you think about the gorilla? Was it too much?"

There was, of course, no gorilla.

“On no! I liked the gorilla,” my unsuspecting mother said, absently flipping through her recipe cards, thinking about dinner.

“Ah ha!” I said, my voice exploding into the otherwise quiet room. “You never read it!”

I feel guilty about that now. Mom’s cheeks went bright pink and she spluttered something incoherent. Finally she said, “Well, you give me so much to read and I’m so busy. Sometimes I just want to rest.”

I do give her kudos for telling the truth. Putting what she said another way: it was boring.

And it was.

My mother and father didn’t make allowances for age or inexperience. If a story was boring then it was boring and—regardless of who wrote it—they weren’t going to read it. Life’s too short.

And I get it. I do. Now. At the time they might as well have put my little writer’s heart in a vice and crushed it.

At that time my parents were the entirety of my audience. They were my world. More than anything, I wanted them to want to read my work, to read it because they liked it.

One thing I’ve wondered is ... Why? Why was I so passionate that they like my writing, my stories?

The Intimacy of Prose

Although it took me a while to puzzle it out, I think I know. Consider this:

Although it depends on the kind of story we read (some viewpoints are relentlessly external) we often get to know not only what a character looks like on the outside—long brown hair, button nose, suspiciously large mole—but what she is like on the inside. We know what she thinks, what she feels. We know when she lies and we know why. We know if she is in love and with whom and how that makes her feel.

In short, we feel we completely understand the character because we know her in all her glorious particularity. And with that understanding comes a feeling of intimacy, of familiarity and acceptance. We like them. These characters can become like our friends, our family.

When I was a child all my characters were me. I wrote about myself, about my internal states, my loves and likes and desires, about my perspective on the world. And I thought if I did it right that the people who read my work might come to feel about me the way I had come to feel about my favorite characters.

Two Motivations For Creating Stories

Broadly speaking, I think there are two reasons why I write—and I don’t think I’m alone in this. First, as you've seen, I write to communicate. Second, I write to entertain. I think that, in practice, these two motivations are intermingled. Let's take a look at each.

Writing as Communication

In On Writing, Stephen King tells us a secret: writing is telepathy. He writes:

“And here we go—actual telepathy in action. You’ll notice I have nothing up my sleeves and that my lips never move. Neither, most likely, do yours.

“Look—here’s a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot-stub upon which it is contentedly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8.

“Do we see the same thing? We’d have to get together and compare notes to make absolutely sure, but I think we do. There will be necessary variations, of course: some receivers will see a cloth which is turkey red, some will see one that’s scarlet, while others may see still other shades. (To colorblind receivers, the red tablecloth is the dark gray of cigar ashes.) Some may see scalloped edges, some may see straight ones. Decorative souls may add a little lace, and welcome—my tablecloth is your tablecloth, knock yourself out.

“.... The most interesting thing here isn’t even the carrot-munching rabbit in the cage, but the number on its back. Not a six, not a four, not nineteen-point-five. It’s an eight. This is what we’re looking at, and we all see it. I didn’t tell you. You didn’t ask me. I never opened my mouth and you never opened yours. We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room … except we are together. We’re close.

“We’re having a meeting of the minds.”

The thing about communication is that it only really works if we’re honest.

Writing is telepathy and telepathy is communication. We are communicating our thoughts but not just our thoughts. When we write we cannot help but communicate how we see the world, our likes and our loves, our very soul.

For me, this is what is meant by, “The truth inside the lie.”

Some people write because they want to share themselves—how they see things, their worldview, their unique perspective—with others. Of course, this isn’t the only reason anyone writes. If it was, then their story would probably be as entertaining as that first story I told when I was 5!

Every post I 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 you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

Today I would like to share a link to a book I’ve just published! It’s called How to Write a Choose Your Own Adventure Story. Years ago I wrote a post about how to write a CYOA story and it went on to become one of my most popular. Then I realized why: there were no books on the subject. So I wrote one! If you’ve ever wanted to try your hand at writing a CYOA story, it will give you a place to start. If you read it, I would love to know what you thought of it!

Okay, that’s it! This was a long blog post. Sorry about that! I’ll pick up where I left off next time and talk about writing as entertainment. I’ll go over why I believe writers need to care about the structure of their stories. Stay tuned!

Monday, October 24

6 Scenes Any Love Story Must Have

6 Scenes Any Love Story Must Have

What follows is a general structure for any love story. I can't claim credit for this. I’ve begun listening to the Story Grid, a podcast put together by editor Shawn Coyne and book marketer Tim Grahl.

You all know how interested I am in Story Structure. Well! The other day Shawn Coyne went over the basic structure of a love story. What follows has been taken from these two podcast episodes:

The Most Important Genre
How to Write a Great Love Story

Some of the examples, below, are mine and I do, occasionally, draw from my own knowledge of romance books. But the structure itself (unless indicated otherwise) is all Shawn Coyne's.

What Is A Love Story?

For our purposes, a love story is a romance combined with the possibility of physical intimacy. In a love story, "The protagonist pursues or runs away from an intimate bond with another human being." (The Story Grid)

The object of the protagonist's desire: an intimate relationship.

Kinds of Love Stories

There are three kinds of love stories: obsession stories, courtship stories and intimacy stories.

Obsession Story

Obsession stories are driven by issues revolving around desire.

Question: Will Jan and Adam’s twisted passion for each other lead to ruin?

Obsession stories generally have tragic endings.

At the beginning of the story the lovers despise each other but are also profoundly attracted to each other.

At the end of the story one or both of the lovers are dead.

Courtship Story

Courtship stories are driven by issues revolving around commitment. The overwhelming majority of love stories fall into this category.

Question: Will Jan and Adam commit to each other?

Courtship stories have happy endings.

At the beginning of the story Jan and Adam may or may not be dating, but (this is the important point) they haven’t made any sort of commitment to each other.

At the end of the story the lovers have committed to each other and their relationship.

There are two kinds of courtship stories: romantic comedies and dramas.

Intimacy Story

Intimacy stories are driven by issues revolving around truthfulness and faithfulness.

Question: Will Jan and Adam remain faithful to each other?

Judging from my own experience reading romances, I believe Intimacy Stories generally, though not always, have happy endings.

Six Scenes Any Love Story Must Have

In what follows I use a three act story structure. If you would like to read more about this sort of story structure I’ve written an article: A Story Structure in Three Acts.

1. Lovers meet.

This is just what it sounds like. The two main characters meet for the first time.

Before Jan and Adam meet the reader needs to have a good feeling for who the character is. So, for instance, if we are experiencing this story through Jan’s point of view, we would want to know what her main desire is (apart from finding someone to love!) as well as the obstacle to her fulfilling this desire. It would also be nice to know her biggest strength as well as at least one weakness.

Character creation is more complex than that, but I think readers need to have a hint, know at least these things, before Jan meets Adam. That said, readers don’t have to know all this about Adam before they meet, they can learn about him as Jan herself does.

Structure: In many of the stories I’ve read, the lovers first meeting is often the Inciting Incident.

2. Confession of love.

On The Big Bang Theory, when Leonard told Penny he loved her, she broke up with him. She wasn’t ready for commitment; at least, not with him.

In some of the romance books I’ve read the event that breaks the lovers apart isn’t a confession of love.  Instead it is (what is perceived as) an inherent incompatibility.

For example, imagine Jan is a university student and Adam is a lonely billionaire. Adam’s friend, Martha, discovers Adam and Jan are lovers and, jealous, she lies to Jan about Adam. Jan naively believes Martha and breaks up with Adam.

Structure: In many of the stories I’ve read, the confession of love occurs at the end of the first act.

3. First kiss.

It doesn’t have to be a kiss! In most of the romance books I’ve read the couple takes their relationship to the next level at the Midpoint. For some couples this might mean handholding, or a kiss, for others it could mean physical intimacy.

Structure: the First Kiss event occurs at the Midpoint.

4. Lovers breakup.

Forces the lovers have no control over push them apart. This breakup seems final.

One of Adam’s friends, Skyler, is killed and suspicion falls on Adam. Adam believes Jan is the killer and Jan believes Adam is. Adam doesn’t turn Jan in but decides he can’t have a cold-blooded murderer as the mother of his children and so breaks up with Jan.

Structure: This event occurs at the All Hope is Lost point about three quarters of the way through the second act.

5. Proof of love scene.

Even though Jan realizes she has lost Adam, that there’s no longer any hope they could be together, she sacrifices something for him so that he can get what he cares about the most, so that he can fulfill his desire.

Jan thinks Adam is the killer and Adam thinks Jan is. Jan goes to the police and confesses to a crime she didn’t commit in order to set Adam free. Adam has a family, he has a future. She doesn’t.

Structure: The Proof of Love scene happens about half-way through the third act.

6. Lovers reunite.

The lovers uncover the lies told to them as well as the lies they've told themselves. Since this was what was keeping them apart, they reunite happier and more committed than ever.

Adam discovers Sue couldn’t possibly have done the crime and realizes she confessed to spare him. He rushes to Sue and begs her to take him back. She does. The End.

Structure: This occurs at the Climax.

Necessary Characters

a. The Rival

There needs to be a rival for the protagonist’s romantic intentions.

b. Helpers vs Harmers

As the name suggests, helpers are characters who help the relationship grow stronger. Harmers are characters who act to break the couple apart. Note that a character can want the couple stay together but, because they always say and do the wrong thing, they’re really a harmer.

c. External Need

The External Need acts as an engine, an impetus, that brings the two characters together.

For example, in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice Jane and her sisters must marry before her father dies because, on his death, the house and income associated with it will go to a cousin. As a result the girls are set on marrying well.

In my Jan and Adam example, it could be that Jan is Canadian and the only way she can stay in the US is to find someone to marry. One fellow is keen to wed her but she doesn’t like him at all. The other, more standoffish, candidate is Adam.

d. Secrets Must Be Held

For example, one of the lovers is a crown prince while the other is a scullery maid. Their affair must remain secret because the scandal of it all would topple the monarchy.

In my Sue and Adam example, Sue doesn’t tell Adam she didn’t kill Skyler, and Adam doesn’t tell Sue, because they want to protect each other.

Also, often, one or both of the lovers will lie to themselves.

e. Rituals

There are all sorts of rituals. People who have been together for years have a shared history. They’re always saying things like, “Do you remember that time when ...” and the other person will remember. It’s a kind of ritual. Shared intimacies that only that couple knows about.

But it’s more than that. It’s a way these two people behave together. A shared memory, a shared experience, a shared way of being.

f. Moral Weight

The lovers become better people over the course of the story.

The lovers have pronounced flaws at the beginning. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth was prejudiced and Darcy was prideful. At the end of the story Elizabeth was less prejudiced and Darcy was less prideful.

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 Shawn Coyne’s book, The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know. If you swing toward the plotter end of the plotter/pantser continuum, then you’ll love this book. I’m about halfway through it and wish I’d had this information when I first started out. It would have saved me a lot of time.

That’s it! What do you think of this way of structuring love stories? Do you do something similar? Either way, please share! I love talking to other writers and discovering how they do things.

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, until recently, I’d never finished writing a murder mystery. Which is odd given that I absolutely LOVE murder mysteries.

I’ve often wondered why I had 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 in the creative moment (heart), it can block those words.

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

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

I love Elizabeth S. Craig’s blog—Mystery Writing is Murder. What a great title! Elizabeth Craig is a bestselling mystery writer. When I started reading her blog years ago she was published by Penguin but is now a "hybrid author" which just means she is both traditionally (Quilt or Innocence) and indie published (Myrtle Clover Cozy Mysteries).

Much of what I say, blow, is inspired by her post, “Pre-Writing.” I encourage you to head over to Elizabeth Craig's blog read her article for yourself.

In any case, in what follows I study EC's structure for a cozy mystery in the hope that we can use it to write better mysteries!

A Mystery Structure in Three Acts

I've attempted to keep close to EC's article, though I have included some information drawn from the many mysteries I've devoured read.

Act One: The Ordinary World

1. Setup/Status Quo

Introduce all your characters starting with the sleuth. EC 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: The Special World of the Adventure

4. Tests & Trials/Fun & Games

A number of things happen here:
  • 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

In my experience as an avid reader of murder mysteries, I've found that the midpoint primarily does two things. First, it introduces new information—information that changes the detective's view of the Special World of the Adventure. Second, the detective goes from being passive (or reactive) to active. Let's look at each of these in turn.

New Information

Sometimes another murder occurs. If so, then this will scuttle the detectives current theory of the crime. How? Well, perhaps the person found was the suspect the detective thought committed the killing(s). Or perhaps the person the detective currently likes for the murder had to reason to kill the latest victim.

Or the new information could be about the killer's motivation for the crime(s). Perhaps the detective discovers the murderer's real name and history. While this gives the detective a lot of new information about the murderer and his/her possible motivation, it doesn't reveal who the killer is since he/she is living under an assumed identity.

The new information can be anything that transforms the detective's understanding of the case, raises the stakes, increases the urgency and, in so doing, pushes the story forward.

Passive (or Reactive) to Active

In the first half of the story the detective largely reacts to the situations, the conditions, that the murderer creates. In the second half of the story the detective takes the fight to the enemy. Now the detective sets traps for the murderer and, in general, actively works to apprehend him/her.

6. Setback

Whatever happens at the midpoint, it puts the sleuth back to square one. The sleuth has to re-evaluate the previous evidence in light of the new information. This means going back and talking to many of the suspects again.

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

It could also be that the sleuth is personally affected by the previous death, or by the information revealed at the midpoint. The victim could have been a close friend or perhaps someone who was an exceptionally good person and an enormous loss to the community. Of course, it could be anything. Let your imagination be your guide.

Act Three: The Return

7. A New Plan/The Epiphany

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. :-)

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. 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 you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I'm recommending, Fall to Pieces (A Southern Quilting Mystery Book 7), by Elizabeth Craig. From the blurb: "Dappled Hills quilters are eagerly anticipating new events at the Patchwork Cottage quilt shop. The shop’s owner, Posy, has announced ‘Sew and Tell’ socials and a mystery quilt group project. But one day, instead of emailed quilt instructions, the quilters receive a disturbing message about a fellow quilter. When that quilter mysteriously meets her maker, Beatrice decides to use her sleuthing skills to find the killer before more lives are cut short."

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.

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

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.

Want to have all this information in one place? Get How to Write a CYOA Story! Right now it's only $0.99.


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.