Monday, November 28

How To Tailor A Story To Readers

How To Tailor A Story To Readers

Usually we just want to write the best darn story we can, one that we love and—hopefully!—others will love as well. And it's a good bet others will. But perhaps you want to target your story to readers of a certain kind of story.

Which brings us to the other way of writing a story; namely, to find out what folks love and then write that kind of story.

A Few Questions

1. Which category do we want to target?

Let’s say we’re interested in writing a mystery story that features a British detective and that we’ve singled out the category:

Books > Mystery, Thriller & Suspense > Mystery > British Detectives

2. How many books do we want to examine?

We want to pick the most popular books that most closely fit the kind of book you want to write. Pick between 5 and 10. Buy them, read them, study them.

3. What to look for?

  • How long is the book? How many words?
  • Read the blurb. What elements are highlighted? Does the blurb fit the story?
  • Look at the cover. What items are featured? What themes in the story do these items reflect? Do the themes/items featured fit the story?
  • How many protagonists? One or two?
  • What point of view is the story written from? First, second or third?
  • If the book is written using the third person, is the narrator limited, omniscient or something in-between?
  • Is the pacing fast? Slow?

I’m not suggesting that anyone research a market and then write a book designed to sell in that market. That’s not an attractive thought for many, perhaps most, writers. And that’s fine. But there are many fine writers who have taken work as a ghostwriter, or a copywriter, or other area where one needs to be able to write to spec.

Even if you would never consider writing to a market, if you’ve written a story that you know fits a particular category, it might still be worthwhile to try and answer the questions in (3). Why? Because it will help you market your book to readers of that category.

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 want to recommend one of James Scott Bell's books, Write Your Novel From The Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between. From the blurb: “Some writers start at the beginning and let the story unfold without a plan. They are called "pantsers," because they write by the "seat of the pants." Other writers plan and outline and know the ending before they start. These are the "plotters." The two sides never seem to agree with each other on the best approach. But what if it's not the beginning or the end that is the key to a successful book? What if, amazing as it may seem, the place to begin writing your novel is in the very middle of the story?”

That’s it! I’ll talk to you again tomorrow. In the meantime, good writing!

Friday, November 25

Turning An Idea Into A Story

Turning An Idea Into A Story

I know I’ve touched on this in a couple of previous posts. To be honest, there’s an old story I’ve written, one I love, but I know the structure is wrong. While I’ve become much better at spotting structural defects in the works of others, when it comes to my own work it’s devilishly hard because I’m so close to it.

I think that this is, at least in part, because I don’t need to read the words to grasp my story, it’s already in my head.

What I want to think about today is how to take an idea and treat it a bit like a piece of knitting or crochet that needs to be blocked. By this I mean, just as I would stretch a crocheted snowflake over a mould so that it would take on the appropriate shape, so a story idea can be positioned within a structure to see how well it fits, where it’s thin as well as where it bunches.

True, I wrote about this last time, but today I want to approach it from a different angle. Last time I talked about a writer’s audience and how this can influence the content of the work. Today I want to focus on shaping the story idea itself.

As always, I would love to know what you think! Are you getting a bit worn out by NaNoWriMo? What kind of articles would you like to read? If you feel that you haven’t achieved your writing goals, what would you say was the single biggest thing holding you back?

The Beginning of a Story Hypothesis

“(1) A state of affairs, present or projected, that symbolizes happiness to your hero.

“(2) A danger that threatens his chances of achieving or maintaining that state of affairs.”[1]

What I try to do is imagine each of these states of affairs as vividly and concretely as I can. Then I write them down. This serves as a foundation for my story.

Example: Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris.

What state of affairs symbolized happiness to Clarice Starling?

As the title of the movie suggests, the lambs being silent.

Let me unpack that. Clarice was abandoned by her mother after the death of her father. She was angry. How could her mother abandon her own child? But then Clarice abandoned the lambs because it was out of her control. Like her mother, she couldn’t do anything to help. By the time we meet FBI trainee Starling, though she is still angry with her mother on some level, she’s more angry with herself.

What danger threatens Clarice’s chances of achieving or maintaining the said silence? Two threats: the serial killer Jame Gumb and the FBI. The serial killer because he’s the one killing the girls, Clarice’s lambs. The FBI because they care more about politics and advancement than about saving a life.

Example: Raiders of the Lost Ark

The state of affairs that symbolizes happiness to Indiana Jones is taking the Ark back to the university’s museum.

The danger that threatens Indy’s chances of achieving this state of affairs is, primarily, Belloq, his nemesis. Belloq is also an archeologist, one who keeps stealing the relics Indy recovers.

Now it’s your turn. I’d like you to think of two things and creative a vivid mental picture of each of these situations:

1. What state of affairs, present or projected, symbolizes happiness to your hero?
2. What danger threatens your hero’s chance of achieving or maintaining this state of affairs.

Five Elements In Every Story

Swain writes that the following five elements are in every story (see below). In what follows I use Raiders of the Lost Ark as an example.

1. A Protagonist

A protagonist is the person who the world pushes on, the one who is threatened by a specific danger. He is also the person who, eventually, pushes back.

Example: Indiana Jones, relic hunter.

2. A Situation/The Inciting Incident

This is the “backdrop of trouble that forces him [the protagonist] to act.”[1]

Example: Two men from army intelligence visit Indiana Jones and tell him that the Nazi’s have discovered Tanis, the resting place of the Ark.

3. The Objective/Protagonist’s Goal

The concrete thing or state of affairs the protagonist desires.

Example: The Ark ensconced in the university’s museum back in the USA.

4. An Antagonist

The antagonist not only resists the protagonist, he fights against him.

Example: Whenever Indiana Jones finds a significant relic, Dr. RenĂ© Belloq is there to snatch it away from him. Now, Belloq is working for the Nazi’s and he uses his knowledge of Indiana Jones’ character against him.

5. The Disaster

If there is nothing at stake the story isn’t as exciting. Further, the stakes must be personal, they must endanger the people and things the protagonist cares about most. Also, the stakes must increase until, at the climax, the protagonist is faced with a disaster that is “Something Unutterably Awful.”[1]

Example: The Nazi’s have not only found the Ark, they open it releasing the raw power of God.

The Story Question

The story question is formed by fitting two sentences together.

Sentence 1: This is a statement and it should establish the PROTAGONIST, SITUATION and OBJECTIVE.[1]

Sentence 2: This is a question and it should establish the ANTAGONIST and the DISASTER.[1]

Here are a few different forms a Story Question could take:

Dwight V. Swain:

First form: “Will this focal character defeat his opponent, overcome his private danger, and win happiness?”[1]

Will Indiana Jones defeat Dr. René Belloq, overcome the Nazi war machine and avert global disaster?

Second form: When [Situation/Inciting Incident] [Protagonist] wants [Protagonist’s Goal/Thing That Makes Her Happy]. Will she lose her chance for happiness because [Antagonist] [Disaster]?

Example: When Indiana Jones learns that Nazi archaeologists are close to recovering the Ark of the Covenant, he sets out to claim the ark for the United States and her allies. Will he lose his chance to avert global disaster because Dr. Rene Belloq once again snatches Indy’s prize away from him?

Jim Butcher:


Or: When [Inciting Incident occurs] [Protagonist] [Protagonist’s Goal]. But will he succeed when [Antagonist Opposes Protagonist]

Example: When Indiana Jones learns that Nazi archaeologists are going after the Ark of the Covenant he sets out to claim the Ark first. But will he succeed when Dr. Rene Belloq discovers Indiana’s plans?

Whatever form your story question takes it should be answerable with a “yes” or “no.”

Other Ways of Structuring a Story

These really aren’t other ways, they are different ways of representing or thinking about the same way. If you’re writing a short story or even a piece of flash fiction, these might be of a bit more help:

a. The Three O System: Objective, Obstacle, Outcome.[1]

Example: Indiana Jones wants to bring the Ark of the Covenant back to the USA. Unfortunately, Indy’s nemesis, Dr. Rene Belloq, is set on getting the Ark for the Nazi’s and he has no qualms about playing dirty. If Belloq succeeds the world as we know it could be destroyed.

b. Who, What, Why: WHO wants to do WHAT and WHY can’t he?[1]

Example: Indiana Jones wants to bring the Ark of the Covenant back to the USA. Unfortunately Dr. Rene Belloq and the Nazi war machine are set on taking the Ark for themselves.

The Secret Sauce: Linking this in with the protagonist’s character

I’m a fan of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series. A BIG fan!

Every time Butcher releases a new book I block off a few hours of my day, curl up in my favorite chair and read the book cover to cover. Sure, I’ll go back later and re-read it. The second time will be slower, more careful. I’ll look at the structure of the story and try to analyze how Butcher created certain effects in the reader. But the first time through is pure unadulterated pleasure.

One thing I’ve noticed about the books of the Dresden Files series is that the main character, Harry Dresden—though clever and able to think well in the moment—isn’t the brightest bulb. Which is convenient since Dresden is uncompromisingly committed to doing the right thing (a.k.a. the moral thing).

What’s the right thing? It’s the unselfish thing. In other words, “Adherence to principle despite the temptation to self-interest.”[1]
What’s the wrong thing? It’s the selfish thing. In other words, “Abandonment of conviction for the sake of personal advantage.”[1]

This should really come through at the climax. Make sure that the moral issue is brought into play. The hero (and this is a big part of what makes a character a hero) does what he does for unselfish motives while the villain does what he does from selfish motives. I’m not saying it’s quite as clear cut as this, but (thinking about the books I’ve read and the movies I’ve seen) self-interest seems to be a dominant trait in most antagonists.[2]

As a result, though, often heroes are more good than bright. I’ve just mentioned Harry Dresden. It’s not that he’s stupid, far from it! But there are many people who are more intelligent than him in one way or another. That said, he excels at three things. First, he can think well under pressure. Second, he can think well in the moment, making a split-second decision that will (usually!) turn out to be the correct one. Third, he’s a planner, able to think of multiple possibilities and planning for them. He’s not brilliant but he can be exceptionally clever.

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’d like to recommend Master Lists For Writers by Bryn Donovan. The author goes over setting, various plot types, how to write action as well as dialogue—and that’s for starters! From the blurb: “Whether you’re writing novels or short fiction, screenwriting, or any other kind of storytelling, MASTER LISTS FOR WRITERS is a rich source of inspiration you’ll turn to again and again.”

That’s it! I hope NaNo is going well for you. Remember, as long as you’ve written more than you would have otherwise, you’re a winner! I’ll talk to you again on Monday. In the meantime, good writing!


1. Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain.

2. It is also true that every antagonist is the hero of his own story. The antagonist might see himself as a savior, unselfishly sacrificing himself—as well as, perhaps, those he cares about—for a greater good. Of course it could also be the case that he’s lying to himself!

3. Fundamentals—Story Skeletons by Jim Butcher.

Wednesday, November 23

Storytelling: How To Figure Out What Isn’t Working

Storytelling: How To Figure Out What Isn’t Working

Write. Rewrite. When not writing or rewriting, read. I know of no shortcuts.”
—Larry L. King, WD

Today I’d like to talk about self-editing.

I’m sure every writer has had this experience: you’ve written a story, you’ve fallen in love with the story, but you know it doesn’t work. But it could be fixed. If only you could figure out what isn't working.

That’s what I want to begin exploring today. I want to look at how to take a story idea and, as it were, stretch it out over the dress frame of story structure. The goal is to see where the story is ‘thin’ as well as where it bunches up due to excess material.

One thing I find ironic is that I’m MUCH better evaluating another person’s story, at seeing where it has gone off the rails, than I am at evaluating my own work. I think it’s a bit like my friend’s attitude toward her kids. She knows her children aren’t perfect because no child is, but she sees them through the rose colored goggles of a loving mother. Because of this, parent-teacher conferences can be a bit rough but they do help ground her in reality!

My friend isn’t alone. It is difficult to clearly see what we love.

What follows is an attempt to help writers—myself included—evaluate their own work. We need to be able to tell whether our story works and, if it doesn’t, evaluate where it has gone off the rails and fix it.

Note: As usually happens, I didn’t get through as much of this material as I would like, but I’ll pick the subject up again tomorrow. Cheers!

The Importance of Having an Ideal Reader

Before we get started, let’s ask the most fundamental question we can: What is a story? When we write a story what are we doing?

In Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight V. Swain writes:

“To bring a story into being, you need to think of it not as a thing, but as something you do to a specific reader—a motivation; a stimulus you thrust at him.”

I’ve talked before about the ideal reader. Stephen King talks about this in On Writing:

“Someone—I can’t remember who, for the life of me— once wrote that all novels are really letters aimed at one person. As it happens, I believe this. I think that every novelist has a single ideal reader; that at various points during the composition of a story, the writer is thinking, ‘I wonder what he/she will think when he/she reads this part?’ For me that first reader is my wife, Tabitha.” [1]

♢ ♢ ♢ 

“Call that one person you write for Ideal Reader. He or she is going to be in your writing room all the time: in the flesh once you open the door and let the world back in to shine on the bubble of your dream, in spirit during the sometimes troubling and often exhilarating days of the first draft, when the door is closed. And you know what? You’ll find yourself bending the story even before Ideal Reader glimpses so much as the first sentence. I.R. will help you get outside yourself a little, to actually read your work in progress as an audience would while you’re still working. This is perhaps the best way of all to make sure you stick to story, a way of playing to the audience even while there’s no audience there and you’re totally in charge.” [1]

♢ ♢ ♢

“I believe each story should be allowed to unfold at its own pace, and that pace is not always double time. Nevertheless, you need to beware—if you slow the pace down too much, even the most patient reader is apt to grow restive.

“The best way to find the happy medium? Ideal Reader, of course. Try to imagine whether he or she will be bored by a certain scene—if you know the tastes of your I.R. even half as well as I know the tastes of mine, that shouldn’t be too hard. Is I.R. going to feel there’s too much pointless talk in this place or that? That you’ve underexplained a certain situation … or overexplained it, which is one of my chronic failings? That you forgot to resolve some important plot point? Forgot an entire character, as Raymond Chandler once did? (When asked about the murdered chauffeur in The Big Sleep, Chandler—who liked his tipple—replied, “Oh, him. You know, I forgot all about him.”) These questions should be in your mind even with the door closed. And once it’s open— once your Ideal Reader has actually read your manuscript— you should ask your questions out loud. Also, needy or not, you might want to watch and see when your I.R. puts your manuscript down to do something else. What scene was he or she reading? What was so easy to put down?” [1]

The idea is that you don’t write your story for a sea of generic faces, your write your story for one person.

Why does this work? Let's take a closer look at this in the next section.

The Ideal Reader as Avatar

I’d like to borrow an idea from marketing and talk about avatars. In marketing, an avatar represents your ideal client.[2]

I think it’s a great idea to have an avatar/Ideal Reader in mind when we write our stories. What market are we targeting? For instance, let’s say I’m writing a horror story. Who would my Ideal Reader be? Well, obviously, someone who reads a lot of horror stories!

But, beyond that, I would want to know who my avatar’s favorite authors are. I would want to know how many hours she read per week? I would want to know what kind of horror story she liked best. I would want to know what kind of clothes she preferred. (If you do a promo and give out a free t-shirt, this is relevant!) I would want to know what 'gave her the creeps.' I would want to know what she found engaging. I would even want to know what names they liked. And that’s just for starters!

I’m not suggesting that you change how you write to fit someone else’s tastes, far from it! I'm just saying, know the Ideal Reader for the story you want to write. The trick is picking the right avatar for the book you have in mind. In that way, writing to an avatar can help keep you on track.

As Dwight V. Swain writes:

“Your goal ... is to elicit a particular reaction from this reader. You want to make him feel a certain way ... suck him into a whirlpool of emotion.”[3]

So you’re writing a story for some one person and your goal is to make him feel. Feel what? It depends. Sadness, happiness, fear, excitement, puzzlement, love. The question is, How do you get your reader to feel the way you want him to feel? Swain doesn’t answer this right away except to say that this is a “story’s whole and total function.” He also writes:

“The function of a story is to create a particular reaction in a given reader.”[3]

Which reader is this? Well, it’s any actual flesh and blood person who reads your story, but when you’re writing, this reader is your Ideak Reader. It is the reader “who shares your tastes and interests.”[3]

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 recommend Choose Your Own Story: Wendigo's Wizarding Academy by John Diary. It's a Choose Your Own Adventure book and it looks fun. Plus, it's only 99 cents!

That's it! I'll talk to you again tomorrow. In the meantime, good writing!


1. On Writing by Stephen King.

2. Of course, a company might not have just one avatar. Take Coke for example. They could have an avatar that represents their loyal older demographic, a 62 year old male from the buckle of the Bible Belt who has been drinking Coke for thirty years. His favorite movie is Top Gun and he loves sports. There could also be another avatar that represents a younger demographic. Perhaps they’re 19 years old, own three pairs of Nike runners, have one year of college and love horror movies. (Don’t laugh! Avatars can be oddly specific.)

3. Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain.

Tuesday, November 22

Create a Character Readers Can't Help But Care About

Create a Character Readers Can't Help But Care About

What the creator of character needs is not so much knowledge of motives as keen sensibility; the dramatist need not understand people; but he must be exceptionally aware.”—T.S. Elliot

I’ve more or less finished my series on key scenes and would now like to talk about how to create a character readers can’t help but care about. Let’s start with a few common questions. (By the way, pretty much everything I say in this post is inspired by two books: Techniques of The Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain and Creating Characters: How to Build Story People by Dwight V. Swain.)

How many characters should I have in a story?

As you would expect, the number of characters in a story will depend on the length of your story. Here’s the rule of thumb: use only the bare minimum needed to advance the story. That is, use the minimum necessary to drive the story forward.

How can I tell if a particular character is necessary?

There are two questions you can ask about each character. First, Does this character advance the conflict? In other words, Does it advance the story? Dwight V. Swain writes:

“If a story person isn’t for or against your hero, leave him out. Every character should contribute something: action or information that helps or harms, advances or holds back.”[1]

Second, can two or more characters be combined? If the contribution of two or more story people make can be made by just one character then combine them.

How can I tell if readers will find a particular character interesting?

Your characters need to be stressed. There needs to come a point in the story where a character either overcomes the situation and gets rid of the stress OR it breaks her. Swain writes:

“Let pressure strip away the gloss and reveal them as they really are.” [1]

How much inner growth should my character go through over the course of a story?

What time-span does your story cover? 24 hours? 48 hours? Days? Years? Centuries?!

How much inner growth your character experiences will depend on the timespan of your story. If it takes place over the course of 24 hours then chances are the character won’t change as much as the protagonist of a story that is stretched over a decade.

How can I bring a character to life?

a) The character must be UNIQUE and VIVID.

You want your story, you want what happens to your characters, to hook into a reader’s emotions. Swain writes:

“Liking characters is vital to your reader. So is disliking and feeling pity and contempt and respect and tenderness ... / Why? / Because without such variations of emotional reaction, the reader can’t care what happens to your people. / If he doesn’t care, he can achieve no sense of inner tension when they’re endangered.”

So the 64,000 dollar question is, how do I make a character _unique_ and _vivid_? Here’s how:

i. Each character, even a walk-on, must have a dominant impression.

Here are examples of what Swain means by a dominant impression:

distinguished person
cruel man
sexy woman
flighty girl
rowdy boy

ii. Fit a character’s dominant impression to your character’s role in the story.

One question which comes up here is, should you cast the character to type or against type?

For example, if your protagonist is a hero, do we cast him to type or against type? If we cast him to type then we might make him a “tall, dark, handsome, physically prepossessing man.”[1] In this way we fit the character to match your audience’s preconceptions.

If we decide to cast the protagonist against type Swain suggests that we might make him ugly, gawky and/or awkward. If we do this then we intend the character to clash with your audience’s preconceptions.

Pros and Cons of casting to type:

Pro: When we cast to type the reader will be familiar with the kind of character we’re creating. Familiarity is a powerful thing. As Swain writes, a familiar character “makes for easy reading ... demands no thought, no readjustment.”[1]

Con: When we cast to type the reader will be familiar with the kind of character we’ve created and this increases the chance he will become bored.

Pros and Cons of casting against type:

Pro: Casting against type after adds realism and interest.

Con: Your audience won’t be immediately familiar with your character. Swain writes, “... you must be prepared also to devise ways to get Reader to accept that contradiction.”

iii. Modify the picture.

Is the dominant impression accurate? That is, does the dominant impression give a true impression of the character, of the kind of person she really is?

For example, if the character’s dominant impression is that of a dignified person then we need to ask whether this is a mask she adopts to hide her stupidity or selfishness.

Or say that the character’s dominant impression is that of a cruel person. Is the character truly cruel or is this just an appearance the character uses to mask an overly generous inner nature?

Characters, like flesh-and-blood people, are contradictory. Inconsistent. Capturing this inconsistency is a big part of what makes a character interesting. A word of caution, though. Be selective in your introduction of inconsistencies. If you introduce too many then it might be difficult to maintain the dominant impression.

For instance, think of Quark on Deep Space Nine [link]. In more than one episode we got a peek at Quark’s softer nature, but this didn’t change his dominant impression: greedy alien.

For more on this see: [link to article about conflicting desires. McKee]

iv. Different kinds of tags

An example of a tag is:

black hair
a stutter
shuffling one’s feet

Tags are important for two reasons. First, because they are how a dominant impression is created. Second, tags help readers tell one character from another.

According to Dwight V. Swain there are at least four different kinds of tags: tags of appearance, tags of speech, tags of mannerisms, tags of attitude (also called traits). Let’s look at each of these in turn.


Examples of tags of appearance: Tall, short, handsome, blue eyes, skin color.


University professors talk differently than truck drivers or longshoremen. Sex workers likely have a vocabulary that is different from the average pastor’s wife!

Beyond this, a dialect is a tag, so is an accent as well as habitual expressions (e.g., “well now” “one more thing”). Swain writes:

“We fumble, grope, speak precisely or pedantically or slangily or to the point. Our use of language reflects background, experience, occupation, social status, psychology, and a host of other things.”[1]


For example, scowl, flutter, rub hands, tug earlobe, person who dodges eye contact, close talkers, doodlers, nail cleaners, smoker, uses hands when talking—even over the phone!


Tags of attitude are also called traits. Examples of traits are being habitually apologetic, being fearful, being irritable, being breezy, being vain, being shy, being obsequious, being fearful, being irritable, being breezy.

Also, hobbies can be tags of attitude: being a aficionado of miniature trains, being a collector of Star Wars memorabilia, and so on.

How many tags per character?

How many tags should a character have? This depends on their importance to the story. Are they a walk-on, a minor character or a major character?

Walk-on: If a character is a walk-on they might be the guy who delivers your protagonists pizza never to be seen again. This sort of a character only needs one or two tags.

Minor: If a character is a minor character then perhaps give them one or more tags from each category.

Major: If a character is a major character then give them one key tag from each category. Key tags are tags you’ll mention each time you re-introduced the character.  You’ll probably want to give the character more than four tags, though, because otherwise your descriptions might seem repetitive.


This point is extremely important. Vital. Don’t make your descriptions static. Swain writes:

“Often, the best trick is to try to find some bit of stage business on which to hang the tag.” 

For example:

For a proud woman: “She stood there for a moment, the violet eyes ever so steady. Only the slightest trace of heightened color showed in the smooth cheeks. / Then, with a quick, deft movement, she snapped the purse shut, turned still without a word and, blonde head high, left the room.”[1]

Irascible character: “Get out!” he roared, jowls purpling.”[1]

Use tags whenever character is re-introduced

I’ve mentioned this already, but it’s important enough to get its own point. Use the tags every time the character has been offstage for a while and needs to be re-introduced. For example:

“If a girl has dark, wavy hair, let her run her fingers through it, smooth it, brush it back, complain how it won’t hold a permanent, or the like, at virtually every turn.” [1]

Summary: Guidelines for using Tags

  • Tags are used to create a dominant impression.
  • Tags are used to reinforce a character’s personality.
  • Tags are used to modify the dominant impression and show how the inner person can differ from the outer.
  • There are various kinds of tags: tags of appearance, speech, mannerism and attitude.
  • We looked at how many tags a character should have depending on their importance to the story. Are they a walk-on, a minor character or a major character.
  • Finally we talked about how to re-introduce a character with their tags.

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’m recommending Techniques of The Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain and Creating Characters: How to Build Story People by Dwight V. Swain. I’ve read these books cover to cover and unreservedly recommend them!

That’s it! I’ll talk to you again tomorrow. Till then, good writing.

Word count so far: 22,454
Word count this post and last: 1,000 + 1639
Total words this month: 25,093


1. Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight V. Swain [].

Monday, November 21

NaNoWriMo Pep Talk

NaNoWriMo Pep Talk

NaNoWriMo is coming to an end. We can see the finish line.

If you're making your word count goal, awesome! Go you!!

If you haven't made your word count (like me), even if you are so desperately behind you don't think there's any hope you'll catch up, take heart!

How many words have you written for NaNoWriMo? Are those words you would have written if you hadn't done NaNo? If not, you're already a winner!

If you're having trouble finding the motivation to continue, or you're looking for a new direction, here are a few ideas.

A few questions that might help you decide what to do:

1. Have you changed your mind about the genre that best describes your story?

This sounds ludicrously, obnoxiously, aggressively obvious, but judging from the beginning efforts of many writers—my own included!—it isn't.

When you began writing your story on Nov 1, what genre did you think best described the story forming in your tortured writer's soul?

Is that still the genre you're writing in? If not, don't panic! Panic helps no one.

If you've genre-hopped then that means you've found out more about your story. That's awesome! You thought your book belonged in a certain category and now that you know more about it you realize that's not the case.

Sure, maybe you'll have to go back and rewrite some scenes, but so what? If you're anything like me, you'll likely end up radically revising each scene—and likely more than once!

Yes, like anything worthwhile, writing is a lot of work! There's a reason why there are SO MANY writers and are, relatively speaking, so few authors.

2. Is your protagonist still the focus?

If so, great! If not, remember that this is a zero draft, these are musings, scribblings. What you write here need only have the slightest of passing resemblances to a story. This is a chance for you to play with words and ideas and, in so doing, to discover your story's shape, its dimensions.

Discover your characters. Put them in different situations. What are their likes? Make us love them, make us identify with them, then torture them. Turn their lives inside out. What do they do next?

Actions often show a person's values much more clearly and more eloquently than words ever could.

In any case, as your story develops, as it unfolds in front of you, you might very well come to understand that the fictional person you thought was the protagonist—meaning that her goals, her desires, drive the story—isn’t. Perhaps she’s the antagonist, or the protagonist’s helper. There are all kinds of possibilities.

It could also be that you haven't met your protagonist yet. In a zero draft everything is on the table.

3. What does your protagonist want? What drives your protagonist?

Quickly! Before you look at any of the slips of paper tacked to your walls, write down your answer to these questions:

a. What does your protagonist want more than anything?
b. What does your protagonist fear more than anything?
c. How does your protagonist achieve the thing she wants?
d. How does your protagonist avoid the thing she hates?
e. What specific, concrete, goal does your protagonist have?


Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark wanted to find the Ark and bring it to the United States.

In Stranger Things, Will Byers friends’ goal was to find Will and bring him home.

In the TV Series Supernatural Dean and Sam want to rid the world of monsters. Each episode this general goal is seen through the lens of a different adventure. Either the boys are detecting, chasing and killing a specific monster—one that is actively menacing a specific person or group of people—or Sam and Dean are worried about becoming monsters, of becoming the thing they hate.

Which brings us to ...

4. What does your protagonist hate?

Often the thing we fear the most seems the most real, the most likely to happen. Perversely, the future we dread is often the one we spend the most time thinking about. What would this look like for your protagonist?

For example, if your character fears disconnection then perhaps she desperately wants to feel as though she is connected to something larger to herself. Something important. Something beautiful.

Perhaps, concretely, your character loves her business and fears she’ll lose it. Her life will be nothing without her business and so she will do anything, go to any extent, to save it, to protect it.

Or perhaps your character loves a person. He can't image life without her and, as a result, will do anything to preserve his connection to her.

I find that, often, a fear can be a more concrete thing than a love and so can be easier to start from.

Here is the link to a list of articles I’ve written for NaNoWriMo.

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 want to recommend Cruising for Murder: A Myrtle Clover Cozy Mystery by by Elizabeth Spann Craig. From the blurb: “When Myrtle and her friend Miles set out for adventure on the high sea, they assume most of the trip’s excitement will result from shore excursions to charming Alaskan villages. They feel as if their ship has come in. But when a fellow passenger disappears, Myrtle realizes she must seize the helm and find the killer...before more souls are lost.”

That’s it! I’ll talk to you again tomorrow. Until then, good writing!

Friday, November 18

10th Key Scene: The Wrap Up

10th Key Scene: The Wrap Up

Any man who keeps working is not a failure. He may not be a great writer, but if he applies the old-fashioned virtues of hard, constant labor, he’ll eventually make some kind of career for himself as a writer.” —Ray Bradbury

In honor of NaNoWriMo, every day this month I’m blogging about a key scene, one that any suspenseful story will include, either implicitly or explicitly. So far I've posted articles about the Inciting Incident, the Lock-In, Tests and Trials, Pinch Point One, the Midpoint Crisis, the All Hope is Lost scene, the Epiphany and the Climax.

Today I'm going to talk about the Wrap Up.

The Wrap Up: Breaking It Down

In the Aftermath, or Wrap Up, the audience sees the effects of the hero's efforts. Here you must answer the questions:

  • How did the hero's Ordinary World change as a result of her adventure?
  • What was his reward? What was the cost of his failure?

Or, as Jim Butcher puts it in Story Climax:

“RESOLUTION: Time to hand out the medals, kiss the girl, go to the wedding, put the star on the Christmas tree, raise the curtain on the rock concert, attend the funeral, or otherwise demonstrate that with the conclusion of the story, some kind of balance has been restored. The catharsis is complete, the tension eased, and the reader can catch their breath now.

“My advice to you on resolutions: Keep it short. Once you've gotten through the Showdown, write as sparingly as possible to get to the end, and don't draw anything out any more than you absolutely must. You've already kept your poor reader up until 3:30, your heartless bastard. Let them get some sleep before they have to rush off to their shift in two hours!” (Jim Butcher, Story Climax)

In my experience the Wrap Up is short, about half as long as an ordinary chapter. The story is over, there’s no more work to be done. Wrap things up quickly and type those two beautiful words: The End.


  • What is your protagonist’s story goal? Did your protagonist achieve the goal?
  • If so, what did your protagonist and her allies gain? What did the world gain?
  • If not, what did your protagonist and her allies lose? What did the world lose?

Does your writeup communicate this? If so, great!


There is no difference between genres!

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 want to recommend Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for Page, Stage, and Screen, by Robert Mckee. From the blurb: “... in DIALOGUE, McKee offers the same in-depth analysis for how characters speak on the screen, on the stage, and on the page in believable and engaging ways. From Macbeth to Breaking Bad, McKee deconstructs key scenes to illustrate the strategies and techniques of dialogue.”

That’s it! This is the last post this week, I’ll talk to you again on Monday. :-)

Good luck in the final stretch of NaNoWriMo!

Word count so far: 21,854
Word count for today: 600
Total words this month: 22,454

Wednesday, November 16

The Structure of a Romance Story: Part Three

The Structure of a Romance Story: Part Three

Ever had a day where it feels like you need to do twelve zillion things? That’s the way I’ve felt for the past few days and, as a result, have probably accomplished less! SO, I’m going to give myself permission to post less for the remainder of the month.

I’m happy with the amount of writing I’ve done (my plan is to gather these posts together and put them in a book), so yea! And I’m going to continue in the same vein, though I need to accept that I can’t do a post a day. I need to take the weekends off to catch up on odds-n-ends.

What follows is the last post in a series on the structure of a romance story, the first part is here and the second here. Also, I’d like to reiterate that everything I say in this post has been inspired by these videos.

Act Three: The Midpoint

Everything is different now that the girl and the boy have been intimate. Speaking of which, if this is a spicy love story then the boy and the girl have a series of increasingly intense physical encounters.

 Whatever the spice level of the story their physical intimacy has made the girls problem even more difficult to solve. Why? Well, this could be because ...

  • the boy is an arsonist, the girl is a firefighter.
  • the boy is a forger and the girl works for a company that insures paintings.
  • the boy ruined her family’s fortunes.
  • the boy is a thief, the girl is a sherif.
  • the girl is on the trail of a killer and all the evidence points to the boy.

Whatever the reason, the girl decides that they cannot be together in any meaningful way. She realizes that they are doomed and that her terrible problem is farther than ever from a solution. Despite this, she loves the boy though she’s not sure how he feels about her.

The All Hope is Lost point arrives at the end of  Act Three (recall that I’m using a four act structure). What exactly this looks like, what form it takes, depends upon your story. If the boy is a thief then he might be arrested. If the boy is a duke then he will inherit his family’s estate and become a duke. Whatever happens it will divide the lovers forever.

The important thing is that, here, it must seem hopeless, the difficulties must become bigger and more formidable until they are overwhelming.

At the end of Act Three the lovers say goodbye. They say, tearfully, that they wish things could have been different, but this is the end of the road, the end of their story.

Act Four

The girl experiences a dark night of the soul. She has never been so miserable in her entire life. Similarly, the boy feels that, thinks that, all is lost.

The boy has an idea ... or maybe the girl does. The idea is for a new direction. A solution to the girl’s terrible problem has appeared.

The girl feels that the boy’s solution is remarkable. She can hardly believe it. The solution has cleared the way for the lovers to be together.

The boy is delighted. Depending on what kind of a romance story this is, he might ask the girl to marry him. The girl might ask him what changed his mind, because when she first met him he made it clear that he wanted to be a bachelor for life. To which the boy might say something like, “Our experiences together have changed my mind. I have discovered that I love you and I cannot live without you.”

And the boy might cock an eyebrow at the girl and say something like, I thought you had no interest in being a duchess? To which the girl might reply that her recent experiences, as well as the time they spent together, had changed her mind. She has discovered she loves the boy and can’t live without him. Therefore marrying the boy will make her happy even if she has to be a duchess.

They join hands, walk off into the sunset and live happily ever after.

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’d like to recommend Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. From the blurb: “Story Engineering starts with the criteria and the architecture of storytelling, the engineering and design of a story--and uses it as the basis for narrative. The greatest potential of any story is found in the way six specific aspects of storytelling combine and empower each other on the page. When rendered artfully, they become a sum in excess of their parts.”

The end!

You’ll notice that I haven’t carried through the theme from yesterday, which was intended to be a kind of blueprint for the creation of a rough draft. I do want to pick that theme back up, later.

Honestly, I’ve started doing something I should have begun years ago. I’ve started diagramming books I’ve loved. When I started writing the post on Tuesday about the structure of a romance story I began diagramming Laurell K. Hamilton’s first book, Guilty Pleasures. I LOVE Guilty Pleasures and it is fascinating laying the bones of the story bare.

I guess I never did this before because I thought it would be a bit tedious and dry; it’s anything but! And it is incredible to me—amazing—that I didn’t notice any of this before when I read the book for pleasure.

But that’s how it works, isn’t it?

The best structured stories are just so fun to read the story sucks one in. One is inside the story, the events unfolding in the mind’s eye, and one never notices what happens behind the scenes.

That it! I’ll talk to you tomorrow. I’m going to go back to writing about key scenes.

How’s your writing coming along? Myself, I’m a bit behind. Still, even if I don’t write 50,000 words this month I’m going to be happy because I’ve been able to get a considerable amount of work on my book done and that’s the main thing. :-)

Word count so far: 20,754
Word count for today: 1,100
Total words this month: 21,854

Tuesday, November 15

The Structure of a Romance Story: Part Two

The Structure of a Romance Story: Part Two

Okay! It has taken me an exorbitant amount of time to write the following 1,200 words, but I did have to do some research—which I loved because it involved re-reading some of my favorite books! I know, I know, it's a hard life.

What follows is a continuation of my post, The Structure of a Romance Story. In that post I go over the first act, so if you haven’t read it you might want to or the current post won’t make a heck of a lot of sense.

Act Two

Circumstances have forced the protagonist and antagonist to spend a lot of time together.

In Guilty Pleasures, someone, or something, is murdering vampires. The police don’t care about the case and aren’t anywhere close to solving it, so Nikolaos, the head vampire of St. Louis, asks Anita to take the case. Anita tries to refuse but ultimately agrees when she realizes the alternative is having her mind stripped away. Jean-Claude, Anita’s only ally, protects both himself and Anita. This ensures they are thrown together at various places in the story, regardless of how either of them feels about the other.

In Dead Until Dark, Eric Northman uses his position as sheriff to acquire use of Sookie’s unique telepathic ability to discover who is embezzling from him.

What shall we do? Let’s say there’s a brutal serial killer turning nice, decent, hard-working citizens—some of them human, some of them vampire—into piles of body parts.

Anita was of unique use to the master of the city in Guilty Pleasures because of her skills as a vampire hunter and sleuth. Anita was also of unique use to Jean-Claude because, by virtue of their bond (one she didn’t consent to!), she could keep him nourished even as he was being starved, tortured. Sookie was of unique use to the vampire sheriff in Dead Until Dark because of her ability to read another person’s thoughts.

Lily Anderson is of unique use to the Big Bad (provisionally, let’s say the Big Bad is the head Vampire of the US) because of her telepathic abilities. There is a vigilante group targeting vampires and their human sympathizers. Perhaps it looks to the police and the Big Bad like Damien is behind this vigilante group. Unfortunately, Lily can’t read Damien’s thoughts, he’s too powerful.

Keep in mind that the more folks she reads the more difficult it is for her to stay sane (I introduced this in the first post). The fewer people she has to read the saner she’ll be.

The boy is really angry about having to spend time with the girl.

Dameon is upset that Lily is so unreasonable. He has offered her money, power, a good position in society, but she looks at him as if he’s a monster. It is as though she doesn’t care about money or what it could do for her, how it could improve her life. She makes no sense, he can’t figure her out, and that makes him angry. Angry with himself, angry with her, angry with life.

The girl is really angry about having to pend time with the boy. Additionally, she wishes she didn’t find the boy attractive.

Lily is angry too. Damien tries to boss her around. He can’t see that money is a means to an end: happiness. But if you’re already happy, who needs money beyond what’s essential to live? True, she’s never been to a world class restaurant, or the opera, or worn designer clothes, but Lily tells herself she isn’t interested in those sorts of things. Her version of happiness is curling up with a good book over a hot cup of cocoa.

The boy wishes he didn’t find the girl attractive. Nevertheless, he can’t stop thinking about her. She drives him crazy. The boy tells the girl she is ruining his life.

Damien's arguments are solid. Rock solid. Or so he tells himself. Repeatedly. Still, he can’t stop thinking about Lily. This irritates him. Sure, she is very attractive, but it goes beyond that. He’s met attractive girls before but they’ve never turned his thoughts against him. He hates that he feels happier when she’s around and sadder when she’s not.

The girl forces the boy to rethink his entire existence.

A moral dilemma presents itself to Damian. Before Damian met the girl he wouldn’t have hesitated to do what was best for his business, best for himself. Now, though, his first thought is about Lily, how the matter will affect her.

The boy forces the girl to rethink her entire existence.

The girl has a business opportunity. Before she met Damian her first thought would have been about how the business, what it does, fits in with her worldview. Now she thinks about Damien and whether he would say it was a good financial opportunity!

The boy is convinced that the girl is a dangerous person.

Lily is bad for him. Dangerous. She makes him pause over decisions that should be reflexive. That’s both bad for business and bad for his standing in the family, especially now that there are whispers about him being the one who has been embezzling.

The girl is convinced that the boy is infuriating.

The girl asks the boy what he thinks about the business opportunity that came her way. She did this only to be nice—it had nothing (NOTHING!) to do with being an excuse to see him. And, after that, he had the temerity to brush her off!

The boy notices that, despite their mutual feelings of antipathy, they work well together.

Damien is good at what he does, good in business, at anticipating and planning for crises but bad at handling people. Lily is good at handling people. Because of her, those she works with are happier and more productive.

The girl notices that the boy exhibits flashes of humanity.

Damien is polite and has impeccable manners, especially with elderly women who he invariably charms.

The boy learns that his friends think they are perfect for each other.

Damien’s friends have noticed that Lily has made him chill out, relax. He laughed out loud the other day.

The girl learns that her friends think they are perfect for each other.

Lily tends to rush into things without thinking. She pauses now to think things through. In general, she has made better choices.

Every time the girl starts to like the boy a teensy-weensy bit he does something outrageous that infuriates and alienates her.

Because of one of Damien’s decisions her best friend loses something important. Perhaps her friend's business, perhaps her friend's parent’s business. Perhaps her friend is fired from her job because of something Lily let slip and now her friend hates her.

Boy: I’m going to kiss you now.

At first the girl is shocked and enraged by the suggestion. “Don’t you dare!” But then they kiss.

If this is a spicy love story then Damien and Lily will have sex. If this is a sweet romance, the girl and the boy may just kiss or possibly hold hands.

Whatever intimacy the girl and the boy share makes the girl’s problem worse. (The girl has been attempting to tackle her terrible problem in various ways throughout the story.)

Perhaps, now, the girl can read some of the vampire’s thoughts. This not only is bad for her sanity but the girl has overheard something the vampire had very much wanted to keep secret.

Resolution: Damien and Lily can no longer contain their passion for the other and decide to throw caution to the wind.

While Damien regrets that their intimacy makes Lily’s problem worse he can no longer contain his passion. Lily feels more-or-less the same, though she does not tell him she has overheard his secret.

This brings us to the end of Act Two.

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’m recommending two books. The first is Paula Hawkins book, Girl on the Train. I read it and enjoyed it, though not as much as Stephen King’s book, The Dead Zone. I've but The Dead Zone on my "to re-read" list, and not just because it’s a terrific book. It's also timely.

That’s it! I’ll talk to you again tomorrow. In the meantime, good writing!

Word count so far: 19,454
Word count for today: 1,300
Total words this month: 20,754

Sunday, November 13

The Structure of a Romance Story

The Structure of a Romance Story

As you probably know, I’ve been blogging about story structure more-or-less every day this month. My goal was to isolate around 30 key scenes that the overwhelming majority of well-structured stories contain.

And I still want to do that, but the fact is I’m running out of key scenes! There’s only two left: the Race to the Finish and the Wrap Up. So instead of trying to come up with additional Key Scenes I’m going to delve more deeply into the structure of each one.

Today, though, I’m taking a break. It might not make a great deal of sense to you why I’m blogging about this today. All I can say is that sometimes the muse wants what she wants. Go figure!

Today I want to talk about the structure of a romance story. True, recently I wrote about 6 Scenes Every Love Story Must Have, but this is different. This time I want to delve into the characters in a romance story and how their wants and desires shape events.

I’ve done something like this for mystery stories but not quite this way. I’m not sure what you’ll think of it, so I welcome feedback. This is an experiment. Would you like more posts like this? Would you like NO MORE posts like this? I want to write articles you like reading so please, let me know! :-)

The Structure of a Romance Story

Before we get started ...

  • In what follows I use a four act structure
  • In what follows the protagonist is a gal and the antagonist is a guy. When I write, “The girl has a problem,” this means the same thing as, “The protagonist has a problem.”
  • Everything that I say in this post has been inspired by these videos. Not JUST those videos, but they do a terrific job of laying the essential structure bare, and in a delightfully tongue-in-cheek way.

Act One

The girl has a terrible problem.

The girl doesn’t always have a terrible problem, but she often does.

Have you read Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake books? If so, you’re probably wondering why I’m bringing those books up in this context since they’re classified as urban fantasy/horror! I don’t read Hamilton’s books anymore[1], the series morphed into something else, but in the first three books Hamilton developed a beautiful, brilliantly executed, love story between Anita and a vampire named Jean-Claude.[3]

Anita Blake has a problem: she’s a necromancer. Not only do her abilities freak out normal people, they terrify the monsters! And not just zombies. Blake is a licensed vampire hunter who, due to her kill rate, has earned the nickname The Executioner. (So, who do you think she falls in love with? Ding, ding, ding, that’s right! A vampire.)

So, for our example protagonist, in honor of Anita Blake, let’s make her a vampire hunter and (tip of the hat to Sookie Stackhouse) a telepath. I’ll call her Lily Anderson.

What’s Lily’s terrible problem? She’s being driven slowly insane by the steady onslaught of other people’s thoughts. The only solution is to withdraw from society, become a hermit and live in the woods—but Lily feels that’s just another kind of death. Still, she doesn’t have a choice, not if she wants to stay sane.

The boy either refuses to help the girl solve her problem or he lacks the ability to. Furthermore, his very existence makes the girl’s problem worse.

Again, let's follow Hamilton’s lead and make the antagonist a vampire. I’ll call him Damien Morton.

How does Damien’s very existence make Lily’s problem worse? Damien wants Lily to use her powers to help him with a problem he’s having. But using her powers brings Lily to the edge of madness and that’s something she’d like to avoid, thank you very much.

The boy has a unique quality that makes him catnip for most women.

We could explain this by saying that whatever it is that transforms a human into a creature of eternal night refashions the body to make it inhumanly gorgeous.

Or we could say that vampires have certain standards and only turn the spectacularly attractive.

Or we could say that most vampires are no more good looking than most humans, that they only appear attractive because they use their powers to glamor weaker minds into seeing them a certain way. In other words, they use mind control.

I like the last one.

Also, the boy is obscenely rich.

The girl has no interest in this unique quality.

Due to Lily’s mental abilities she is immune from vampiric thought control. She doesn’t see the illusion Dameon projects, she sees him as he really is.

Lily isn’t interested in the boy’s money. She believes that everyone with money, especially if it’s old money, is an insufferable snob. (Not that she’s prejudiced or anything! ;)

The girl finds the boy irresistibly attractive. 

Lily sees Damien as he really is and finds him irresistibly attractive.

But Lily’s attraction to Dameon is based on more than the physical. There is something about him, something she can’t quite articulate. She feels as though she knows him even though they’ve only just met.

Lily can’t stop thinking about Dameon. To make matters worse, she has started dreaming about him, odd twisted dreams filled with blood and death.

What is the boy’s problem? What is the thing that makes the girl’s ability very attractive to the boy?

In the Southern Vampire Mysteries, Bill Compton, the first vampire Sookie Stackhouse ever met, was sent to find out everything he could about Sookie and her unique ability. Her other love interest, Eric Northman, routinely wants Sookie to use her telepathic abilities to give him an advantage in business negotiations.

What’s Damien’s problem? Let’s not reinvent the wheel. Damien runs the business interests of a very old, very wealthy, vampire clan. They have a spy in their midst, someone another very old, very wealthy, vampire clan planted. He needs to find out who. His job, his standing, is on the line. He needs Lily to read the minds of his employees and reveal the culprit.

The girl wishes she’d never met the boy because he has made her problem worse.

When Lily uses her ability it takes her to some very dark places.

The boy is not interested in most girls. He intends to stay single forever.

Dameon is a vampire so he can’t date humans—the temptation to suck their blood is too strong—and he despises other vampires. Other sorts of magical critters exist but they aren’t seen much these days. The fey, for example, have fled to another dimension. Some humans have psychic abilities but these abilities are usually so weak that they’re just humans to him. He realizes he is doomed to eternal loneliness and busies himself with work and various charitable foundations.

Even though the boy is committed to the single life, he is attracted to the girl on several levels. This surprises him. He never dreamt he could be attracted to someone like this. The boy’s attraction to the girl makes him feel completely out of control. He doesn’t recognize himself anymore. This makes him angry.

Sure the boy is lonely, but he’s been lonely for a long time. It’s not like he’s never happy. After all, this is the life he chose. It’s the life he made for himself. He’s attached.

Put it this way, his life is a bit like a ratty old bathrobe that has hidden charms for its owner but everyone else looks at with mild disdain.

My point is that the girl makes the boy look at his life in a new way, he feels its defects. She makes him see the old bathrobe through other eyes.

This makes the boy profoundly grumpy. Everything was fine before the girl came into his life. If only she would leave, things could go back to normal.

The girl sees that the boy is angry and doesn’t understand why.

In her mind, everything she has done is reasonable. She can’t understand why he doesn’t like her, why he’s always grumpy with her.

Something bigger than the two of them forces the boy and the girl to work together even though neither of them wants to—or maybe only one of them wants to. 

We haven’t yet talked about what brings the boy and the girl together, what forces them to work with each other even though neither of them really wants to.

In Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, Jean-Claude knows about the various supernatural communities in the city and can get people to talk to her. He helps her catch killers and, in so doing, saves lives. But having contact with Jean-Claude is dangerous for Anita. He is seduction incarnate. He is the dark side whispering sweet nothings in her ear.

Even though she knows Jean-Claude is dangerous for her, even though each time she sees him she feels a bit of herself slip away, she has to consult with him in order to solve crimes and save lives.

I wouldn’t say that Jean-Claude behaved like a lunatic, but he is certainly not thrilled about having such a gifted vampire executioner in town. He would like to bring her under his sway, but he knows that is one thing Anita will never allow. And it does drive him a little bit crazy.

How will this work for Damien and Lily? Well, let’s borrow Hamilton’s essential setup only we’ll twist it a bit. Damien wasn’t born a vampire, he was made one by the head of a very old, wealthy, family. That means he’s not really family. Sorta, kinda, almost, but not quite. Nevertheless, Damien has a head for business and under his leadership the family has done well, so they’ve given him free reign with their money. As a result, if anything happens in the city chances are Dameon knows about it or he knows who will know and, if he likes, he can put Lily in touch with them.

As I’ve mentioned, Lily can read thoughts. She has been invaluable to the police. The problem is that her ability is driving her insane. She has tried to quit but the police keep coming to her, begging her to help. “Only you can catch this guy and save another girl from a fate worse than death.” They don’t say, ‘Or madness’ but she feels it hanging in the air between them. She goes back, she always goes back.

There’s only one person she can’t read: Dameon. His mind is like a tall cold glass of water on a hot summer day. The problem is the silence feels good. Too good. It’s addictive. And he knows this. Dameon wants to control her and use her ability for his ends. She’ll let the police pull her back in so she can save lives (as well as the chief’s career) but she won’t let herself be used as a chit in the high stakes games Dameon plays in the underworld.

The boy behaves like a lunatic whenever he is together with the girl. He bosses her around and interferes with her life. For his part, the boy sees many things in the girl he could improve, or would like to see improved. The boy thinks the girl should be grateful for his interference in her life. Because of this the girl begins to hate the boy.

Dameon is pragmatic. If he had Lily’s gifts he could make ever so much more money, but that’s just the beginning. He could have power. Real power. He could break away from the family and begin his own dynasty. It’s not like he would stop Lily from helping the police, if she really wanted to do that. He honestly can’t understand why she refuses to work for him. After all, being around him keeps her sane! But, no. She would rather help the police and go slowly mad instead of helping him make a better life for them both.

For her part, the girl thinks that the boy is a horse’s ass.

Lily thinks that Dameon is an undead calculator. He has no imagination, no heart. And he doesn’t have an unselfish bone in his body.

The bottom line for the girl: He is making her terrible problem worse.

Dameon makes her crazy. Literally.

At the end of every article I post I like to pick a book I love and recommend it to my readers. This serves two purposes. I want to share my favorite books 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’d like to recommend a book that I've written! The Structure of a Love Story.

From the blurb: "Love is love, but there tends to be a certain pattern to how it progresses, both in fiction and real life. I go over three different kinds of love stories and pivot to examine six scenes any romance story must have."

That’s it! You’ll notice I’ve only talked about the characters and their dilemmas, I haven’t said anything about what happens in scenes and sequels, I haven’t talked about a Call to Adventure, etc. I’m saving that for later. What I’ve done here is intended to be something like a Zero Draft; writer’s jazz. We’re just playing, making word pictures.

Tomorrow—unless you tell me to stop!—I’ll follow this post up with Act Two.

How’s NaNoWriMo coming along? I’m a little behind at 19,454 words. I had hoped to be at about 26,000 by this point.

Talk to you tomorrow, good writing! :-)


1. I loved the first three books in Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series and unreservedly recommend them. I stopped reading the series around 2010 because (and this is just my own opinion) Anita Blake was no longer the same character I had been introduced to in Guilty Pleasures. Neither was Jean-Claude, and a great deal of the appeal of that series was the changing, tumultuous, visceral, relationship between those two characters.

3. Regardless of their primary genre many stories have a love story as the B-Story.

Friday, November 11

(NaNoWriMo Day 11): 9th Key Scene: The Epiphany

(NaNoWriMo Day 11): 9th Key Scene: The Epiphany

Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

In honor of NaNoWriMo, every day this month I’m blogging about a key scene, one that any suspenseful story will include, either implicitly or explicitly. I then take a close look at how this scene, this structure, is implemented in three popular genres: Action, Romance and Mystery. So far I've posted articles about the Inciting Incident, the Lock-In, Tests and Trials, Pinch Point One, the Midpoint Crisis, the All Hope is Lost scene, and the Climax.

Today I'm going to talk about the Epiphany.

The Epiphany: Breaking It Down

The All Hope is Lost scene immediately precedes the Epiphany. In that scene, as the name implies, something happens that transforms the protagonist’s world (or perhaps just the protagonist’s view of it) and brings her to her lowest point in the story.

After the All Hope Is Lost moment the B-story is resolved.[3] As a result, an important change occurs in the protagonist and she resolves her inner conflict. One result of this change is that the protagonist is able to figure out how to turn matters around and make one last desperate attempt to achieve her goal.

 About this “important change,” I don't mean a superhuman ability—though, depending on the kind of story this is, it could be! Whatever the change, the ground must have been laid for it. Perhaps the protagonist is now able to think clearly because she finally has the empathy she has been lacking, or perhaps she has been able to release a certain way of thinking that has been holding her back.

Whatever the case, during the Epiphany, something fundamental within the protagonist permanently changes and, as a result, she is able to escape from whatever had caused the complete and total destruction of all her previous plans.

Of course, not all protagonists have an internal conflict. If the only conflict is external, the hero can draw upon some characteristic that defines him such as his strength or his knowledge. Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark is a good example of a hero without any real internal conflict. At the end of that movie it is his broad knowledge that saves both himself and Marion, the object of his desire. Jones says: “Marion! Don’t look at it. Shut your eyes, Marion. Don’t look at it, no matter what happens.”

One way of describing the Epiphany is that it’s at this point in the story that the scales drop from the protagonist’s eyes. She thought she knew how things were, but she didn't. To use Shrek as an example, the ogre thought he knew how the Princess and Donkey felt about him, but he didn't. He thought they believed he was hideous and unlovable but he had misunderstood them. After the All Hope Is Lost point Donkey comes to Shrek and tells him Fiona wasn't calling him ugly and unlovable. Donkey doesn't tell Shrek she was describing herself because that's not his secret to tell. This is when the proverbial scales fall from Shrek's eyes and he realizes he acted like an idiot. Shrek decides to do what he should have done long before—risk rejection and tell Princess Fiona he loves her.

Here's another example: At the end of The Matrix Neo realizes he's the One and that he loves Trinity. At that moment the scales drop from his eyes; he sees what he had been blind to. He finally understands and it is this realization that transforms him. It allows him to do something he wouldn't have otherwise been able to do; namely, triumph over the Matrix and become the One.

I'm not suggesting that this life-transforming moment of self-realization occurs at the end of every story. It doesn't. But it happens often enough that I wanted to mention it.

But, of course, the hero doesn't have to win. Sometimes the revelation comes, but too late. Sometimes the revelation doesn't come at all.

The Epiphany: Key Points

- A significant resolution. We can speak about this resolution in a couple of ways.

Speaking about this resolution using the language of subplots (or, if you prefer, the A-Story, B-Story, C-Story, and so on), this is the place where subplots are cashed out and the various threads of the story merge into one.

Speaking about this in terms of conflict, whether internal or external, this is the place where the conflicts are resolved. Not a final solution or answer, but the various conflicts come together in a synthesis that provides the protagonist with an idea about how to push forward past the devastation that came with the All Hope is Lost point.

Let me unpack that a bit.

Internal Conflict: At the Epiphany, the protagonist’s internal conflict (if she has one) is resolved. Like their flesh and blood counterparts, characters want things, even things that are incompatible. For example, a character might both want to save someone from being killed and be a model FBI Trainee. When these two internal drives come into conflict (as they often do at the All Hope is Lost point) the protagonist must choose.

External Conflict: At the Epiphany, the protagonist’s external conflict is resolved and the storylines merged. For example, in Edge of Tomorrow, Cage’s squad—J Squad—was not his biggest fan. One of his recurring challenges is getting J Squad on his side. Just before the All Hope is Lost point, Cage acquires a crucial piece of information, something he has been trying to discover the entire movie: the location of the head mimic, the Omega.

In the Epiphany, Cage uses his relationship with the Angel of Verdun (Sergeant Rita Vrataski) to get his Squad to follow them and attack the Omega. This gathers three storylines (his love story with Vrataski, his strained relationship with J Squad and his quest to defeat the aliens) into one.

Here’s another example: In The Matrix the B-Story is Trinity’s feelings for Neo. At the end of the movie, after Neo has been shot dead in the Matrix, Trinity tells Neo (what’s left of him) that she loves him. She tells him that the Oracle said the man who she loved would be the One. So, since he’s the One, he can’t be dead. Then she kisses him. The confession and the kiss close out the B-story and, one feels, are the reason why Neo rises from the dead seconds later.

The change is permanent. The internal and external changes are permanent. Once these threads are bound together there is no going back.

Strength becomes useful. Occasionally, the protagonist’s strength in the ordinary world comes back into play. For example, Cage was in public affairs—he was a spin doctor. He was good at talking people into believing things. He uses this skill at the Epiphany (as well as earlier) to get J Squad on his side.

Where is it?

The Epiphany occurs early in Act Three, about 75% of the way through the story. In terms of scenes, it appears after the All Hope is Lost scene and before the Climax. This scene propels the protagonist and his allies into their race for the finish.

How is it connected to the protagonist’s desires?

Each of the hero’s desires, internal and external, represents an arc. At the Epiphany these arcs, these story lines, merge. At minimum, the B-Story will merge with the A-Story.

The Epiphany: An Example

This one is drawn from Edge of Tomorrow. We recently looked at the All Hope is Lost scene in that movie (this occurs when Cage loses the ability to reset the day). It is right after this that our plot-lines begin to merge. I’ve discussed this, above, so I won’t go into it again here.

As part of my research for this article, I’ve re-watched the three-quarter point of the first Lord of the Rings movie as well as that of Raiders of the Lost Ark. In Lord of the Rings there is a moment of Epiphany. Frodo has long come to suspect he must go off on his own, leaving the others behind. After Boromir, maddened by the presence of the ring, attacks Frodo, the hobbit accepts that he must continue the quest on his own and leaves.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark—a brilliant action/adventure movie—there really is no moment of Epiphany, at least not that I saw. And that’s okay! This movie didn’t have much of a B-Story. Yes, there is the developing relationship between Indiana and Marion, but there aren’t any hidden currents, it’s all there on the surface. And it works beautifully!

Testing the Scene Example

Is the A-Story Merged with the B-Story? Yes. Cage has just had a huge setback, the biggest in the story so far: he has lost the ability to reset the day. On the plus side, their mission is clear, even though they are least well equipped to deal with it, they need to take out the Omega (the Big Bad). That means they need help. This initiates the collapsing of three storylines, Cage’s love story involving the Angel of Verdun, his dysfunctional relationship with J Squad and his main goal of defeating the aliens.

Is the change permanent? Yes. Cage, Rita Vrataski and his troupe band together on the race to the finish. They all have the same goal: to kill the Omega.

Also, the scene involves what used to be the character’s strength in the Ordinary World. Cage uses his ability to spin a story to get his troupe on board with the plan.

How the Epiphany is Implemented in Three Genres: Action, Romance & Mystery

Action Genre

See the example, above.

Romance Genre

Let’s take a look at the movie, Pretty Woman. The All Hope is Lost point comes when Edward Lewis asks Vivian Ward to be his mistress. The night before Vivian broke her rule and, for the first time, kissed Edward. And then she told him she loved him. Her epiphany is that money is not an adequate surrogate for love. She wants to be a girlfriend, perhaps a fiancee, NOT a mistress. This is a discovery about herself, not about her profession or about him. As a result of this insight she breaks up with him.

In general, in a romance book, this is the point at which the protagonist often realizes what she really wants.

Perhaps there were two men courting her. One of them is wealthy, has social standing and her parents love him. The other one doesn’t have bean, her parents hate him but he makes her happy.

It is often at this point that the protagonist has an epiphany and realizes that the only reason she wants money and social standing is to be happy. Since the wealthy fellow doesn’t make her happy but the poor one does, she finally knows who she wants to walk off into the sunset with. Unfortunately, though, there’s a problem. The poor fellow doesn’t want to be with her anymore! And we’re off on the race to the finish.

Murder Mystery Genre

From what I’ve seen, the stage of a story I’ve been calling the Epiphany unfolds a bit differently in murder mysteries.

Generally speaking, the protagonist doesn’t have the same sort of arc in a murder mystery as she does in other genres.

In a murder mystery the progression is from ignorance to knowledge. So it makes sense that the All Hope is Lost point for the sleuth is to feel that he or she has been, once again, plunged into ignorance. For example, in Agatha Christie’s delightful story of love and betrayal, Death on the Nile, Hercule Poirot actually has this line at just this point: “I know nothing. Nothing!”

But we’re not here to talk about the All Hope is Lost point. The epiphany, as the name suggests, is like the light shining through the clouds just when the night seems bleakest. Don’t be too relieved, though. This light could be illusory. The detective could think he’s onto something when, in reality, he is simply being played by a devilishly clever antagonist.

During this scene the protagonist can do a number of things, but usually she does one or both of the following:

a) Clears out dead wood. The detective confronts one or two suspects and questions them. As the audience, you’re not sure if they’re telling the truth, or whether the sleuth thinks they’re telling the truth. This is a bit like a person in a pitch black room groping for a light switch.

This is also a point where certain possibilities are ruled out, certain suspects are disqualified from consideration.

b) Introduces an alternate theory of the crime. For example, in Basic Instinct just after the three-quarter mark, detective Nick Curran is stumped. Roxy, Catherine Tramell’s live-in lover, has died, killed in her attempt to usher Nick into the great hereafter. When I first watched this story I had thought Roxy was the murderer. Roxy’s death was the All Hope is Lost point from the perspective of the sleuth because now he has no idea whodunit.

The epiphany comes, or begins, after Nick gets a clue from Catherine about a stalker she had in college. Nick does a bit of digging and uncovers the fact that his on-again-off-again girlfriend, the department psychologist Dr. Beth Garner, appears to have had a crush on Catherine in university, going so far as to dress like her. When Nick confronts her, Beth swears it was the other way around, that Catherine dressed like her, was obsessed with her.

Nick begins to doubt that Catherine is the killer and starts to pursue a new theory of the crime. This new theory is nurtured and investigated during the Epiphany. (Sure, this theory turns out to be a diabolically clever red herring masterfully planted by Catherine, but that’s part of what made Basic Instinct a terrific movie!)

So, as you can see, the shape of this key scene is a bit different when implemented in a murder mystery, but the essential idea is the same: gather together whatever you need to begin the race to the finish.

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’d like to recommend an excellent resource. If you’ve never read this book please do, even if you get it from the library: Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass. Donald Maass is the head of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. As such, he has read thousands of manuscripts and has written extensively on the subject of how to write stories that sell. I’ve had the pleasure of attending a couple of writing conferences where Mr. Maass was a speaker and made it to two of his workshops. Amazing! If you ever get the chance to attend one of DM’s talks or workshops, do yourself a favor and go! (BTW, I wrote an article about the advice contained in one of Donald Maass’ workshops: How to make your readers care about your characters on the first page.)

That’s it! Sorry for the long post but this one required extra research. I’ve discovered a lot of uniformity over the various genres when it comes to Key Scenes, but the Epiphany is one that has unique features when it comes to the murder mystery.

Word count so far: 14,220
Word count for today: 2,940 (This is the number of words in my draft and so might change by the time I publish the article.)
Total words this month: 17,160


2. For an excellent analysis of Silence of the Lambs read the latter part of The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne. He goes into the internal dynamics of character creation in explicit and loving detail.

3. Other subplots can be resolved here as well. Basically, this is a time of merging, where all the storylines come together in preparation for the race to the finish. Note, though, that one or more subplots could have been resolved earlier. This is just the place where, if a subplot exists, it’s time to tie it off and get ready to focus on defeating the Big Bad.