Monday, September 30

How To Write a Good Blog Post

How To Write a Good Blog Post

I'm trying something new. I've released a YouTube video today. What follows is more or less the script for it.

My Story

My Dad was a wonderful storyteller, and I was in awe of him. I wanted to tell stories the way he did but I couldn’t tell an entertaining story to save my life so, to get better, I read a lot about writing.

I’ve improved. I’m not sure I’ve ever told a story as well as my father, but I’ve gotten better over the years.

When I was in school, one of my teachers told me that to truly learn something I had to teach it. About a decade ago, I began a blog about writing. And, as you would expect, over the years I’ve learned a few things about writing. I’ve certainly written a lot!

I started a video blog because the things I’ve learnt have made my life better, and I would like to share them in another medium.

So, for better or worse, here is one of my more popular blog posts, one I wrote a few years ago about how to write a blog post! Actually, though, this advice applies to any writing that isn’t fiction.

As you read this, please keep in mind that what works for me may not work for you, so take what seems right to you and discard the rest.

Here it is.

The Essential Structure of a Blog Post:

1. Tell the reader what you are going to say.
2. Say it.
3. Tell the reader what you said.

That’s it!

It sounds too simple, doesn’t it? But it helps create prose that readers find easy to read and understand.

Before we get into that, let’s talk about the title:

The Title

Titles are important, especially for a blog post. The title is the first thing your reader sees. If the title doesn’t grab them, they won’t continue reading.

Make sure the title accurately represents your article. After a reader finishes your article, you don’t want them to feel deceived. Chances are they came across your article because they were looking for a particular kind of information. If, at the end, they don’t have the information they wanted they will feel deceived. Tricked. In that case they will not leave a comment and they will not share your article with their friends.

Perhaps this is just me, but I find that if I can’t create a clear, succinct title then I haven’t thought through what the essential idea of the blog post is. There should one one idea that sums up what I’ve written.

(BTW, don’t worry if you don’t have a title before you start writing. Sometimes what the article is about will come to you as you write your rough draft. But be careful. For myself, if I can’t come up with a title, then that tells me my ideas are jumbled. And that’s bad.)

So let’s break this down:

1. Tell the reader what you are going to say.

1a. Include a hook in your first paragraph.

When I write things like this, I hurry to look at my first paragraph to see if there is a hook. Perhaps this is a case of do what I say and not as I do!

Hooks are good. In both fiction and nonfiction.

BTW, if you’re not familiar with the concept of a hook, it is basically the idea that you need an idea, a thought, that will capture a reader's interest quickly. The example I usually give is of any James Bond movie ever made.

Or, here is the opening line of Stephen King’s novel, IT:

“The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end—began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.”

Who wouldn’t be curious after reading a line like that? When I read that sentence I wanted to know more about the terror and why it might not end. (BTW, IT is one of my favorite stories.)

2. Say what you have to say.

As a practical matter, I find this the easiest part.

You know what you want to say. Say it.

I find it often helps to break my ideas up into the simplest possible points.

In my original blog article I give the example of writing about why a writer would want to podcast.

For example:

a. You can introduce your work to more people
b. You can introduce your work to people with different kinds of interests, to a different audience.
c. Variety is good. Doing one kind of thing to earn money is fine, but two is better. Why? Because it makes you more financially stable. Financial stability for a freelancer is a very good thing. It lowers anxiety levels.

These points are bare bones. In the article I would expand each one, but this wouldn’t be terribly difficult. I could give examples from my own experience, I could give examples from the experiences of other writers (obviously, cite them), I could talk about advice other podcasters have given. There are MANY options.

By the way, don’t be shy about using another writer’s work as long as you cite and link to it. It helps drive traffic to their blog post. A number of people have done this with my blog posts and I’m thrilled as as long as they cite me and provide a link.

3. Summarize what you’ve said.

When it comes to summarizing what I’ve said, sometimes it seems artificial. I’ve said what I was going to say and then I’ve said it. Why should I summarize what I’ve already said?

My advice is to use your own judgement. Keep in mind, you don’t have to summarize EVERYTHING you’ve just said. Perhaps close with what you think is your strongest point, especially if the post is short.

4. Be Honest.

This is actually the most important thing.

I think for everyone it might be different, but -- especially in the beginning -- I imagined I was sitting at a sunny corner table, having coffee with a writer (my audience) at my favorite coffee shop. Then I just, honestly, told her/him what my research or experience made me think about a particular topic.

And try to be brief. (I’m not sure I’ve ever succeeded in that.)

It’s great to have a blog post that is one or two thousand words long, but you don’t want a blog post one word longer than it absolutely has to be. And that’s a dark art, and we all fail at it, but it is a worthy goal.

That's it for today! Good writing and I'll talk to you again soon.

Saturday, September 28

Book Outlines: Helpful or Harmful?

Book Outlines: Helpful or Harmful?

To outline or not to outline. There are few questions more contentious in the writing world -- and writers (God bless us!) can be a rather contentious bunch.

Here is my tl;dr answer: Ultimately, I think whether you should use an outline depends on the writer, and everyone is different, so there is no one definite answer. That said, I think everyone should try outlining at least once. Otherwise, how could you know whether it works for you?

Stephen King: Reject the Tyranny of the Outline

As you likely know, Stephen King doesn't like outlining. He writes:

“I’d suggest that what works for me may work equally well for you. If you are enslaved to (or intimidated by) the tiresome tyranny of the outline and the notebook filled with “Character Notes,” it may liberate you. At the very least, it will turn your mind to something more interesting than Developing the Plot.” (On Writing, Stephen King)

I think I might talk about Stephen King too much but he is one of my favorite writers. And he’s straightforward, one of the traits I appreciate most in a person. I don’t always agree with King but what he has to say is well thought out and has worked for him over the course of decades, so it’s worth taking seriously.

Stephen King is exceptionally talented. His story, ‘It’ is one of my favorites -- after I read it I couldn’t use the washroom without fear for a couple of decades (especially at night). But, on the positive side, he gave me worlds to live in, he gave me characters I love and who have stayed with me. This may seem like an odd way of putting it, but it’s true: he gave me the gift of his thoughts.

I’m writing about Stephen King here because I think he is one of the best defenders, one of the best advocates, of pantsing.

Pantsing vs Plotting

Broadly speaking, there are two ways of constructing stories:

1. Plot a story 

Let’s talk about plot. In most stories the hero starts off in the Ordinary World, doing what he usually does every day. He wakes up, brushes his teeth, goes to school, wishes he was brave enough to ask Betty to the dance, gets bullied for his lunch money, etc.

This is where you show your readers your character’s soul, often by giving her a mini-adventure (think of any Bond film you’ve ever seen).

Then there’s a Call to Adventure (which is often rejected). The protagonist will be given a foreign dictator to subvert, or tasked with retrieving nuclear weapons from a sexy despot. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Often, the hero meets a mentor who gives him a gift that will aid him on his Journey into the Special World of the Adventure (Obi Wan Kenobi gave Luke the lightsaber that had belonged to his father). And so on.

There’s nothing wrong with a strongly plotted story. For one thing, it can help you determine early on whether the story works.

I’d like to make another point before I go on to the next section. You can have an outline without having a strongly plotted story. It all depends on whether an outline describes what is already in your story or whether it describes what you want to have in your story but isn’t there yet. I’ll talk more about this, below.

2. Pants a story

This is the idea that if you develop strong characters that the plot will spring from their actions. You put strong characters in a particular situation and then you say: What would these characters do in this situation? And then you write your answer down. That’s your story.

I wish I could remember where I read this, but years ago I read an article by Thomas Harris where he described writing his book, Red Dragon. His story emerged from what he saw his characters doing, from what he heard them saying. Psychologically, they were living, independent, entities. I think Harris is on the extreme end, he is an extreme pantser, but that’s the idea.

You don’t actually have to see and hear your characters for this technique to work! (Though it would help.)

My Experience

There are innumerable ways of writing a story, and I don’t think one way is intrinsically any better than another, it all depends on the writer using it, what is best for him or her.

When I pants a story -- when I start writing with a few characters and only a couple of ideas rattling around in my head -- I’ll often first write what I like to call a vomit draft. (Sounds nice, doesn’t it! ;)

The vomit draft is just that, I vomit up thoughts, thought fragments -- whatever -- onto the page. I ignore spelling, grammar, research, facts and good taste. No one will ever see one of my vomit drafts but me, it would be like walking out of the house naked.

I use a writing journal and so I scrawl this all out longhand, and that gives me the opportunity to incorporate images out of old magazines if they … how do I describe it? Sometimes an image will pop out at me. For example, I’ll see a woman’s hairstyle and I’ll realize, Yes! That’s what the protagonist’s hair looks like, so I'll cut the image out and paste it into my writing journal. (Yes, my journals look like something out of the film 'Se7en')

When I begin writing a story I try to write the story straight through and to be as brief as possible. If I realize I have to change something at the beginning of the story (e.g., the protagonist’s hair needs to be brown rather than blond), I'll make a note of that, but I’ll keep going.

Okay, my point is that at the end of this messy process I’ll have a pretty good idea of the story, of its shape. From that I can easily put together an outline. So … am I a plotter or a pantser?

For me, an outline is just a snapshot of where the novel is at, not necessarily where the novel needs to go. One of the HUGE advantages of using an outline is that it’s easier to come back to the novel if I have to break off working on it for a bit.

Just Do It

If you haven’t already found a method that works for you, for instance if you’re just starting out and wondering whether you should outline, then outline. At least try it out. Even Stephen King has tried it -- which is one reason he can confidently say it’s not for him.

An outline doesn’t have to be complicated. Just tell the story as briefly as possible and then break it up into sections. Identify the Call to Adventure, the confrontation at the Midpoint, the Final Showdown. Even if you only have those three things it can be a help. Or not.

If you find outlining doesn’t work for you, if you find you don’t need it, then fine!

As always, have a good writing day and I’ll talk to you again soon. :-)

Friday, September 27

Could an Artificial Intelligence Write a Book?

Could an Artificial Intelligence Write a Book?

I want to do something a bit different in this post. I’ve gotten more into programming lately (Python) and I’ve wondered: Could an artificial intelligence (AI) write a good novel?

Back in the day -- say 20 years ago -- we talked about AI but now we’re also discussing AGI, Artificial General Intelligence. That’s what we humans have.

If we create an AGI, and if this AGI can do pretty much everything a human can, will writers be out of work? [5]

(By the way, if anyone disagrees with anything I say here, please set me right! I find the field fascinating, but I’m not a data scientist. You can contact me on Twitter (@woodwardkaren) or leave a comment, below.)

Here’s the question I’m going to try to answer: Right now, is there a text generation program that could write a story that readers couldn’t tell was computer generated? And, if so, what would this mean? Would it put me out of business or, possibly, would it make my job easier?

Deep Tweets

Let’s get specific. Could an AI read all the books by a particular author -- say Stephen King -- and write a book that a group of Stephen King’s fans could not distinguish from Stephen King’s work? And I don’t mean sometime in the future, I mean right now.

Well, something like this has happened. Lex Fridman trained the text generation program GPT-2, created by OpenAI, on the tweets of several well-known people and then asked it to complete this sentence, “The meaning of life is …”

I encourage you to read the article, DeepTweets, it’s fascinating. The program nailed it. Not only did it give an accurate answer but it answered more-or-less in the voice of the person in question. [4]

For example, Fridman trained a neural network on Richard Dawkins’ tweets and asked it to complete the prompt, “The meaning of life is …” Here’s what it came up with:

“The meaning of life is complex and Darwinian. Evolution is a FACT.”

That’s creepily good. I think that's very close to what Dawkins would actually say.

OpenAI and GPT-2

But a tweet is one thing, writing a short story -- a good short story -- is quite another.
To reiterate, we want to know if a text generation program, one available to the public right now, could produce text that not only doesn’t look computer generated but closely resembles the work of a specific author. Specifically, could such a program write a book in the voice of Stephen King that would be so authentic that a panel of die hard fans couldn’t tell the difference between the fake and a real story by King?

I’ve done a bit of research and from what I can tell (perhaps I’m wrong, and if I am please let me know) at the present time the answer is: No.

That said, I think we’ll get there one day.


GPT-2 is, I think, the most advanced model we have right now, at least that has been made available to the public.

GPT-2 was created by OpenAI. To give you an idea what OpenAI’s intentions are, here is their (very short!) mission statement:

“OpenAI’s mission is to ensure that artificial general intelligence (AGI)—by which we mean highly autonomous systems that outperform humans at most economically valuable work—benefits all of humanity. We will attempt to directly build safe and beneficial AGI, but will also consider our mission fulfilled if our work aids others to achieve this outcome.”

As I mentioned, the program that generated this text, GPT-2, was created by OpenAI, a nonprofit lab initially backed by Elon Musk and other tech entrepreneurs. BUT this isn’t the most powerful version of the program.

OpenAI felt it would be too disruptive to release the most powerful, trained, model because it could be used to, for example, post comments or reviews that could not be distinguished from those submitted by a human author. That could become a problem.

Although the fully trained model of GPT-2 has not been released, OpenAI did release one that was almost good enough to use to generate text that couldn’t be differentiated from human generated text.

Here’s a prompt that was given to the program, for it to finish:

“In a shocking finding, scientist discovered a herd of unicorns living in a remote, previously unexplored valley, in the Andes Mountains. Even more surprising to the researchers was the fact that the unicorns spoke perfect English.”

This is what the program wrote:
The scientist named the population, after their distinctive horn, Ovid’s Unicorn. These four-horned, silver-white unicorns were previously unknown to science.

Now, after almost two centuries, the mystery of what sparked this odd phenomenon is finally solved.

Dr. Jorge Pérez, an evolutionary biologist from the University of La Paz, and several companions, were exploring the Andes Mountains when they found a small valley, with no other animals or humans. Pérez noticed that the valley had what appeared to be a natural fountain, surrounded by two peaks of rock and silver snow.

Pérez and the others then ventured further into the valley. “By the time we reached the top of one peak, the water looked blue, with some crystals on top,” said Pérez. 

That’s not all! If you’d like to read the rest of the story GPT-2 produced, check out the article. My take on reading this is that it's not bad! But I don't think it's a thread to writers.

Could AI Help Writers?

At the moment, AI isn't going to put us out of work, but can it help us?

The other day I came across this article from Vox: How I’m using AI to write my next novel, by Sigal Samuel. [2] He writes:

"While some artists worry that AI will put them out of a job — just as it’s expected to do for, say, truck drivers and factory workers — I’ve been more inclined to see it as a collaborator than a competitor. I don’t think AI will be good enough to write a superb novel on its own, but I do think it can be very helpful in a novelist’s creative process."

Samuel has been using GPT-2 to help him get over writer’s block. I could see that working! I’m glad he’s found something to help him keep writing.

If you’d like to download the latest version of CPT-2, there’s the link.


It took me longer than I thought it would to finish this post and I ended up not using some of the research I did. BUT, I decided to leave these notes in because the articles are interesting and I thought you might want to check them out.

1. The rise of robot authors, published by TheGuardian. 

2. How I’m using AI to write my next novel, by By Sigal Samuel over at Vox.

3. GPT-2: 6-Month Follow-Up. Published August 20th, 2019 on

4. DeepTweets: Generating Fake Tweets with Neural Networks Trained on Individual Twitter Accounts, by Lex Fridman.

5. The way I’m thinking about it, an artificial general intelligence would be able to tell jokes, it would have ideas about whether a certain stock is going to go up or down, and it could write a fabulous blog post! Basically -- and sorry to use a reference that might be a little dated -- an artificial general intelligence would be a lot like Data from Star Trek: Next Generation.

6. Here's something interesting: Hugging Face.

Wednesday, September 25

Rules for Writing: Helpful or Harmful?

Hi! This is the first article in a series: Helpful or Harmful? Thanks to everyone on Twitter (all three people!) who helped me choose a name. Seriously, much appreciated.

Each post in this series will examine a different rule for writing. I’ll tell you if I think it’s a useful rule and why. I don’t think any rule is 100% helpful, there are almost always exceptions (at the end of this article I will write about a rule I think always applies).

I’ll also look at my favorite authors’ work to see if THEY follow the rule. If Stephen King, Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman don’t follow a particular rule, I suspect it is not a rule worth following.

Are There Rules For Writing?

As you may know, all my life I’ve been curious about what separates a riveting, can’t-put-it-down, stay-up-until-3am story from one you put down after reading two pages.

Now, if you’re thinking: “Writing is art! There are no rules.” You’re right! If one is writing purely for oneself (for instance, in a journal) then, seriously, do not worry about writing any particular way. Look into your heart, be honest, and you can’t go wrong.

Also, if you’re writing a first draft, do not worry about rules. Some writers have reached the point where certain ‘rules’ have become imbedded within them, it’s as though they have a muse who sits on their shoulder as they write, a muse which they ignore at their peril. But, in general, save the rules for the second or third draft.

Finally, if you are doing this as a hobby (you are happy never to make any money from your work) and feel that if others read your work, that’s fine, and if they don’t, that’s fine. If that’s the case, then great! I have known several writers like this and they are gainfully employed in other ways and very happy. I admire them.

BUT, if you want people who are grumpy and starved for time and have a lot of other things to do when they’re not working at a job they hate, if you want these kind of people to read your story from beginning to end, then it’s a good idea to craft your story to be easy to read. It’s a good idea to make your story exciting. 

Yes, I’m talking about popular fiction.

I’m talking about the kind of stories that, when told around a campfire, captivate your audience. You know what I’m talking about. Sometimes when you’re telling a story -- if it’s a good story -- they’re transfixed. They lean forward and look intently at you, they don’t interrupt -- and if someone does interrupt your audience tells them to please shush. You have them on the edge of their seats. THAT’s the kind of story I want to read. And write.

Bricklayers have rules that tell them how to do their job well. So do nurses. So do surgeons. So do writers. There ARE things that differentiate an entertaining story from a boring one.

That said, what rules can never do (and I know I’ve said this, above, but it’s worth repeating) is tell you how to write a great story because that comes from the heart. That’s magic. The rules are never for the first draft, they are never for that first burst of inspired messiness you scrawl across a blank page, bringing characters into being, creating new worlds. They are for the (oh so many) drafts that come later.

A Qualification

BUT, that said, I think I agree with Anne Rice that no one set of rules fits all writers. Each writer, each one of us, has a different style. No one set of rules is right for us all.

And, really, in that sense, there are no hard-and-fast rules.

Here’s an example of a rule that isn’t 100% correct. We are often advised to use simple, short sentences. And that’s good advice. But it doesn’t apply across the board. For example:

“I wonder which is preferable—to walk around all your life swollen up with your own secrets until you burst from the pressure of them, or to have them sucked out of you, every paragraph, every sentence, every word of them, so at the end you’re depleted of all that was once as precious to you as hoarded gold, as close to you as your skin—everything that was of the deepest importance to you, everything that made you cringe and wish to conceal, everything that belonged to you alone—and must spend the rest of your days like an empty sack flapping in the wind, an empty sack branded with a bright fluorescent label so that everyone will know what sort of secrets used to be inside you?” Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

That’s a great sentence! [1] When it comes to writing, if writing is magic, Margaret Atwood is a master wizard.

But, on the other hand, I think there are some rules -- at least one rule -- that applies for all writers all the time: don’t be critical of yourself, of your work, as you write your first draft. 

Your First Draft: Just Finish The Story

When you’re working on your first draft, just write. Maybe your work isn’t grammatical, maybe it isn’t even factual! (Please don’t misunderstand, research is essential, but it should wait until a later draft. Trust me, you’re going to cut a LOT of things from the first draft and it would not only halt the creative process to go and ask Google but it could be a waste of time.)

Your first draft might not even be coherent! Midway through your story your main character might go from having brown hair to having blond hair. His/her name might change. It doesn’t matter. Until you finish the first draft DO NOT GO BACK AND FIX ANYTHING! (And, yes, that needs to be shouted!)

Yes, of course, grammar needs to be correct, characters need to be consistent, and you’ll do that. But in the second (third, fourth, etc.) draft.

When you write the first draft of a story, don’t be critical, just write until the story is done. 

I’m writing this as a person who has fallen short of this particular target many times. But when I didn’t finish a story it made it that much easier not to finish the next story. It became easier to abandon a story midway because I was afraid it wasn’t going anywhere. Don’t do that to yourself. When you begin a story, finish it. Remember, it’s a first draft, it probably isn’t going to be a great story, not yet. Finish your story and then, on each successive draft, make it better. 

Or not. After you’ve written your first draft you may decide to inter it in a shoebox that lives under your bed. Your writer’s trunk. All writers have stories that they would never try to publish. That’s okay! You explored an idea, a theme, and it didn’t work out. That’s fine. Take what you’ve learned from your attempt and start writing your next story.

I hope that didn’t come across as preachy, I have no right or desire to preach to anyone. But I do want to encourage you to write, and to write stories a lot of other people will want to read. I want you to write stories that will inspire others, or perhaps just make them feel cosy on a lonely winters night.

All the best, good writing, and I’ll talk to you again in my next blog post.


1. I found this sentence by writing a small, short, simple Python program that gobbles up a book and finds the longest sentence. 

Monday, September 23

Heroes, Dragons and Treasure

Yesterday I published an article about how to write a sequel that readers won't be able to put down. One thing I forgot to include in that article was another way of seeing the hero’s goal. I'd like to address that here.

By the way, what I’m about to say isn’t unique, but I've recently started to think about the hero's goal in a slightly different way, one I've found enormously helpful. I'm going to talk about this new perspective in the hope that it might help your writing life. Here it is:

The hero's goal in any story -- regardless of whether it is a sequel -- is to slay a dragon, claim its treasure and use it to remake themselves and their community for the better.

I think I’ve been expressing this general idea for years, but I don’t think I ever put it quite this way before.

Let's break this apart.


Above, I used the example of a dragon but, of course, that is a metaphor. But dragons work for this; they’re terrifying! I loved the way Game of Thrones depicted them. Who wouldn’t tremble if he saw something like that slowly emerge from the darkness of a cave?

The essential thing is that, in the story, the reader sees the hero confront the thing that terrifies her the most. That’s the hero’s purpose in the story.


The idea of a hoard of treasure guarded by a dragon is easy to grasp and just plain fun! But there is a serious question here:

Why would the greatest treasure be found with the biggest, baddest, dragon?

On one level that’s obvious. Big bad dragons are the ones who have lived the longest (at least that’s the way I’d write the story!) and so have had the most time to collect a massive hoard of treasure/gold. They’re also the strongest and so could possibly take treasure from other dragons.

On another level, I’m not completely sure. Yes, I can see it in the sense that if you tackle the most difficult task possible then, if you finish it, you’ll be the most elated since the difficulty of the task is related to how happy you are if you succeed!

Also -- and this is true in real life -- if we don’t stretch ourselves we’ll stagnate. There is nothing compelling about a protagonist who doesn’t try to stretch themselves -- and this applies to both heroes and anti-heroes. That’s how characters grow. Even anti-heroes believe in something passionately and, eventually, they put everything on the line to defend it.

There’s also this: The treasure represents what we desire, what we love. So it would make sense that what we love the most would be paired with what we fear the most, with what we most dread. Like two sides of the same coin.

Return Home

If all that happened was that the hero overcame the thing they were most afraid of and gleaned the reward that came from that victory, it could be a good story, but it wouldn’t be a complete story. (And that’s okay, not all stories have endings. I’ve gone to at least one movie like that. I would guess you have too!)

I mean, sure, the hero has the treasure so life is great for her (at least for awhile) -- and since we like the hero we’re glad about that -- but to make the story complete the hero needs to take what she's learnt (the treasure she's won) and bring it back to their community, back to the people they are connected to: their family, their friends, their acquaintances. In this sense, the hero’s victory is the victory of everyone. Even your reader.

And, ultimately, that’s what great stories are about: community. Even though a story generally has only one protagonist, the protagonist is telling a story about the community. It is a story about how the growth of the individual, the success of the individual, betters everyone. [1]


What I’ve been talking about so far is the hero’s journey. What the hero’s journey is all about is MEANING. The hero’s goal gives her life purpose, at least within the pages of the book.

A Note On Story

There are many different kinds of story, and often elements of the hero’s journey are subverted in creative and unexpected ways. Of course that’s fine. Just as one should know grammar before one intentionally subverts it, it’s a good idea to know the elements of the classic hero’s journey before one subverts them.

That said, of course a person doesn’t need to know about the hero’s journey before they can tell a terrific story. Absolutely not. But I think it helps. Also, if you’re writing a story and something feels a bit off, knowing the elements of the hero’s journey can help.


1. That’s one of the many things I love about Dan Harmon’s TV show, Community.

Photo Credit: Syd Wachs, Macro photo of five assorted books, from

Sunday, September 22

10 Rules for Writing a Sequel

In the past I’ve shared articles I thought were particularly insightful about what makes a story a good story. This time I'm sharing a video from PSA Sitch.[1]

IMHO, Sitch is excellent at analysis and I love the quirky style of his video creations. I don’t agree with everything Sitch says, but he makes several insightful points about the nature of an entertaining story -- or at least one specific type of story. I highly recommend his video.

I hope PSA Sitch doesn’t mind my doing this, but in what follows I list some of the insights he shared in this video, ones that made me excited about this wonderful, magical, thing we call storytelling.[2]

I’ll provide a more detailed discussion, below, but here’s an overview:

(BTW, everything I write in this article is specifically about sequels.)
At the end of your first story, your hero has gone through his arc, he has achieved his goal (your particular story’s version of the holy grail) and returned to his community and used what he discovered, his prize, to make it better.  
In your next story your former hero needs to be knocked down a few notches, he needs to be ordinary-ish again. The new, younger, hero finds him, rescues him, and in so doing the former hero is symbolically reborn. The former hero and the new hero head off on an adventure together. As they adventure, the former hero teaches the younger hero and this creates a bond between them, one that makes them both better. Stronger. At the end of their adventure they achieve their goal (their partnership was essential for this) and reinvigorate their community.
So, let's get started!

10 Things That Make an Sequel Worth Reading

1. Fall from grace. 

In a sequel, if the series character, the former hero, doesn't have a fall from grace there can be no character arc. If there is no character arc, if the hero of the first story never changes, the protagonist -- and therefore the story -- will be boring.

At the beginning of the sequel, the former hero has lost his way. We need to knock the former hero off his pedestal, we need to humble them. We need to bring him down to the level of the ordinary person. In the first book, at the end, the old hero was larger than life. Back then, he found the holy grail and saved his community. Now he is just like you or I: ordinary.

2. Make the fall from grace realistic. 

As we know from real life, the older one gets, the more life experience one has, the greater the chance that bad things will happen to us. We lose people we love, the world changes in ways that seem to exclude us, and we have aches and pains in assorted places.

Sitch warns against making this fall from grace too big. But if you want a big event to topple the former hero, make him react to it in a way that is consistent with core aspects of his character.

For instance, if hypocrisy really bothered the former hero before his fall then it should still bother him.

Perhaps his one true love died and he now sees the world as a hostile place.

But the thing that brings the former hero down doesn’t have to be a big tragedy. The world -- the real world -- is chaotic. Bad things happen to good people. Sometimes the things that batter us are big and horrible and sometimes they are multiple and small. And the more the character hurts, the more they become afraid of the future and fear the unknown. [3]

In the beginning of the sequel, the former hero has become disillusioned. He doesn’t want to take risks because he knows what the cost might be.

3. The former hero, even in his fallen state, needs to be recognizable. 

Have remnants of the former character, the qualities that made readers admire him, peek through even though the former hero is a pale version of his former self. Sure, we need to scuff him up a bit but we still need the audience to reconnect with the character, so we need him to be recognizable.

The call to adventure.

In the sequel, the former hero (the protagonist of the series) will initially reject the Call to Adventure.

The former hero has become discouraged, perhaps even cynical. The new hero is the one who needs to come in and reignite the old hero’s zest for life and, with that, his willingness to face his fear and fight for what he loves.

4. Redeem the former hero. 

When the former hero finally accepts the Call to Adventure he is, in a sense, reborn. Back in the day, he used to hit the mark (literally and figuratively) but then he began missing AND he stopped caring.

Hope is reignited. Eventually, the new hero is able to create a spark of hope or ambition or caring in the former hero. (I write more about this, below.)

Thinking about this in a mythic sense, the new hero is the son and the former hero is the father. The new hero (the son) comes along and revivifies the former hero (the father). Again -- and Sitch stresses this -- this redemption, how it is accomplished, should be related to both the main arc of the story and the reasons for the former hero's (the father’s) rescue/redemption.

The new hero -- the child -- breaks down the old structures of society represented by the father (the former hero) and literally 're-forms' them bringing together what came before with what exists now. Essentially, he creates (re-creates) the world.

5. Have your former hero become a mentor to the new hero.

Have your more experienced and slightly tarnished former hero become a mentor to the new hero. At first this mentoring might be reluctant. The new hero might be very similar to the former hero, to how the former hero was like when he was younger.

6. Give your former hero a consistent philosophy/worldview. 

This is perhaps the most important thing to get right. The former hero must have had a purpose. Yes, sure, he has lost sight of this purpose over the years. He has become cynical and no longer believes in anything

Let's talk about what it means to have a purpose. To have a purpose, a character needs to believe something. They need to have a (even a very simple) worldview.

Sitch gives the example of Spiderman: With great power comes great responsibility. That is his guiding light.

This is an aside: This principle doesn't just apply to heroes/protagonists, it applies to any character that has significant pagetime in your novel. Even antagonists. (Perhaps especially antagonists!)

Take Thanos, the villian from Marvel (this is Sitch’s example). Thanos believed that half the population of the universe had to die to prevent starvation and war. While we understood his goal and even sympathized with it -- who doesn't want to end starvation and war?! -- but the means he was using to attain this goal was evil. But his philosophy/worldview was consistent and understandable and it was a bit part of what made him a great character.

A worldview doesn’t have to be something abstract. 

Having a well developed worldview is great, but it's not for every character. You could just give your character something to care about. For instance, having a child immediately gives life purpose because when you’re a parent you have this small person to take care of. Their survival and well-being becomes your purpose.

7. The new hero’s actions should be what saves/redeems/resurrects the former hero.

The former hero teaches the new hero what he knows. He teaches him his philosophy of life as well as whatever skills his has.

This transfer of knowledge serves two purposes. It bonds the characters, makes them a unit. They become mentor and apprentice.

8. The former hero needs their worldview reaffirmed.

I thought that Sitch made an especially interesting observation here. When one person teaches something to another person, and if whatever you teach them helps them to succeed, then it validates your philosophy. When that happens it feels good! The fact that they were able to pass along something valuable gives that character a sense of worth. This is part of the former hero's redemption. This gives them the courage to face their fear of the unknown and risk everything one more time.

(This could be part of an upswing just before the heroes execute their final plan and race to the finish.)

9. Flaws are important.

Don’t be afraid to make your hero a bit flawed. Perhaps the old hero isn’t happy to see their apprentice succeed. Perhaps we see a bit of jealousy lurking in the depths of the former hero’s heart.

This could be one reason why the former hero wasn’t thrilled to mentor the new hero in the first place.

10. Make your new hero incompetent.

At the beginning of your story, when you first introduce the new hero, make him incompetent.

Also, don’t give the new hero a coherent worldview, make them confused. They don't know what they want to do with their lives, they feel like they don't fit in anywhere.

Why? One reason is that it gives the former hero something to teach, something for them to bond over.

Also, your new hero needs an arc. This means he needs to struggle in the beginning. The way that is done is to put your new hero in situations with characters you've created, characters you've designed to make sure your new hero is NOT going to have an easy time.

What makes a great story? Conflict. Why? Because it forces your characters to struggle. If your characters don’t have to work to overcome obstacles, then when they finally achieve their goal it won't mean anything.

Okay, that's it! Do you have a tip for writing a riveting sequel? Please leave a comment! I’d love to hear from you!


1. Spider-Man DESTROYS Star Wars on Wokeness. As you can tell from the title, Sitch includes a couple of political themes in his critique, but the bits about how to tell a great sequel stand on their own.

2. I would just like to say that all the good bits in this article were taken from Sitch’s video. However, inevitably, I’ve filtered Sitch’s bits of wisdom through my own fallible and idiosyncratic understanding of story. So, if the point I made seemed good to you, the credit goes to Sitch. If, on the other hand, it seemed a bit off, blame me.

3. I'll have more to say about this later, but the solution to this is for the former hero to face his/her fears, to confront them head on. Perhaps he/she will succeed in this at first, but probably he/she will fail a few times before he/she succeeds.

4. A Call to Adventure might occur off the page (or the screen). For example, a very short story might begin after the Call to Adventure.


"Writing with a fountain pen." Photograph by Aaron Burden over at Unsplash.

Sunday, September 8

Adverbs: They Can Be Your Friend

adverbs can be your friend

In elementary school, I was given a thesaurus and told, “Go nuts!” Let's just say that my 4th grade teacher never met an adverb he didn’t like. 

To make a long story short, my 4th grade teacher was all kinds of wrong. 

Use Adverbs Sparingly

Though grammar has never been my strong suit, it helps me understand the truth behind the admonition against purple prose. (Stay with me, I will explain this.)

Adverbs and adjectives help communicate a state of affairs by modifying other words. For example, in the sentence, The lazy cat slept on the mat, the word lazy modifies the noun, cat, because it tells us what kind of a cat we’ve got on our hands.

That sentence (The cat slept on the mat) is okay. But there are other, more active, ways we could communicate the thought that your favorite feline is a slacker. For example: The dog chased his ball, the bunny nibbled her carrot but the cat slept. 

Now (of course!) I'm NOT holding that sentence up as an example of terrific writing, but I think it’s stronger. Why? Because it communicates the cat’s character by introducing other characters and comparing the cat’s behavior with theirs and then leaving it up to readers -- to you -- to draw their own conclusions about what sort of character the cat has: lazy. (Or perhaps the cat is just more chill. I think good writing encourages readers to draw their own conclusions.)

Bad Writing Advice

In a minute, I’m going to say something controversial. I’m going to say that one piece of writing advice you’ve been given all your life, advice that seems very good -- advice that, actually, IS very good -- is advice that the best, most popular writers do not themselves follow.

Stephen King is, hands down, my favorite writer of all time and I think that anyone who is serious about improving their writing -- and we all should be interested in that since we all write, even if the only thing we do is tweet -- needs to read On Writing. 

One of Stephen King’s best pieces of writing advice is this:

“The adverb is not your friend.

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

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

“Someone out there is now accusing me of being tiresome and anal-retentive. I deny it. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day … fifty the day after that … and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s—GASP!!—too late. (Stephen King, On Writing)”

And King is right. That’s fabulous advice. He then goes on to say: 

“I can be a good sport about adverbs, though. Yes I can. With one exception: dialogue attribution.”

So, for example, 

“Put it down!” she shouted

Is okay, but 

“Put it down!” she shouted menacingly 

is definitely not okay.

And I agree. I have no evidence that Stephen King has ever committed that particular sin (putting an -ly adverb after a verb in dialogue attribution). However, when I searched the 726 books in my dataset (I’ve been a busy little programmer lately) I found that Stephen King was one of the writers who most frequently used the form, “bla bla bla,” she said -ly.

Why do I bring this up? Because I think King is both right and wrong. 

Yes. Using adverbs in attributions is something one should avoid. In the best of all possible worlds the reader will already know how the speaker is saying whatever it is they’re saying (angrily, sarcastically, etc.).

No. We’re human. This is not the best of all possible words. I grew up reading writers who used adverbs in dialogue attribution, Stephen King among them. And, IMHO, it works. I’m not saying that it’s something a writer should do -- I try and avoid it -- but sometimes it’s okay. 

When I read one of Stephen King’s stories there’s a point, a threshold, after which I’m not reading words, I’m inside the story. I’m not reading about characters, I’m looking at them. If using adverbs in dialogue attribution gets your readers there, then so be it.

What is the point of writing? What is the goal? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this over the years and, for me, it’s this: To snare my reader. I want to transport them to a world, a universe, created in my imagination and amaze them, I want to make them feel as though the time they spent reading my story was time well wasted.

That’s it!

I’m back posting. It’s been a couple of years and a lot has changed in my life. One thing that hasn’t changed is my love of writing and reading. I’m looking forward to the future.

photo credit: Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash