Showing posts with label craft of writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label craft of writing. Show all posts

Wednesday, December 14

How to Begin Writing Your First Screenplay

How to Begin Writing Your First Screenplay

I’ve never written a screenplay so I’ve decided—even though I don’t plan on branching out into screenwriting—to rewrite one of my stories as one. Just for practice because I think that stretching myself, my abilities, is a good thing!

Writing a Screenplay: First Things

1. The Logline or One-Line

I’ve written an article about this (See: Creating A Logline). Basically, a logline is a sentence that spells out in dramatic fashion the central conflict of a story.

The central conflict is composed of three things:

1) The protagonist’s goal.
2) The person or force that opposes the protagonist’s goal.
3) The stakes of the conflict.

Here is a formula:

[Protagonist name] is a [description of protagonist] living in [setting]. But when [complicating incident], [protagonist’s name] must [protagonist’s quest] and [verb] [villain] in order to [protagonist’s goal].

An example logline for Die Hard:

Headstrong NYPD detective John McClane wants to save his estranged wife and her colleagues from certain death at the hands of Hans Gruber, a mercenary willing to sacrifice anything to get his hands on $640 million in bearer bonds.

Joe Bunting over at The Write Practice wrote an article about how to write a screenplay. He gives the following tip on how to craft your logline:

“It’s also helpful to put a summarizing adjective in front of your characters to give a sense of their personalities.”[1]

Here’s his example: “A headlong orphan and his Vulcan nemesis must save the Federation (and themselves) from revenge-seeking Romulan from the future.”[1]

2. Write a Screenplay: Beat Sheet

After the logline it’s time to hammer out the beats in the beat sheet.

First, a few terms:

Thesis world: The Ordinary World of Act One.
Antithesis world: The world of Act Two, a world that is the opposite of the thesis world.
Synthesis world: The world of Act Three. A Synthesis of the Thesis and Antithesis.


Thesis world -> protagonist trusts his peer group.
Antithesis world -> protagonist doesn’t trust his peer group.
Synthesis world -> protagonist trusts himself.

Example of a beat sheet: The Winter Soldier.

Description of what should be in a beat sheet:

1. Opening Image. Give a brief description of who the protagonist is before his world changes.

2. Inciting Incident/Catalyst. Protagonist is thrown out of her familiar world—the Ordinary World—and she begins her quest.

3. Start of Act Two. Protagonist is first challenged by new things. There must be drama. It must be clear whether the protagonist succeeded or failed.

4. Midpoint. If things are good for the protagonist early on this is where they go bad. If things are horrible for the protagonist early on then this is where they begin to go his/her way.

5. Bad guys close in. Often there is a ticking clock involved.

6. All is lost/Dark moment. Lowest part of your characters’s story.
The dark moment or dark turn does against what hero believed in the thesis world. Act Three is the synthesis world.
Finally reaching the tower where the princess is being kept, the hero finds… she’s not there! And not only that, it’s a trap! It looks like the Bad Guy has won.

7. Break into Act Three. Protagonist has an epiphany. Thesis + Antithesis = Synthesis.

8. Epiphany. Things turn around. “Step 4: The hero now has to come up with a new plan. And it’s all part and parcel of the overall transformation of the hero and his need to “dig deep down” to find that last ounce of strength (i.e., faith in an unseen power) to win the day.”

9. Race to the finish. A plan is formulated.
“Thinking on the fly, and discovering his best self, the hero executes the new plan.”

10. The Climax. The protagonist and antagonst square off. This is the final confrontation between them. It must be clear that the outcome of this context will be final. No do-overs.

11. Wrap Up: Cash out the stakes. Tie up any loose threads.


A synopsis doesn’t include subplots or minor characters. It is only about the main character and his/her plotline.

Capitalize the names of characters the first time they appear. Also, the synopsis should we written in the third person, present tense.

Rather than create an example of my own, I’ve found an article that includes a wonderful example so head on over to Publishing Crawl and read How To Write a 1-Page Synopsis.

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 a book I’ve read through many times, I’m talking about 1,000 Awesome Writing Prompts by Ryan Andrew Kinder. I’ve used many of his prompts as writing exercises to begin my writing day.

I haven’t talked about how to write a screenplay per se, this post is already long enough. I’ll save that for next time.

That’s it for today! I’ll talk to you on Friday. Till then, good writing!


1. How to Write a Screenplay: The 5 Step Process.

Monday, December 12

Be a Book Doctor: How to Evaluate Your Own Story

Be a Book Doctor: How to Evaluate Your Own Story

Book doctors are wonderful. A book doctor is someone who isn’t your husband/wife/parent/friend, someone who can be objective toward your manuscript, someone who can dispassionately evaluate the content and structure of your story. And this can be an enormous help, especially at the beginning of your manuscript when you’re working on your story’s overall structure and shape.

But you don’t have to send your story off to someone else. You can be your own book doctor. How? The first step is to put your manuscript in a drawer and try to forget about it for a week or two. When you take the manuscript out of the drawer you’ll be able to see it more objectively.

There are a few stories I wrote so long ago that I no longer remember them. Reading them again was like reading the work of a stranger. It was painful but rewarding! At the time I wrote it I felt that something was off but I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly needed to be fixed. When I reread the story after a period of years I realized that the story had no midpoint, no crisis, no moment of revelation. The good news: as soon as I saw the structural defect it was surprisingly easy to fix.

So, if you don’t want to send your work off to a book doctor then put it in a drawer for a couple of weeks. Reread the manuscript through from top to bottom and ask yourself the following questions:[1]


  • Does each scene have a goal and stakes? Does the main character want something in every scene, even if it is only a glass of water?
  • Do you include sequels after the scenes? Or even mini-sequels between scenes (this works especially well if you have one scene per chapter).


  • Does each act have a main overriding goal and are the stakes spelled out?

Overall Structure:

  • Is there a major turn/twist of the plot at the 25, 50 and 75 percent marks?
  • Is there a clear Call to Adventure?
  • Around the middle of the book—the midpoint crisis—the protagonist needs to understand the story world in a different light. Sometimes this information is about one of the characters—the love interest, the protagonist, the mentor, the protagonist’s helper—or about the Special World of the Adventure.
  • Is the Special World of the Adventure strikingly different from the Ordinary World of  the protagonist’s ordinary life?
  • Is the protagonist locked into the quest by the 25 percent mark.
  • Does the protagonist have an All Is Lost moment at around the 75 percent mark?
  • Is there a race to the finish after the All Is Lost point and before the climax?
  • Is it clear that the climax is a final test, one that at most one character can win?
  • Are the stakes cashed out and all loose ends tied up before the story ends?


  • What state of affairs would make the protagonist happy?
  • What danger/obstacle prevents the protagonist from achieving this happy state of affairs?
  • Does the protagonist have a moral compass? Does the climax hinge on a moral issue? That is, does it hinge on a point of selflessness vs unselfishness? (Selfishness: Abandonment of conviction for the sake of personal advantage. Unselfishness: Adherence to principle despite the temptation of self-interest.)
  • This is just something to think about, it’s not a hard and fast rule: Is the protagonist good but not the brightest penny in the jar or are they brilliant but morally flexible? It doesn’t always happen that the protagonist is one or the other, but there does seem to be a bit of a tradeoff between these two characteristics.

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. :-)

A few months ago I read The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris. He is a master of telling folks how to make the most of their time. He helped me! In time for the holidays he's come out with another book: Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers. I haven't read it yet, but it's at the top of my to-be-read list.


1. Many of these questions I’ve taken from Janice Hardy’s wonderful article: How to Be Your Own Book Doctor.

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!

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 [].

Sunday, December 18

Brushing off the dust: Kinds of writers

I've been -- and still am -- caring for my dad, but I couldn't stay away from my blog any longer. I miss you folks!

It might be old news, but Zoe Winters has a fantastic blog post about her writing process. I love reading these kinds of posts and found this one particularly inspiring. She said she writes for 5 or 6 hours a day but when she edits she only works for 3 or 4 hours. I'm glad someone else finds editing harder than writing!

Here's the link to Zoe's article: The 10,000 Word Day.


Sunday, October 23

The Surrey International Writers' Conference

The conference has ended and I've just settled down in front of a computer. I have one word for you: Wow! To call the conference awesome would be to slight it. It was amazing and stupendous!

This year friends and I reserved rooms at the Sheraton hotel so we could stay for late night events such as Michael Slade's Shock Theatre (the photo, above, is of Michael Slade, but it wasn't taken at the conference. I have a GREAT video for you from the conference, stay tuned ;). Saturday night we went to our rooms early, opened a bottle of wine, and talked about writing.

I want to tell you all about the great workshops I took, all the wonderful things I've leaned, but I need to unpack, do laundry, and catch up on my email. My deepest apologizes to the folks who emailed me and I haven't gotten back to you yet. I want to and I will sometime in the next couple of days.

The conference was great, but it's good to be back. :)

Friday, August 19

Jim Butcher: How to build a Villain

Jim Butcher: How to build a Villain

I love Jim Butcher's series, The Dresden Files. I marvel at his well-rounded characters, his engaging fight scenes, the way he chains together scenes and sequels to create reader engagement, and the way he seamlessly weaves in backstory. Oh, and his fight scenes are epic. And that's just off the top of my head! Now that's my kind of writer.

Given that lead-in, you can understand why I get excited when I find an article Jim Butcher has written about the craft of writing. Today was a very good day. I found, "How to build a Villain," on a the site: Magical Words: Writing tips and publishing advice for aspiring novelists.

So, how do you build a villain? Jim Butcher writes:
One of the most critical skills an aspiring writer needs is the ability to build a solid villain. Even the greatest protagonist in the world cannot truly shine without an equally well-rendered opposition. The converse of that statement isn’t true, though—if your protagonist is a little shaky but your villain absolutely shines, you can still tell a very successful story.

How to Build a Powerful Villain:

1. Motivation 

"Your villain has to be motivated even more strongly than your protagonist, to move in a direction that is opposite to your protagonist’s goal. The drama and tension of the entire story is based upon those two opposing forces. Buffy versus vampires. Sith versus Jedi. Spy versus spy."

2. Power

"Your villain has to have enough power, of whatever nature, at his disposal to make him a credible threat to your hero. Personally, I believe that the more the villain outclasses the hero, the better. David wouldn’t have gotten nearly the press he did if Goliath had been 5’9” and asthmatic."

3. Admirable Qualities

"Every serious 'big bad villain' you write ought to have facets of his personality that are desirable, even admirable. Perhaps your villain is exquisitely polite and courteous, extremely perceptive, remarkably intelligent, or possessed of a skewed sense of honor that makes him something more than a simple black-hat. In point of fact, a villain might be loaded down with admirable qualities, all of which should serve to only make him even more dangerous to your protagonist. Think of the Mayor of Sunnydale in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Except for the part where he was trying to turn himself into a giant demon and devour the graduating class, he was a great guy!"

4. Individuality

"A good villain needs to be instantly recognizable to your reader, so that even if he hasn’t appeared in a hundred pages, your reader will recognize that character instantly. You can achieve this pretty effectively using Tags and Traits, identifiers for a character which reserve particular props, personality traits, and words to associate with any given character. You can find an article that goes into them in greater depth on my livejournal at"

Above, Jim Butcher mentioned an article he posted on his Livejournal site. He has actually posted quite a few excellent articles to that blog.

Jim Butcher goes on to say:
"I have a standard operating procedure for creating characters. I keep a dossier on each of them. When the character is created, I open a new file and fill in name, goal, description, tags, and traits. I write down a brief summary of what their capabilities are, and more fully describe their goals and motivations. If it’s a recurring character, I keep a running log of their development: how have the events of the story world affected them? How have they changed as a result? What are they likely to want in the future?

"If you’re going to take anything away from this post, it’s this: Villains are even MORE important to build well than are heroes.

"Spend every bit as much time and effort crafting your villain as you do the hero, and make sure that you motivate your villains every bit as thoroughly as you do your protagonist, or your story risks a lack of depth and contrast. In other words, it’ll be the one thing a fiction writer cannot afford to be: boring."
That is the end of the article but in the comment section Jim Butcher continues to give helpful advice to writers.

Question: “I’m intrigued by this idea of Tags and Traits. I’m guessing these are like the natural evolution of Homeric Epithets?”
Jim's Answer: I haven’t heard them described in those terms, but yeah, that fits, though the goal is to use it with a little more subtlety. Tags are words you use to physically describe any given character. Traits are aspects of their personality.

For example, the tags for Karrin Murphy in the Dresden Files are words like “tiny,” “cute,” and “blond.” Her traits are words like, “tough,” “smart,” and “fierce.”

The goal is to create a kind of mental signature for any given character, so that the reader need not consciously labor to identify who is speaking, and so that a very clear impression of the character is created when that character is introduced.

It all feeds into the idea that the goal, as a writer, is to create a kind of virtual reality in the head of the reader. That works best when the actual mechanics of words and sentences are as transparent as you can possibly make them. Part of making them transparent is to identify a few words or phrases so strongly with a given character that the reader doesn’t really notice the words themselves–they only see the character to which you’ve connected those words and phrases.
Question: “I wonder how important it is to reveal outright the villain’s weakness? Or is that revealed by the demise of the villain in the story process?”
Jim's Answer: Who says the villain has to /have/ a weakness? Though if you are going to go for a villain with a 2-meter exhaust port vulnerable to photon torpedoes, you can certainly do that. I did it with the Loup-garou in Fool Moon, after all. But most of the villains in the Dresden Files don’t have a silver-bullet weakness. It makes their takedown (if they’re going to be taken down) a little too simple and predictable.

“But there are plenty of great villains that don’t have anything admirable about them. They’re just freaking monsters. Like The Joker, or Darth Sidious. I do prefer admirable villains, but i’d be lying if i didn’t enjoy the occasional complete monster. Are they just the exception that proves the rule or what?”

The Joker is crazy brilliant, literally, and he has style. It’s a bombastic and cartoony style, much of the time, but it’s still style. And Darth Sidious just wasn’t all /that/ great a villain, at least in my opinion–but even so, he was intelligent, eloquent, and a capable administrator. I mean, he conquered a whole galaxy. You don’t do that without at least a little talent. :)

“when I write a villain character, I seem to get so into “it” that I sometimes find it hard to not keep wanting to take it further and further (great for future books), but once I get to the point where “hey, it’s time to end this book”, how do you cut yourself off an say enough!”

Just remember that the end of your story is the answer to a question: will your hero succeed in his goals when the villain gets in his way? If your hero has achieved his goals, you’re done, that’s it, wrap it up and start on the next story.

“Is it dangerous to spend too much time with the villain/antagonist up front like this? I have a strong and familiar archetype for the protagonist and I keep saying “ah, he’ll be no problem when I get to his part”, so I keep putting off the details of his development. Conversely, the antagonist, being an immortal, figures heavily into the state of the world and the trials that will be put before the hero. Am I falling into a noob-trap here?”

Possibly, but it’s not one that can’t work out well for you. I mean, look at how well that one went for JK Rowling. When you think about it, Voldemort shaped absolutely EVERYTHING that happened in the Harry Potter books, right down to the scar on the hero’s head and his mysterious ability to speak with snakes. Why did it work? Because Voldemort, with his own actions, forged Harry into the means of his own demise. Harry, meanwhile, is sort of unremarkable as a hero, in a personal sense. He’s brave, but no braver than many other folk in the HP universe. He’s smart, but not the smartest around. He’s not even the best at magic. Voldemort made everything about him that was truly remarkable.

That said, I think it’s /far/ smarter to build your hero with every bit as much attention as your villain. Batman versus the Joker works so well precisely because they were designed with one another in mind, as champions of order and chaos, respectively. More importantly, it gives you double the audience appeal potential. I’ve read books where I just couldn’t stand the heroes, but loved the villains, and so continued. But the books that stay with me the longest are the ones who are solid all the way across the board, who fully engage me with their entire cast.
Question: “What is your approach, or rather your thoughts so I don’t make you feel all spoilery, on hinting at the big bad’s fingerprints in the early parts of your story arc without jumping the gun and revealing too much about them and their agenda?”
That’s mostly a matter of taste, but do yourself a favor and assume that the readers are smart. They are. Drop hints without being too overly dramatic about it, if you’re going to keep the identity of your villain hidden for a while, and make sure that you’ve got a villain to defeat in effigy before the end of the story. Think of, oh, Darth Maul and Palpatine. Palpatine may have been briefly stymied by the Jedi, but Maul got chopped up and thrown down a killin’ hole. His death was symbolic of Palpatine’s demise–literally, since Palpatine got thrown down a killin’ hole too.

“Having read all of the Dresden based novels, I am quite aware that your protagonist is deeply flawed and often those who act as antagonists display character traits that are admirable. Given this near equality, how does one avoid having everyone be candidates for “villian” status?”

Storytelling craft is not about making moral judgments of the relative values, ethically or otherwise, of your character’s actions. The readers will do that for themselves. For craft purposes, the protagonist is the one who is going after his goal. Your antagonist is getting in the way of that goal. “Hero” and “villain” are both separate terms which can overlap with protagonist and antagonist, but they aren’t absolutely bound together. Think of The Fugitive again. Sam Gerard is a perfect example of an antagonist who is, in fact, personally heroic. Artemis Fowl and Megamind are good examples of a protagonist who is personally a villain.

But don’t try to make the call for your readers. Just tell the story. They’ll do the rest on their own.
That's it! If you like my content please consider supporting me on my Patreon account. If you support the blog for just one dollar a month I'll send you my book, "The Structure of a Great Story."

By the way, I've added a tier to my Patreon where I'll critique about 2,000 words per month. Send me anything! A short story, a section of your work-in-progress, a script, a recipe! It doesn't matter. I've limited this tier to 15 people.

Thanks for reading and I'll talk to you again soon! :-)