5 Ways to Earn Your Audience’s Loyalty

earn your audience's loyaltyPart 22 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel

There’s little in this cosmos that writers want more than our readers’ love and respect. We want them to buy our stories, love our stories, tell their friends about our stories, buy more stories, support us in style for the rest of our lives, and acclaim our words far after.

But when it comes to figuring out how to earn your audience’s loyalty, you’ve likely noticed you’re on the receiving end of much confusing and conflicting advice. Some say you have to write to your audience, with a precision-point awareness of what it is they want. Others say you just have to write a good story, and your audience will follow anywhere you lead. Some say it’s about pacing and full-fledged development of character motivations. Others say it’s about proper setup and payoff of reader expectations.

In an era of pervasively disappointing stories and ever-waning audience attention spans, it can be difficult to find stories that offer solid examples of what it means to earn your audience’s loyalty—much less how to actually do it. One of the major and, at the moment, most obvious exceptions is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As it closes out its expansively ambitious 22-movie mega-arc, it feels only appropriate that we complete our series “The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel” by addressing some of the reasons behind its well-earned success.

Needless to say, there will be SPOILERS.

Avengers Endgame Spoilers

Saying Goodbye to The Avengers: Endgame

I am so full of feels right now.

Honestly, I’m still trying to unpack it all. Mostly, what I find myself feeling is gratitude. I am full of gratitude that I got to see Endgame in theaters at all (various obstacles—illness, company, weather—prevented me from getting there until literally the very last showing at my local theater). I am full of gratitude for eleven years and twenty-two (mostly) bright spots in what was a tempestuous era in both my own life and the world around us. I am full of gratitude for characters who made me love them, made me relate, and made me think. And I am full of gratitude that the whole experience was given the sendoff it deserved—that, indeed, it had earned.

In thinking about what writing topic I might focus on for Endgame, I realized what I really wanted to do was talk about the entire series—because, as I always say in structure discussions, the end is in the beginningEndgame works because the series works, and the series works, in the end, because Endgame works.

Almost all of my personal highlights (and a few lowlights) feature later in the article, so let’s just get down to it.

5 Ways Endgame Shows You How to Earn Your Audience’s Loyalty

You know that feeling you get when you open the final book in a series or attend the final movie? It’s a feeling of deep anticipation and excitement—but also a feeling of nervousness. What if they don’t get it right? What if, with all the best intentions, they get it all wrong and forever put a blot on a story experience that has become such an important part of your life?

I’m quite sure I wasn’t the only one feeling that as Marvel’s opening logo unfurled across the dark screen. After eleven years and so much thought, energy, and emotion invested in these characters and their stories, I hoped so much that the finale would at least not screw it up.

About two and half hours later—as the screen filled up with nearly every single character the series has ever introduced—I found myself with tears in my eyes. It wasn’t so much because of what was happening onscreen (those tears came a little later), but because I suddenly had this overwhelming feeling of gratitude for the incredible experience the MCU has been in my life. With all its ups and downs, its handful of great films, its many so-so-but-always-entertaining entries, its few bombs, its incredible casting across the board, and its sheer audacity as one of the most expansive story ventures ever created—I can truly say it has been an unforgettable gift in my life.

Avengers Endgame Everyone

It has influenced my own storytelling in many ways. It has contributed its archetypes to my own personal journeys. It has provided me precious memories with dear ones who have sat beside me in dark theaters. And, of course, it’s given me a couple ideas for a blog post here and there…

For me, Endgame was the red ribbon on top of that gift, a thoroughly satisfactory final entry that has solidified the series as an epochal story within my life.

Today, I want to take a look five examples from this climactic installment, demonstrating what Marvel did to earn and keep its fanbase’s appreciation and what you, too, can learn about how to earn your audience’s loyalty.

1. Setup and Payoff: Earning the Feels

Here’s a secret about storytelling that isn’t always obvious: cool stuff actually isn’t cool at all in isolation.

Truly memorable moments never just happen. Rather, they are the result of a two-part power punch: setup and payoff.

Ultimately, setup is always going to be foreshadowing. If there’s a callback to anything that happened earlier in a story, however mundane it might have been in the beginning, that earlier thing instantly becomes recognizable as foreshadowing.

Foreshadowing is the biggest magic trick in all of fiction. When readers feel the writing was on the wall all along, when they realize that sly dog of an author already gave them everything they needed to make the payoff work, the feeling they get is one of deep satisfaction. Not only does the story make sense, but in that moment the world itself makes sense.

This is why payoffs—both big and small—are always the best moments in any story. Whether or not the payoff directly answers a question readers may have had, the readers will always feel like a question was answered. They feel like they’re participating in the story. They feel like they got the in-joke. And more importantly, they feel like the story works. Instead of the author simply assuming the audience should feel a certain way, the author has earned all these good feelings.

How Endgame Pays It All Off

Endgame is chock full of payoffs. There are big and obvious payoffs, such as using the Infinity Stones to undo Thanos’s dust-up. And there are countless smaller payoffs to earlier character moments throughout the series. These payoffs work solely because of the extensive set-up work that was honored from the previous stories.

For example, would Cap’s wielding of Mjolnir have been anything more than a weapon exchange if it hadn’t been set up in Ultron? Would Tony’s hugging Peter have offered any meaning beyond the relief of the moment if it hadn’t been set up in HomecomingWould Tony’s final words have packed such deep resonance if they hadn’t symbolized his entire character arc by calling all the way back to the beginning of it all in Iron Man?

Endgame benefits tremendously from the sheer massiveness of the story that preceded it. A simple rule of thumb is that the bigger the buildup, the bigger the payoff. Not only do many of Endgame‘s “small” payoffs pack more punch because of the huge story that preceded them, but the film can afford to pack them in. A shorter series or standalone episode can and should utilize setup/payoff similarly, but only a story of this scope can create tremendous impact out of such objectively small moments.

Avengers Endgame Tony Stark Peter Parker

2. Resonance: When the Artist Is the Audience

Sometimes you’ll hear fans talking about getting the story “we deserve.” To this, I say phooey. The only thing audiences deserve is a good story well-told. They don’t deserve to have all their personal theories or wishes validated. They certainly don’t deserve creative control à la “democratic storytelling,” which as I talked about a few weeks ago only dilutes artistic integrity.

But this is not to say audiences don’t deserve to be wildly satisfied with any story in which they invest themselves.

How can an author be assured of creating this kind of resonance without simply polling the audience for their Christmas wishes?

There are two sides to this answer:

Part 1: The author must be in control of the story, must remain firmly dedicated to the artistic and thematic integrity of that story. The author must be disciplined enough to make only the right choices for the story, regardless whether they necessarily seem to be the most popular choices.

Part 2: The author must be an audience of one. The author must be the story’s single greatest fan. The author must fanatically love and respect the story and the characters more than any other member of the audience.

When the latter happens, the author doesn’t need to poll the audience to know what resonates. The answer is already there, in the author’s own heart. What resonates for the author resonates for the audience and—if the first part of the equation also rings true—usually in a way that is deeply meaningful within the overall story.

How Endgame Connects With Its Fans

Even in my (astonishingly successful) bid to avoid spoilers before seeing the movie, I did run onto a few references to “fan service.” I agree that the film did an incredible job of giving its audience just about every single thing they could have asked for, and a little more to boot. But for my money, these moments can’t be considered fan service when they have been suitably earned over the previous course of the series.

What it felt like to me was a storyline that had been planned and executed by storytellers who, more than anyone, wanted themselves to see appropriate endings for beloved characters. They didn’t provide moments such as Tony’s having a daughter or Thor’s glee when Cap wields Mjolnir or Cap’s dance with Peggy or Tony’s making peace with his dad simply because fans wanted them. They built them into the story because, as fans themselves, they wanted them.

Avengers Endgame Captain America Mjolnir

3. Honesty: Staying True to Your Characters

The only stories that matter—the only stories that are ever remembered—are those that are honest. These are the stories that resonate on a level deeper than whatever cotton-candy visuals they’re spinning across the screen in our heads or at the theater. That honesty starts and ends with the characters.

There is no greater slur upon a story than to say its cast is “acting out of character.” What this inevitably means is that the characters are no longer acting with sincerity, but instead mouthing lazy lines of convenience.

Creating and implementing “true” characters is the greatest challenge in all of writing. Few of us pull it off 100% of the time. Mostly this is because staying true to your characters is difficult not just technically, but also personally. It’s hard to understand ourselves well enough to understand the story we’re trying to tell in order to understand the characters who are telling it.

When we do achieve this deep and true understanding, the result is character dynamism. These characters power the story. They are realistic, dimensional. They are sympathetic. The audience comes to love them not in spite of their flaws but even because of them. We come to love them, at a certain point, because they are us.

How Endgame Gave Us True Characters

I won’t say Endgame pulled this one off across the board. Hulk’s transformation in this story didn’t resonate deeply for me, and however authentic the idea behind Thor’s devolution, it was executed abysmally in a way that did not respect the character and his importance in the series.

That said, the film did a good job with almost all the rest of its main cast, particularly Steve and Tony, whose polarized styles and relationship have always been the series’ beating heart.

These two characters have rarely strayed from their initial headings. Both would have been difficult characters to write, both could have been difficult characters to like. But they have always burned true to their deep driving desires, to their strengths, to their weaknesses.

Largely because of these things, their endings feel particularly earned. We are happy both were given the chance for closure, for a normal life, for fulfillment, and even for the end of their struggles.

Avengers Endgame Tony Stark Steve Rogers

4. Meaning: As the Climax Goes, So Goes the Story

In any story, the Climactic Moment is the defining moment. Whatever happens in the Climax is what every moment of the preceding story was leading up to. Whether or not the story as a whole succeeds is proven by how well it builds into and explodes out of its Climax.

In structuring your story, you can use your Climactic Moment as the plumb line to align your story’s structural spine. When you isolate your major structural moments, they should line up thematically, all of them pointing in a straight arrow directly at your Climax.

More than that, the Climactic Moment is your story’s reservoir of meaning. When the conflict is finally resolved in the Climax, what must emerge from this final bit of context is the deep subtextual meaning of all that has come before. This, more than any other factor, is why stories are made or broken by their endings. No matter how great the ride up to that point, if the ending fails to make sense of it all, the audience will almost always leave frustrated.

How Endgame Nailed Its Climax

No one was ever in doubt how the overarching conflict with Thanos would end. As per genre conventions, he would be defeated. The horrific consequences of his actions would be overturned. We’d all get our happy ending.

But we could have been given that exact ending in a way that mattered far less. The Climax Endgame gave us was specifically Tony’s climax. This was as it should have been. The ending was in the beginning. When Tony closes his fist and snaps his fingers, he is ending what he, in so many ways, began himself. When he defiantly tells Thanos, “I am Iron Man,” he finally and fully climaxes his own long and desperate attempt to do the right thing, to make the sacrifice, to save the world.

I’m not aware of how thoroughly the events of Endgame were known and planned when Marvel started its ambitious project way back in 2008. I suspect they knew very few of the specifics, but they clearly did know the bones. They knew Thanos was the antagonist. They knew what the conflict would be. They knew how it would end. As a result, the series offers a solid structural integrity, with Thanos being introduced very near the quarter mark (at what might be considered the series’ First Plot Point) and followed up regularly throughout. The Climax proves the structure, and the structure is the reason the Climax works.

Avengers Endgame Tony sTARK sHOWDOWN

5. Finality: The Blessing of Closure

Very few satisfying stories are open-ended. They reach their Climaxes, they fade out through their Resolutions, and they end. This is the only way in which structure can provide resonance. It is the only way in which character arcs can come full circle.

These days, many stories avoid finality like the plague. If they can crank out a few more episodes, seasons, movies, books, so much more the money, right? But the stories suffer. Even if the follow-up episodes don’t actually happen, all those little teases the authors included in early installments just in case the story went on (and on and on and on), almost always mess up the story that could have been.

This is why so many TV series are good only for about three seasons. After that, the storytellers start messing with the initial arc in order to expand the story. The result is that the characters start getting messed with as well—and the slide begins. Smart, sympathetic characters who started out making smart, sympathetic choices start being forced to act out of character in order to accommodate a more complicated plot.

A story that offers successful finality is a story that planned and prepared for that finality. It’s a story that used its structural throughline to build into a meaningful Climax. It is not, necessarily, a story that ties off all loose ends. However, even though the characters don’t end (unless they die, of course), the structural throughline of the plot does end. And the audience, however sad they may feel about saying goodbye, will find relief in the closure that comes with closing a story.

How Endgame Offers Closure

There were a handful of things I really wanted to see happen in this movie, but at the top of the list: I wanted Cap and Tony to die.

There, I said it. :p

I didn’t, of course, want them to die because I wanted them gone, goodbye, finito and good riddance. I wanted them to die because I desperately wanted to see their characters closed out. For twenty-two movies (or whatever number they each actually appeared in), they had been scripted with scarcely a misstep. And that’s the way I wanted them to go out. I desperately did not want them to be given open-ended finales in which maybe they’d come back if ever the actors could be tempted.

Of course I’d go see another Captain America movie or another Iron Man movie. But I am ecstatic that I’m not likely to get the chance. I have so much respect for the Marvel team not only for planning and pulling off a huge story arc, but even more so for ending it. Yes, the MCU continues with secondary characters introduced during this initial arc, but they will be continuing with their own story arc (and, frankly, they have their work cut out for them if they want to win my heart in the same way as the originals).

Endgame really was the endgame. That was more than half the reason it took every bit of my self-respect not to sit there in the theater and bawl all the way through the credits. But it was also the reason I was given the gift of such an emotional closing experience.

Avengers Endgame Old Steve


This will be the final installment in The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel. It’s been an incredibly fun ride, and I’ve enjoyed sharing my love of the series with so many of you. I’ve learned a lot myself in pulling a definitive writing tip out of each movie. But after twenty-two entries, it’s getting harder to find a new technique to discuss in each film. I feel like Endgame is the right place to end it.

Thanks very much for coming on this ride with me, both here on the blog and as MCU fans yourselves. Here’s to all of us continuing to learn from other great storytellers on our way to writing our own amazing adventures.

Previous Posts in This Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think is the biggest challenge in earning your audience’s loyalty? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

The post 5 Ways to Earn Your Audience’s Loyalty appeared first on Helping Writers Become Authors.

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6 Requirements for Writing Better Character Goals

better character goalsQuick. Tell me what your characters want.

Maybe you have an immediate answer. Maybe your protagonist wants to save the world, survive, or live happily ever after.

While those are all legit goals that have powered hundreds of good stories, what I’m talking about is what your characters want.

I’m talking about the one thing your characters want more than anything, want unto obsession, want even unto death. They want this thing, whatever it is, so badly they will chase after it in the face of impossible stakes, sometimes against their better judgment, sometimes at great cost to themselves and people they care about, sometimes even at the risk of saving the world/surviving/living happily ever after.

This powerful desire is at the heart of dynamic characters, complex conflict, and effortless plots. When we talk about the symbiosis of plot and character or characters who “write themselves” (and therefore the story), what we’re usually pointing to is a cast with powerful underlying desires.

This is a secret of good writing. Why a secret? Because it’s so easy for authors to overlook.

We’d all agree that yeah, yeah, characters need goals. Of course they have goals! Just look at them—they want to save the world, survive, live happily ever after. We might even throw in a couple bonus prizes, just cuz we’re cool like that. Our characters want all kinds of big things. Happiness. Self-actualization. World peace.


Those desires don’t count. Those desires are boring. Even if your characters are actively working toward these goals, these things are just too big, abstract, and pedestrian to drive a story. Everybody on earth wants those things—especially when forced into a story situation in which these things are suddenly and legitimately threatened. When the zombie epidemic hits, you can bet I’m going to have a lot invested in finding a cure. But that hardly makes me a unique character.

A much more interesting scenario would be a character, searching for the cure, who was already infected—and who was dealing with an even more powerful desire for brain salad. Or, even better, she’s a gourmand obsessed with finding a very specific and exotic type of brain. Yum.

A 6-Part Checklist on Your Quest for Better Character Goals

There is a specific kind of character writers dream of writing. This character isn’t someone we create so much as someone we birth, Athena-like, as a fully grown, fully sovereign being. We just turn these characters loose on the page and watch as they take over, effortlessly creating plot through their own dynamic and charismatic actions.

We dream about these characters because actually finding them on the page often seems like ineffable alchemy—it just happens. These characters come to the page with powerfully undeniable desires. They want things so bad—often things they really shouldn’t want—that they tear down kingdoms to get at them.

Sounds like a good story just waiting to happen, doesn’t it?

Let’s take a look at six qualities needed to create the the kind of character desire that will power a blah plot into a potently dimensional story.

1. Better Character Goals Are… Specific

Better character goals are always specific goals. They’re not abstract (love), and they’re not general (falling in love with any ol’ body). In some stories, in which the motive isn’t solidified until late in the First Act or early in the Second Act, the character’s desire may start out abstract and general, but the sooner it gets down to business, the better.

Failing to hammer out specific goals is a surprisingly common problem, particularly in what are frequently called “plot-driven stories.” The hero wants to be heroic; the bad guy wants to do bad stuff. They may even have pretty decent motives for their respective intentions. The problem is that their actions within the plot often seem rote simply because the only thing they seem to want is something much bigger than their own lives. (Can any of us really grasp the concept of world peace?)

This is one reason the foot soldier on the ground often makes a more compelling character than the general up at headquarters. Not only is the soldier actually in the action, but his goals are much more specific. “Win the war” is admirable, but pretty boring; “take the enemy base” is better; and “protect your high-ranking prisoner at all costs” is better still.

In stories that do choose to fall back on heroic heroes with admirable-but-broad goals, we usually see more specific goals showing up as scene goals. That’s good. But you can notch up your whole plot if your scenes are also driven by every single character wanting something specific on his or her own account.

Example: In Saving Private Ryan, the goal isn’t “defeat the Nazis and win World War II.” Rather, the goal is “save just one man and deliver him back to peace.”

Saving Private Ryan Tom Hanks Matt Damon

2. Better Character Goals Are… Small

Inherent within the idea of specificity is the idea of “small” goals. Specificity necessarily narrows a character’s choices, tightening up abstract generality into shockingly realistic cause and effect.

Writers often think bigger is better when the reverse is almost always true. Huge explosions and massive stakes are only as interesting as the individual person who is affected. Same goes for a character’s ambitions. Even (especially) when the character is caught within a larger drama, the scenes that are most interesting are almost always the small human dramas—a child thieving to feed a wounded spy, that zombie foodie trying to hide her gourmet proclivities, a politician trying to retcon a family secret.

Example: In Star Wars: A New Hope, what Luke wants isn’t to “defeat the Empire.” What he wants isn’t even really “save Princess Leia.” What he wants is “to escape his mundane farmer’s life.” (Wanting to “learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father” starts out as a pretty abstract goal in the first movie, but it plants the seeds for more specific goals in later movies—such as wanting to track down Yoda and convincing him to be his mentor.)

luke skywalker tatooine star wars new hope

3. Better Character Goals Are… Personal

Although it should be self-evident that your character’s deepest desire is intensely personal, it must still be said since so many stories rely on deeply impersonal goals to move their characters through the story.

Don’t miss the part about these impersonal goals “moving the characters” through the plot—rather than the other way around. A good rule of thumb is that if the goal is bigger than the character, the plot is in control. And vice versa: if the character is bigger than (or at least as big as) the goal, then the character is the one moving the plot.

This is exactly why smart authors use extremely personal goals to ground characters within larger-than-life plots. One of the most-used versions has the protagonist taking on an arch-baddie only after a loved one is murdered or kidnapped.

Gifting characters with inherently personal desires is often more instinctive in smaller dramas, but not always. Too many romances seem to believe the characters’ real goals are “fall in love.” But if the characters’ don’t have passionate personal goals distracting them from and probably directly interfering with their love lives, then what’s keeping these people apart in the first place?

Particularly if you’re writing a story that takes place on a bigger stage—such as epic dramas, political thrillers, and action stories—stop right now and ask yourself if your character has a personal desire other than winning the fight just because winning is a better option than losing.

Example: In The Bourne Identity, Bourne’s goal isn’t “destroy the immoral black ops agency Treadstone.” That he ends up destroying them is almost incidental and only happens because his true desire is “to regain his memory.”

Matt Damon Bourne Identity Final Battle

4. Better Character Goals Are… Intrinsic

When giving your character a specific, small, personal desire, you must also make sure the desire is intrinsic to the plot and/or the theme. Action and romance stories often try to supplement their main conflict with a contrasting subplot in which the protagonist also falls in love or also deals with a dangerous situation.

These annexed subplots are rarely as satisfying as more streamlined stories in which the so-called “A Story” and “B-Story” are really two intrinsic sides of the same coin. Trying to shoehorn a contrasting subplot into your story too often creates a precarious scenario in which the story becomes a pitched battle to decide which subplot the audiences will enjoy more (usually, the storyline with the “smaller” goal wins).

When you start your story by first determining your characters’ most personal and specific desires, you’ll often find an entry to the plot that will organically bring all the important elements together into a seamless whole.

For Example: In Brent Weeks’s Black Prism, the protagonist’s suppressed desire for the woman he loves and the reasons he can’t be with her are intrinsic to his larger political gambit and his even larger role in staving off an apocalyptic imbalance in his world. Because his “small” and “large” desires are in constant (and potentially disastrous) tension with each other, they inform each other in every scene.

5. Better Character Goals Are… Self-Destructive

The most interesting character desires are never straightforward. If they were, they’d find fulfillment in the first chapter. This is why, of all the many ways to use a character’s desires to create conflict, one of the most powerful is choosing a desire that is inherently, or at least potentially, self-destructive.

Not only is this the starting place of all character arcs, it’s also just “good TV” as they say. When a character wants something dangerous—and wants it for good reasons—the audience is hooked.

A simple example is a man wanting to go to war to defend his country. We understand his reasons, but we also know he may just have signed his own death warrant. Another easily recognizable example would falling in love with “the bad boy.” We get the attraction, but we know this is probably going to end in tears.

It’s important to note that if the character is balancing on the razor’s edge of a possibly self-destructive choice, readers must empathize. If they feel the character is just too stupid to make a better choice, they’re not going be sucked into the ensuing drama. Rather, they must understand, at every step, why the character is willing to take such incredible risks in pursuit of this desire.

For Example: In Emily Brontë’s masterpiece Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff notoriously rains down misery and destruction on, not just the lives of his enemies, but also his own life and that of his true love Cathy. Although readers are likely often repulsed by Heathcliff’s actions, we always understand the deep pain and loneliness that drives his devastatingly obsessive relationship with his childhood sweetheart.

Wuthering Heights BBC Tom Hardy Charlotte Riley Heathcliff Cathy Linton

6. Better Character Goals Are… Lie-Driven

The Lie the Character Believes is the heart of both theme and character arc—whether that arc ends up changing the story positively or negatively. At the core of that Lie is the Thing the Character Wants, which is almost always in conflict with the Thing the Character Needs (i.e., the Truth) at some level.

This presents so many chewy opportunities for plot-pushing goals. Indeed, the reason we love watching a character doggedly pursue potentially self-destructive desires is because these desires always point to pressure points deeper within the character. Those pressure points are the nodes of change. If punched hard enough, transformation erupts. And that is always the stuff of good stories.

When looking for the self-destructive aspects of your characters’ desires, look harder still. What underlying Lie might be fueling your character’s motivation and/or the goal itself? Will the character overcome this Lie—allowing her to either avoid destruction or at least rise from the rubble? Or will he succumb to the latent ruin within his own desires?

Whatever your answer, what’s found within in the grist of great themes.

For Example: In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey comes within seconds of destroying his own life because he believes it is worth less than his insurance policy. This is a direct product of his story-long soul-rotting dissatisfaction with his narrow life in a “crummy little town.”

The Hardest Part of Writing Good Character Arcs—and How You Can Make It Look Easy!


Now. Quick. Tell me what your characters want.

If their desires and goals fulfill all six parts of this checklist, then congrats! You’re on your way to creating compelling characters in a compelling plot. It’s just as easy—and hard—as that.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Which of the six requirements of better character goals do you think your protagonist’s desires fulfills? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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How to Write Interesting Scenes

interesting scenesHere’s a secret about storytelling that many writers overlook. An interesting plot isn’t what makes an interesting story. Interesting characters aren’t what make an interesting story either. In reality, a story is only as interesting as its scenes.

That sounds almost too obvious to think about.

Honestly, I hadn’t thought about it too specifically myself until reading Matt Bird’s insightful Secrets of Story, in which he points out (in his excellent common-sense chapter on scenes):

At any given point in your story, the audience will be far more interested in the conflict within the current scene than in the overall conflict. If you allow yourself to create weak scenes in service of the larger story, you will sabotage your own work.

The lack of interesting scenes has proven the downfall of many a story. Even the most unique plot and the most sympathetic characters will fall flat if the story isn’t keeping readers’ attention from scene to scene. And on the flip-side, plenty of so-so stories prove wildly entertaining because their authors knew how to keep a reader’s attention on the scene level.

Basically, the art of writing interesting scenes is the art of preventing reader boredom. As I talked about last week, audiences are increasingly jaded when it comes to meh storytelling. The one thing, more than any other, for which they have little patience is boredom.

This is why writers run their brain-hamsters overtime trying to figure out the most-original-plot ever. Or they dig deep in their souls to write characters of tortured complexity.

That’s good.

But it’s not enough.

The only way to write a story that works for the audience is to write one that grabs them on the scene level.

5 Things That Must Happen in Interesting Scenes

In an interesting scene, the prose is snappy, the characters are compelling, and the plot is moving. This requires vigilance from the writer at every moment.

I have experienced so many stories that were great on a macro level, but that bored me on the scene level. Other stories remain entertaining upon countless revisits simply because every scene offers something worth experiencing. The great classic movie White Christmas is like this. No matter how many times we watch it, it’s still interesting. I’ve viewed it once a year for longer than I can count, and I never find myself wanting to fast forward to get to the good stuff. It’s all good stuff.

White Christmas Bing Crosby Danny Kaye Dressing Room

That kind of interest starts with making certain important things happen in each scene. No scene should ever just go through the motions of presenting information that ostensibly moves the plot. Every scene should be a complete story unit unto itself, packed with all the reasons we love fiction in the first place.

Here’s what has to happen to make your scene interesting.

1. Stuff Happens

The one should be the gimme of the bunch. But it has to be said, because too many stories limp through with scenes in which little to literally nothing happens. Artsy moments of contemplation, when the character stares out over the ocean or takes sad walks through the projects, only work as brief moments of contrast.

Even in super-artsy books such as Patrick Rothfuss’s interlude The Slow Regard of Silent Things, the protagonist still does stuff. The stuff she does may be mundane daily tasks, but it’s the poetic unfolding of prosaic details that keep readers paying attention.

Granted, there are super-super-artsy books in which characters may spend whole chapters staring at a leak in the ceiling. But these are rarely considered popular fiction and are even more rarely done well enough to earn attention much less merit. Even then, they remain the exception that proves the rule.

2. Conflict Happens

There’s an old expression that maintains “story equals conflict.” While this is a gross oversimplification, it does point to one of the most basic and important tools for creating an interesting story.

Conflict is the driving engine of plot. Without conflict, plot doesn’t move.

It’s best to understand conflict as something or someone that creates an obstacle to your protagonist’s goal. Conflict begs for goal-driven scenes—whether that goal is blatant, passive-aggressive, reactionary, or even largely subconscious.

Your character’s scene goal might look like John Wayne slamming into a saloon, intent on throwing out some bad guy. Or it might look like Hercule Poirot sussing out a clue. Or it might look like a mom’s and daughter’s contradictory ideas about after-school activities. It might even look like somebody trying to hail a taxi to get to work.

Whatever the case, the path to the goal should encounter complications. Conflict happens. The character must regroup, rethink, perhaps try again, or perhaps abandon an ineffective goal in pursuit of another. Perhaps the character reaches the initial goal after all, but there are difficulties, which prompt the further cycle of plot-moving scene structure.

3. Complexity Happens

Even though most authors instinctively understand the first two “musts” on our list, this still doesn’t guarantee interesting scenes. Indeed, nothing is more mind-numbing than rote scene structure in which the character encounters simplistic obstacle after simplistic obstacle, in an unvarying chain leading straight to the ultimate story goal in the Climax.

What separates by-the-numbers authors dutifully trying to follow the rules from authors who truly understand and inhabit excellent storytelling? The difference is the amount of complexity these authors include on the scene level.

Complexity on a scene level indicates a scene that is tightly packed with all the realistic nuances of true-to-life exchanges and desires. More than just one or even two ideas, goals, or consequences are at play. The questions asked within these scenes want more than just simple yes/no answers, such as Will he tell her he loves her? Will she get the job? Will he defeat the villain?

Rather, the questions at the heart of interesting scenes are rarely, if ever, zero-sum equations. They introduce faceted consequences—e.g., Will he tell her he loves her at the risk of endangering the mission? Will she accept the job even though her husband doesn’t want her to? Will he defeat the villain even though it means risking his own humanity by killing someone in cold blood?

Your character’s inner conflict between Want and Need, between lose-lose choices, between one set of consequences over another, is the first type of pertinent complexity you can add to create interest. But don’t stop there. What inner conflicts are happening for the other characters in the scene? What are some competing (and perhaps equally valid) goals your different characters are pursuing? What are the different layers of their relationships (e.g., perhaps they’re romantic, but also rivals)?

Ultimately, what you’re trying to create is subtext. When a scene’s subtext says something different from the context (e.g., Spider-Man 2‘s “I love you, but I can’t tell you because my primary goal is to keep you safe”), the interest level is magnified ten-fold.

Spider-Man 2 Peter Parker Tobey Maguire

The key here is to keep it all pertinent. Adding a three-ring circus just for the heck of it won’t work. If your moving pieces get to be too many, you risk both confusing readers and outpacing your own ability to juggle everything all the way through to a satisfying ending.

4. The Unexpected Happens

One of the easiest ways to add complexity on the scene level is to add something unexpected. This rarely (if ever) means throwing in some random catastrophe. This is the art of creating characters who will act is realistic but surprising ways.

You thought that guy was going to tell her he loved her at the expense of the mission? Nope. He submarines any chance of being with her by choosing to kick her off the mission altogether so she won’t distract him.

You thought the unhappy husband was going to blow up at his wife because of her new job? Nope. He frames his protest by up and quitting his own job.

You thought the good guy was going to defeat the villain? Nope. He chokes—and the villain kidnaps his family.

This exercise can, of course, grow to outrageous proportions. But used with wise awareness it is perhaps the single greatest trick for grabbing readers’ attention. Whether or not you can keep their attention depends on how organically these unexpected events play out. It doesn’t count if the characters do something shocking only to turn around in the next scene and undo it before they really have to suffer the consequences.

There are two keys to making this work:

1. Stay in touch with your character’s desires.

I’m not talking about vague desires for world peace. I’m talking about deeply primal desires for the one thing that will motivate them to do almost anything.

2. Look past the first option for achieving that desire.

In any given scene, your characters will have multiple options for how they pursue their goals and/or how they react to another character’s goals. After you’ve rejected the possibilities that make your characters look unintelligent (unless, of course, they are unintelligent), nose out the options readers won’t initially see coming. From there, look for the ideas that will not only create great scenes, but which will spawn many equally unexpected and great scenes to follow.

5. Change Happens

This is the litmus test for how well the previous four steps are working. A scene is not a scene, much less an interesting scene, if it doesn’t create change. How are your character’s options different at the end of the scene from what they were at the beginning?

Good scene structure is all about moving your character either closer to or farther away from the ultimate story goal. This movement can be effected in many ways. Perhaps the character gains helpful (or incorrect) information. Perhaps the character befriends (or alienates) someone who can help her. Perhaps the character gains (or loses) something important. Perhaps the character is impacted internally to such a degree that what he wants or his reasons for wanting it change altogether. Or perhaps it’s another character, or the world of the story, that changes in ways that will impact the protagonist’s journey toward the story goal.

Regardless what changes, every scene should mirror the larger story—an arcing journey that begins in one place or state of being and ends in another.

If you look at the end of a scene and realize nothing much has changed, you can pretty sure of two things:

  1. This scene doesn’t move the plot.
  2. This scene probably isn’t very interesting.

The 5-Step Checklist for How to Write Interesting Scenes

The above list of five “musts” is the best guideline for writing interesting scenes. But because all the “musts” are pretty abstract, it can sometimes be difficult to know how well you’ve aced them on a practical level. The following five questions are quick ways to check in with how well you’re doing on any given scene.

1. Are You Bored?

This is the single best gut-check. You can use it in two ways.

First, check in with how interested and engaged you are in writing this scene. If you’re not enjoying yourself, that’s likely a sign your readers won’t either.

Second, zoom out a bit and pretend you’re an objective reader encountering this scene for the first time. On a scale of 1-10, how much would you enjoy reading it if someone else had written it?

2. Are the Characters Dynamic?

In part, this means characters who are moving the plot through their own desires and actions. But on a simpler level, it also just means characters who are fun to watch. Those unexpected actions we talked about originate with characters who are capable of the unexpected. These characters may span the gamut from Wolverine to Emma Woodhouse to Jack Aubrey to Lorelei Gilmore. The only thing they all have in common is that audiences can consistently count on them to be entertaining no matter what they do or say.

Emma Jane Austen BBC 2009 Romola Garai

3. Is There Humor?

Not every interesting scene will make readers laugh. But every scene that makes them laugh will be entertaining.

4. Is There Relational Tension?

Tension is the threat of conflict. Nothing happens to change the scene’s status quo, but the threat of forced change hangs heavy and humid like a thundercloud. Inevitably, the most interesting type of tension occurs between people. Sexual tension is one of the most obvious and effective. But relational tension of any type—between friends, enemies, family, professionals—will almost instantly up a reader’s interest in your scene. We usually care much more about characters in their relationships to each other than we do any one character by himself.

5. Is There Cause for Empathy?

Susan Sontag wrote:

The only story that seems worth writing is a cry, a shot, a scream. A story should break the reader’s heart.

Getting your readers involved intellectually is one thing. But there is no substitute for involving their emotions. Get them to empathize with your characters—to feel that they are involved in this same desperate human struggle—and they will sit rapt through every scene.

How do you measure empathy on a scene level? Ask yourself whether or not you’ve given readers a reason to care about what happens to your character in any given scene. However much they may love the character on general principles, they probably won’t care so much whether your character has to wait five minutes to use a public restroom—unless she’s about to be horribly sick.

Empathy arises when a character experiences realistic consequences.


Although interesting scenes certainly aren’t the only measure of a story’s worth, they are the gateway through which readers enter your amusement park. If they look around and realize none of the good rides are running today, they aren’t likely to stay long enough to appreciate your fine craftsmanship or deep messaging. But if you can write a story in which the majority of scenes are worth reading on their own merits, you can bet you’ve got a book readers will want to read.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think is the most potent aspect of writing interesting scenes? Tell me in the comments!

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4 Challenges of Writing for a Modern Audience

writing for a modern audienceSometimes I think everything I learned about life I learned from The Andy Griffith Show.

For instance, in the episode “Andy Discovers America,” when Andy is incredulous about the new school teacher “starting them awful young for history,” Aunt Bea just sighs, “Well, maybe they have to. There’s more of it these days.”

If that idea was true of history back in 1963, it’s even more true of literature in 2019.

One of the coolest things about this ultra-modern era is the insane number of stories literally at our fingertips. It’s staggering. Not only are we able to access the vast archives left to us by hundreds of ancestral generations, we are also living at an unprecedented moment of story output. Stories of all sorts—books, movies, TV, commercials, you name it—are created at a brain-numbing rate. Even those of us nerdy enough of to try could never sample them all.

This is incredible in so many ways. That I can decide I want to read Of Mice and Men, borrow it from Overdrive, and download it on my Kindle in all of three minutes (or less—I didn’t count) would no doubt astound John Steinbeck. Heck, these days we sometimes don’t even have to wait a week for a new episode of our favorite show. The latest season of Stranger Things? Pow. Watch the whole thing in one night.

And then what? What happens after I finish reading Of Mice and Men? After I finish bingeing Stranger Things? Well, I start looking for something else, of course. And something else and something else.

After a while, the stories we consume in our lifetimes rack up considerably. In 2002, I started tracking the number of books I read. At this point, I’ve recorded 1,777. Add to that the books I consumed before keeping a record. Then add what has to be at least twice as many movies. Plus TV (including many, many Andy Griffith reruns…).

Nearly everyone with access to either the Internet and/or a TV can probably say the same.

That’s a mountain of stories. An ocean of stories. A galaxy of stories.

But here’s the interesting thing. The more stories We the Audience consume, the more jaded we are likely to become in our consumption.

What’s this mean for We the Writers?

Basically this: today’s audience ain’t Granddad’s audience.

4 Challenges of Writing for a Modern Audience

Writers who are pointed to the exemplary writing of the classics often complain that the likes of Thomas Hardy and Edna Ferber couldn’t possibly get published these days. There’s some truth to that, in no small part because modern audiences are a far different crowd from those of a couple hundred years ago. (This is not to discount the continuing worth of the great classics. The evolution of the modern audience is firmly founded on all the literature that has come before.)

However, as modern authors writing for a modern audience, we must be aware of the unique challenges that face us, not only in connecting with the current audience, but also in recognizing the formative effects upon ourselves as members of that same contemporary audience.

You can start by taking note of these four crucial facts.

1. Modern Audiences Are Inundated With Stories

Generally speaking, the modern audience is pretty story savvy. They’ve seen it all, or at least feel like they have. And they believe (often rightly) that they are qualified to judge what they’ve seen or read, not just on a personal level, but on a technical level.

What This Means: It’s much harder for writers to pull off the old magic tricks. The audience not only knows someone’s working the levers behind the curtain, they also know exactly where the curtain is and how to pull it back.

At this point, audiences know every twist in the book. They have evolved super-smell when it comes to sniffing out foreshadowing. The gimmicks that might have wowed audiences of yesteryear are now seen as boring or even manipulative.

It’s true the story-consuming public may not understand all the conscious techniques of good story theory or storytelling, but they often do have an even better instinctive grasp of what’s working and what’s not than do those actually doing the writing.

What to Do About It: The only thing you can do to get a modern audience member to pay attention to your story, much less approve of it, is to write your guts out.

It’s not enough to write a good-enough story. Every single one of you reading this blog right now has read and watched hundreds of good-enough stories. Some of them you can name (probably just because they made you mad). Most of them you’ve relegated to the waste bin in the back your brain to save on cognitive space.

Write something brilliant. Write something original. Writing something true. And most of all: write something packed full of so much quality that it stands out like a Thoroughbred in a lineup of burros.

2. Audiences Are Inundated With Subpar Storytelling

As awesome-sauce as it may be to live in an era with unlimited stories, it has its downsides. The biggest is simply that quality stories are ever-increasingly difficult to find amidst all the quantity.

The self-publishing boom of the early 2000s treated me well as an author, so I hate to knock it. But as a reader, it has turned out to be kind of a bummer. It’s frustrating and often defeating to have to scroll through page after page of the kind of ramshackle cover art that too often signals equally ramshackle storytelling.

But it’s not just that the Gatekeeper is dead and the Gates are down. Traditional publishing, Hollywood, indie filmmaking, and TV aren’t much better. There are shining gems out there to be sure. But the rubbish is piled so high and so wide, it’s hard for audiences not to grow increasingly jaded—and to some extent, numb.

What This Means: Modern audiences don’t have a lot of trust in their storytellers. After a certain point, they tend to assume (consciously or unconsciously) that any new story they try will probably disappoint them.

For example, going to the theater used to be a highlight event for me. I loved it. But somewhere in the last 5-10 years, I stopped going. I realized one day (after the extraneous debacle that was Jason Bourne) that I was increasingly disappointed with what I was experiencing whenever I sat down in a darkened theater. It wasn’t a highlight any longer.

In Secrets of Story, Matt Bird points out:

…every time an audience reads a bad book, watches a bad movie, or attends a bad play, it just gets harder for the next writer, because the audience is increasingly reluctant to care again.

What to Do About It: There’s both bad news and good news here.

The bad news, of course, is that if your audience is anywhere over the age of 15, you’re probably facing an uphill battle. They came, they saw—and they judged most of what they saw to be unworthy of their time and money. At this point, your story is going to be a hard sell to just about anybody (even your mom, if she’s honest).

The good news, however, is there’s a lot of room at the top. If you can climb the rubbish heap and hold aloft your polished gem of a story, the audience will enshrine you. (For better or worse, good marketing is also instrumental and, usually, indispensable.)

The first thing to do in the face of an increasingly tough audience is to refuse to give up. The second is to commit yourself to the long haul of writing a truly excellent story. Do it for yourself and for your audience, but do it also for  your fellow writers. As Bird pointed out, bad writing is hurtful to all writers. One writer’s good story, however, makes it that much more likely another writer’s good story may also get its chance with that same audience.

3. Audiences Are Accustomed to (and to Some Degree Accepting of) Subpar Storytelling

Audience members may curtail some of their story habits due to disproportionate experiences with subpar stories, but they’re unlikely to quit cold turkey. Even if it weren’t all but impossible to opt out of stories in our media-driven culture, few people actually want to. We love stories so much we’d rather settle for poor stories than give them up altogether.

The problem here is that audiences—including the writers who are members of those audiences—become complacent in their acceptance of subpar work. How many times have we chosen a book or gone to a movie, knowing it was probably less-than-great—but it’s all that was available at the moment? When we are inundated with enough of these problematic offerings, we start expecting them, and then we start accepting them.

Netflix Expectation vs. Reality

What This Means: For my money, the most insidious problem with this scenario is that these pervasive subpar stories are the ones writers are now learning from. For starters, many of these stories are extremely famous and profitable. So it would seem evident these are the stories we should all be imitating.

Furthermore, by their very ubiquity, these stories are becoming part of our era’s archetypal narrative. We are permeated with these stories. They inhabit our subconscious—which is the incubator for our own ideas and instinctive understanding of story. Even if we’re not taking all these stories seriously, we’re still gobbling them up by the hundreds. And you know what they say: we are what we eat.

I will often observe or participate in discussions in which a new writer will argue against good advice with the insistence that “[such and such a popular story] did it this way!” If pressed, a few more supporting examples might even be produced. At the risk of sounding too Mom-like, let me put it this way: just because a famous (and perhaps otherwise brilliant) author did something stupid doesn’t mean you should too.

What to Do About It: This is exactly why it is so important for authors to be not just members of the audience, but conscious members. Become a keen observer of your own reactions to the stories you read and watch. What do you like? What do you not like? What are you perhaps unconsciously accepting just because? And, most importantly, why? Why does something work? Why does something not work? And… how could it work better?

Writing well is no accident. It is what happens when an author is purposefully conscious of the effects of any given story and its techniques.

Let me also say this: you’ll have a better chance of keeping your writing healthy if you’re eating more veggies than candy. The occasional “junk” movie or “stupid” book, just because that’s the mood you’re in, is fine. But if that’s the bulk of your story intake, you’re in trouble. If you want to be great, learn from the greats, not the oh-well-this-isn’t-amazing-but-it’s-all-we-have-so-we’ll-just-make-do.

4. Audiences Think They Like New and Shiny

Storytelling is so glam these days. So many gorgeous book covers. So many stylish new visuals in the movies. So many hot modern actors with their hot modern haircuts. I’ll admit to stocking my Kindle with beautiful YA books that turned out to be a year’s worth of really bad reading. I’ll also admit (in a much more mumbly voice) to watching Nicholas Sparks movies just because the lead actors are beautiful.

When browsing shelves at the library, it’s so much more tempting to pick up something with a shiny new cover versus this:

Wuthering Heights Emily Bronte Penguine Classic

Or some vapid new action movie versus this:

Judgment at Nuremburg

What This Means: Here are two anecdotes from my own experiences as an easily-distracted member of the modern audience.

As a reader, I took a break from my long-term pursuit of reading the classics. I was going through some difficult life stuff, and I just wanted to read “easy” and “fun” fiction for a while. So I chased after the pretty covers and found that, sure enough, easy though they might be, they started giving me a cotton-candy feeling in my stomach after a while.

So I decided to go back to the proven masterpieces for a bit. I chose Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence, dove in, and from the very first paragraph experienced an almost palpable sense of the satisfaction that only good writing can create. No, Wharton’s not “easy.” She’s not even particularly “fun.” But in comparison to all that fluff I’d been distracting myself with, she was incredibly rewarding.

Same thing happened to me as a watcher. The simplest metric for knowing whether or not I’m engaged in a movie is whether or not I reach for my phone. If I’m bored, the phone comes out. I’m looking up the actors’ bios or the story’s factual context or the trivia on IMDb. But if I never pick up the phone, it means I’m hooked.

After a recent library visit when I brought home about an equal number of modern versus “old” movies, I was fascinated to find myself on the phone in the middle of almost all the modern movies. But Bette Davis and Edward G. Robinson? I was rapt. The phone never got so much as a fingerprint on it.

If there’s a moral here, it’s this. Audiences don’t always choose the stories they should, even when they know better. Mostly, however, this is because the new stuff and the good stuff isn’t overlapping as prodigiously as it could.

What to Do About It: Again, good news, bad news.

The bad news is audiences are easily swayed by pretty things. In an age of short attention spans, new and shiny often seems much more interesting than old and proven. Marketing is king, because marketing is how readers and viewers find the content. If the marketing seems good, then the audience believes (often even when they know better) that the content should follow suit.

On the other hand, the good news is that because you live in this pretty modern age, there’s no reason your pretty book cover or stylish script can’t be the next shiny thing to snag the audience’s attention.

The catch, of course, is that you want your story to do more than catch your audience’s eye. You want it to keep their attention. And that requires, first, an awareness of the type and quality of stories—new and old—that capture and keep your attention. Write those stories, and write them well.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think is the greatest challenge of writing for a modern audience? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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20 of the Most Instructive Quotes About Writing

quotes for writersI’ve been really into writing quotes lately. Many of the posts I write are inspired by great things I read from other authors, so I decided to go on a hunt through my archives and find twenty of my favorite instructive quotes about writing.

There’s so much wisdom to be found in our fellow writers. And because writers are, well, writers, their wisdom is usually framed in incredibly beautiful and eloquent terms.

I hope you enjoy these insights from twenty great minds, covering everything from the specifics of the craft to the challenges of the lifestyle to the power of the calling.

1. Writing When Life Is Busy

I have four kids and my life is very demanding, loud, messy and chaotic. I had to get into these spaces mentally where I was creating and visualizing scenes while cutting vegetables, driving in a car pool or waiting for somebody’s soccer practice to be finished. If I found myself thinking about things that were not really important, I would stop myself and envision a scene.—Julianna Baggott

2. Telling the Truth

The thing that I absolutely live by is you have to tell the truth. I know that sounds very simplistic. But I think that … if you’re enjoying yourself too much and if you’re intruding too much on a character or the voice of a character, [or] if you find that you’re stepping back from that character and that situation and you’re commenting on it–you’re not doing your job. You need to be as true and as empathic to that moment as possible. You can’t be at a remove.—David Margulies

3. Punctuating

I tell my students: If you are a writer, you have more power than the greatest tyrant in the world because of punctuation. You get to tell people how to breathe.—Alicia Anstead

4. Writing Surprising Prose

…think about language by its degree of strangeness…. [I] don’t want the sentences to feel entirely familiar, either. If I find myself describing a character’s eyes, for example, I’m probably going to try to avoid verbs like “glint,” or “sparkle” because those are verbs a reader has seen paired beside “eyes” many times before—maybe so many times that they have lost some of their original power.—Anthony Doerr

5. Creating Dimensional Characters

Dimension means contradiction: either within deep character (guilt-ridden ambition) or between characterization and deep character (a charming thief). These contradictions must be consistent. It doesn’t add dimension to portray a guy as nice throughout a film, then in one scene have him kick a cat.—Robert McKee

6. Finding the Human Story

There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they never happened.—Willa Cather

7. Separating Theme From Message

Theme is also not the same as message. A message, by my definition, is a political statement. It is a principle that concerns people in a particular situation and is not universally applicable to any member of the audience.—Michael Hauge

8. Separating Verisimilitude From Reality

Is realism what people read novels for? No. A novel must have verisimilitude, that is, the appearance of reality, within the context of the world created by the book. But realism?—William Bernhardt

9. Reading

Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.—Lemony Snicket

10. Balancing Humility and Confidence

Writers have to simultaneously believe the following two things:

The story I am now working on is the greatest work of genius ever written in English.

The story I am now working on is worthless drivel.—Orson Scott Card

11. Writing to Reveal Not Conceal

…words are a means to reveal, not something to hide behind. One of the great mistakes of writing is to think of it as a way to impress people in order to escape or obscure our own personal shortcomings.—David Corbett

12. Writing From the Subconscious

It took time to learn that the hard thing about writing is to let the story write itself, while one sits at the typewriter and does as little thinking as possible. It happened over and over again, and the beginner learned—when you start puzzling over an idea, and slowing down on the keys, the writing gets worse and worse.—Richard Bach

13. Foreshadowing

When you insert a hint of what’s to come, look at it critically and decide whether it’s something the reader will glide right by but remember later with an Aha! That’s foreshadowing. If instead the reader groans and guesses what’s coming, you’ve telegraphed.—Hallie Ephron

14. Filling the Well

[When] your story no longer stimulates you, excites you…. There can be all sorts of reasons. But one of the most common is that you’ve drawn too much from the well without refilling. The well, of course, is your own head. Your brain. Your consciousness. Your imagination. You’ve drained it of things that interest and intrigue you. Or, to put it another way, you’ve used the same story elements too often: the same ideas, the same settings, the same twists and compilations, the same characters.—Dwight V. Swain

15. Writing Even When You Don’t Feel Like It

Before I began to write tonight, I experienced an almost overwhelming loathing for my project. It took sheer will to throw me into that “once upon a time.” I think one main drawback is that I never think it’s going to be good enough, but ours is only the trying & you forsake your vision at the peril of your soul.—Gail Godwin

16. Co-Writing With the Reader

…the book doesn’t only belong to the writer, it belongs to the reader as well, and then together you make it what it is.—Paul Auster

17. Preparing the Ending

Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.—Kurt Vonnegut

18. Surpassing Talent

Talent, I have long told my students, is the assumptions we make about other people’s abilities that keep us from developing our own.—Barbara Baig

19. Writing Like No One Is Looking

…write without looking over [your] shoulder. Write it as if no one is going to read it. That’s what frees you. If you can stop thinking about critics, and your editor, and whether your book’s going to make it into the Times, and how long it is going to be on the list, I mean, that can totally free you up.—Terry McMillan

20. Writing to Fill the Hole in Your Heart

…I write to fill the hole in my heart. At any given time, all of us have an empty spot, one that is calling for companionship, for example, or for justice, love, romance, or a belly laugh. When I sit down to write, I look to see what hole needs filling at that particular moment. Sometimes that can be painful—but it can’t be ignored. Flat or uninteresting writing often signals something deeper that is being covered up.—Kathi Appelt

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What are you favorite quotes about writing? Tell me in the comments!

[Podcast Update: The podcast should be back next Monday! Yay! I’m finally all but over my five-week cold. Thanks for your patience this past month!]

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5 Ways Writers (Try to) Fake Their Way to Good Storytelling

good storytellingLast week, I found a meme on Pinterest that showed someone dispensing two different soft drinks into the same cardboard cup. One of the drink buttons was labeled “Feeling stressed out when writing” and the other was labeled “Feeling stressed out when you haven’t written.”

It’s funny because it’s true. The writing life is constantly high-tension. Every moment we spend writing (and many that we do not) comes with the demand that we remember and successfully execute dozens of different concepts. It’s no wonder the stress occasionally gets to us! (Pour me another soft drink, please.)

Writer Stress meme

In these moments of distraction or exhaustion (or, let’s admit it, sometimes just laziness), we don’t always give the page our all. We stick a half-cooked beat between two more important scenes. We doublespeak our way past technical inaccuracies. Or we not-so-deftly create a smokescreen to disguise a character’s less-than-authentic emotional evolution.

We all do it. I’ve done every single one of those things in every single book I’ve written—always hoping no one will notice. And sometimes they don’t. But it’s never something I’m proud of (i.e., haha, look what I got away with!). Rather, it’s always something that niggles at me once a book passes its grunt stage and starts cooling in post-publication.

It niggles because all these dodges point to the even more telling shortcut of faking it.

Fortunately for us, the sheer size and complexity of most narrative stories usually provides the cover of enough moving parts to distract from those few scenes where we painted in the mountains instead of going on location. Most readers will either miss or excuse the occasional moment of fakery.

But insofar as artistic integrity is important, we must guard against the temptation to just phone in our writing. The better we get at not phoning it in—at not faking it—the better our stories will become.

5 Ways Writers (Try to) Fake Good Writing

A few months ago, I read John Gardner’s classic writing instruction manual The Art of Fiction. One section particularly resonated with me. Veteran writing instructor that he was, he pulled no punches when describing a fatal “frigidity” that can undermine storytelling:

The writer lacks the kind of passion all true artists possess. He lacks the nobility of spirit that enables a real writer to enter deeply into the feelings of imaginary characters (as he enters deeply into the feelings of real people). In a word, the writer is frigid.

Basically, what ol’ John is saying here is that if my writing stinks, one of the reasons might well be that what I actually need to work on is my “nobility of spirit.” Owwwwch.

It sounds a little high-falutin. But I believe it’s true. There are any number of reasons writers might resist or repress their own nobility of spirit. The cause might be anything from inexperience (both in life and in writing), fear of failure or embarrassment, greed for money or fame, or even just confusion.

We all have these moments—when we turn away from the difficulty, the discipline, and sometimes even the pain of writing honestly and skillfully. Sometimes these moments last for a sentence, sometimes they last for a scene, and sometimes they permeate whole stories. Regardless, they are always symptomatic of at least a temporary “faking it.” The author is distancing himself from the rawness of the work.

And in so doing, he is failing.

Why? Because the very heart of storytelling is nothing more or less than a willingness to confront the rawness of life. It is only by doing so that we ever write anything that is true, anything that is real, anything that resonates—and by extension anything that truly entertains or influences.

Today, let’s consider five ways writers sometimes unwittingly try to fake their way past the hard parts of good storytelling.

1. Writing on the Surface

What makes for good storytelling? To me, the answer always comes down to two factors.

1. The story is entertaining. (It keeps my attention while I’m engaged with it.)

2. The story is insightful. (It stays with me after I’ve finished it.)

Although each individual reader or watcher’s mileage varies a little in determining which stories fit this bill, we usually find a general consensus in the stories that become lastingly popular.

The one other commonality found among these evergreen stories is the engine that first made them both entertaining and insightful. That engine is the author’s ability and willingness to dive under the story’s surface, straight into the deep end (and note this is just as true for fun adventure stories as it is for heavy dramas).

Gardner went on to say:

Strictly speaking, frigidity characterizes the writer who presents serious material, then fails to carry through—fails to treat it with the attention and seriousness it deserves. I would extend the term to mean a further cold-heartedness as well, the given writer’s inability to recognize the seriousness of things in the first place, the writer who turns away from real feeling, or sees only the superficialities in a conflict of wills, or knows no more about love, beauty, or sorrow than one might learn from a Hallmark card….

When a writer writes on the surface, she is trying to wring out all the advantages of her subject matter’s “good stuff,” without actually paying the price required to personally access and share that good stuff. Usually, that price begins to be paid in our own life experiences—and is then brought to the page with diligent and sometimes painful honesty.

We see this problem all the time in the concept of “following the market.” One writer breaks out with a story that feels unique in its earnestness and honesty. Other writers, thinking the original story’s success was due more to genre or concept than execution, try to cash in. Sometimes these writers are genuinely inspired as fans of the original work. But unless the writers can take that inspiration past a surface recreation into the zone of the deeply personal, they are seldom able to replicate the original’s success.

2. Stooping to the Fake Emotions of Sentimentality

I saw a shirt for sale the other day that proclaimed,

Feel all the feels.

This is exactly what writers must do. But true emotion on the page is more difficult to create than cheap sentimentality.

Sometimes, it can be difficult for an invested writer to initially tell the difference. Back in the day when I ran a critique service, I received dozens of manuscripts packed full of feels—but more than a few didn’t resonate. Many felt like the authors were phoning in genre conventions (“and they fell truly madly deeply!”) rather than searching their own souls for the truth within their characters’ experience.

To some extent, this is a newbie mistake, due as much to poor technique as anything. But even experienced authors can find themselves trying to shoehorn their characters into plot situations where they’re supposed to feel certain things—when, really, it’s not working. This is the classic problem of trying to make characters do “what they don’t want to do.” When this happens, it’s a sign the writer is (probably unconsciously) faking some part of the story. Gardner calls this sentimentality or…

…the faking of emotions the writer does not honestly feel.

3. “Respecting” the Audience Too Much

What “write for your audience” really means: Write a spiffin’ good book.

What “write for your audience” does not mean: Do whatever they want.

Allow me a rabbit trail, err, hedgehog trail…

A few weeks ago, fans of the video-game character Sonic the Hedgehog got a little spiky about the (admittedly really creepy) animation in his forthcoming movie of the same name. The movie’s peeps started freaking out and promised to completely redesign and reanimate the character before the movie drops.

I have zero investment in this film beyond my two cents that, yeah, eww, what were they thinking? I do tend to think a different design for the character would serve the movie better, although I have a feeling it will do little to ensure a box-office success, much less a good film.

But… all of this is to say I feel this incident points to something we’re seeing increasingly more of in storytelling circles: the creator bowing to the audience (or, in some cases, a specific portion of the audience).

The intent, of course, is to create a story that is exactly what the audience wants—and will, therefore, pay for. But as we can see from the slew of inglorious stories (especially movies) in recent years, you don’t get great art by polling your followers on social media.

Good storytelling is born out of the creator’s passion for every detail of a project. There is (or should be) a reason for every choice made in a story. Inevitably, as we revise, we realize not all those choices actually had reasons as good as we originally thought. So we kill some darlings. But we never kill them just because someone else tells us we should. We do it because we agree with an objective outside opinion, one we believe will improve the story we’ve labored over and loved for so long.

4. Disrespecting the Audience

On the flip side of the above, writers have no business ignoring their audiences. Living in an ivory tower and sniffing at the “poor slobs” down there who wouldn’t get good art if it smacked them in the faces is no better than caring too much what the audience thinks at the expense of your own vision.

Writing an excellent story is always about trying to see every moment and every choice from the readers’ perspective. How will they experience this? Have you written it so they will see it the same way you do? Or have you have taken it for granted they will follow you around anywhere you go, just because?

In his excellent common-sense guide The Secrets of Story, Matt Bird points out:

Getting an audience to truly care about any character, even an ostensibly “likable” one, is tremendously hard. It requires an overwhelming act of shared empathy on the writer’s part.

Don’t miss that last part about “shared empathy.” No faking allowed. If you want your audience to believe in your story, the first reader who has to believe in it is you.

5. Discounting the Importance of Story

I will never believe a story—any story—is unimportant. Every story is a building brick in our world. Shoddy bricks contribute to walls that will crumble. Solid bricks, however, build bridges to the future.

This is why I believe storytellers bear a great responsibility. Maybe, like me, you started out writing just to have fun. Some people start camping for the same reason. But they’ll tell you that the moment they step into the woods or the mountains, they become responsible for the world all around them. They’re responsible to protect the trees from their campfires. They’re responsible to protect ecosystems from their trash. They’re responsible to protect animals from themselves and themselves from animals. It’s not just fun and games.

So it is with writing a story. The moment we start crafting those exhilarating on-page experiences—and especially the moment we first share those pages with someone else—we become responsible for the effect—great or small, good or bad—of our writing upon the world.

Gardner again:

When the amateur writer lets a bad sentence stand in his final draft, though he knows it’s bad, the sin is frigidity. He has not yet learned the importance of his art, the only art or science in the world that deals in precise detail with the causes, nature, and effects of ordinary and extraordinary human feeling. When a skillful writer writes a shallow, cynical, merely amusing book about extramarital affairs, he has wandered—with far more harmful effect—into the same unsavory bog.

There are so many “fake” stories out there, so many trashy stories, so many crumbling bricks. I’ve contributed some myself, which is why I think perhaps the most important pursuit for any writer is for us to, first, learn to sniff out our own fakery and then to strengthen the mental muscles required to confront and overcome it.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Can you think of any more ways writers sometimes “fake it” instead of going the extra mile with their stories? Tell me in the comments!

(My apologies to those who prefer to listen to the podcast, rather than read the post. I’m still trying to beat this Cold From Hell, so I can get my voice back well enough to record.)

The post 5 Ways Writers (Try to) Fake Their Way to Good Storytelling appeared first on Helping Writers Become Authors.

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Critique: 8 Quick Tips for Show, Don’t Tell

show don't tellThe key to immersive story experiences is convincing readers they’re right there with characters. They’re smelling the ash in the air, tasting the rain, feeling the churning gut, seeing all the same colors, hearing all the same notes. When narrative writing accomplishes that level of verisimilitude, it has the ability to move readers beyond their comfy reading chairs, beyond even the movie projectors in their heads, and right into a deeply visceral experience.

When done well, we call this technique “show, don’t tell.” This is actually an umbrella term for hundreds of little tricks that all combine to create strong narrative writing. If you master show, don’t tell, you will have largely mastered narrative writing itself.

This is why show, don’t tell is such a popular, pervasive, and challenging topic for all writers. It’s usually one of the first techniques we stumble over when we get serious about our writing, and it’s one we continue to tweak with every book we write.

I’ve written about the topic before—both about the basics and about more advanced approaches. Today, however, I want to use our ongoing series of “excerpt analyses” to explore several specific ways you can knit showing into the fabric of your story.

Learning From Each Other: New WIP Excerpt Analysis

Today’s post is the third in an ongoing series in which I am analyzing the excerpts you all have shared with me. My approach to these critiques is a little different from those you normally see on writing blogs. Instead of editing each piece, I’m focusing on one particular lesson that can be drawn from each excerpt, so we can deep-dive into the logic and process of various useful techniques.

Today, my thanks to Gary Myers for sharing the following excerpt from his historical novel Vaderland. Let’s take a look (the bolded entries and superscript numbers will correspond with the tips I’ll talk about in subsequent sections):

The young woman deftly unclipped the limit chain and moved it aside, immediately regretting not being more careful1 as the metal sign suspended below it clanged loudly against the rail.2 Swiftly,3 she lifted the hems of her skirts, took the first step up the steep stairs, and spun around to reattach the chain. One hand on the rail, the other pulling her skirts aside so she could see the narrow steps, she rose4 quickly to the deck above.

Hurried along by a stiff and steady wind angling down from the North Sea, the frigid December air immediately buffeted her as she emerged onto the port side of the open Boat Deck.5 How foolish, she thought, not to have thought of that. To not have realized how sheltered the Promenade Deck below had been.6 Outside, of course, but, at least on the starboard side where she had started, protected by the main deck house from the full force of the icy wind that blew from the northwest. Barely checked by the low marshlands in the estuary of the River Scheldt in northern Belgium, and totally unimpeded for the last thousand feet as it swept across the river itself, it slammed into her slight figure just as forcefully as it did into the new and untested steel-plated hull of the twin screw steamer Vaderland.

She resisted the urge to wrap her arms about her and rub her shoulders to warm herself. It was painfully obvious that a crisply starched shirtwaist was unsuitable for these conditions; returning to her cabin to don the grey wool jacket and cape that matched her skirt would be the prudent course of action. But Liza Dodson could withstand the memory of cold and discomfort more readily than that of not having been up to the task. That was unacceptable, and as unthinkable to her as smiling sweetly and acting helpless of body and thoughtless of mind.

It wasn’t that she was unable or hadn’t learned her lessons. As a child she’d discovered that even a face described as “pleasant enough” and dull blond hair that hung limply around it would usually be sufficient to get her way if she smiled and cocked her head just so. By the time she’d escaped awkward teenage years, she’d discovered the same of a figure judged only “more than passable,” even with her midriff stayed, her back forced into a graceful arch and her posture thus corrected. Had she chosen to behave as expected, she was fully capable of employing both face and figure to the desired effect, as most would willingly do. But she was not most and would not—could not—tolerate behavior that indicated she was less than she was. And what she could not tolerate in herself she suffered poorly in others, men and women alike.7

Ignoring the wind and the cold, she set about her task8 and found it no challenge at all, or at least not what she’d expected. She’d thought it would be difficult to find the object of her quest amidst the clutter of the Boat Deck.

Not intended for access by the passengers, as the metal sign on the limit chain had politely but sternly informed and instructed, it was clearly designed with little thought toward easy navigation, rendering it unsuitable for casual foot traffic as well. The port row of lifeboats hung from their davits, looming over her and crowding her from the right, while to her left towered the bridge and the two tall black funnels with the broad white stripes indicating the ship belonged to the Red Star Line. On center-line with the funnels, she could make out the low skylights for the dining rooms and saloons, surrounded by an assortment of fan housings, pumps, winches and water tanks. Ducts, pipes and steel cables of all sizes crisscrossed the deck at her feet; more cables, stays for the funnels and masts, zigged and zagged through the air at a variety of angles in front of her. Trumpet-shaped vents of all sizes littered the landscape, their flared openings bent at right angles to cylindrical bases that disappeared into the deck.

The description in the final paragraph is an excellent example of showing. Through well-chosen details, we are allowed to see what the protagonist sees. The ship comes to life before our eyes.

The earlier paragraphs, on the other hand, provide us an opportunity to look at ways we can all strengthen the force of our narrative writing (especially in the beginning of a story) by avoiding several sneaky instances of telling.

8 Tips to Spot Telling and Strengthen Showing

One of the reasons show, don’t tell is so difficult to master is that it is first of all difficult to understand. What exactly is showing? Most of the time, authors in search of this elusive skill will rightfully start out striving to use strong action verbs and write vibrant descriptions (as Gary did in his final paragraph). But there’s more to show, don’t tell than just that. Today, I want to point out several examples that aren’t always at the top of show, don’t tell guideline lists, but which are vital to strong narrative writing.

1. Never Name an Emotion

In the first sentence, the unnamed POV character “immediately regret[s] not being more careful.” This is perhaps the sneakiest of all bits of telling—and also one of the most potentially damaging. If we do our jobs right as writers, we should never need to directly tell readers what our characters are feeling. Rather, their emotion—joy, sorrow, confusion, regret—should emanate from the powerful context we have created.

Initially, this one can be a head-scratcher. How else would you let readers know a character is experiencing regret? Sometimes, admittedly, there is no other way. But usually, if you take a moment to consider how someone would act—facial expressions, body language, physiological reactions, thoughts, language, etc.—in a specific situation, you can show readers the appropriate emotion. Perhaps the character immediately flinches, bites her lip, and looks around to see if anyone noticed.

2. Let Cause and Effect Work for You

One of the easiest ways to let showing emerge from your writing is to adhere to causal order. By letting events unfold chronologically, you are giving readers their best chance to experience the story with your characters.

Let’s take a look at the entirety of the excerpt’s opening sentence:

The young woman deftly unclipped the limit chain and moved it aside, immediately regretting not being more careful as the metal sign suspended below it clanged loudly against the rail.

Did you catch that the event described in the third part of the sentence (“the metal sign … clanged”) actually happens before the second part (her immediate regret)? This means readers experience the character’s regret before they have any idea what she’s regretting. Even when the disorientation lasts no more than a split second, it still jars readers.

Fortunately, the fix is as easy as organizing sentences to reflect proper cause and effect.

3. Avoid Adverbs

Stephen King famously told us:

The road to hell is paved with adverbs.

Many writers buck this. Adverbs, after all, are perfectly good parts of speech! But there are good reasons for King’s hyperbolic frustration, one of the biggest being the reality that an over-reliance on adverbs often contributes to telling instead of showing.

In today’s excerpt, we can count twenty-two adverbs ending in “-ly.” All but two or three could be deleted to the narrative’s benefit. Although nothing beats a well-placed adverb, adverbs are too often a demand for readers to see the story in a certain way. Instead of telling readers the character “swiftly lifted” her skirt, it’s usually better to show her “snatching up” her skirts, or some more evocative (but less bossy) equivalent.

And that brings me to…

4. Choose Verbs for Maximum Impact

There is no single show, don’t tell rule more important than that of choosing strong verbs. As Kingsley Amis points out:

If you are using an adverb, you have got the verb wrong.

Multitudinous adverbs usually signify one of two problems:

  1. The verbs are weak.
  2. The verbs are strong, but you don’t trust them.

If we cut all the “-ly” adverbs from our excerpt, we’d see most of the verbs are strong enough to carry the narrative by themselves.

That said, we might also want to examine whether all the verb choices are strong enough to really show readers what they’re supposed to be seeing. For example, at the end of the first paragraph, we’re told the character “rose quickly” to the upper deck. This might be an appropriate verb if the character were floating upwards or riding an elevator or even just getting her to feet from a sitting position. Under the circumstances, however, the verb is not evocative enough to show readers what is actually happening. Just saying she “hurried up the stairs” or, even better (if appropriate), she “ran up the stairs two at a time,” presents a more accurate, and therefore more visual, picture.

5. Use Paragraph Breaks to Organize Information

In our last excerpt analysis, I talked about how writers can use paragraph breaks to organize information and to subtly indicate to readers what’s about to happen. This isn’t so much a specific rule of show, don’t tell, as it is a helpful aid for making sure readers are given the clearest path to experiencing every aspect of the story. When different types of information are grouped within the same paragraph, the reader’s experience can grow muddy.

For example, the excerpt’s second paragraph opens with a visceral bit of setting information (“a stiff and steady wind”), followed by the character’s internal reaction, followed by further setting details. This information would become more accessible if it were split into three separate paragraphs:

Paragraph #1: [Setting as an “actor” within the scene.]

Paragraph #2: [Character thoughts.]

Paragraph #3: [Setting description.]

6. Avoid Thought Tags (and Reconsider Direct Thoughts)

One of the best ways to unite your readers’ experience with your character’s is via your POV character’s inner thoughts. “Direct thoughts” are shared in present-tense, phrased similarly to out-loud dialogue. That’s what we see toward the beginning of the excerpt’s second paragraph:

How foolish, she thought.

Surprisingly, character thoughts are one of the trickier aspects of narrative. Framed inappropriately, they often feel intrusive (direct thoughts, in general, are much more intrusive than “indirect thoughts,” which require no special punctuation or attribution).

One of the easiest ways to trim “telling” from your character’s thoughts is to cut as many thought tags as possible. As long as it’s clear the sentences in question are the character’s thoughts, there’s no need to tell readers “she thought.”

7. Watch for Info Dumps

One of the most obvious “tells” is the info dump. Any time you find yourself sharing a paragraph’s worth of information, consider whether you might, in fact, be dumping it on your readers. This approach is especially tempting in your story’s opener, since it often feels like readers need certain chunks of information right away. Usually, though, they don’t.

The excerpt’s fourth paragraph tells us some important things about the protagonist. But note the key word: it tells us. This is the kind of paragraph I inevitably write in my own openers. It’s the kind of thing I need to get out of my system in the first draft. But with any luck, I find and delete it before the book gets out to readers. Why? Because there is no aspect of showing more important than characterization. Readers don’t want to be told who your characters are; they want to get to know them on their own terms.

Writers rarely need these info dumps as much as they think they do. Do we really need anything in the paragraph in question? Basically, it’s telling us the protagonist conforms to societal expectations but doesn’t really like them—and that’s exactly what we’ve already been shown via her tentative rule-breaking.

8. Keep the Scene Focused on Action via Character Goals

Here’s a rule of thumb: it’s much easier to show when a scene features moving parts. This is true not just of physical movement, such as the character sneaking above deck, but even more so of plot movement.

Can you pinpoint the moment in the excerpt when the story’s interest level picks up?

It’s the moment, in the fifth paragraph, when the narrative indicates the protagonist has a goal:

She set about her task.

It’s no coincidence that this is also the point where the excerpt’s descriptive showing becomes more evocative. Why? Because at this point the scene has finished its set-up and is ready to get down to business.

Not only is this a good example of why it’s best to start your scenes with the hook of your character’s goal, it’s also a great example of how show, don’t tell is integral to so many other “rules” of good writing.

If ever you find yourself struggling with too much telling in a scene, first make sure your character has a goal, then make sure the character is actively pursuing that goal. And vice versa—if ever you find you’re writing a flaccid scene that just won’t take off, consider whether maybe you’ve packed a lot of unnecessary telling in there somewhere, especially at the beginning.


Show, don’t tell is one of the most foundational aspects of good writing. It is the vehicle that allows readers to cruise through your story, enjoying all the sights along the way. Without this important skill, you will have difficulty convincing readers to engage with what might otherwise be excellent characters and strong story structure. With it, though, many other important writing skills—everything from voice, pacing, description, characterization, and even scene structure—fall into place!

My thanks to Gary for sharing his excerpt, and my best wishes for his story’s success. Stay tuned for more analysis posts in the future!

You can find further excerpt analyses linked below:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What has been your biggest breakthrough with show, don’t tell? Tell me in the comments!

[Sorry, no podcast this week. I’ve got a bad cold and was too hoarse to record.]

The post Critique: 8 Quick Tips for Show, Don’t Tell appeared first on Helping Writers Become Authors.

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Helping Authors Become Artists

helping authors become artists pinterstIn view of this site’s title, it’s not surprising people often ask, “What’s the difference between a writer and an author?”

Usually, I admit it’s a cheeky sophistry, since there is no true distinction, save for the common connotation that an “author” is somehow more professional. A writer is just someone who scribbles; an author is someone who has arrived, probably by having been published. At any rate, the title has always indicated my intention that this site should encourage growth among writers—myself first and foremost.

Unintentionally, this blog has become the chronicle of my life. I don’t often write about my life, but as I look back through the archives of the last eleven years, I can chart not only my personal growth, as both writer and woman, but also the arc of my interest in the art and craft of writing.

The super-early posts were the ones about being a “writer.” When I wrote them, I was just grubbing it out, still learning how to put one word in front of the other. I was interested in mastering things like “show vs. tell” and basic ideas about the nature of subconscious creativity.

A few years later, I discovered story theory—story structure, scene structure, character arcs, theme—and my enthusiasm cranked into high gear. I consider the posts that emerged during these years to be about becoming an “author.” This was the period when I was embracing concepts and principles to which I would now point storytellers for help in taking that symbolic step from mere “writer” to seasoned “author.”

But… what comes after that?

After you’ve made the jump from writer to author, what’s left?

I’ve been pondering this for a couple years now, both in my own journey as a writer, but perhaps even more urgently in regard to the blog itself. What can I write about that I haven’t written about before? (After 11 years and 1,300+ posts, it becomes a poignant question!)

Recently, I think I’ve discovered the answer.

Helping Writers Become Authors Become Artists

No, I’m not going to change the name of the site. 😉

And, yes, this is a little bit more of that same sophistry. After all, if you’re a writer, you’re already an artist. (As an aside, I have always firmly believed the angst we sometimes feel about our right to the title of “writer” is misplaced. If you write, you are a writer. You don’t have to be a genius to be a writer. You don’t have to be published. You don’t even have to be any good yet. You write, therefore you are a writer. Same goes for being an artist.)

But as with the subtle distinction between “writer” and “author,” I believe the title “artist” connotes something a little bigger, a little grander, a little more dedicated, a little more responsible, and a little more accomplished.

As a reader and viewer, I desire art. I don’t want “just” stories—even ones told with proper form and decent style. I want art. I want transportation. I want to experience things I’ve never experienced before. I want characters who challenge me to rise and rise again. I want stories that are lovingly and consciously crafted by masters who understand the form, but who have ascended above mediocrity with absolute honesty about themselves and total respect to their audiences.

Even in our story-saturated culture, authors are few enough and artists are rare indeed.

What an Artist Is—and Is Not

1. An Artist Is… a Master Storyteller

In my little hierarchy, the artist stands on the shoulders of the author—a writer who has dedicated himself to the craft. Although I’m sure there are a few artists who were born instead of made, they are truly unusual. Artistic masters, in any medium, are those who have toiled. They have taken to heart Ernest Hemingway’s suggestion that:

We are all apprentices in a craft no one ever masters.

Being brilliant isn’t enough. Having a unique vision isn’t enough. A story burning upon your tongue like Isaiah’s coal isn’t enough. It isn’t enough even to string words together prettily or to properly construct a convincing story structure. So many people out there today can check all those boxes. And some of them are world-famous and rich-till-they-die. But they’re not all artists.

Artists are those who have gone beyond what is merely “proper” to a fully integrated understanding of how story lives and breathes throughout history and in every moment of our lives. In his classic The Art of Fiction, John Gardner writes:

What the young writer needs to develop, to achieve his goal of becoming a great artist, is not a set of aesthetic laws but artistic mastery. He cannot hope to develop mastery all at once; it involves too much. But if he pursues his goal in the proper way, he can approach it much more rapidly than he would if he went at it hit-or-miss.

2. An Artist Is… a “Poet Soul”

The “poet soul” is something special burning in the hearts of true artists. Actually, I think it probably burns in the heart of every person; artists are just the ones least likely to let the flame go out. By “poet soul,” I mean a quality that gives the artist an X-ray view of life. It is something within that resonates to Beauty and to Truth. It both feels deeply and strives to think clearly.

It is this that differentiates the stories of an artist. It’s the difference between Princess Mononoke and Shrek 3, between Persuasion and Twilight, between The Book Thief and Nancy Drew. This isn’t to say the latter choices are without value or that popular genre fiction can’t rise to art. Indeed, if a good fairy could pop down here right now and grant my top wish, it would be that the next story I experience could perfectly blend popcorn entertainment with true artistic sensibility.

The “poet soul” is not an excuse to get all hoity and esoteric. (If I have to watch one more color-muted, two-note soundtracked “auteur” film in which nothing happens beyond a talented actor mugging out her suffering onscreen, I might just start agreeing with the ubiquitous thematic insinuations that “all is meaningless.”)

Rather, the “poet soul” is a call to awareness and honesty—first as a person and then as an author. Combined with a solid mastery of the art of storytelling, this is radical leap to a new level.

3. An Artist Is… a Visionary Mind

I feel like a lot of wannabe artists skip right to this one. They have a vision for their story—whether it’s a catchy premise, a deep theme, or a unique style. By itself, this often and unfortunately offers little more than sound and fury. It starts off with great promise, only to fizzle out.

That said, having an “artistic vision” is a huge part of rising to become a true artist. When we are given the ability to step into someone else’s vision, we want it to be a good one—we want it to be a new experience, something at least slightly unique.

Willa Cather said:

There are only two or three human stories. But they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they never happened.

All writers are confined by this truth. But artists claim that word “fiercely” and tell their stories in that ever so distinctive way that makes even the most story-saturated audience see old truths in a new light.

4. An Artist Is Not… Someone Who Is Above the Form

Sometimes when we hear the word “artist” (usually, in these instances, pronounced “ah-tist”), the connotation is of a story that is utterly unique—perhaps even bizarre. The subtle suggestion here is often of someone of such brilliance he has no need, much less use for the rules of the artform.

Occasionally, I get emails from folks wondering if they really need to follow all these “rules” of structure and narrative. Almost inevitably, these are the same emails that randomly neglect capitalization and punctuation. Clearly, these writers haven’t yet put in the due diligence to even think about reinventing the form.

Very few memorable writers reinvent the form at all. Those who do, such as James Joyce with Finnegans Wake, tend to produce curious singularities rather than true reinventions. Instead, for the last several millennia, most of our most brilliantly artistic storytellers are those who have written squarely within a masterful understanding of storytelling—both classical and common. Even relatively “bizarre” authors such as Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner are riffing off the form, not ignoring it.

5. An Artist Is Not… a Hack

This is a tricky distinction. For example, the first person to pop to mind after I wrote that subtitle was Edgar Rice Burroughs—who created classic archetypal characters such as Tarzan and John Carter. Arguably, he was a hack. Arguably, so was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. For that matter, might not serial writers such as Dickens and Dostoevsky be piled in there?

These authors will be remembered in perpetuity. Even the pulpiest among them created stories that have forever impacted the social consciousness. That’s art at its most powerful. If they’re hacks, then they’re awfully impressive hacks.

Now, I can hardly presume to know why all these authors wrote. Perhaps some had the basest of motives for churning out the stories that would end up imprinting the world. But I think not. And that’s my point.

Artists have something to say. They have the “artistic vision” and “poet’s soul” (sometimes in spite of themselves). Even if they’re writing for the money (because who isn’t?), they’re not writing just for the money. Even if they’re a ghostwriter or studio writer, telling someone else’s stories, they’re still pouring themselves into those stories—even when it’s a slog, even when the inspiration isn’t there, even when everything in life resists them—there’s always something in them reaching onwards and upwards.

6. An Artist Is Not… a Propagandist

Again, this is a tricky one—because doesn’t every author have something to say? Perhaps it might even be especially true if that author is striving toward artistry? We all have our truths to tell. Some of them are truly true. Some are not. But all are valid if they are honestly ours.

So what makes the difference between an author’s “truth” and propaganda? The distinction is subtle (and extremely arguable), as well as being deeply influenced by the artist’s range of storytelling skills. To me, though, it comes down to the author’s focus. There’s a special something in those most unforgettable stories. They have something to say, but that it is not the sole reason for their existence, just as they also entertain without entertainment being their sole reason for existence.

Story as a form is inimitable in its ability to say something about the world without needing to say it directly. As legendary producer Samuel Goldwyn reportedly quipped:

If you want to send a message, try Western Union.

To me, that’s the entire secret of great art. It always has a message—but you don’t always notice.

7. An Artist Is Not… Pretentious

Granted, I’m sure we could come up with dozens of brilliant scribes who believe God thumbprinted their foreheads. Certainly, all writers must believe, at intervals, that we really have a story and a skill worth all the work. But believing in the work isn’t the same as a narcissistic insistence upon one’s “artistry.”

I really, really want to be an artist. I want to write something someday that is everything I’ve ever wanted a story to be. It doesn’t have to be famous or even recognized. But I hope someday just to write it. That’s my goal. And I do everything I can every day to build my life around that artistic pursuit. In the practical sense of ink-stained fingers, I absolutely think of myself as an artist. I pursue integrity in my work. I hone the craft. I have a vision for what I do.

But to think of myself as an “ah-tist,” who somehow has a clearer view of art than anyone else is ridiculous. I’ve been at this for a while and, as this post bears out, I have decided opinions. I believe artists should have decided opinions.

But we must also have wide-open minds. Like Ernest said, we’re all still apprentices—in life as well as art. To forget that is, I think, to instantly dim our poet’s soul.


Wherever your honest estimation of yourself finds you on the road from “writer” to “author” to “artist,” I hope you will join me in fanning our creative coals. Over and over, on this journey, I find myself discovering a bend in the road that leads to new and exciting possibilities for growth. Even if the title of “artist” is one you already possess, I encourage you to join me in thinking of it as a calling all its own, one worth striving toward with every word we write.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think an artist is… and is not? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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How to Use Your Outline When Writing Your First Draft

HOW TO USE YOUR OUTLINEOutlining your novel is one thing. But then, whether you prefer to outline with minimalism, maximalism, or hindsight (aka, in revisions), a surprisingly easy stumbling block can be that of figuring out how to use your outline in the first draft.

Recently, I received an email from Matt Powers, which made me realize that, out of all the dozens of posts I’ve written about outlining, I’ve never actually talked about how to use your outline when writing the first draft. Matt wrote:

I’ve read several of your writing books, as well as too many blog posts to count, and I don’t think I’ve seen this addressed. Forgive me if I missed it.

I have an extensive outline that I’m quite pleased with, and I’m about 40,000+ words into my first draft, but here’s the thing: I’m struggling with the actual writing and I can’t seem to get into the flow because I keep going back and forth between the draft and the outline. I have so much in my outline that I want to be sure to include, that I find I can only get a few sentences in before I’m pulled back to referencing the outline.

It’s like I have one eye on each, and it equals a slog of an experience!

I see tons of advice on how to create an outline, but very little on the practicality of actually using it. So I guess my question is, how do you utilize your outline when writing that first draft? How often are you referencing your outline as you write?

The How and Why of Outlining a Novel

For a long time, the writing world differentiated between writers who were “plotters” (those who planned/plotted a story before writing it) and writers who were “pantsers” (those who “write by the seat of their pants” with no upfront planning). However, over my years of outlining many books, writing many words about outlines, and learning about how other writers work, I’ve come to believe these distinctions are far too narrow.

At some point in the process, almost all writers end up outlining/plotting/planning. And at other points, we all end up pantsing/winging it/being spontaneously creative. In a craft as complex as that of novel-writing, both are equally important. How much outlining an author does upfront versus how much revision that same author does on the back end will vary greatly depending on each author’s personal mental wiring and creative preferences.

That said, let me now express a little of my personal passion for maximalist outlining. I write extensive outlines, which start out with largely incoherent stream-of-conscious ramblings and questioning, before eventually solidifying into detailed scene outlines that contain just about everything a first draft should except for narrative prose.

For example, here’s a snippet of the scene outline from my gaslamp fantasy Wayfarer (from the scene in which he “contracts” his super-speed):

Will flees for home. The trip is a blur. He’s nauseated, vomiting, and horribly dizzy, heart beating out of control, short of breath. I think that the powers should manifest just a little bit: his hands moving quicker than he’s used to, so he has trouble with the door latch. But he chalks it up to his illness.

And here’s approximately the same snippet from the corresponding scene in the first draft:

Through the weed-eaten garden, Will ran. Up and over first one stile, across the road, then the other stile. The night air cut through the sweat on his face. Even as he ran, his teeth rattled cruelly.

For the first time since he was a lad running this field at night, he caught his toe and fell on his face. Before he hit the soft soil, his stomach erupted. He vomited, and then he vomited again. The stars in the sky spun and spun, in every direction, up and down, in front and behind.

On hands and knees, he dragged himself forward, barely gaining his feet.

This time, there was no running; indeed, he could scarcely walk. He splashed into the knee-high stream before its gentle splashing even registered in his ears. He crossed without looking for the bridge. He would have been unable to see it in any case.

He staggered up to the house. His vision had gone completely dark, so maybe there was no light in the window.

>>Click here to read the complete transcript of my outline for my dieselpunk adventure Storming.

My goal in writing any outline is to, first, pour out all of my “dreams” about a given story. I want to number all the shiny pieces my subconscious creativity has given me.

Then, by the time I’m done with the outline, I want to have moved as thoroughly as possible through the first analytical pass. I use my scene outlines to work through a story’s logical progression. I want to figure out as many of the details as possible, everything from what props are available in a particular scene’s setting, to the specific action/reaction sequence of each scene’s structure, to the motivations of all on-stage minor characters.

In other words, I try to use my outline to answer every single question I can think of before I start writing the first draft. I do this for two intertwined reasons.

1. I want to write a clean first draft (because revisions:blech).

2. When writing my first draft, I want to turn away from my logical brain and immerse myself utterly in the imaginative dreamzone space of my story.

I can’t do the latter if my logical brain is always turning into Hermione-raising-her-hand-every-five-minutes. And I certainly can’t do both simultaneously if I haven’t already checked off the bulk of any story’s necessary causal analysis and troubleshooting.

This is why I outline. But how do I then take all these tens of thousands of words from my outline and seamlessly integrate them into the creative zone of my first draft?

5 Tips for How to Use Your Outline

How you choose to reference your outlining notes during the first draft will depend largely on the format of the notes themselves.

Writers who prefer the minimalist approach may create outlines that feature only a single phrase for each suggested scene, or even just a phrase for each important structural beat. In this case, referencing the outline is a comparatively simple and intuitive activity, since you’ll probably only need to check your notes at the beginning of each writing session. (In fact, some of these writers end up filling in their outlines simultaneously with their first drafts, as a way of keeping track of what they’re writing, for easy continuity checks.)

But what if, like me, you end up with enough outline notes to form a respectable pile of notebooks?

Completed Novel Outline Wayfarer K.M. Weiland

Completed outline for my gaslamp fantasy Wayfarer

In the case of maximalist outliners, it becomes essential to create a system for accessing all those juicy notes you’ve labored over, without constantly pulling yourself out of first-draft flow.

(Needless to say, writers who prefer to wait until after the first draft is altogether finished to do their logical thinking will have few, if any, notes to start with. Depending on the extent of required revisions, these authors may end up, to all essential purposes, following either the minimalist or maximalist crowd.)

Here are my top tips for organizing and using your outline notes, however few or many they may be.

1. Organize the Notes as You Go

Here’s the thing about piles upon pile of rambling notes that circle around randomly: they get to be a mess quick. This is especially true if you outline longhand like I do (if you’re interested in following my outlining process in a tidy digital approach, check out my Outlining Your Novel Workbook software).

The trick is to organize your outline notes as you’re writing them. Use color-coded highlighting systems to file your ideas for easy reference later. If you’re writing longhand, transcribe regularly (especially if, like moi, you can’t read your own writing after too much time passes). This will save you a ton of work in the interim between outline and first draft. You can thank me later.

Scene Outline Dreambreaker Highlights

2. Buy Scrivener

You can, of course, write and use even the most complex of outlines without Scrivener. But this powerhouse word processor for writers just makes everything so much easier. With its opportunities for folders and files and sub-files, among many other organizational gadgets, its a huge step up from juggling your story’s outline and first draft between separate Word files.

By the time I’m ready to write my first draft, I will have used Scrivener to organize my outline notes scene by scene, along with many sub-folders for reference material that includes everything from research notes to costume pictures to character interviews to the random bits of story info I call “orange notes” (because of the highlighter I use to color-code them).


This way, if I find myself needing to break concentration to check something, I don’t have to go far. With everything at my fingertips, I can quickly check myself, then jump back into writing.

3. Block Out a Beat-by-Beat “Storyboard” for Each Scene, But…

Now that we have our outline notes set up and optimally organized within Scrivener, what’s the best approach to referencing the notes without bumping out of the writing zone every five minutes?

Each time I begin writing a new scene, I review my notes and create a sequential list of everything that needs to happen in the scene. The list I used for the scene from Wayfarer, in the original section of this post, started out something like this:

  • Will is dizzy as he runs home across the field.
  • He trips and vomits.
  • He tries to get into the house, but his reflexes are too fast.

In essence, I’m creating a non-visual storyboard, with each beat blocked out.

4. …Don’t Do It Until the Last Minute

You’ll note I do this storyboarding whenever I’m ready to start writing a new scene. Feasibly, you could go ahead and write up the complete beat list for every scene before you start the first draft. This is an approach I consider with every book I write—and one I always reject.


Because my memory is faulty. I write best when I know what I’m writing. If I have to take a little time at the beginning of every scene to think my way through my scene outline, then I know my head will be in the right place. If I merely scanned a beat list I might have written months ago, I would inevitably miss some important moment on the list and end up constructing the scene inappropriately.

Writing up each scene’s beat-by-beat sequence refreshes my memory and lets me take full advantage of all the notes and ideas I labored over when in the outlining phase.

5. Paste Your Beat List Directly Into Your Scene Doc

Once I’ve knocked out my beat list, I put it in the main body of my scene’s Scrivener file. I position it on the screen so the first item of the list is just above the bottom of the screen, directly in my line of sight. This way, I can easily glance down and reference the beat I’m working on.

Wayfarer Chapter Five Outline in Process

As soon as I finish the beat, I’ll delete it, which raises the subsequent beat into view. Sometimes, of course, I won’t need to reference every beat. I may write several beats before needing to look down and check my progress.

This approach allows me to focus on bringing to life the first draft’s causes and effects without having to constantly click out of full-screen mode to make sure I’m adhering to the logical progression I already worked out.


Is this the most elegant approach to dealing with maximalist outline notes? Maybe not. It does require a little extra work before each scene. But over my years of outlining and writing almost a dozen novels, this is the method I’ve found most useful. It helps me make full use of my outlines and, as a result, allows me to write relatively clean first drafts from a place of uninterrupted creativity. As far as I’m concerned, that’s win-win!

How you outline, how much you outline, and how you use your outline when writing your first draft are all deeply personal parts of the writing process. Only you can figure out the nuances that will position you to write your best novel. But these tips may help you decide your own personalized tricks.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you outline upfront? Has it been a challenge for you to figure out how to use your outline when writing the first draft? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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What Is the Relationship Between Plot and Theme?

plot and themeSometimes plot and theme are confused as being basically the same thing. Other times, they’re viewed as so distinct they don’t even belong in the same discussion.

So which is it?

First questions first: is plot basically the same thing as theme? To some degree, the answer is yes. Or, at least, intuitive phrasing often links them.

Let’s consider, for example, Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. One way of summing up this novel is as follows:

A poor woman and a rich man improbably fall in love.

Plot or theme?

If you’ve been following our informal series of posts exploring the various aspects of theme, then you probably already know the answer. What this premise reveals about Pride & Prejudice is plot. How do we know? Because what’s described is all external action; it tells what happens in the characters’ world. Even in a romance or social novel, in which much of the “action” is confined primarily to verbal exchanges or even to just the characters’ thoughts and emotions, we know we’re dealing with plot when we’re dealing with anything that references a linear progression of events or realizations.

The theme of Pride & Prejudice, of course, is obvious, since Austen spelled it out in the title.

Pride and Prejudice 2005 Elizabeth and Darcy Pemberley

Now consider another proposed premise for Pride & Prejudice, and tell me if this one is about plot or theme:

A poor woman and a rich man are able fall in love only after overcoming their mutual prides and prejudices.

It’s both, right?

And this is where we find that inherent link between plot and theme.

Plot and theme are not the same thing. As already discussed, theme is an abstract argument (moral or existential) that proposes a truth about reality. But without plot, theme is nothing but an idea. It’s a theory to perhaps be discussed over coffee with friends or colleagues. But it’s a not a story.

A story is what you get when a theme meets a plot. In our second premise, we see how vital one is to the other. The plot (“falling in love”) provides the exterior action that proves (or disproves) the theme’s proposed argument (“pride and prejudice are both roadblocks to meaningful romantic relationships”). In turn, the theme provides a why to the plot’s how.

Plot and theme are neither identical, nor segregated. Rather, plot joins theme and character as the third and most visible of any of storyform’s Big Three. Plot is the load-bearer of the partnership. Not only must it produce a story experience that is both convincing and entertaining, it must also take on the substantial weight of providing the characters with the external conflict that will force them to engage with theme.

Plot Should Always Be About Theme

What’s a story about? That’s an extremely broad question. As we talked about last week, the answer any given person provides might be variously plot-, character-, or theme-centric. But as we’ve also talked about before, the true answer is always theme. What this means for writers at its most practical level is that what your plot is about is theme.

Plot and theme must be linked at such a granular level that it becomes difficult to describe the specifics of one without at least hinting at the specifics of the other.

Or put another way: plot and theme will be linked, whether you plan it or not.

The decisions your characters make and the actions they perform will always comment on reality in some way. When a character gets away with murder—or falls in love at first sight—or becomes a conscientious objector—or succumbs to alcoholism—all of their stories will inevitably say something about how reality is or at least how the author thinks it should be.

Your story will say these things whether you plan it or not, whether you even recognize it or not. Sometimes these oblivious breathings of our subconscious minds provide the most seamless and powerful themes of all. But even more often, an author’s lack of awareness about his plot’s message will lead him to one or both of two undesirable outcomes:

1. The plot ends up “proving” something the writer never intended.

2. The writer unintentionally proves one thing via the plot, while consciously trying to prove another thing through a pasted-on theme that isn’t actually borne out by the story’s events.

The former can arise from the author’s over-reliance on plot conventions. Instead of searching out honest answers from within herself, the author just reaches for the same old familiar stand-by she’s seen in a hundred other shoot-em-ups or romances. As readers or viewers, we’ve all experienced these stories—the ones that expect us to believe the good guys did the right thing just because they’re the good guys or that the romantic leads fell deeply and lastingly in love just because they’re young and hot and had a meet-cute.

In contrast, the latter arises from the author’s good intentions but poor understanding of what his story was really about. He intended one theme, but failed to realize the events created in the plot were actually speaking to another thematic argument altogether. The result is an erratic story that, at best, presents two different themes. At worst, it fails in its presentation of both.

5 Questions to Align Plot and Theme

Creating a fully-formed story with a mutual plot and theme is one of the highest aspirations of any writer. Doing so requires skill, and that skill requires awareness. Following are five crucial questions you can use to gut-check yourself about whether or not you’ve married your theme to the right plot—and vice versa.

1. Why This Plot? Why This Theme?

Two questions for the price of one—because, seriously, this is probably the most important query you can make in examining your story’s effectiveness. Why must your character endure this particular plot in order to learn this particular theme? If there is no obvious connection, then either the plot or the theme is the wrong choice.

2. Does This Plot Facilitate a Character Arc That Proves Your Theme?

Your story inspiration may originate with any of the Big Three, but assuming for the moment that it originated with theme, you need to bring your investigation full circle. The theme must be proven within the character arc (via the Lie/Truth debate at the heart of the character’s inner conflict), and that character arc must alternatively cause or be caused by the plot. For the storyform to work, all three must be linked.

You can, of course, proceed with this same investigation no matter which of the Big Three is your entry point. If you’re starting with a plot idea (or if you’ve already finished your first draft), ask yourself just what the events of this plot—and your character’s journey through it—is saying about reality.

Or, if you’re starting with character, you can find the Lie/Truth at the heart of her arc and then circle around to find a plot to prove that specific theme.

Very often, when you are struck with an idea for one of the Big Three, you’ll get simultaneous ideas for one or both of the remaining two. Just make sure you’re not taking any one of them for granted.

3. Can Your Plot’s External Conflict Be a Metaphor for the Character’s Internal Conflict?

We already know theme and character arc are inherently linked. From there, one of the single best ways to get your head around the further symbiosis of plot and character is to think of the story’s external conflict as a metaphor for the inner conflict.

Once an Eagle by Anton MyrerFor instance, if the character is working through beliefs about pacifism, the appropriate external and visual metaphor for this conflict will very likely be a theater of war (or a century of wars, as in Anton Myrer’s Once an Eagle).

Or perhaps your character is arcing negatively into the degradation of deeper Lies, as in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, in which the antihero Heathcliff spends the second half of the book inflicting upon his enemies a grotesque reconstruction of his own childhood humiliations.

Wuthering Heights BBC Tom Hardy Charlotte Riley Heathcliff Cathy Linton

4. How Do the External Changes of Your Plot Catalyze Your Character’s Inner Changes?

For a storyform to work properly, the outer and inner conflicts must mirror one another. More than that, they must act upon one another. Every beat of the external plot must create enough inner turmoil that the character’s arc inevitably advances. And for every beat in the internal arc, the character’s changing mindset and motivation must be turned outward to actively affect the exterior events of the plot. Only through this interweaving of outer and inner causes and effects can a consistent theme be fully realized.

Proper scene structure can be a great aid in harmonizing the inner and outer conflicts. Although the entire structural sequence can apply fully to either the outer conflict or the inner conflict, usually it’s helpful to view the first half the structure (Scene: Goal > Conflict > Disaster) as active in the external conflict, and the second half (Sequel: Reaction > Dilemma > Decision) as the internal reaction that will, in turn, roll back around to impact the external conflict in the next Scene.

5. Have You Vetted the Thematic Pertinence of Every Scene?

A story is the sum of its scenes. Remember our example, above, of the author who wanted to write one theme but ended up with a plot that proved a different theme altogether? Very likely, the problem lay less in the overall plot than in a few individual scenes that got away from the author.

Consider every scene in your story. Just as each and every scene should sequentially advance plot via its external conflict, each and every scene should also be active in its service to the theme. It’s not enough to ask yourself, at the end of the book: What is this story saying? You must ask that question of every scene: What is this scene saying?

If the scene is saying something tangential to the thematic premise or, worse, at odds with it, you must reevaluate the scene’s effectiveness at every level. Like a mosaic, all your many different scenes must eventually combine to produce a meaningful big picture.


A story that is about theme is a story that has found its theme deep within its characters and used that theme to, in turn, create its plot. When an author can pull this off, story’s Big Three become integral to each other in a way that presents a powerful and compelling visual metaphor for even the most deeply personal and relatable moral quandaries.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How have you harmonized plot and theme in your story? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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