Characterization, the art of revealing fictional characters’ natures and personalities, has many facets. There are two main ways to reveal characters: direct characterization, and indirect characterization. What defines these two characterization types, and what are the strengths and weaknesses of each? Read on for tips and examples from literature:
Defining direct and indirect characterization
‘Direct characterization’ means the character details authors explicitly describe. For example, telling the reader a character’s desires, life philosophy or current emotional state explicitly.
An example of direct characterization
Here’s an example of direct characterization from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927). Woolf explicitly shows what characters think of one another. For example, an artist staying with the Ramsay family, Lily Briscoe, thinks about a man Mr. Bankes who has called Mr Ramsay a hypocrite:
‘Looking up, there he was – Mr. Ramsay – advancing towards them, swinging, careless, oblivious, remote. A bit of a hypocrite? she repeated. Oh no – the most sincere of men, the truest (here he was), the best; but, looking down, she thought, he is absorbed in himself, he is tyrannical, he is unjust…’ (p. 52).
This is direct – Woolf describes Mr. Ramsay’s traits directly – his self-absorption and so forth.
In contrast to direct characterization, ‘indirect characterization’ shows readers your characters’ traits without explicitly describe them. What types of indirect characterization are there? Any writing that helps us infer or deduce things about a person’s personality. For example:
Dialogue – (where a character’s bossy, kind, mean, or other qualities come through)
Actions – what a character does (for example jumping on a beetle to squash it) reveals, incidentally, their character (in this case that a character is needlessly unkind or violent)
Description – although associations differ from country to country, culture to culture, how a character looks often gives indirect characterization. We might assume, for example, a pale-skinned character is antisocial and hides away from the sun, like the recluse Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird
An example of indirect characterization
Here, John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath shows a character’s personality indirectly. He doesn’t say that hitchhiker Joad is a down-and-out, blue-collar worker. Instead, the indirect characterization uses the props a worker in the context would have – whiskey, cigarettes, calloused hands – to show Joad’s character.
‘Joad took a quick drink from the flask. He dragged the last smoke from his raveling cigarette and then, with callused thumb and forefinger, crushed out the glowing end. He rubbed the butt to a pulp and put it out the window, letting the breeze suck it from his fingers.’ (The Grapes of Wrath, p. 9)
So how do you use direct and indirect characterization well? Read tips for each:
Tips for using direct characterization
1. Don’t overdo it
Direct characterization is convenient. You can give readers information about your characters quickly, in a single phrase or sentence. For example, this direct character description of Mr Bounderby in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times (1854):
‘So, Mr Bounderby threw on his hat – he always threw it on, as expressing a man who had been far too busily employed in making himself, to acquire any fashion of wearing his hat.’ (p. 26)
In Dickens’ novel, wealthy Mr Bounderby constantly tells others about his impoverished background and what a self-made man he is. This direct characterization (his theatrically indifferent way of throwing on his hat) suggests his haste, his being ‘a busy man with important things to do’. Its thus fits his persona and backstory.
Keep direct characterization, as much as possible, to concise information relevant to your story. Blend direct and indirect characterization to develop your characters. Too much explicit telling about your characters’ personalities, at the cost of showing, could make them feel like bland collections of abstract nouns without specificity. For example, here is bad direct characterization:
‘He was a hopeless man, a mix of dejected self-pity and self-loathing, fear being the main cause of his state.’
This doesn’t give us specifics: How does he look, because of these qualities? What is it this man fears?
2. Use direct characterization for key character details
When introducing characters for the first time particularly, use direct characterization to give readers essential details. It’s easier to remember simply states facts, e.g. ‘She was a kind woman.’ Consider, for example, our first introduction to the character named ‘Mother’s Younger Brother’ (we’ll abbreviate ‘MYB’) in E.L. Doctorow’s classic novel Ragtime (1975):
‘Down at the bottom of the hill Mother’s Younger Brother boarded the streetcar and rode to the end of the line. He was a lonely, withdrawn young man with blond moustaches, and was thought to be having difficulty finding himself.’ (p. 4)
Doctorow uses direct characterization to show MYB’s melancholic nature. As we read on, we learn MYB is in love with a famous chorus girl, Evelyn Nesbit. Doctorow passes into indirect characterization, describing the posters of Evelyn on the wall in MYB’s bedroom and his stalking of her to illustrate the extent of his obsessive nature.
This movement – from simple, direct characterization to broader character details given indirectly – creates a sense of character development. The direct characterization – MYB’s loneliness – is also relevant to his broader arc. Because he eventually has a brief (but unsatisfying fling) with Evelyn.
3. Introduce characters with direct characterization relevant to arcs
Effective direct characterization helps us picture characters’ appearances and know their primary goals, drives, and motivations. Some physical description is important, especially on first introduction. Yet the best physical description often tells us something about the character’s personality, too. And even links to their story arc, as MYB’s ‘lonely’ nature in Ragtime does.
Take another description from Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath:
‘He was not over thirty. His eyes were very dark brown and there was a hint of brown pigment in his eyeballs. His cheek-bones were high and wide, and strong deep lines cut down his cheeks, in curves besides his mouth […] His hands were hard, with broad fingers and nails as thick and ridges as little clam shells. The space between thumb and forefinger and the hams of his hands were shiny with callus.’ (p. 3)
The description of Tom Joad is fitting. We see how lined his face is for a man entering his thirties, and the calluses on his fingers attest to a life of hard work. His aged appearance makes more sense when we later discover Tom’s just been released from prison.
4. Focus on the unique and specific
Often, as beginning authors, we write character descriptions that end at ‘she had blue eyes and long brown hair’. Yet eye and hair colour doesn’t tell us what this specific character has that nobody else does. Instead, focus on specifics. For example, read how Margaret Atwood describes childhood friends (or ‘frenemies’) in her novel Cat’s Eye (1988). The protagonist Elaine is remembering her youth through a flashback, in the present tense:
‘We wear long wool coats with tie belts, the collars turned up to look like those of movie stars, and rubber boots with the tops folded down and men’s work socks inside.’ (p. 4)
This small bit of direct clothing description shows us preteen girls who are discovering their independence. Atwood uses these specific details to convey a strong sense of this age, as the girls become more independent and try appear more ‘grown up.’ These details make the characters’ age believable.
To write good direct characterization, describe details such as:
Clothing – what does it say about your character? Is their clothing sober, funky, revealing?
Identity – does your character identify with a particular subculture (e.g. Punk)? What does this say about them?
Personality – is your character mainly cheerful, sarcastic, melancholic? There’s no harm in the occasional abstract noun. Just make sure to show this quality through events, dialogue and other indirect means too
Tips for using indirect characterization
1. Use dialogue for indirect characterization
Great dialogue tells readers a lot about your characters. Its a useful tool for creating subtle yet revealing indirect characterization. It’s truly worth reading good play scripts for this reason, given that stage works are primarily dialogue based. Consider, for example, this exchange in A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) by Tennessee Williams:
Hey, there! Stella, Baby!
[Stella comes out on the first floor landing, a gentle
young woman, about twenty-five, and of a background
obviously quite different from her husband’s.]
Don’t holler at me like that. Hi, Mitch.
[He heaves the package at her. She cries out in protest
but manages to catch it: then she laughs breathlessly.
Her husband and his companion have already started
back around the corner.]
Stella [calling after him] :
Stanley! Where are you going?
Williams does not need to tell us that Stanley is not a big talker and is a rough type. Indirect characterization here does that for him.
This first exchange between Stanley and Stella shows (in his short, barked answers) that he is a man of few words and some aggression. The fact Stella engages in pleasantries with Stanley’s friend (‘Hi, Mitch’) creates stark contrast to Stanley’s limited focus: Meat and going bowling. Even though the stage direction says the characters should appear from different backgrounds, the indirect characterization in Williams’ dialogue already shows us how starkly different they are.
2. Use characters’ actions to describe their personalities indirectly
Although Tennessee Williams could have a narrator at the start of his play saying ‘Stanley is an aggressive male chauvinist’, it would be odd. It would also pre-determine how we read him. Half the joy of reading is discovering the characters. There’s more excitement and intrigue in learning about characters by degrees.
In Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), the character Janie’s grandmother, Nanny, is eager for her to marry a wealthy man Logan Killicks. Through small actions, Hurston shows first Janie’s uncertainty about marrying a man she barely knows, and then her discovery that ‘marriage did not make love’ that we’re told directly at the end of the chapter. Before this realization, we see small signs through indirect characterization. For example, when she goes to visit Nanny after getting married:
‘Janie didn’t go in where Mrs Washburn was. She didn’t say anything to match up with Nanny’s gladness either. She just fell on a chair with her hips and sat there.’ (p. 29)
This passive ‘just sitting there’ suggests Janie’s despondent feelings. A build up of images of waiting and stasis describe Janie indirectly. They reveal her gradual realization that she doesn’t love Killicks. Here, indirect characterization details build up to a major character development. The characterization explains the approaching change in Janie’s path.
3. Use indirect characterization to show consequences
One way of thinking of direct characterization vs indirect characterization is to think of cause and effect. For example, the direct characterization of Mother’s Younger Brother in Ragtime (he is ‘lonely’) leads to the longer arc of his actions (stalking a famous chorus girl).
Similarly, when we first meet the fraudulent Mr. Bounderby in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, Dickens shows as directly how exaggerated everything Bounderby says and does is. Through indirect characterization, through Bounderby’s accumulated words and actions, we understand the the reasons underlying his pompous behaviour.
4. Use emotive language to characterize viewpoint characters indirectly
Everything from character dialogue and actions to the words you choose to describe settings can deepen characterization. For example, two different characters could describe the same setting completely differently. The way each describes this setting would reveal key differences about them.
For example, imagine two siblings, John and Sarah, decide to investigate a mysterious abandoned house on their street.
John is afraid. He believes in supernatural forces. he sees the house as ominous and mysterious:
‘As I approach the house I see a shadow move quickly across an upstairs window. I dash back to the gate and look up, squinting into the glare. All I see is the reflection of the sinewy oak in a corner of the weedy, unkempt garden.’
The fact John is checking the windows for movement, the fact he dashes back to the gate – these indirect characterization details show that eerie goings on are on his mind. They reveal he has a fearful nature, without explicitly saying so. Compare to Sarah’s visit:
‘It doesn’t look haunted to me. People say you can see figures moving about upstairs when dusk arrives, but any idiot can see it’s just the reflection of the oak tree in the garden, if there’s a breeze.’
Sarah’s observations show us the character isn’t at the mercy of her imagination like John. We get a sense of an independent character who won’t be swayed by popular opinion (‘people say’). The terse ‘any idiot’ indirectly shows Sarah’s character. She comes across as matter-of-fact, and maybe even a little closed-minded and judgmental.
Online writing courses and workshops have many pros. Improving your writing without having to commute to meet-ups. Completing courses at your own pace and being able to fit when you engage around your own schedule. Use these tips to get the most from the next writing course you enroll in:
1. Prepare ahead
Both online and offline creative writing courses have something in common: What you get out proportionally matches what you put in.
When you join an online writing course, you get access to course resources such as workbooks immediately. Work smart and read through some of the course material before the course is underway.
Stress is a major factor in why we sometimes give up. Engage and focus from the start so the time you are required to put in doesn’t have a chance to become unmanageable.
When taking an online writing course in, for example, writing film-worthy dialogue, you could:
Make a list of what you find tricky in your own dialogue so you have questions to ask your tutor
Find a piece of dialogue you particularly enjoy you could share with other participants for discussion (if there’s an interactive component to your course – there’s a private member’s only group in Now Novel’s How to Write Dialogue course)
Write rough notes for ideas that you could use in any upcoming assignments
2. Learn to navigate the platform
In an online learning environment, you’ll have a resource page where you can download workbooks or other documents, a forum where you can interact with other members, and other tools and features depending on the course.
Often we go into experiences unaware of our own specific goals or desires for the experience. Before you enroll in a writing course, off- or online, ask yourself:
What do I want to get out of this course?
What can I realistically expect as an outcome?
The second question is particularly important.
Going into a creative writing course expecting to emerge a master of the subject when you have only a few minutes per week to engage with the material or other participants isn’t a realistic expectation, for example.
If there’s a good deal on a writing course and you don’t currently have time, see if you can enroll now and commence the course itself at a later date.
Sometimes we hold back in a learning environment because we’re embarrassed to reveal our ignorance. Or perhaps there are big personalities in the group who dominate discussion. Remind yourself you’re taking a course to learn. If you knew everything and were incapable of making mistakes, you’d have no desire to take a course in the first place. So introduce yourself to other participants, and share your ideas and vision.
Also remember to communicate with your course leaders and/or facilitators. Unsure how to access a resource? Wondering if you’ve understood a term or concept? Just ask. The more you communicate and open yourself to conversation, the more you learn.
Online writing courses often attract the introverts among us because meeting face to face, and receiving critique in this type of workshop environment, can be daunting. Yet keep communicating as expressing your needs and desires is crucial to fulfilling them.
In a good online creative writing course, you’ll receive reminders to help you stay on track and there’ll be some structure to how the course unfolds. Yet it’s also crucial to self-motivate. Set times in an event planner like Google Calendar to do workbook exercises.
There’s a reason countless students in lecture halls sit pen in hand, taking notes. Copying out information manually helps us internalize and digest it. It gives us notes in our own voice we can refer back to. What’s more, many of the great creators, from literature to visual art to music, have refined their craft simply through the act of copying.
Taking an idea, a concept, a line or phrase and putting it in your own words is a simple but effective way to transform information into knowledge. So rephrase and paraphrase course information. Make yourself checklists and other visual learning aids if necessary to absorb key ideas and concepts fully.
7. Divide assignments into smaller tasks
Submitting work for feedback from a course leader doesn’t have to be a scary prospect. Occasionally, we find course members drop off and don’t respond to emails checking in and following up on their progress. Procrastination is one reason we sometimes don’t finish what we start. Feeling daunted is a key cause of procrastination.
This is just one way to make assignments more manageable. [There is no word count requirement for your chapter assignments in Kickstart your Novel, to allow flexibility. Yet creating targets and giving yourself a conscious break between them is an effective way to structure ‘on’ and ‘off’ time.]
Want to improve your writing? Or start a book you’ve been wanting to write forever with beginning guidance from a published author or professional editor? Enroll in a Now Novel course.
It’s difficult to keep writing when motivation wavers. Persistence is a key characteristic that separates prolific authors from writers who never finish. Try these simple writing hacks to boost your productivity and keep your motivation to write strong:
1. Make writing non-negotiable
Among writing hacks, this is maybe more of a ‘mindset adjustment’ than a nifty trick. Yet whenever we survey blog readers and Now Novel members, ‘I don’t have time’ is one of the main reasons people give as a reason to not write or give up.
Not having time, as a challenge, makes sense. Work, kids, family commitments and other priorities do easily bump writing down the list. But finding time is making time. Really make writing a non-negotiable necessity, like staying hydrated and nourished.
True, writing productivity may wane when you have mountains of other obligations. It’s far too easy to put errands, housework, social time with friends and catching up on your favourite TV shows ahead of writing, though. Work out what is truly essential, and cut back on a bit of TV here, other entertainment there, to find a balance.
Make your writing sessions regular appointments because this will ensure that you (and close family, friends) view your writing as non-negotiable – as important. Safeguard your writing productivity by showing up. It’s what Maya Angelou did when she rented a room where she would simply sit and type anything until the words started to flow.
In writer Damon Knight’s book Creating Short Fiction, he writes about the value of setting aside a certain time to write on a regular basis because it actually trains the writing part of the brain to ‘show up’ when it needs to. According to Knight, your unconscious mind will eventually get the idea that this is the time when it is invited to turn up and do what it does best by providing you with stories. This echoes Angelou’s own methods.
To keep a regular writing appointment, it also helps to have an accountability partner. This is one of the most often reported values Now Novel members report gaining from working with a writing coach. That sense of commitment and external accountability that comes with enlisting someone to help you stay true to your goals.
3. Create a dedicated writing space
Virginia Woolf famously wrote that every woman writer should have a room of her own. Although this was more about the need for every writer to have the means, the space, the freedom to write, a dedicated space helps. Even if you don’t have one of your own, you can set aside a spot for your writing whether it’s a corner of your kitchen or a table at the local library.
Creating a dedicated writing space has a few advantages:
There’s a sense of ritual involved, which is itself an act of re-dedication, of renewing your focus
The combination of a dedicated writing time with a dedicated writing space gets you into the rhythm of perpetually telling great stories
Practically speaking, a dedicated writing space gets you away from distractions so that you can focus on telling your story.
Christie’s advice leads on to this important idea: A writer is always writing. Because story ideas are everywhere. You may not always be able to grab a pen and paper or open a laptop. Yet there’s a lot you can achieve during monotonous tasks that we engage in most days without much thought.
Driving, chopping vegetables and other chores or mundane activities are all opportunities to multi-task and mull over stories. You can brainstorm plot twists, figure out how to get your characters out of the sticky situation you left them in or plan your next writing session.
In doing this, you’ll increase your writing productivity, because you’ll spend more of your writing time getting words down on the page, rather than working out plot problems.
5. Have a plan for every writing session
Whenever you sit down to write, try to have a plan of some sort about what you want to do with that day’s writing. Optimize your writing time for getting words on the page.
This could mean outlining each scene in advance. Or else building a story outline – a blueprint of ideas – that you can keep as a reference guide. [The Now Novel writing process, the member dashboard, walks you through this task, step by step.]
Sometimes a blank is as good as a plan too – it can also be an invitation to continue. Ernest Hemingway advised writers to stop for the day when writing is going well and the writer knows what will happen next. Some writers even advocate stopping in the middle of a paragraph or sentence.
However you approach planning, keeping a bit of a bird’s eye view of your task will help you control and structure how you spend your writing time more.
6. Track your writing goals and progress
This is one of the best writing hacks to increase productivity. By setting and tracking concrete goals, you have something to reach for and you can also see how far you have come.
You can choose how best to do this tracking: You can:
Use Excel spreadsheets to track daily word counts and other targets
Make notes to yourself in a writing journal
Set a deadline in the profile area (by clicking ‘Your Profile’) in Now Novel’s members area
Set realistic goals that you can reach. Even if that’s just 250 words or one page per day, then after a year, you’ll have more than 300 pages. Sure, it’ll take longer than, say, NaNoWriMo. Yet not churning a book out in 30 days also has its advantages. Some ideas develop at their own pace.
You might also find it useful to note your moods and writing conditions and see the effect these have on productivity. You might write more productively in a noisy or quiet spot, with or without a cup of coffee, or before or just after exercising.
7. Be accountable to someone
Tracking your goals and progress creates accountability, but it also helps to appoint someone as a kind of accountability overseer. If you have a writing friend either online or offline, check in with each other. You can even create little challenges and competitions. Some writers even meet for ‘writing dates.’ If a social component, and having someone who checks in on how its going helps, a writing coach is also a sound option. There are writing productivity apps, too, that help you keep accountable. Some even fine you if you don’t reach the goal you have set.
8. Stay passionate about your book
If you can keep your enthusiasm high you are more likely to be productive. You might find it helpful to make a list of the things you love about your novel and about writing to refer to when you are feeling your passion flag. Keep it in a journal you page through for inspiration. Find one thing you like in each scene you write, that makes you say ‘I did that’. And remember that you can and will do more.
9. To become a productive writer avoid burnout
Notice whether any sense of lethargy or lack of inspiration regarding your work is ongoing or just lasts a writing session or two. If you can’t push through that feeling, you may be truly burned out and you will need to take a day or two off. You may lose this time, but you’ll come back more productive. Writing hacks alone won’t get you to done. Self-care is key, too.
10. Take care of yourself
As important as it is to make time to write, you also have to take care of yourself. You’ll get more done in a shorter period of time if you are well-rested, eating right and getting some exercise even if it’s just a short daily walk.
Realistically, you can’t always fit all of these things into your regular life plus writing, but keeping them as a goal and falling back on these basics when your energy and productivity are lagging will bring results.
Set concrete goals to increase your productivity, but choose goals that are realistic. If you’ve been tracking your progress for a while, you’ll have some sense of how much you can increase. Don’t expect to double your output in a single session or two. If you normally write three pages at a time, just add a third or quarter of a page to your next session. Incremental increases will add up more quickly than you realize.
Writing productivity is a combination of making sure you have the time and space to write, setting concrete goals, and being conscious about your methods and how effective they are in bringing your goal closer.
External conflicts in fiction – conflicts between characters and outside sources rather than inner battles – are an important part of storytelling. ‘Man vs society’ (or, rather, person vs society) is a conflict authors often use to explore society and culture. It explores the ways individual people’s deeds, beliefs and desires contradict the social mores surrounding them.
Here are examples of person vs society conflicts from books and tips for using this conflict type well:
First: What does ‘person vs society’ mean?
A person vs society conflict shows a struggle between a character and larger social forces. For example, a queer or LGBTQI person in a society that shuns gender non-conformity.
Most often, person vs society conflicts arise when a community’s commandments (e.g. ‘All men should wear X gender-specific clothing’) disallow the individual’s choices or innate desires. This creates a conflict between what a character desires and what society demands or expects.
Examples of this type of conflict in fiction include:
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850). Society shuns Hester Prynne for having a child out of wedlock/marriage
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). Various individual women in Atwood’s novel struggle against a new American society (the Republic of Gilead) that takes away women’s rights
Albert Camus’ The Stranger/The Outsider (1944 – originally in French L’Étranger). One of the landmark novels where an anti-hero meets a bad end because they don’t play by society’s rules. The lead character kills a man who was involved in a conflict with a friend and is sentenced to death
In each of the above examples, a character struggles with a community or social context that controls, exploits or condemns them.
Exploitation – unfair use of another’s work for gain – is a common feature of novels about person vs society conflicts. Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) grapples with the exploitations of slavery, for example, and its aftermath.
Condemnation – disapproval or censure – is another common feature. Society punishes or casts out the individual for ‘not playing the game’ when society makes the rules.
Here are tips to using this conflict type well:
1. Give characters clear reasons to oppose their society
Standing out, being punished, disapproved of, shunned – these are not easy paths to take. A character, of course, might wish to offend as many people as possible via their actions and words.
Yet another character may hunger to belong, although desire drives them to act against the grain of society’s demands.
People can break society’s dominant codes or rules for many reasons:
They have desires or characteristics society (or a segment of society) shuns (e.g. forbidden romantic or physical attractions or personal features)
They continue a cycle of trauma (for example, a character who experienced past violence may continue the cycle of violence)
People hold strong personal beliefs, opinions or values that contradict society’s dominant views (e.g. a pro-abolitionist in a racist town where slavery is common)
From this we can see that society’s dominant views may be ethical or unethical, open-minded or prejudiced. Whatever motivates your character to go against society’s demands or views, think about the cause.
For example, perhaps an anti-racist from a privileged group has a personal experience that shows them people’s physical appearance doesn’t convey innate superiority or inferiority. This leads them to oppose their racist society. [To brainstorm details about characters, use the step-by-step prompts in Now Novel’s process.]
This ‘moment of awakening’ – of realizing society could very well be deeply wrong – is a key moment in man vs society conflicts. It’s the moment the trailblazer or iconoclast (‘destroyer of icons’) realises their own power to change, or work against, the tide of dominant, habitual thinking or practice.
What is the event or experience that brings your character to this awakening?
2. Show differences between society’s antagonists
In any society, some will fight to maintain traditional ways of seeing and being stronger than others. When society is the main antagonist, it feels false if every single member of the society is equally hostile or complicit.
In Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, for example, Governor Bellingham is an elder gentleman who usually sticks to the rules but is also swayed by others’ passionate arguments for lenience or rule-bending. It is thanks to this individual character that Hester is able to keep Pearl, the child she has out of wedlock/marriage, despite Puritan society’s extreme disapproval.
Indivudal tensions and differences make person vs society conflicts complex and interesting. They show that just because a society keeps a traditional practice does not mean everyone is equally invested in (or determined to uphold) said practice.
They allow characters allies, even if they otherwise meet mainly with opposition and hostility from most quarters.
3. Make the stakes for disobedience high
In a typical person vs society conflict, the stakes are high. When a character takes on an individual opponent, they might stand a good chance of winning. Yet what if your opponent has an entire police force, schooling system, or ‘mob justice’ brigade ready to do its bidding?
In these cases, the individual that breaks society’s written or unspoken rules often pays a high price. Camus’ outsider is sentenced to death. People conspire to separate Hester Prynne from her daughter in The Scarlet Letter.
Because of the overwhelming odds of being an individual against many, these conflicts are often especially tense. We wait breathlessly to see what the cost of acting against societal pressures will be. Make sure these costs are believable and loom close.
4. Find person vs self conflicts that complicate person vs society
Opposing your society, as mentioned in point one, often first requires a dawning realization your society is wrong (or that you care about your own goals or desires more than communal pressures).
For example, a character who is taught to accept the practice of arranged marriage who is attracted to someone not arranged might struggle with their desire. They might see their desire as weakness, sinfulness (if the practice has a religious origin) or something else entirely negative.
5. Decide how man vs society conflicts will resolve
Often man vs society conflicts in stories resolve in death or other severe consequences. For example, in Shakespeare’s famous Romeo and Juliet, the lovers from eternally feuding families can only be together in death.
In your story’s particular society, what are characters’ options? Conform or else … ?
If you want to make the big time, learn how to write a series. Why? Because once readers are hooked on book one and know that books two through four are on the way, you’ll have a captive, invested book audience. These 10 tips for writing series will help you plan an intriguing, addictive multi-novel story arc:
1. Know what makes writing series different
Writing a series is different to writing a standalone book for a number of reasons:
Series have multi-novel continuity (this separates a book series from a book cycle) – characters and/or settings, and/or conflicts return
There are often longer-term, series-wide developments (e.g. a villain’s growing strength) that don’t happen in as much detail or complexity in shorter works
There is time between books in a series usually (e.g. when readers caught up with how far J.K. Rowling had got in writing her Harry Potter series) – this increases the importance of making sure readers want to know what will happen next from book to book
So how do you keep readers coming back for each installment?
2. Choose a central conflict that sustains interest in your series
From Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache mystery series to Rowling’s fantasy epic Harry Potter, intriguing series have conflicts and characters whose development span multiple books.
The central premise or conflict of your series is the main tension or unknown that needs to be solved. In Harry Potter, the central conflict is the protagonist’s unfinished business with the villain, first introduced as ‘he who must not be named’.
A great series conflict contains the promise of further subplots. In Rowling’s series, we encounter not only the primary villain but henchmen and supporters who work in the open and in secret. These secondary conflicts propel each book towards a larger or main conflict. In one of Rowling’s books, a cruel and vindictive teacher is a lesser villain, while an encounter with the main villain looms on the horizon. A structuring approach like this means that each book has its own, self-contained struggle – and opportunity for growth – for the characters, while larger unknowns remain unresolved for later books.
Create a compelling central conflict for your series, be it an obstacle between a character and final romantic fulfillment (in a romance series) or an inevitable showdown with a villain. To build a good central conflict, you can:
Place secondary obstacles in your main character’s path to getting what they want that lead back to the central conflict. For example, if a couple’s conflict is the distance created by a war, secondary conflicts (leading to curfews, invasions, injuries) are additional complications that delay the main resolution.
Turn these obstacles into subplots that provide smaller rises and falls in story tension, keeping the rest of each book interesting
Move your characters through multiple settings as they strive to reach their goals. Make each setting present its own distinctive interests, surprises and challenges
3. Create a fictional world readers will long to return to
Readers of Rowling’s fantasy series are eager to return to her fictional world because:
It is rich in imaginative detail: Rowling thinks of every detail, from how bank vaults are guarded (by dragons) to the woods used to make magical wands and their properties
Her world is distinct from our own yet relatable: Rowling actively contrasts the rules and codes of the wizard world, while also showing parallel institutions (e.g. the ‘Ministry of Magic’)
Her settings become familiar: From the magic school to the Weasleys’ ramshackle house, each setting has its own character(s), surprises, wonders, and comforts
Writing series gives you the chance to develop multiple intricate settings or a single, magical or peculiar world (like Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld) full of fascinating peoples and practices. Use Now Novel’s step-by-step idea prompts to brainstorm details of setting, mood and character so you know your fictional world inside out.
4. Outline your series in advance
If you tend not to plot usually, this can work for a novel. When you write a novel series, however, an outline is especially useful, as it helps you retain a bird’s eye view. You understand not just how each individual book fits together, but how each book will fit into the wider story arc.
Establish your characters early so that readers know who the primary players are in your series. Your characters’ goals are the ‘what’ of your story. But the ‘why’ of their motivations can be teased out gradually. Through main events (such as brushes between your main character and an antagonist) as well as subplots you can reveal why your characters have the goals they do.
This gradual process of revelation will allow your characters and readers to keep some mysteries and unknowns. This means sequels will be more inherently intriguing, as there’s more to discover and learn.
Changing your cast of characters as your series continues is another way to sustain interest:
6. Introduce new characters to keep your series moving
One of the things J.K. Rowling does expertly in Harry Potter is introduce crucial new characters in every book. Readers meet important beloved as well as loathed characters in the first book. But major characters appear for the first time in sequels. There are long-lost relatives and new guardians, love interests and minor to serious villains.
This is an important part of how to write a series: Make secondary characters count. Don’t simply add a walk-on character because you aren’t sure how to get to the next scene. Instead, show how each new, secondary character assists or hinders your main character(s). For example, in Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling only introduces the sadistic teacher Dolores Umbridge in the fifth novel. Yet she is a powerful character and villain in her own right. She also provides a subplot that creates additional story-driving tension.
To make your book series engrossing, introduce characters in sequels who either:
Help your main character(s)
Share information that helps the reader piece together the ‘why’ or ‘how’ of your story
To make your character arcs satisfying throughout your series:
Give recurring characters faults they either overcome little by little or give in to more and more
Show how changes in your characters’ environs affect them. A hobbit in the Shire is cosy and comfortable, but a hobbit thrown into the dangerous world of Mordor can discover surprising bravery
Make a list for each character of how they could change from book to book: For example, ‘Book one: Character inherits a vast sum unexpectedly. Book two: Character becomes increasingly arrogant but loses everything. Book three: Character rebuilds and finds other things to value.’
8. Give each book in your series a strong central event
Remember that each book should stand on its own to a degree. A reader should be able to start with book 4 and not find the story so bewildering that they’re completely lost. To make each novel in your series work well as a standalone work:
Have a strong central event and image for each book. In C.S. Lewis’ fantasy novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the discovery of a portal to another world in the back of an antique wardrobe is the central event and image out of which the entire book unfolds
Create a secondary conflict and (at least partial) resolution for each novel in the series: A smaller rise and fall that is a miniature version of the larger rising and falling action of the entire series
Make the middle books show character development: show the reader how the main characters acquire the skill, conviction or strategy they need to reach their objectives (Rowling shows Harry mastering spells)
Introduce tension that makes goals seem more distant than they are: Uncertainty and unknowns make us want to find out what comes next.
Build and resolve secondary arcs that illustrate important things about your characters: Stories are satisfying when give us creative answers for all the ‘w’ words: ‘Who’, ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘where’ and ‘when’. ‘Why’ is arguably the most important.
Make the middle books of your series have their own central arcs, but also use them to illustrate important details about your characters, their histories and their challenges. This will give your series depth.
10. Tie it all together and create compelling titles for each book and the series as a whole
To make your series satisfying, make sure that the ending of the final book:
Resonates with earlier incidents: You can even bring the story full circle to the start of the first book in the series (as Tolkien does when Frodo returns to the Shire in The Lord of the Rings, though this is a cycle, technically, and not a series)
Once you have created a satisfying ending, the fun part of choosing titles begins. Think of some of the great series’ titles for inspiration:
Mervyn Peake’s gothic Gormenghast trilogy: Titus Groan, Gormenghast, and Titus Alone
George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, A Dance with Dragons, The Winds of Winter, A Dream of Spring
Looking at Peake’s trilogy, the titles have a mirror structure: ‘ABA’. Both the first and third books start with the main character’s name: Titus. The middle book’s title is the name of the castle which Titus inherits. The titles thus echo the plot developments of the trilogy as a whole.
The titles in Martin’s fantasy series have symmetry: Most follow the structure ‘A(n) [abstract noun] of [concrete noun]’. Try creating your own Martin book titles as an exercise, following this format (for example: ‘A Song of Sirens’, ‘A Silence of Stones’). Finding similar structures for the titles of books in your series will help to make individual titles in your series identifiable as related installments. This makes it easier for readers to remember what books of yours are in print.
Conflict in fiction is a crucial ingredient of tension and suspense. Whether it involves character vs character or character vs environment, conflict makes plots tick onward. Read tips for creating man vs nature (or person vs nature) conflict that shows characters struggling with their environments:
First: What is man vs nature conflict?
Man vs nature conflict is a staple of genres from fantasy to spy thrillers, adventure novels to science fiction. Sometimes the source of conflict is a wild ‘beast’ with inscrutable intentions (a shark, a dragon). Sometimes it’s less willful and more elemental (hurricanes, volcanoes). Whichever it is, ‘man vs nature’ shows characters confronting uncertain or hostile environments.
‘Character vs nature’ might be a better term. In a children’s book, for example, a conflict could be between a worried mouse and a terribly cold winter. The basics stay the same: How will a character co-exist with, overcome or survive a challenging setting?
Classic examples of man vs nature conflicts include Peter Benchley’s thriller Jaws (1974).In the survival novel that inspired Spielberg’s iconic movie adaptation, a predatory great white shark wreaks havoc.
Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel Oryx and Crake (2003) imagines a world blighted by inhumane corporate and scientific practice. (A dystopian novel, for readers unfamiliar with the term, involves ‘An imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice, typically one that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic.’ The word comes from the prefix ‘dys’ meaning ‘bad’or ‘non-‘ (e.g. ‘dysfunctional’) and topos meaning ‘place’.)
Human vs nature conflicts are especially common in dystopian novels that imagine how reckless/selfish behaviour affects the natural world. They commonly explore the prices we pay for being mindless or unaware about our environment.
Zombie-creating plague epidemics abound, particularly in screenplays. This doesn’t mean you can’t use this type of man vs nature conflict. Yet try to choose conflicts that aren’t entirely clichéd for your genre. If you find you’re treading in cliché territory, find ways to turn overused environmental conflicts upside down. Ask: What is unusual – or unexpected or fascinating – about this specific plague? How is it different to similar examples in fiction or film?
Make your character vs environment conflicts intriguing by building rising action. You can do this by gradually revealing cause and effect:
2. Build cause and effect
In ‘man vs environment’ conflict, the gradual revelation of the cause behind the conflict may shock or surprise. This is especially so in dystopian novels such as Oryx and Crake where characters themselves are behind the destruction or conflict. Atwood’s gradual revelation shows reckless, unethical action carried out by a main character’s former childhood friend. The slow reveal thus provides gradual information about characters’ backstories, alongside Atwood’s world’s natural history.
Conflicts between characters and their environments don’t necessarily result from their own malicious or neglectful actions, of course. Perhaps your characters are caught up in a devastating storm they have absolutely no power over. Use warning signs – darkening clouds, creatures scurrying for shelter – to create gripping build-up.
When building an arc of cause and effect in a man vs nature story, plan:
Whether the conflict is natural or self-made: Is the environmental challenge or threat the result of nature’s inscrutable will or indifference? Or the result of calculated human action?
How major and minor characters respond: A politician might use a storm to push a specific agenda (for example, by stirring fear of migrants looking for shelter). Others might simply be focused on packing their cars to their ceilings and outracing the storm
Ways characters could overcome or neutralize the threat: Do characters have any power over the situation? Or (like in a natural disaster) do they have to adapt to survive?
Think about reasons behind (and possible responses to) environmental dangers and obstacles. This will help you create a cohesive story where readers see the chains of cause and effect driving plot clearly.
3. Create secondary, related conflicts
Often, in fiction as in life, conflict begets conflict. If, for example, a small city has an impending crisis due to a nuclear reactor meltdown, how might this stoke other tensions?
Characters may squabble over things usually taken for granted, for example. A tin of food, a seat on the (usually much emptier) inner-city bus. When the main conflict of a story is man vs nature, think about how it could stoke other challenges.
A person vs environment conflict can also be the minor, secondary plot point that serves an important function in your story. For example, two co-workers who hate each other in a romance novel might be grounded at the airport due to adverse weather conditions. Initially sulking in silence, they might gradually strike up a conversation and find mutual comfort and relief in their shared experience. Person vs nature conflicts are useful for drawing characters together as well as firing up their existing tensions.
4. Include detail and secondary complications
The best stories involving person vs environment conflicts pay attention to detail. For example, in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Year of the Flood, which continues in the same world as Oryx and Crake, the author creates abundant detail, such as the way her environment affects people’s lifestyles. There are multi-colored sheep called Mo’Hair, bred to be shorn to make human hair wigs.
Atwood also creates a chain of restaurants called ‘Rarity’ that specializes in serving meat from rare and endangered animals. Details such as these imagine the real-world effects when the natural world is decimated, they imagine how characters adapt. The details are believable because they show that there are people who will exploit any situation for personal gain, and this makes sense given that human selfishness and shortsightedness (in Atwood’s cycle) are the causes underlying environmental challenges in the first place.
Secondary complications stemming from a primary struggles against their environment give characters additional challenges that make their stories more tense and suspensful. In The Year of the Flood (2009), Atwood includes various street gangs as well as religious groups that emerge directly from the post-apocalyptic context. These details create secondary complications – cultural tensions – that add complexity and a sense of ‘reality’. Even in a state of environmental collapse, differences remain in how people engage with each other and their surroundings.
5. Show the cost of the conflict
As with all other types of conflict, person vs nature conflicts in stories make the biggest impact when the reader senses their cost. One of the reasons the survival film 127 hours (based on a true story) is so compelling is that the lead character (played by James Franco) has to saw his own arm free from a rock face in order to escape a climbing accident.
Here, the conflict of intrepid character vs indifferent environment has a real, felt cost. It brings home one of this story type’s important ideas: the indifference of ‘the wild’. Nature and the environment don’t care for where we build our homes or choose to go adventuring. This sense of the unpredictability of place, of nature, is part of what makes person vs nature conflicts inherently suspenseful and tense.
The cost of person vs nature might be that certain species of animals are wiped out (like in Atwood’s story cycle). Or else characters (like the courageous climber) have to pay a very personal cost.
Werner Hertzog’s documentary film Grizzly Man is iconic in large part because the subject of the documentary, Timothy Treadwell, was eaten by grizzly bears after spending 35, 000 hours with them over 13 years in Katmai National park. Here again, we see the price a person was willing to pay for their love of an aspect of the natural environment, and the fact Treadwell willingly put himself in a situation where he met a grisly (no pun intended) end reminds us how intriguing as well as humbling this type of conflict in stories can be.
Get help brainstorming and developing the core conflicts in your own story – join Now Novel.
One of the oldest and most compelling types of conflict we encounter in stories is man vs self. Man vs self – or person vs self – is a staple of tragedy in particular. In tragedy, a character’s ignorance, arrogance or other trait often leads to downfall. Read a definition of this type of story conflict, along with man vs self examples from books:
What is man vs self conflict?
Man (or person) vs self is conflict where a character is their own adversary. This may be the primary conflict of your story – the main obstacle your character has to overcome. Or it could be a secondary conflict that adds extra tension to your primary conflicts.
Person vs self conflict is intriguing because characters who are flawed ‘works-in-progress’ show complexity. The growth (or spiraling) that many of us experience sometimes in our lives. This type of conflict is compelling because of the uncertainty it creates. Will the character overcome their flaws or destructive patterns? Self conflict is suspenseful because the antagonist – the ‘shadow’ self – is always present.
So how do you write gripping person vs self conflicts? Here are tips with examples from books:
1. Anchor man vs self conflict in characters’ past experiences
A traumatic or misguiding past – a troubled backstory – is a common source of literary conflict. In many novels, we meet characters who are already on the path to winning or losing their inner conflict.
Placing the origins of your characters’ inner struggles in their past experiences is useful because:
They supply events and explanations you can reveal at your own pace. These may be useful for introducing relevant secondary characters and conflicts
You’re able to create psychological depth and realism. Your readers meet characters who have history, pasts, wounds, scars
Let’s take a brief character study example that shows effective man vs self conflict:
In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, early in the book the protagonist Rodion Raskolnikov murders a pawnbroker. The ex- law student is living in poverty in St Petersburg, when he decides to kill a pawnbroker he’s indebted to.
The murder, the crime of the title, occurs early in the book. Yet Dostoevsky portrays Rodion as deeply conflicted and troubled. We read a portrait of a sensitive young man who is devoted to his mother and sister. Dostoevsky also shows how Rasksolnikov helps a poor woman whose husband is a drunk. He pays for the funeral – albeit with stolen money – when the man is trampled by a horse. Thus he is not a pure ‘villain’, but a complex, flawed character.
Raskolnikov is torn between the desire to reward those he sees as ‘innocent’ in the world (the drunk’s wife) and those he sees as greedy, inhumane, opportunistic (the pawnbroker).
Thus the conflict is psychological, as we see Raskolnikov justify the pawnbroker’s murder to himself by excluding the pawnbroker from the circle of people who are ‘innocent’ and thus worthy (in his eyes) of mercy.
Why is this person vs self conflict effective?
It’s relevant to the overarching story, arising from a character’s core goals and needs: Raskolnikov’s desperate need for money gives a clear motivation
Even after the conflict reaches a peak, there are still intriguing unknowns: Will he be found out and arrested? How will his crime affect Rodion’s psyche?
2. Create tension between winning and losing the battle
Part of the pleasure of reading conflict-rich stories is our uncertainty – we want to know what happens.
In person vs self story conflicts, it feels easy if a wave of a wand makes everything well. Even in Cinderella, after the fairy godmother helps Cinderella attend the prince’s ball in magical finery,
there is a time-based conflict. We know she has to leave before the illusion – her magical clothing – fades.
Uncertainties and complications can come from many sources:
External interference: A character who battles addiction, for example, has a ‘bad influence’, partying friend
Interpretation and framing: The stories they tell themselves, framing experiences, may influence whether their ‘good’ or ‘bad’ self wins. Raskolnikov justifies his murder to himself, even though he knows it is punishable legally, spiritually
Circumstances beyond characters’ control: For example, a character who struggles with mental health and relies on medication for stability
When Raskolnikov climbs the pawnbroker’s stairwell, he almost flees when he sees a nearby apartment is being painted. Circumstances beyond the character’s control affect his ongoing struggle clearly.
3. Show how related conflicts affect inner struggles
One thing that makes inner story conflicts more believable is showing how they are nestled in and affected by other conflict situations.
An author could simply say, for example, a character is a crazed serial killer. Yet when we understand other, related conflicts – such as a violent upbringing – we understand the longer chain of cause and effect. This greater perspective makes characters fully human (even if their behaviour seems sub-human). It allows richer character portraits.
An example of a related conflict: In Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings cycle, one of Frodo’s companions attempts to take the Ring Frodo has been tasked with destroying by force. This character vs character (or man vs man) conflict is important. It casts a shadow of mistrust over the intentions behind future actions of (seeming) friends and foes. It isolates the main character more in his quest.
Bringing in other secondary conflicts increases the urgency of Frodo staying true to his one greatest goal – destroying the Ring – and the additional obstacles make the reader feel the full, overwhelming enormity of just how difficult the character’s task is.
Thinking about how conflicts occur within patterns of smaller and larger conflicts will help you create a natural sense of the reasons underlying your characters’ inner turmoil.
4. Balance inner turbulence with placid moments
Tension and intensity may become exhausting for the reader if you continue without any let-up. Find moments, subplots, or flashbacks that provide breathers between self-destruction or spiralling.
For example, in Crime and Punishment, there are sections where Dostoevsky switches to the viewpoint of the investigating officer, or shows Raskolnikov’s mother and sister’s preparations to visit the spiralling son and brother in St Petersburg.
These breathers shift the tensions and suspenseful incidents elsewhere, while still supplying scenes and developments relevant to the main character’s story arc and present situation.
5. Raise the stakes using rising action
You can draw on the different types of conflict to create rising action that places additional pressure on a character’s internal conflit. For example, in Zora Neale Hurston’s novel about the experiences of African-American women in the south, Their Eyes were Watching God, her main character’s primary inner conflicts revolve around the ‘battle of the sexes’.
The main character Janie’s grandmother teaches her to accept male-chauvinist views that women should always ultimately serve men. But Janie undergoes a process of growth as she discovers the difference between power relationships and equal ones, over the course of the book. She passes from a first husband who marries her for her youth, to a younger later lover whos is more romantic and caring (for the most part) in word and deed.
Yet on top of her internal conflict around themes such as ‘gender (in)equality’, Janie also faces external conflict late in the book in the form of a devastating hurricane.
Thus just when the character seems about to overcome internal conflict, external conflict keeps her situation tense and uncertain.
Think of other types of conflict (person vs nature, person vs person) that can complicate the resolution of your character’s main internal conflict.
These will ensure that the suspense and intrigue of your story don’t peter out simply because a character’s primary inner struggle has been won.
Learning how to write dialogue in a story is crucial. Writing gripping conversations that include conflict and disagreement and further your story will make readers want to read on. Here are 7 steps to improve your dialogue writing skills:
1: Learn how to format dialogue
2: Cut filler
3: Include conflict and disagreement
4: Involve characters’ goals, fears and desires
5: Include subtext for subtle gestures and effects
6: Involve context for tone and atmosphere
7: Learn by copying out great dialogue
Let’s expand these ideas:
1. Learn how to format dialogue
You should always leave your reader caught up in your dialogue, not lost in it. Good formatting is key to making dialogue enjoyable and effortless to read [that’s why formatting is the focus of Week 1 of our writing course, How to Write Dialogue].
Here are some guidelines for how to write dialogue for maximum clarity:
a) Every time you change speaker, start a new, indented line
Follow this convention because it’s all too easy to lose track of who’s saying what in dialogue. An example of good format:
“What were you thinking?” Sarah frowned.
“I wasn’t. Thinking, I mean,” Tom admitted.
b) Always use opening and closing speech marks
If you write in US English, it’s standard to use double quotation marks for dialogue. In UK English, single quotation marks suffice.
There is an exception: If you have the same character speaking across multiple paragraphs, uninterrupted (if a character is telling a long story), use an opening speech mark for each paragraph and only use a closing speech mark at the end of the last paragraph before narration resumes or another character speaks.
c) Place all dialogue punctuation inside speech marks
In the above example, the question mark in Sarah’s dialogue comes before the closing speech marks, not after.
If the end of a line of dialogue is also the end of the sentence, place the period or full stop before the closing speech marks because it’s part of the rhythm of the speech. It’s part of character’s own coming to a stop (it doesn’t lie outside their speech):
“That’s your problem,” Sarah chided, “you only ever rely on your gut.”
The best policy when formatting dialogue is to check published books and compare multiple dialogue extracts. Investigate what the most common practice is in books by published authors in your country, and remember to be similarly consistent.
2. Cut filler
In strong dialogue, there is no filler. If characters speak on the phone, there are no ‘may I speak to’s’ or ‘Please hold’s’. Cut all filler from your dialogue. Launch straight into any phone conversation. For example:
The voice on the other end of the line was doubtful; suspicious.
‘…Joe was smoking his pipe in company with Mr. Wopsle and a stranger. Joe greeted me as usual with “Halloa, Pip, old chap!” and the moment he said that, the stranger turned his head and looked at me.
He was a secret-looking man whom I had never seen before. His head was all on one side, and one of his eyes was half shut up, as if he were taking aim at something with an invisible gun.’
Note that Joe’s greeting is just four words. Yet Dickens instead adds narration around Joe’s voice, giving detailed character description.
‘Filler’ includes unnecessary dialogue tags. Instead of an endless ‘he said, she said’, see where you can replace a tag with a gesture or motion that supplies more story information. Compare:
“So you’re leaving…” he said.
“I thought that much was obvious,” she said.
The dialogue tags have a monotonous, repetitive effect. You could either leave them out entirely (if the preceding scene’s context makes it clear who says which line), or you could add gesture that attributes the dialogue the same:
“So you’re leaving…” He folds his arms, standing in the doorway.
“I thought that much was obvious.” Pausing her packing, she looks over her shoulder at him, resisting the sudden impulse to turn and face him.
Here the dialogue supplies a lot more detail about the emotions of the scene, while avoiding clunky repetition of a standard dialogue writing device.
3. Include conflict and disagreement
Key to writing great dialogue is knowing how to write dialogue involving confrontation or disagreement. In real life, we might go weeks without a single terse or grumpy word to another person. Yet in stories, conflict and confrontation in dialogue supply narrative tension and this keeps the story compelling.
If everyone in your novel gets on swimmingly with everyone else, this could result in dull dialogue.
For example, the verbal sparring between Estella and Pip in Great Expectations creates tension, as we see Estella taunt and test Pip by insulting and goading him. Her dialogue and behaviour is consistent with Estella’s backstory. Her legal guardian, Miss Havisham, once jilted by a lover, has turned the young Estella against boys and sentimentality:
“Well, miss?” I answered, almost falling over her and checking myself.
“Am I pretty?”
“Yes; I think you are very pretty.”
“Am I insulting?”
“Not so much so as you were last time,” said I.
“Not so much so?”
She fired when she asked the last question, and she slapped my face with such force as she had, when I answered it.
“Now?” said she. “You little coarse monster, what do you think of me now?”
“I shall not tell you.”
Conflict and disagreement might not be anything so dramatic as a physical altercation mid-dialogue. It could be something as small as two traveling characters arguing over a map in the middle of a maze-like city. But these moments of tension are useful for illustrating how your characters react (and interact) under pressure.
4. Involve characters’ goals, fears and desires
Remember that characters don’t always need to be honest, willing or helpful conversation partners. They may be cryptic and misguiding. They can trip each other up with questions and evasive responses. This is particularly the case in dialogue where characters hold different levels of power (in an interrogation or courtroom cross-examination, for example).
Like an unreliable narrator, an unreliable character in conversation could feed your protagonist false information, out of their own motivation.
In every dialogue, keep in mind what motivates each character.
Before you start writing an important section of dialogue, ask yourself:
What does each character want at this point in the story? What do they fear?
How might each character’s goals, fears and desires shift or affect this particular conversation?
When you connect character’s conversations to their personal paths and goals in your story, even if just subconsciously, this will help you write more directed, purposeful-seeming dialogue. This is particularly important in genres such as crime and mystery, where characters gaining information from others forms a big part of the narrative.
This leads into subtext in dialogue:
5: Include subtext for subtle gestures and effects
Subtext in dialogue is as important as context. It’s the ‘why’ (in addition to the where) underlying characters’ conversations. If, for example, a spouse suspects their partner of cheating, this underlying mistrust could be the subtext for an unrelated conversation about dinner plans with their friends. The subtext explains the turn the conversation takes:
“The Watsons have invited us for dinner this Saturday.” She beamed.
“What, again? That’s the third time this month. You seem thrilled. Next they’ll be inviting you to a menage a trois.”
She didn’t understand why he brought every conversation to sex lately. It seemed a new infatuation. And why did he always state the obvious about her every mood and gesture?
Here, the subtext of suspicion and mistrust makes the dialogue interesting. A mundane conversation about dinner plans becomes a story in miniature about jealousy and miscommunication.
6. Involve context for tone and atmosphere
The context in dialogue (another subject we explore in How to Write Dialogue) is important. The context of a conversation – the place where the conversation occurs, and the circumstances leading to it – gives us important details. Mastering using context in dialogue is important because it will help you avoid using adverbs with dialogue tags that make the author’s shaping hand too visible. For example:
“I think someone might be in the house,” she said softly.
Here, you could use the stronger tag ‘she whispered’ to convey volume and eliminate the unnecessary adverb. Yet you could also use context from setting and narration to convey the softness of the conversation here:
For weeks they’d been tempted to enter the dilapidated house. It was a late, windy Friday afternoon when temptation got the better of them. They’d knocked nervously first, not knowing what they’d do if someone answered. After a hushed minute, they’d crept and tip-toed inside, while the paint-stripped front door creaked closed. They were huddling together and shuffling down a dark, musty corridor when she heard a sudden noise from upstairs.
“I think someone might be in the house…” Her eyes were wide, her voice barely audible.
Here you don’t need an adverb – the context supplies plenty of detail to suggest the character’s fear and the house’s eerie stillness.
“I never say ‘She says softly’ […] If it’s not already soft, you know, I have to leave a lot of space around it so a reader can hear that it’s soft.’
7. Learn by copying out great dialogue
Many great artists in all mediums – art, literature, music – have learned and honed their craft by copying out effective work by their peers and predecessors. To write great dialogue, write down a few lines of dialogue in a journal when you come across dialogue in a story that makes you say ‘wow!’
Create your own treasure trove of inspiring dialogue snippets that you can dip into whenever you need a reminder of how to write dialogue that builds character and story.
Knowing how to start a scene so your reader is involved from the beginning is a skill anyone can develop. Read the following tips to ensure each set of unfolding events in your story captivates from the first few lines:
What is a scene? A quick definition
A scene is ‘A sequence of continuous action in a play, film, opera, or book.’ (Oxford English Dictionary) The key words here are ‘sequence’ and ‘action’. A scene shows the chain of cause and effect. This could be character-centered (a character’s choice and the immediate consequences that result) or situation-centered (for example, a scene showing a hurricane approaching a coastal town).
The other meanings of ‘scene’ are also useful. A scene is also ‘an incident of a specified nature’ (e.g. ‘scenes of violence’, ‘the scene of the crime’). This is important because it makes us remember that scenes, like a crime scene, have tone and mood impacted by the nature of events they show. Tone and mood can either stay mostly the same or change as the scene unfolds and new plot developments arise.
A third meaning from the stage is also useful: ‘ A subdivision of an act of a play in which the time is continuous and the setting fixed and which does not usually involve a change of characters.’
This reminds us that scenes typically focus on a single, specific setting, event and character (or group of characters). For example, a birthday party, or a murder, or an encounter with a handsome stranger.
So how do you begin a ‘sequence of continuous action’ that grips your reader?
1. Use mystery or suspense to create direction
If you’ve ever read a story that meandered all over without getting to the point, you’ll know how frustrating it is.
Direction in a scene, a feeling events are leading towards later developments, creates narrative tension. The feeling of the unknown that makes us ask ‘And then…?’
At the start of a scene, include unknowns that readers will want answered. It could be something simple, such as the reason why a character is sprinting for the bus. Where are they off to in such a hurry? This, at this point, is a mystery.
Mystery is more than strange fogs descending, unexplained screams in the night. It can be something as simple as the not-yet-explained reason why a character left their house, walked a few paces, stopped, frowned, and hurried back inside.
Let’s explore an example, the opening lines to John Le Carré’s espionage novel The Night Manager:
‘On a snow-swept January evening of 1991, Jonathan Pine, the English night manager of the Hotel Meister Palace in Zurich, forsook his office behind the reception desk and, in the grip of feelings he had not known before, took up his position in the lobby as a prelude to extending his hotel’s welcome to a distinguished late arrival.’
You could say the opening sentence is a little overwrought due to it’s length. Yet thanks to this, Carré is also able to weave two mysteries into the scene’s opening lines. Firstly, the mystery of what feelings exactly are ‘gripping’ Pine. Secondly, the mystery of who the ‘distinguished late arrival’ is.
The author delays answering these questions. The next sentences immediately start to fill in details of setting, in this case time or time-period:
‘The Gulf war had just begun. Throughout the day news of the Allied bombings, discreetly relayed by the staff, had caused consternation on the Zurich stock exchange.’
This itself creates more suspense, as we wonder, perhaps, if the war is related to the night manager’s feelings.
2. Anchor your scene opening in setting
It’s also intriguing if, at the start of a scene, we have a sense of where and when events are unfolding. Setting gives a scene tone and mood, a sense of the possible (and impossible).
For example, Le Carré’s opening time setting (the beginning of the Gulf war) leads us to expect conflict of some kind. We perhaps wonder already whether the night manager is caught up in the war in some way.
When beginning a scene with setting details, ask yourself:
What does my setting make possible? (E.g. In a war zone, it’s possible the direction of your character’s life could change drastically due to conflicts beyond their control)
What does my setting make impossible? (For example, if characters are stuck in an alpine ravine, there’s only so long they can survive)
What do I want the tone and mood of my setting to be? Is your scene’s setting tense, relaxed, lyrical, dramatic? Will this tone change over the course of the scene? Why?
Start a scene with a setting that feels connected to your characters’ current desires or emotional states. For example, Le Carré’s wartime Zurich feels an apt setting for night manager’s troubled, secret thoughts.
3. Use action to create momentum
There’s no single ‘right’ way for how to start a scene. Sometimes you might begin with riveting action, sometimes with slow, lyrical place description. It depends on the tone, mood and pace you want to create from the start.
Starting a scene with action, however, helps to create immediate momentum.
Consider, for example, this scene beginning at the start of David Mitchell’s novel The Bone Clocks:
‘I fling open my bedroom curtains, and there’s the thirsty sky and the wide river full of ships and boats and stuff, but I’m already thinking of Vinny’s chocolatey eyes, shampoo down Vinny’s back, beads of sweat on Vinny’s shoulders, and Vinny’s sly laugh, and by now my heart’s going mental and, God, I wish I was waking up at Vinny’s place in Peacock Street and not in my own stupid bedroom.’
There isn’t ‘action’ in the sense of a car chase or shootout. But even the way the character opens the curtains – flinging them open – creates a sense of dynamic movement and the character’s state of desire.
The action of opening the curtains forcefully and looking outward, while thinking of Vinny, shows the character Holly’s impulsive, decisive nature. This establishes a sense of character psychology (forceful, headstrong decisiveness) that makes her subsequent running away from home feel consistent with what came before.
Great actions for starting scenes include:
Actions that suggest impending change: E.g. Packing a travel case or stepping off a plane in an unfamiliar land
Actions that suggest urgency or danger: A character fleeing others; a character desperately trying to get through to someone on the phone
Actions that one wouldn’t usually expect in the given context: A character ducking behind a fence to hide from a familiar face; a character discovering a radical change in their environment or even self (like Josef K waking up to find he’s a a critter in Kafka)
Depending on your genre or the point you are at in the story, you might well wish to start a scene with summary. In historical fiction, for example, you might want to start a scene with a short bit of narrative describing the historical or political backdrop for your characters’ lives.
‘The first bomb had fallen only two days before. Now the city was already shell-like, as people had piled into whatever transport they could find, beg, steal, and headed for the border.’
Summary scene openings like this immediately give your reader context for coming events. It’s similar to a theatre production, when the curtain goes up. You see the backdrop before an actor even comes on stage. That backdrop gives context, something through which you can frame and understand what follows.
A big part of starting scenes using summary well is understanding what to tell. Many beginning authors begin with characters waking up and having cute conversations with parents over breakfast.
However, unless the conversation itself (or, even, the breakfast) contains revealing incident or characterization, rather tell the reader something more relevant to the coming scene and your character’s life.
5. Start a scene with intriguing dialogue
Another ‘rule’ you may often hear is never to start a scene with dialogue. Yet if this is a rule, it’s one many authors break, and often to great effect. For example, the dialogue that opens another John le Carré book, this time The Spy who Came in from the Cold:
The American handed Leamas another cup of coffee and said, ‘Why don’t you go back and sleep? We can ring you if he shows up.’
Leamas said nothing, just stared through the window of the checkpoint, along the empty street.
Immediately we have an unknown character who we know will enter the scenes from the wings at some point in the scene (or perhaps, even later in the story). This dialogue introduces mystery to the unfolding action and shows how invested the characters are in the man’s arrival. It makes us anticipate what the story has in store for us.
The opening waiting, the tension, sets the scene for further bickering and tension. The American says to Leamas:
‘But you can’t wait for ever; he’s nine hours over schedule.’
‘If you want to go, go. You’ve been very good,’ Leamas added. ‘I’ll tell Kramer you’ve been damn good.’
‘But how long will you wait?’
‘Until he comes […] He’s waiting for the dark,’ Leamas muttered. ‘I know he is.’
This further dialogue establishes that Leamas has a closer connection to, or understanding of, the mystery man. It subtly suggests that Leamas is somehow higher – or at least different – in rank and role to the American.
Note how Le Carré reveals as much as he conceals, building relationships betwen characters subtly and his scene’s uncertain situation as it unfolds.
Why is setting important? The functions of time and place in fiction
Setting is more than simply a geographical location or time period that serves as a backdrop to characters’ actions. Fictional settings have many uses:
Using place in story settings:
‘Place’ in a story has multiple purposes and effects:
The places you set your scenes contribute mood and tone (a dark, eerie wood creates a very different sense of danger or mystery compared to a bright, open plain)
Places restrict (or open) possibilities for your characters’ lives and actions (a character living in a small mining town might have very different perceptions and options compared to a character who lives in a large city)
Places can evolve and change as your story progresses. You can use their evolution to show the changing circumstances affecting your characters’ views and options (for example, in Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, the narrator visits a grand manor he knew in his youth. He finds it crumbling due to the onslaught of the war. This creates melancholic nostalgia. Waugh uses changing physical setting to convey the idea of loss.)
Time is an equally important element of setting:
Using time in setting
It would be incomplete to answer ‘what is story setting?’ without including time. Time in a story, for example the historical period or epoch the story spans, is equally vital:
Like place, time (for example, the social attitudes in the Victorian era) restricts or rather determines, to some extent, possibilities for your characters. The time setting of your novel impacts what types of lives your characters can lead and what choices they can make. Characters living in Victorian England will have very different choices and lifestyles available to them compared to characters living in contemporary England (women, for example, are far less pressured to marry and be homemakers)
Time in your novel’s setting determines what kind of technology is available (historical fiction often describes old-fashioned tools such as manual clothes washers that most modern city-dwelling readers wouldn’t know)
Time in your story setting is equally useful for showing and underscoring changes that contribute to character and plot development (e.g. changes of government, scientific discovery, social beliefs and customs)
Now that we’ve clarified some of the functions of time and place in fiction, here are five tips on getting these elements of setting right:
Let’s unpack these ideas:
1: Research and plan places in your story
Research the place you are writing about thoroughly, if it’s a real-world location. If, for example, you’re writing about Ancient Rome, find books or websites that outline Ancient Roman architecture, society, customs and beliefs.
One way to form a deeper sense of where your story will take place is to draw a rough map of primary locations. This document could give you an idea of how characters will get from place to place.
Even if you are inventing your own fictional world entirely, gain a keen sense of how your world is laid out to aid your imagination. Many fantasy novels begin with maps of peninsulas or continents, lending the mythical world a stronger sense of tangible, measurable reality.
2: Use place like you would a character
We give characters individual voices to make them feel real, so that the cast members of our novels don’t feel like two-dimensional carbon copies of each other. Just like a character, a place in your novel should have its own ‘voice’. Write place like you would write a character:
Develop place: How will your setting change over the course of your story? Do characters’ actions and choices affect their surrounds and vice versa? How does society as a whole relate to its surrounds? Is there climate change? What effects will time have on place and how will this affect your characters in turn?
3: Use Google Street View and other tools to plan story settings
Conduct email interviews with locals (Freeman suggests finding people to interview via local blogs and social media)
Read local government websites that provide information and statistics on local ways of life
If you’re creating a made-up place for your novel, imagine what Google Street View would show you if you moved along main streets or alleyways of your setting.
4: Combine factual and fictional sources
When you are writing about a bygone era or lost civilization, you can’t exactly take a Google Street View tour. In this case, borrow from factual books about the lives, art and architecture of your chosen place and time period. If possible, find books written by people who inhabited your chosen place in the time you’re writing about.
If, for example, you were writing about ancient Greece in the year 350 BC, you could read the writings of people who lived during this time (Aristotle, for example) to get a sense of how people expressed themselves and felt about their world.
When archival materials are scarce, you can also rely on the work of good authors who have based their fiction in the same setting. Even if writing about invented settings, look for details and ideas you can borrow from other places.
5: Build individual elements of place and time
To create a believable setting for your novel, plan each element of setting consciously. Courtney Carpenter’s blog post for Writer’s Digest on the basic elements of setting in a story gives the following list of basic setting elements:
Locale: E.g. country, region, city as well as smaller locations (a school, a hospital, or another specific setting)
Time of year: This may be seasonal (e.g. Christmas in Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol)
Time of day: Think about how the time of day in which a scene is set can influence the tone and atmosphere. Nighttime can be more ominous or eerie than the day
Climate: Think about the natural elements of your setting as well as the man-made ones
Make notes on the most important elements of setting for each scene before you draft it, so that you can keep these details in mind and furnish your scene with extra, vivid detail.
Stories that are mostly characters’ inner monologue or dialogue with no sense of their surrounds can feel adrift, without anything to anchor them. Use the suggestions above to place your characters in the world and show the two-way effects between characters and their environment.