Inspiration for romance story ideas is everywhere. From news headlines (TV actresses marrying members of the British royal family) to a sweet interaction you might witness in a restaurant. How can you develop a strong, affecting romance story idea? Read the following tips and use them to create interesting romantic arcs:
1. Build romance story ideas around romantic tension
The greatest love stories – from Tolstoy’s literary Anna Karenina to contemporary genre romance – intrigue us with romantic tension.
Ever watched a TV series that lost all momentum after two lead characters finally became a couple? That’s the effect of romantic tension diminishing. It’s a powerful source of forward momentum in a good romantic story.
Romantic tension is the suspense we feel as a result of characters’ developing romantic involvement. For example, we may feel suspense because:
We don’t know if two characters will end up together, despite clear mutual attraction
It’s unclear how characters will navigate bumps in the road to romantic bliss
Interfering third parties (exes, family, jealous friends, or external circumstances such as war) get in the way of would-be lovers
In Anna Karenina, for example, the married Anna has an affair with a younger man, Count Alexei Vronsky. Initially, romantic tension arises in Vronsky doggedly pursuing Anna. We wonder how she will respond to his advances. We also are aware of risk factors – the personal guilt and societal judgment that would result if Anna returned Vronsky’s passion.
Later, further tension stems from Anna admitting the affair to her husband. We wonder how this will affect the multiple parties involved. A further source of tension is introduced when Anna becomes increasingly anxious about Vronsky, questioning his fidelity.
Does your basic romance story idea contain a situation that is ripe for different romantic tensions? What keeps lovers apart, to begin? Their personalities? Competing desires? Uncertainties?
2. Find the desires driving your characters
When brainstorming a romantic story idea, think about the desires driving each character. Their past (backstory) and current circumstances will likely affect the romantic choices they make.
A character (like Anna K) might be in a loveless marriage, for example, at the start of a tragic romantic story involving spousal infidelity. The absence of intimacy in a current relationship might be the desire driving this character into the arms of another.
Common sources of romantic desire include:
Physical attraction: The love interest is visually appealing, for whatever reason
Intellectual or mental attraction: A character admires another’s mind, intelligence, values, world view
Emotional attraction: Something about another character feels good – for example a character who is a born ‘giver’ enjoys nurturing a lover who is more vulnerable, and they enjoy the external source of strength
Material attraction: A character can offer wealth, power, status or other benefits that fulfill their lover’s desires
If you think of the fairy tale ‘Cinderella’, what makes it a classic romantic tale is, in part, how the two characters’ desires and backgrounds fit.
The mistreated Cinderella, with her modest background, finds not only kindness but wealth too in the prince that further distances her from her unhappy background. The Prince finds beauty and qualities of kindness and other ‘noble’ characteristics that his money and aristocracy can’t necessarily buy.
To develop a romance arc, brainstorm plot points that bring your characters together. Reveal the ways each helps to fulfill the other’s most fundamental desires (comfort, security, or even just having a close friend and witness).
3. Throw your characters’ personalities into the mix
‘Chemistry’ – the way characters’ quirks, strengths, flaws, and desires work together (along with biological attraction) – plays a key part in romance. When brainstorming romance story ideas or romantic subplots, think about lovers’ personalities. What personality combinations or character archetype combinations make sense?
For example, there is some truth in the cliched saying ‘opposites attract’. For example, a character who is extremely organized could work well with a character who is a chaotic mess. The organized character’s strengths supplement the chaotic character. At the same time, the chaotic lover’s lack of control or abandon might appeal to the organizer, since it’s a side of themselves they don’t often explore or indulge.
Potential partners’ differences from us challenge our habitual ways of seeing and doing things. They might push us towards new adventures, mind-opening experiences that broaden our understanding. Thus ‘difference’ and ‘opposite’ qualities are often powerful in attraction because they supplement lack. This explains, in part, how lovers often describe their partners as their ‘other’ (or ‘better’) ‘halves’.
Characters who are very similar also have common ground for attraction, however. Two characters, for example, might be awkward and find comfort in the fact that the other does not judge them for their lack of social ease. A shared challenge contributes to their mutual liking.
In Roald Dahl’s darkly comical book for young readers The Twits, the marriage between Mr. Twit an Mrs. Twit makes sense because they’re both spiteful and cruel. They play twisted pranks on each other (Mr. Twit puts a frog in Mrs. Twit’s bed, while she tricks him into eating worm spaghetti). Together, they torment animals (and get their just desserts).
This shows how similarities in humour, interests or even unpleasant qualities can bond characters and explain their mutual choices.
4. Find potential conflicts in lovers’ differences
The same things that initially attract characters may become annoying.
For example, an artistic dreamer may be attracted to a wealthy financier. The financier is practical and business-minded. Perhaps the artist has to hustle hard just to make rent and there’s an element of comfort and security, too, in the match. The businessperson might in turn be attracted to the artist’s passion, vision, creativity, youthful energy or other qualities.
Although these differences attract characters initially, they can also be powerful sources of conflict. Perhaps, due to a practical nature, the financier constantly prioritizes work over their significant other. Maybe they don’t show up to an important occasion due to work commitments. This mismatch of focus/priority could be a source of friction and conflict.
Plot points such as these are useful because they show how characters evolve and grow to handle competing wants and needs (or fail to meet halfway). A little conflict often makes romance riveting. And it avoids the frustrating blandness of the ‘happy people in happy land’ effect, where characters are in a permanent state of romantic bliss. However you develop your story idea, make sure you include at least some conflict as this is true to the work that enduring relationships usually require.
5. Draw inspiration from romantic myths, symbols and pop culture
Myths, legends and modern pop culture alike are full of romantic images, lyrics, and ideas. Love and relationships are common themes in many songs. In Joni Mitchell’s song ‘All I Want’ she sings
‘I hate you some, I love you some/mostly when I forget about me’.
Take romantic lines such as these and imagine a situation that would cause a character to write (or say) this line, as an exercise. That could be a romance story idea in itself. The first line of the song is ‘I am on a lonely road and I am travelling’. The story could be about a solo female recording artist and her struggle to balance romantic relationships and her commitment to her art.
There are many articles on writing serious characters, creating action, intrigue, and high drama. Yet what about comedy writing? Read the following ideas and examples for tips on using humour in your writing:
1. Know your audience
Toni Morrison said ‘If there’s a book you want to read, then you must write it.’ Yet in comedy writing, it helps to balance writing what you yourself find funny with the general comedic tastes of your ideal audience.
For example, when writing comedy, you might ask:
How old is my audience? What’s funny to a five-year-old versus a fifteen-year-old differs
What expectations might my audience have? Part of comedy is the delight of the unexpected, subverting your audience’s expectations
On the second point, think of Sir Terry Pratchett’s satirical Discworld fantasy series. Part of what made Discworld such as global success is Pratchett’s understanding of the genre. Because Pratchett knows the tropes and cliches of fantasy so well, he can poke fun at them and be original (and funny) in the process.
For example, here, Pratchett describes the magician Rincewind’s clothes comically in The Colour of Magic. He takes the standard garment wizards often wear (robes) and adds humour:
‘He was wearing a dark robe, made darker by constant wear and irregular washings.’
In the magical, mysterious world of wizards, we don’t expect something as mundane as ‘irregular washings’ to describe a wizard’s clothing. Especially not after Pratchett describes, in an earlier passage, the fancy symbols and sequins adorning Rincewind’s robes.
Throughout his series, Pratchett takes common objects, ideas and character types from fantasy and makes them surprising and funny. His familiar grasp of the language, ideas and objects common to fantasy as a genre help him achieve his comedic effects.
2. Create great comedy using repetition
Repetition is a core building block of comedy writing. Repetition with surprise, in particular. A simple ‘knock knock’ joke is a repeated formula, often with a surprise at the end (usually, a play on words). These jokes may be ‘dad humour’, but they are simple examples of the basic ingredients.
Types of repetition you can use to create humour:
Characters who keep making mistakes: This is a staple of situational comedy, where awkward, embarrassing or uncomfortable events become funny. For example, in a solemn, formal setting, a character might keep calling an important figure by the wrong name
Characters who repeat absurd or ridiculous actions: In Don Quixote, the delusional title character gets into skirmishes with everything from peaceful travelers to windmills that he imagines are giants
Characters using funny phrases or gestures: For example, in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, a boy follows the main character ‘Pip’, after Pip becomes wealthy, repeating ‘Don’t know ya!’ and strutting along behind him, as though he too is a gentleman dressed in fine clothes. The effect gets funnier with each imitation Dickens adds
Here’s an example of comedic repetition by the essayist David Sedaris.
In his collection Naked, Sedaris describes reading a seedy book he finds in the woods as a teenager:
‘The first two times I read the book, I found myself aching with pleasure. Yes, these people were naughty, but at the age of thirteen, I couldn’t help but admire their infectious energy and spirited enjoyment of life. The third time I came away shocked, not by the characters’ behavior but by the innumerable typos.’
Sedaris creates humour by describing repeat readings of the book. The shift in the source of teenage Sedaris’ shock – from the book’s sexual content to its mundane language mistakes – creates comedy through surprise.
3. Create humour in writing via delay and understatement
Understatement is also useful for comedy. Instead of saying, for example, that a character is ‘torn to shreds’ in battle you could say subtly they look ‘worse for wear’. The following description, however, could make just how understated this is clear.
Sir Terry Pratchett is a master of dry understatement. He uses this device to create tongue-in-cheek, dry humour. For example, here he describes a bar fight:
‘Rincewind reached the Broken Drum at a dead run and was just in time to collide with a man who came out backwards, fast. The stranger’s haste was in part accounted for
by the spear in his chest. He bubbled noisily and dropped dead at the wizard’s feet. Rincewind peered around the doorframe and jerked back as a heavy throwing axe whirred
past like a partridge. It was probably a lucky throw, a second cautious glance told him. The dark interior of the Drum was a broil of fighting men, quite a number of them–a third
and longer glance confirmed–in bits.’
The phrase ‘The stranger’s haste was in part accounted for by the spear in his chest’ is understatement. The narrator’s subtle expression of the man’s misfortune makes the tone dry and morbidly humorous.
Note also how Pratchett builds to the last words. The tongue-in-cheek tone continues to Rincewind’s third observation – that the bar is ‘a broil of fighting men, quite a number of them …[are] in bits.’ The hyphens separating the character’s third glance from the rest of the sentence delays the final words ‘in bits’. The extra delay builds up to the punchiest, driest, most morbid observation.
4. Take advice from comedy writing greats
Many great comedic authors (and actors) have given interviews that provide useful insights into doing comedy well. Read interviews with comic writers. Sometimes you find valuable comedy writing advice you can apply to your own work.
David Sedaris, for example, has often shared his dedication to keeping a diary. As an exercise, try keeping a diary for a week and jot down anything funny someone says to you or any unexpected and funny situation.
Often, funny things that happen to you or someone else can be transposed into a story (switched up, of course, to cover your tracks).
What are conflicts in a story? Why do they matter and what purposes do they serve? Read six examples of story conflicts from books and why they work. This will help you create your own interesting, dramatic oppositions:
First, what is conflict in a story and why does it matter?
Conflict is opposition and struggle, whether between characters who have opposing goals, or between a character and their own inner demons. Sometimes conflict lies between characters and their environment (in adventure novels, for example).
In an engrossing novel, conflict supplies tension. When an antagonist has opposing goals to a protagonist, we know only one can be victorious. This creates suspense as we wonder who will triumph and how.
Conflict supplies the stakes and odds that create rising and falling action. If, for example, in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings cycle Frodo’s quest to destroy the One Ring were simple and easy, the story would be predictable and boring. Smaller and greater skirmishes along Frodo’s way create lesser arcs of tension and release. Multiple conflicts of varying size give stories their unique shape and character.
Conflict also is a crucible in which characters can grow and change. Through facing inner and/or external adversity, characters gain new insights and strengths. They overcome flaws or give in to them. Conflict is thus a key agent of change.
This is the most common story conflict. Conflict may arise in every kind of relationship, from friction between a character and their overbearing parent to conflicts between heroes and villains.
In her famous Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling understood the importance of believable and well-motivated person vs person conflicts. From the start of the series, there are multiple conflicts between characters.
The first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (‘the Sorcerer’s Stone’ in the US edition) opens with Harry’s life with his abusive adoptive parents, his aunt and uncle. The Dursleys are emotionally abusive due to their fear of Harry’s latent magical abilities.
Later, other conflicts emerge. There are various conflicts between students at Hogwarts. For example, Harry’s ongoing feud with fellow student Draco Malfoy, who is envious of Harry’s popularity and sporting talent. Besides showdowns with the series’ main villains, there are also conflicts between students and teachers, such as the severe potions teacher, Severus Snape.
These person vs person conflicts serve multiple functions. They create:
Early, background struggles to overcome. Harry’s fractious relationship with his aunt and uncle is present from the start.
Situations and scenarios that test and reveal Harry’s character. At school he is repeatedly provoked by Draco Malfoy and picked on by Snape. These show adversity and how Harry copes with it, revealing his character
Tension and suspense. Larger conflicts between Harry and his allies and the series’ villains (such as the main villain, Lord Voldemort) create life-or-death situations and suspense. They create the greater peaks of drama that the individual books’ smaller arcs build towards
Rowling diversifies conflict effectively. There isn’t only friction between her main character and villain. Instead, conflict is everywhere in her magical and human worlds. Her conflicts fulfill multiple functions, from showing Harry’s difficult background to upping the series’ stakes.
2: Person vs nature conflict examples
Person vs nature or environment is particularly common in survival stories. In some novels, such as Daniel Defoe’s castaway story Robinson Crusoe, person vs nature is the main conflict. In others, the standoff between a character or group and their environment is only part of the story.
As mentioned in a previous post, Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes were Watching God contains an excellent example of person vs nature conflict. In Hurston’s novel, the central character Janie elopes with a young drifter, Vergible ‘Teacake’ Woods, after two unhappy marriages. Yet the Okeechobee hurricane strikes and Vergible is bitten by a rabid dog while saving Janie from drowning in the resulting floods.
In this person vs nature conflict, Hurston uses person vs nature to:
Raise stakes and tension: Janie’s near drowning and Teacake’s predicament
Reveal her characters’ nature: Vergible demonstrates great courage and resolve in the lengths he goes to save Janie in the hurricane
Create the conditions for further plot development: Teacake contracts rabies from the dog bite, leading to irrational and violent changes in his behaviour
A great person vs environment conflict can thus show what your characters are made of, while also planting the roots of further perils and consequences.
3: Person vs self or internal conflict
Internal conflict is another common type of story conflict. Emotions such as shame or jealousy are powerful motivators. Characters who have flaws, who struggle with some aspect of themselves, are intriguing.
The primary conflict in Dostoyevsky’s classic novel Crime and Punishment is internal. Early in the novel, the troubled and impoverished protagonist, Rodion Raskolnikov, murders a pawnbroker for cash.
Dostoyevsky builds Raskolnikov’s internal conflict throughout the book, from the build-up to the murder to his growing anxiety and unease in its wake. The author shows Raskolnikov as he tries to justify the murder to himself. The character has a theory that he is helping those who could fall prey to the pawnbroker’s exploitative lending terms.
Despite his rationalizations, however, Raskolnikov also kills an unexpected witness who intrudes on the scene, the pawnbroker’s sister. She is ‘innocent’ (by his own warped standards), complicating his dilemma. His mental state deteriorates, as his conscience plagues him and he falls under increasing suspicion.
This example of person vs self conflict is effective because Dostoyevsky shows the consequences of his character giving in to his darker, more violent impulses. The author creates intense suspense as we wonder whether Raskolnikov will crack under pressure and turn himself over to the police or be caught. Other conflicts between characters emerge, but the protagonist’s inner struggle remains the driving force of the story.
4: Person vs society
The conflict between an individual and their society, the ‘fish out of water’ story, is another popular source of friction in fiction. Often, these novels are satires that cast a critical eye on a society and its ethics and morals. A classic example is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.
The story follows Hester Prynne, a woman who is punished by society for having a child out of wedlock in 17th Century Puritan Massachusetts. The book opens with crowds gathering to watch Hester publicly shamed for adultery. Hester is made to wear a scarlet ‘A’ for ‘adulteress’. Hawthorne contrasts Hester’s dignified bearing with the anger of the crowd and their relish in her humiliation. One woman says:
‘At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead. Madame Hester would have winced at that, I warrant me. But she—the naughty baggage—little will she care what they put upon the bodice of her gown!’
Through the words of individual spectators, Hawthorne shows the hypocrisy of the society in this conflict. The spectators shun and shame while failing to see the undignified element of their own cruel natures. We see that it is not so simple as the society being ‘right’ and the transgressor who breaks its rules being ‘wrong’.
The person vs society conflict works because Hester’s individual transgression show the cracks in the values of society at large. Even while being self-righteous, the spectators refuse to see the flashes of ugliness, the ‘indecent’ lust for violence and others’ suffering in their own behaviour.
5: Person vs the supernatural
Person vs supernatural conflicts could fall under ‘person vs environment’. Yet the supernatural antagonist in a story may be a malevolent spirit with character-like personality, or a more abstract evil force.
Stephen King is one of the great masters of the person vs supernatural story conflict. In his 1986 horror novel It, for example, a group of children is terrorised by a shape-shifting being that uses the fears and phobias of its victims to take its shape, most often a clown.
One of the unique elements of of a supernatural conflict is that it can’t always be solved via natural, logical means. In horror novels, villains often return in different guises, or in the spirit world – the conflict (like It) can morph and transform.
A supernatural antagonist like It thus gives the author the means for constant tension and suspense. Because It can take multiple forms, a web of suspicion grows. Every character, animal or object in the story becomes potentially dangerous. By making each of his child characters’ fears affect the form It takes, King multiplies the possible scenarios that can play out. The supernatural conflict is thus an excellent source of unrelenting suspense.
6: Person vs technology
‘Person vs technology’ is a common feature of the science fiction genre, especially dystopian novels about innovation ‘taken too far.’ Stories about Artificial Intelligence turned malevolent, for example.
Isaac Asimov wrote a number of short stories and novels built around the idea of conflict between person and technology. In his 1942 short story ‘Runaround’, he introduced ‘The Three Laws of Robotics’ that govern robots. These are:
1. A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second laws.
Often Asimov uses these laws to show conflicts in human vs machine problem-solving.
In ‘Runaround,’ for example, a robot named Speedy sent to collect fuel gets stuck in a loop running around the fuel source. The human characters who come across Speedy realise it behaves this way because the source is dangerous. To venture into the source would break the Third Law. Speedy has been ordered to do something, though, so not fetching the fuel would break the Second Law. The character Powell realises that he has to risk his own life to force the robot to achieve the task, since the First Law (not allowing humans to come to harm) will overrule the second two.
The conflict is effective because it contains multiple sources of tension and suspense. On one hand, the robot, Speedy, has ‘internal conflict’ , since it can’t complete its vital task due to conflicting robot laws.
The human characters, on the other hand, must resolve the internal conflict behind Speedy’s behaviour. It boils down to ‘human mind vs machine mind’. Asimov thus creates something more complex and nuanced than a simple ‘evil robots try to destroy humanity’ plot.
There is no single ‘right’ approach to how to start a story in first person. That being said, there are several ways to start a story using first person point of view and hook readers from the start. Here are 8 pointers for beginning a book in first person:
1: Perfect your character introductions: Make the reader care
2: How to start a story in first person: Begin with revealing actions
3: Don’t tell the reader everything at once
4: Make your protagonist’s voice identifiable from the start
5: Make your protagonist’s voice active
6: Make your main character confide in the reader
7: Eliminate filter words and let the reader see through your protagonist’s eyes
8: Introduce secondary characters via your first person narrator early on
To expand on these pointers:
1: Perfect your character introduction: Make the reader care
‘Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night.’
As far as introductions go, this is very matter-of-fact. Dickens doesn’t create a particularly strong emotional connection with the character right away. What Dickens does do, though, is create intrigue in the reader about David. We want to know whether he turns out to be the hero he refers to or not.
In subsequent paragraphs, Dickens adds details that make us care about his main character more:
‘I was a posthumous child. My father’s eyes had closed upon the light of this world six months, when mine opened on it. There is something strange to me, even now, in the reflection that he never saw me; and something stranger yet in the shadowy remembrance that I have of my first childish associations with his white grave-stone in the churchyard, and of the indefinable compassion I used to feel for it lying out alone there in the dark night, when our little parlour was warm and bright with fire and candle, and the doors of our house were—almost cruelly, it seemed to me sometimes—bolted and locked against it.’
Dickens makes us want to know the outcome of the story, then proceeds to make us empathize with his narrator through his story of loss.
Making the reader care doesn’t necessarily mean making the reader feel sorry for your character: Readers can just as easily dislike your cunning anti-hero or feel in two minds. The most important thing is to make readers care, whether about your character or the outcome of a situation they announce.
Besides making the reader care, there are other ways to make your first-person story opening enticing:
2: How to start a story in first person: Begin with revealing actions
Beginning with character actions is another useful device for drawing the reader in immediately. Instead of your character describing a memory or past experience, begin with your character doing something.
Think about the type of action your story opens with. To create immediate interest, try actions that:
Create suspense or foreboding (E.g. ‘I lift the body as carefully as I can – no inexplicable bruises – and move slowly towards the edge of the boat.’)
Create empathetic curiosity (E.g. ‘I hold it together until the last person passes through the airport terminal and break down only once i’m in the relative privacy of the car park.’)
Showing your main character in either a state of high emotion or in a process of perplexing activity teases the reader with a sense of there being much more to the story and promises the reader that more will be revealed.
3: Don’t tell the reader everything at once
Part of what makes the example openings above fairly effective is how little they give away about the first person narrator’s circumstances. For the first, the reader might ask ‘Whose body?’ or ‘Is the protagonist a killer disposing of the body or is the situation more complicated?’
This is an important element of how to start a story in first person: Leave some of the most interesting tidbits about your character for later. When we meet someone for the first time, it’s overwhelming if they tell us every minute detail about themselves. The same goes for your characters – a little mystery keeps us wanting to find out more.
Pin or save this image for a reminder of ways to make your first person opening strong.
4: Make your character’s voice identifiable from the start
Many writers make the mistake of making their first person narrators’ voices too similar to their own. Characters that feel like stand-ins for the author feel flat and one-dimensional. Instead, make your character distinctive from the outset. Do this with:
Personality: Is your character mostly optimistic or negative? Poetic in the language they use or plain-speaking?
Language: Does your character use lots of expletives or not? are they wordy or do they get to the point quickly?
Some other methods for making your first person narrator’s voice distinctive:
Choose 4 or 5 words that your character likes to use and make a note of them. They could be adjectives they use most often for things they like or dislike (e.g. ‘fantastic’ or ‘weird’), for example
As Jackie Cangro at Loft Literary reminds, it’s useful to think about tone. What is the tone of your character’s self-expression like overall? Do they come across as comical or serious, anxious or mellow? Sarcastic or sincere?
5: Make your protagonist’s voice active
Compare passive voice and active voice:
‘I was led to the hilltop house and told by my guide to wait while he disappeared around the side.’
Compare this to:
‘I followed my guide to the hilltop house. “Wait,” he said, disappearing around the side.’
In the second, active voice example, we have more of a sense of the first person narrator acting in his world as opposed to just being moved around in it. We have a stronger sense of the character as a real person who has choices and can make decisions of his own free will. We see the experience from his immediate perspective.
6: Have your first person character confide in the reader
One way to start a book in first person effectively is to make your narrator take the reader into her confidence. Secrets and intimate revelations create curiosity. As readers, being let into the narrator’s confidence makes us feel party to (and even complicit in) something important. Whether your narrator confides a misdeed in the reader or shares an intimate fact about their history (like David does in the opening pages of David Copperfield), this act makes the reader invest in the story by making the reader feel privy to privileged information.
7: Eliminate filter words and let the reader see through your protagonist’s eyes
Filter words are words that place the reader at one remove to seeing and experiencing what the character is seeing and experiencing. For example, a character might say ‘I saw that the building had started to collapse’. Instead, however, you could simply make your first person narrator say ‘the building had started to collapse’.
‘Filter words can be difficult to see at first, but once you catch them, it becomes second nature. “I heard the music start up, tinny and spooky and weird,” vs. “The music started up, tinny and spooky and weird.” One is outside, watching him listen; the other is inside his head, hearing it with him.
“I saw the dog, brown and shaggy.” You’re watching the character see the dog. “The dog was brown and shaggy.” Now you’re seeing what the character sees, and there is no space between you and the character.’
Reid does also make the important point that filter words aren’t always bad. Reid’s example of an acceptable use is the sentence ‘I see the shelves, and I see the counter, but I don’t see the scissors’. This is describing the act of seeing explicitly – you could write ‘The shelves are there and the counter but not the scissors’, but the former question conveys the character’s frustration at not finding what she’s looking for better. There is a keener sense of the character’s eyes roving over the counter.
Make sure that you aren’t unintentionally placing your reader at one remove to your first person character’s observations and experiences, right from the start of your novel.
8: Introduce secondary characters via your first person narrator early on
Just because you’re starting your story with your main character’s first person perspective doesn’t mean the focus has to be on them alone. Create intrigue by having your protagonist refer to a secondary character in your opening. Having your main character mention a cast member of your novel who is yet to appear will keep readers anticipating developments in your story and new entrances and exits.
The main characters in a story drive plot, attract readers’ empathy (or loathing) and carry your story along. Understanding how to write a lovable, loathsome, or otherwise engaging main character is a vital skill to develop. Read on for definitions, examples and tips to make your primary characters memorable:
First, defining a main character
Why do we distinguish ‘main’ from ‘secondary’ or ‘minor’ characters? For one, they serve different functions in a story.
A main character is the focus – the story’s about them. Their goals, desires, fears and worst case scenarios drive events. Secondary characters may be important too, of course. Yet secondary characters would be nominated in the ‘best supporting’ category at the Oscars – they naturally have a smaller supporting role (though they can still steal the show, like ‘Trabb’s boy’ in the example from Great Expectations further on in this piece).
You can, of course, have multiple lead characters, too. In a crime thriller that alternates between a detective and killer’s POV, you could give each character’s arc equal weight. Some series such as the TV show Hannibal make antagonists main characters in their own right, not only giving ‘good guys’ the narrative spotlight.
Whoever you choose as the primary character for your story, be it a villain-protagonist or a standard noble hero, here are tips
to write main characters who matter:
1. Know the desires and goals driving your main characters
In a detective story, for example, we already know the main character’s usual goal – solving a mystery. Character goals here are supplied in part by the standard features of the genre. Here, a main character’s desire is driven partially by professional duty.
Yet momentum is added via, for example, the distress of a lady who doesn’t know what happened to her husband. This is where secondary characters are useful. Their wants and desires can add urgency (or complications) to your main characters’ tasks.
Situations needing resolution: A main or secondary character going missing (in a mystery), for example
Backstory: Events in your main character’s past that spur them to act (for example, Charles Dickens’ Miss Havisham meddles in young love between main characters, having been jilted at the altar herself)
Environmental forces: A character’s society and its problems, or even the natural environment (for example, an impending meteor strike in a post-apocalyptic novel)
When you brainstorm characters, connect the current and background events that move them to act. Make these desires and histories the strings that move your characters’ arms and legs.
2. Give a main character suspense-creating challenges
Suspense is more crucial in some genres than others. A thriller novel wouldn’t seem like much of a thriller without uncertain dangers and tensions.
Even in a romance, however, there is narrative tension; the ‘will they? won’t they?’ that elicits readers’ curiosity.
Challenges create exciting rising and falling action: Two lovers are separated by long distance, for example. Not knowing how they’ll overcome this obstacle, we turn the page
Challenges help you develop characterization: An obstacle is a useful plot point to show what your main character is made of. Do they freak out or take it in their stride?
Your story’s central idea should supply plenty of ideas for challenges your main character faces. For example, take Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed post-apocalyptic novel The Road (2006). In this novel, a father and son journey and avoid starvation and marauding cannibals after an unnamed extinction event.
The idea naturally suggests possible challenges – skirmishes with other survivors or cannibals, along with the gruelling physical reality of surviving a blighted land.
3. Brainstorm stakes for each protagonist or antagonist
‘Stakes’ are a useful concept when developing a main character such as a protagonist or antagonist.
The simple question ‘what does this character have to lose?’ helps you keep the ‘worst case scenario’ in mind so that it remains a real, present threat.
The higher the stakes, the stronger characters’ motivation to act.
To take The Road as an example again, the stakes are high – the father must survive to protect his more vulnerable young sun, for example.
The way McCarthy juggles this desire and the father’s own vulnerability is what led many critics to call McCarthy’s novel ‘heartbreaking’ and ‘shattering’. Stakes – and the dance your character does to avoid losing to them – supply a lot of emotional engagement and investment for readers.
When you brainstorm a main character, ask:
What do they have to lose? For example: The love of the object of their affection, citizenship to a country where they desperately want to stay
How are they vulnerable if the worst comes to pass? For example, a lover with low self-esteem might start to feel negatively about themselves if their love interest grows distant
4. Give main characters (and secondary characters) clear descriptions
Stories truly spring to life when each main character feels vivid. Often, in beginners’ writing, we read eye colour, hair colour, and lots of grinning.
Yet your main characters can reveal a lot more through their appearance. For example, details of dress can tell your reader about the time period (tightly-laced bodices suggesting the stiff discomfort of Victorian England, for example).
The beauty of character description is that if you do a good job the first time your reader meets a character, on repeat meetings all you need is a token description here, a small, familiar gesture there, to sustain the effect.
Add writers who excel at character portraits to your reading diet. Many classic authors were excellent at characterization, too. Charles Dickens, for example, is a master of giving characters small gestures or verbal tics that make their personalities and voices unmistakable.
Here, for example, Dickens describes how a secondary character, ‘Trabb’s boy’, mocks his main character Pip, after pip becomes wealthy due to a mystery benefactor. The boy’s words and actions clearly show the boy’s perception that Pip now thinks he’s better than others:
‘I had not got as much further down the street as the post-office, when I again beheld Trabb’s boy shooting round by a back way. This time, he was entirely changed. He wore the blue bag in the manner of my great-coat, and was strutting along the pavement towards me on the opposite side of the street, attended by a company of delighted young friends to whom he from time to time exclaimed, with a wave of his hand, “Don’t know yah!’
From the way the character walks (his ‘strutting’) to how he pretends the blue bag is a fancy coat, these small details show his opinion of Pip and also add humour to the scene. Via a secondary character we see the main character from another, interesting angle.
5. Develop main characters via secondary characters
This tip follows on from the previous example from Dickens. What is so good about Dickens’ incident between Pip and Trabb’s boy is it highlights Pip’s change of fortune as well as the cons that come with it (his estrangement from his humbler roots).
In a single interaction, in Pip’s irritation with the boy imitating his apparent pomp, we see the gaps between how we see ourselves and how others see us.
These gaps and differences can enrich main characters. A character might not see themselves as particularly beautiful, for example, but when we see every shopkeeper or person on the street try to flirt with them, we begin to realize they’re more attractive than even they realise.
Differences between primary and secondary characters help to differentiate characters clearly – through difference of perspective, personality, voice, each character becomes unique.
When you’re drafting scenes involving minor characters, ask:
What can how they speak to my main character(s) reveal about how they come across to others? Are they more often kind by default? Hostile? Why?
How does your main character treat others who aren’t particularly important to them? What does their behaviour or manners say about them? Are they arrogant, dismissive, friendly?
Think about the various roles secondary characters can serve in developing main characters. How can this character bring your main character closer to or further from their immediate goals?
Structuring a story is challenging, especially when your story spans multiple books (or, in the case of TV, episodes). Read on for ideas to make your series arcs – of character and plot – rewarding:
1. Outline ideas for individual books’ arcs
A writing project as large-scale as a series particularly requires planning. Keeping track of the different threads within a single book is tricky. Keeping track of your plot lines across multiple books is even trickier.
Take, for example, the original Bourne thrillers by Robert Ludlum: The Bourne Identity (1980), The Bourne Supremacy (1986) and The Bourne Ultimatum (1990).
You could summarize each book’s outline thus:
Book One: Jason Bourne, struggling with amnesia, seeks to recover his identity after a conflict at sea with a terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal. Information about a Zurich bank account found on his person leads him to discover more information about his past
Book Two: Jason Bourne, having regained his memory and recovered, is teaching Asian studies at a university in Maine. Yet he discovers someone posing as him in Asia is killing people. Then his girlfriend Marie is kidnapped.
Book Three: Jason Bourne works to find his old enemy, Carlos the Jackal, who is plotting to kill him
These are oversimplified summaries that don’t cover all plot events, yet they show a simple outline of the development and arcs:
The main character’s challenge: Bourne has lost his memory and must go on a journey to rediscover his identity, learning about ominous threats due to his spy past along the way
The main character’s development: Bourne regains his memory but old and new threats appear, including the antagonist from book 1 who reappears in book 3
Ongoing suspense and tension feeding subplots: What happened to the antagonist in book 1? Who is the imposter posing as Bourne? What will happen to Marie? Etc.
2. Reveal some unknowns in each book – keep others for your entire series arc
How you reveal and conceal key plot points is particularly important if you’re writing a series involving a major conflict such as a murder mystery series or epic fantasy saga.
If you reveal everything in your first book, you may well struggle to come up with ideas for book two. Instead, pace yourself and brainstorm conflicts or complications that can be bigger than a single book’s arc.
For example, in a spy saga, Book 1 could end with your main character facing a tribunal for flouting direct orders. This conflict could leave them in a state of uncertainty, paving the way for a sequel where you show how their hearing resolves and how they continue on their original, main mission.
A good place to find inspiration for pacing how your plot unfolds is in TV. Series will typically have a primary mystery that resolves by the end of the season, with leftover questions unanswered.
As an exercise, take a TV show you know was well. Search for the show on Wikipedia and read a summary of the events of each episode Then:
Write a simplified timeline of how the plot develops from installment to installment.
Note what the major climactic event is of the season. Is there a single big reveal?
How did the writers continue this closing situation in the next season?
3. Give main characters individual series arcs
A series containing multiple key characters feels particularly rich to read when each has their own core goals.
If you think of Louise Penny’s successful Chief Inspector Gamache mystery series, the series is made not only by her main character, investigator Armand Gamache, but a broader cast that breathes life into the setting of the fictional town of Three Pines.
‘There’s Gabri and Olivier who run the B and B. There’s Myrna Landers who runs – she’s a retired psychologist from Montréal. She runs the used bookstore. To be honest with you, when I was writing this book, I didn’t ever think it would be published. And I knew it would take years, probably, to write the first book of the series […] So I created a cast of characters I would choose as friends because I knew I would have to be in their company at least for a couple of years.’
Penny goes on to describe how it’s not only Gamache, the inspector himself, who comes and goes in the village. Other characters leave for their own reasons (her character Clara leaves on a quest with the inspector, having sought his help).
Even Penny’s secondary characters have problems, desires and motivations. These can remain unresolved across multiple books to create secondary plot lines your readers want to see resolved.
What immediate desires can this character fulfil in this book? (for example, finding out what happened to a lost husband)
What desires will they work towards across this book and its sequel? (for example, getting justice for a murdered lost husband)
How do this character’s desires and actions affect other characters’ arcs? (for example, Gamache is roped into the inhabitants of Three Pines’ individual problems)
4. Develop rising and falling action across your entire series
Rising and falling action in series both help to maintain forward momentum. When your characters’ have an end-goal for the series, whether it be defeating the primary villain (as in Rowling’s Harry Potter books) or finding love and personal fulfillment (as in the Bridget Jones books), give the route to that goal easy valleys and steep summits.
‘Rising action’ doesn’t necessarily mean (in a crime thriller) increasing gunfights or (in a romance) constant fighting between lovers. Across a series arc you can use changes such as a shift of location to introduce unpredictability. But to make your wins believable, give your main characters more to juggle and contend with as they go. The easiest-won challenges are often the most boring.
In the sequel to Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, the primary love interest from the previous book leaves Bridget for another woman who works at his firm. This leads to a solo adventure Bridget has in Southeast Asia where she has drugs planted in her luggage, among other mishaps.
In this example, putting the primary romance on the back-burner allows Fielding to explore new settings and develop secondary arcs (such as the drug bust) that have their own rising and falling action, their own heartbreaks and comical moments.
5. Find elements that make your series cohesive
A satisfying aspect of reading a series is that places, characters, even landmarks come to feel like old friends. In C.S. Lewis’ much-loved classic fantasy series, the Narnia books, the solitary lamp post one of the children sees when they discover the parallel world of Narnia by accident returns in other books as a key familiar landmark.
Details such as these, the familiar, anchoring details of place and a place’s inhabitants, make reading a series feel like a comfortable, familiar pair of slippers (or, in a thriller or crime novel, a roller-coaster you’re happy to wait again when the ride is over).
When you start planning a series arc, think not only of events and their unresolved strands that will tie it all together but also settings you’ll return to, or cast members who’ll return across multiple books. Planning and brainstorming these a little will give your series anchoring detail.
At another point in her NPR interview, Louise Penny says:
‘[H]aving been a journalist for a long time, I was getting the sense that the world was a very cruel, very dangerous place. And I didn’t like that feeling ’cause in my heart I thought that probably wasn’t true. It was a warped version of what the world was really like. And so I created this village. This village I would choose to live in where real life happens – bad things happen to all of the people. But there is a sense of community, of belonging.’
Something as simple as this – a village like Three Pines where there is a sense of community that prevails against bad things, a concrete sense of ‘place’ – makes a series unified.
Story topics are all around us, yet having a wide breadth of choice can be daunting. Sometimes we know what we want to write already, at least vaguely, as it’s the reason we’ve chosen to write a book in the first place. Yet what if you’re between projects and can’t think of a new idea? Or you simply can’t decide what you want to write about? Try these simple ways to find story topics:
1. Find story topics through chance or random methods
Often we get stuck because we have habitual ways of doing things that aren’t feeding our creative imagination. Chance or randomness is great for stirring your imagination and finding story topics and ideas you might not have otherwise thought up.
This is an approach that was particularly popular with the French group of writers OuLiPo. A member, Georges Perec, set himself the task of writing an entire novel without using the letter ‘e’ (the most common letter in the French language!). Explaining the disappearance of the letter itself became part of the story’s plot. This group saw that using constraints in their creative decisions could actually open new creative possibilities they hadn’t hitherto imagined.
Here’s a chance exercise to find a story topic, right now:
Open a favourite book to a random page and write out the first complete sentence from start to full stop/period.
Read over the sentence. Try start a story with that sentence as the opening line. Later, delete your first line.
Alternatively, look for an object or action in the sentence. Write it in the middle of a blank page, to mind-map. Now start writing things you associate with it freely in the spaces around this word. Do any ideas come up for a story that could combine these different images and ideas?
As an example, here’s a random line from Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017):
‘So as not to attract undue attention, she left the exterior walls rough and unfinished.’ (p. 67)
You might start a story with this line about a woman building a house. Why might a person leave a house looking unfinished ‘so as not to attract undue attention?’ Maybe whoever will live there is not socially accepted, for example. Or could the house be a covert library for readers in an authoritarian society that has outlawed books?
Allow your imagination to run wild.
2. Play with time and place
Many great story ideas come from putting characters or situations in unlikely times and places. A classic exmaple is Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889).
In Twain’s classic novel, Hank Morgan, an engineer from Connecticut, is transported to medieval England under the reign of the mythical King Arthur, after suffering a concussion.
By putting a contemporary character in a different time setting, Twain is able to poke fun at both modern life and early modern ‘superstition’, via each culture’s mores and ideas.
To combine unlike times and places into a story idea, you don’t have to include actual time travel, either. You could write a list of elements common to one place and era, and elements from another and combine them in a new, completely fictional setting.
Genres like steampunk (which combines early industrial steam-powered technology with elements of modern times) follow this playful approach to time and place.
3. Ask ‘What if?’
Finding a great story topic can be as simple as asking ‘What if?’ and writing down each imaginary situation that comes to mind. For example:
What if a man were transformed into a critter overnight that horrified his family? (The ‘What if’ question that could result in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis)
What if society was built around women’s enslavement as baby-making vessels? (The ‘What if’ that could result in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale)
The saying ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ may be cliched, but consider global politics. Many did not believe, for example, a real estate mogul and reality TV personality would become president of the USA.
Even a headline this simple is a gold mine for story topics. You could start a story about an unusual group of girl scouts with magic powers. Or maybe they’re underage spies. Perhaps it’s a group in which every member has a rare syndrome that causes them to appear much younger than they are. They’re actually a band of criminal masterminds who can lead police on a wild goose chase because of their seeming innocence.
Don’t be afraid to push ideas for story topics into the realm of the the ridiculous or campy. If a story idea fills you with ideas for intriguing events and characters, run with it and see where it goes. All time spent writing and actively solving creative story challenges is time that will help you get closer to writing the fantastic story only you can.
5. Find story topics through saying ‘No!’
Writing from a place of outrage or simply mild annoyance is often great motivation. Have you ever read a book where you were annoyed by the author’s lack of understanding of (for example) women, men, gender, mental health, romance, global politics? The list goes on.
Find the tropes (the recurring motifs in books) that most annoy you and try turn them on their head. Both Mark Twain’s book about a Yankee in King Arthur’s court and Cervantes’ Don Quixote are satires on the heroic tales of olden times, in part. They turn a jaded, humorous eye on epic tales of noble deeds; heroism. Twain, for example, shows the way people use superstition to manipulate others through the ages. He shows the very contemporary one-upmanship and trickery behind the hocus pocus.
Cervantes writes many situations where we see the gap between Don Quixote’s romantic view of the world and the actual way things (through his ‘simple’ sidekick’s eyes).
Finding great story topics is easy when you try different approaches and feed your imagination. Start brainstorming now.
‘A particularly significant part of the plot of a work of fiction, especially a film or television drama.’
Thus plot points don’t necessarily have a specific function. They are simply key events in your story that are important to the whole.
A character hiding a gun in their glove compartment is a plot point. A character eating breakfast is not. Unless, to use a silly example, the first mouthful transports them to an alternate universe.
As the definition makes clear, plot points are a common topic in screenwriting. Here, focusing on plot is particularly important, since in an hour-long episodic format, for example, screenwriters need to make sure something happens to keep viewers tuning in week after week. For these reasons, starting and ending with plot points that are purposeful and create momentum in story arcs is key.
Even though your book might not be released in episodic format like a Dickens novel, plot points are a useful concept. Whether your reader does the equivalent of ‘binge-watching’ and reads your book through the night or paces themselves depends, in part, on how badly they want to find out the next plot point.
So how do you find plot events that hook readers on your story and characters?
1. Draw intriguing plot points from your central idea
Drop a personal item mid-flight that security picks up and enables the antagonists to get on their trail
Be caught, making what happens to them next an open question
Discover once they reach safety key documents they need are missing
Clear character desires, motivations and setbacks help maintain a sense of purpose and direction in your story.
3. Place plot points at important structural junctures
One reason it’s helpful to think in plot points is that having a summary-like overview helps you structure and keep events developing. Place plot points at key structural points (for example, the end of your first chapter) to create hooks and cliffhangers. These structural devices keep readers intrigued and entertained.
Let’s return to the Marquez example. Marquez ends his first chapter, most of which focuses on Fermina’s husband and establishing the book’s setting, with Florentino revealing his undying love to Fermina.
On the second-last page of the chapter, we read these key lines of dialogue:
“Fermina,” he said, “I have waited for this opportunity for more than half a century, to repeat to you once again my vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love.”
Placing this revelation so close to the end of the chapter (in such an inappropriate setting – the hearer’s husband’s funeral) naturally creates dramatic suspense.
The full first major plot point is completed by Fermina’s rejection of this advance:
‘Her first impulse was to curse him for profaning the house when the body of her husband was still warm in the grave. But the dignity of her fury held her back. “Get out of here,” she said. “And don’t show your face again for the years of life that are left to you.” She opened the street door, which she had begun to close, and concluded:
“And I hope there are very few of them.”‘
This furious reaction shows a clear setback for Florentino. Yet Marquez ends the chapter by introducing a further note of uncertainty. It’s possible Fermina is more conflicted than her first outburst lets on:
‘…she slept, sobbing, without changing position on her side of the bed, until long after the roosters crowed […]. Only then did she realize that she had slept a long time without dying, sobbing in her sleep, and that while she slept, sobbing, she had thought more about Florentino Ariza than about her dead husband.’
Marquez thus brings his first chapter to a close on a major revelation and further complication: ‘What will Fermina do next?’ we wonder.
4. Create points of no return
Your first plot point doesn’t have to be a point of no return for your character. After all, your first major event might be a key historical event in a prologue, for example, showing the general historical situation that shapes all your character’s lives (e.g. the events explaining how your characters ended up in the setting that opens your story).
Still, a plot point that shows an event there is no return from is a useful narrative device. Because it creates forward momentum.
Florentino revealing to Fermina that he’s still in love with her is an example of this type of plot point. He can’t ‘unsay’ what he’s told her. It’s a turning point for her too – she can’t un-hear it. Their meeting at the end of chapter 1 also has a decisive outcome.
She forbids Florentino’s further approach (a literal point of ‘no return’), yet we know because of his determined holding out for this moment he’s unlikely to give up so easily.
A strong point of no return:
Shows a decisive situation that shapes your character’s future actions: Ask yourself what choices a point of no return leaves your characters
Has an emotional component: How does a character feel about what happens at the point of no return? Will Florentino drown his sorrows in a bar and get in a fight? Sit dejectedly in his room writing lovelorn bad poetry? Or will he pursue Fermina with even more fervour?
May bring a change in setting, viewpoint character or time period: From the love declaration on, Marquez begins alternating time periods, giving us a glimpse into Fermina and Florentino’s mutual past
5. Create and arrange summaries of each plot point
Consciously plan and structure how each plot point flows to the next. This will leave fewer irrelevant ‘filler’ scenes to cut when you revise.
You could create visual timelines with dates showing individual plot points and when they occur, as well as which characters they involve. For example:
If you prefer to focus on the words and not make visual aids, use a simple tool like the Scribble Pad on Now Novel. You can name individual scribbles (brief 800-word extracts) with a short description of what happens during this particular plot point. Then add more expansive detail in the text of your extract itself. You’ll build up a sequence of handy plot point summaries:
What’s more, you can share these individual plot points for constructive feedback from other writers to decide which plot points work best for your central story idea.
Focusing on key events in your story that actively drive your plot and your characters actions and decisions will help keep your story focused, lean and intriguing.
Respected authors from around the world often share useful advice and ideas on writing. World Book Day is all about celebrating ‘the power of books to promote open and inclusive knowledge societies’, as UNESCO says. With that in mind, here are valuable insights from authors from the USA to Peru, Nigeria to Russia:
1. Write sentences that lead from one to the next to create a strong scene
Acclaimed sci-fi and fantasy author and essayist Ursula K. Le Guin has this to say in her excellent writing manual, Steering the Craft:
‘In a story it’s the scene – the setting/characters/action/interaction/dialogue/feelings – that makes us hold our breath, and cry .. and turn the page to find out what happens next. And so, until the scene ends, each sentence should lead to the next sentence.’
2. Dispel stereotypes by making your characters real and complex
Here, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie makes a great argument for dispelling stereotypes by creating fully-realized, truthful characters:
‘I don’t start out writing to challenge stereotypes. I think that can be as dangerous as starting out to ‘prove’ stereotypes. And I say ‘dangerous’ because fiction that starts off that way often ends up being contrived, burdened by its mission. I do think that simply writing in an emotionally truthful way automatically challenges the single story because it humanizes and complicates. And my constant reminder to myself is to be truthful.’
3. Find ways to identify with characters unlike you
Novel-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk has this to say about the power (and importance) of empathy and imagination in writing:
‘Novels are political because in them, we try to identify with people who are not like us. And, in that sense, I like the first-person singular because I have to imitate accurately the voice of someone who is not like me.’
4. Let yourself make mistakes, then learn from them
Even accomplished authors like the German writer Günter Grass made mistakes in their paths to becoming skilled authors:
‘I made a mistake in writing my first novel: all the characters I had introduced were dead at the end of the first chapter. I couldn’t go on! This was my first lesson in writing: be careful with your characters.’
5. Think about things like tone
The Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez described how he found inspiration for the tone of one of his best-loved books in his grandmother’s storytelling:
‘I had an idea of what I always wanted to do, but there was something missing and I was not sure what it was until one day I discovered the right tone—the tone that I eventually used in One Hundred Years of Solitude. It was based on the way my grandmother used to tell her stories. She told things that sounded supernatural and fantastic, but she told them with complete naturalness.’
In an interview, Indian author and activist Arundahti Roy offered these wise words on focusing on what you’re giving the reader more than your own ego:
‘I’ve always said that amongst great writers there are selfish writers and generous writers; selfish writers leave you with the memory of their brilliance whereas generous writers leave you with the memory of the world that they have evoked. And to me, writing must be an act of generosity.’
7. Learn from reading criticism
South African writer and anti-apartheid activist offered this perspective on the value of reading critiques of other authors’ work:
‘How I learn from criticism and how I apply it to my work is when I read about the kinds of writing that I am interested in, the people who are impressive to me, and then their weaknesses are sometimes pinpointed. And then I say to myself, ‘Ah, Lewis, you too must try and avoid those pitfalls’.’
8. Don’t let narrow views on genre or taste constrain you
Debates between ‘popular’ or ‘genre’ fiction and literary fiction are common, but Danish author Peter Høeg offers these sage words:
‘It’s a mistake that we divide art into popular art and fine, highbrow, high-quality art…It has no basis in reality. And it is a way to keep other people and other people’s taste at a distance. It is a way of closing oneself towards some kinds of reality. So I like to play with genres and to experience the thriller and the love story and to play with reality.’
‘Perhaps you know what I’m going to tell you—you have to write regularly, every day. You have to treat this as the single most important part of your life. You do not need anything as fancy as inspiration, just this steady habit of writing regularly even when you’re sick or sad or dull. Nothing must stop you, not even your beloved children. If you have kids you do what Toni Morrison did—write in the hours before they wake.’
10. Read everything – the classic, your contemporaries
‘A young writer must also read her contemporaries. Fiercely and jealously. She must go into the bookshop and spend hours in awe and contemplation. She must flip to the biographies at the back … [and] get her blood boiling. Shit, that author comes from my hometown. How dare they say what I want to say? Yes, rage, but a temporary rage. Not in competition, but in desire. (After all, they are not taking your job: your job is entirely your own, nobody else can have it, who else is going to finish your piece of literary carpentry, unless it’s an Ikea chair?)’
11. Be open to the power of memory and use your own
The Portuguese author José Saramago has this to say on the power and creative utility of memory:
‘There cannot be any writing without memory. Writers are constantly nourished by what they remember–in fact, everyone is. Memory is our deepest actual language. It’s our storehouse of riches, our gold mine or diamond mine, and we need to keep it open, to keep in mind the importance of childhood events that will somehow condition our life and character as adults.’
Italian author Italo Calvino has these choice words on the value of knowing where you stand and what you want to say:
‘To write well about the elegant world you have to know it and experience it to the depths of your being just as Proust, Radiguet and Fitzgerald did: what matters is not whether you love it or hate it, but only to be quite clear about your position regarding it.’
13. Revise and accept the mundane side of writing
Nobel laureate and Polish poet Wisława Szymborska had this advice on the importance of revision and accepting the tiresome parts of writing:
‘It’s pleasant and rewarding to tell our acquaintances that the bardic spirit seized us on Friday at 2:45 p.m. and began whispering mysterious secrets in our ear with such ardor that we scarcely had time to take them down. But at home, behind closed doors, [great authors] assiduously corrected, crossed out, and revised those otherworldly utterances. Spirits are fine and dandy, but even poetry has its prosaic side.’
14. Prepare yourself for the scrutiny of public reception
Acclaimed Canadian author Margaret Atwood has this humorous advice to authors on her website:
‘It’s tough out there in Bookworld. Tread carefully. Don’t speak so softly that you can’t be heard, nor so loudly that you’re deafening. Carry a medium-sized shtick. And avoid wearing mini-skirts up on stage unless you have very good legs. Zip your lower front apertures. What happens in Vegas no longer stays in Vegas. People have cameras.’
15. Find your own, original and truthful voice
English author Julian Barnes, in an interview with The Paris Review, had this to say on originality and ‘truth’ in fiction:
‘I think a great book—leaving aside other qualities such as narrative power, characterization, style, and so on—is a book that describes the world in a way that has not been done before; and that is recognized by those who read it as telling new truths—about society or the way in which emotional lives are led, or both—such truths having not been previously available, certainly not from official records or government documents, or from journalism or television.’
16. Balance ornate writing with clarity and simplicity
‘The use of the device of personification […] when you have the sea breathe, the heavens gaze down, the steppe caress, nature whisper, speak or mourn — such descriptions render your descriptions somewhat monotonous, occasionally oversweet and sometimes indistinct; picturesque and expressive descriptions of nature are attained only through simplicity, by the use of such plain phrases and ‘the sun came out,’ ‘it rained,’ etc.’
17. Avoid oversimplifying every doubt or grey area
Czech-born French emigre Milan Kundera, in his book The Art of the Novel, has this to say about the danger of ‘black and white’ or oversimplified thinking:
‘Man desires a world where good and evil can be clearly distinguished, for he has an innate and irrepressible desire to judge before he understands. This “either-or” encapsulates an inability to tolerate the essential relativity of things human, an inability to look squarely at the absence of the Supreme Judge. This inability makes the novel’s wisdom (the wisdom of uncertainty) hard to accept and understand.’
In other words, to a villain, they’re the ‘good guy’ and their value system, if they’re the protagonist, is the ‘correct’ one.
18. Avoid making your authorly presence distracting in your writing
One of the reasons why the phrase ‘Show, don’t tell’ is so abused is that beginning authors often make their own presence too obvious in the text. Immersing your reader in the scene and allowing your characters to do the showing and telling is often more dramatically effective than breaking the fourth wall. As French author Gustave Flaubert put it:
‘An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.’
19. Trust your reader to join the dots
The desire to over-explain situations and scenes to readers is common in many authors starting out. Brazillian author Paulo Coelho advocates trusting your reader’s intelligence instead:
‘Trust your reader, don’t try to describe things. Give a hint and they will fulfill this hint with their own imagination.’
Sometimes, you can leave breadcrumb trails for your readers to follow without their getting lost in the woods.
20. Build your store of ideas and experiences to draw on
Japanese author Haruki Murakami, in a piece for Japanese magazine Monkey Business, offered this great analogy between having source material for ideas and Spielberg’s film classic E.T.:
‘Remember that scene in Steven Spielberg’s film E.T. where E.T. assembles a transmitting device from the junk he pulls out of his garage? There’s an umbrella, a floor lamp, pots and pans, a record player─ […] he manages to throw all those household items together in such a way that the contraption works well enough to communicate with his home planet thousands of light years away. […] It strikes me now that putting together a good novel is much the same thing. The key component is not the quality of the materials─what’s needed is magic. If that magic is present, the most basic daily matters and the plainest language can be turned into a device of surprising sophistication. First and foremost, though, is what’s packed away in your garage. Magic can’t work if your garage is empty. You’ve got to stash away a lot of junk to use if and when E.T. comes calling!’
21. Don’t be afraid to borrow from other authors
Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø has this to say about the virtue of recombining snippets and ideas from other authors’ work (in moderation):
‘Do I steal from other books? Definitely. And if I’m a thief, I can tell you I’m stealing but I can’t tell you who I have robbed. Well, OK, Mark Twain. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn — those were great books. For me, writing is a reaction to reading. It’s the same reflex you have around a table of friends. Somebody will tell a story, then the next person will tell a story, then the next. Then you have to bring something new to the table. I grew up in a home where I had so many great experiences being the listener or the reader. Now it’s my turn.’
22. Leave out unnecessary or irrelevant details
Robert Louis Stevenson, famed Scottish author of Treasure Island and other young readers’ classics, had this to say about leaving out boring detail:
‘Suppose you were to be asked to write a complete account of a day at school. You would probably begin by saying you rose at a certain hour, dressed and came down to morning school. You would not think of telling how many buttons you had to fasten, nor how long you took to make a parting, nor how many steps you descended […] Such a quantity of twaddling detail would simply bore the reader’s head off.’
23. Be true to your own passions and interests
Peruvian author and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa has this to say about being true to the subjects and passions you hold dear:
‘The novelist who does not write about what stimulates and excites him deep inside, and coldly selects issues and topics in a rational manner thinking that this is the easiest way to achieve success, is inauthentic, and probably, because of it, is a poor novelist (even though he may achieve success: best seller lists are full of very bad novelists).’
‘Writing novels is a very disciplined business. Writing a poem is like having an affair, a one-night stand; a short story is a romance, a relationship; a novel is a marriage—one has to be cunning, devise compromises, and make sacrifices.’
25. Enjoy the benefits of rewriting and collaboration
Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges had this to say regarding why many folk and fairy tales are so effective and well structured:
‘I think fairy tales, legends, even the off-color jokes one hears, are usually good because having been passed from mouth to mouth, they’ve been stripped of everything that might be useless or bothersome.’
‘The writer needs to write every day, just as the athlete needs to train. Much of the writing will never be used, but it is essential to do it. I always tell my young students to write at least one good page a day. At the end of the year they will have at least 360 good pages. That is a book.’
27. Ensure your writing is easy enough to follow
Welsh author Ken Follett reminds us that if the reader can’t follow, they’ll likely turf your book:
‘My aim in constructing sentences is to make the sentence utterly easy to understand, writing what I call transparent prose. I’ve failed dreadfully if you have to read a sentence twice to figure out what I meant.’
Whether or not you believe there should be a political element in fiction, these words by Kenyan author and theorist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o are worth remembering:
‘A writer’s primary responsibility is to the dictates of their imagination. But no writer does so in a social vacuum. Their work is impacted by their own belief systems, their world outlook. But in the end, art has a magic all its own. At its best and most potent, it embodies and celebrates change and allies with the liberation and enhancement of the human spirit.’
‘I’ve modeled my characters after women like my mother, who was strong. I am happily married to a strong woman. I love it when my wife holds her ground and says, “You are out of line.” One must be able to say that to one’s parents, one’s spouse, the president of one’s country. For me that is democracy.’
30. Find what matters to you and write
Greek author of Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis, had this to say on how how your focus may shift as you develop your writing:
‘I wanted to make my novels the extension of my own father’s struggle for liberty. But gradually, as I kept deepening my responsibility as a writer, the human problem came to overshadow political and social questions.’
31. Draw on multiple sources to write about experiences you don’t know first-hand
Chinese author Gao Xingjian has these wise words on writing experiences unfamiliar to your own:
‘As a male writer, women are always what men pursue, and their world is always a mystery. So I always tried to present as many views as possible on women’s worlds.’
32. Incorporate autobiographical elements where relevant for authenticity
Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo had this to say regarding ‘writing from the bone’ and incorporating her own life in her fiction;
‘I like to write from the bone. Even if it’s just a small part I feel like it gives my work the certain charge. The first half of the novel does not have much of me. Darling, the narrator and main protagonist in Zimbabwe, does not have a strong connection with me. My childhood was very normal and beautiful. Zimbabwe in the 80s was this land of promise.’
33. Pursue life and experience so you have something to write about
Antiguan-American writer and literature academic Jamaica Kincaid has this to say about the importance of lived experience:
‘I’m always telling my students go to law school or become a doctor, do something, and then write. First of all you should have something to write about, and you only have something to write about if you do something.’
34. Remember to include intriguing conflict
Cuban author Pedro Juan Gutiérrez reminds us that there’s intrigue in contrast and conflict:
‘For me, literature is antagonism and conflict. If these two elements aren’t there, it doesn’t interest me–it seems boring to me, something that is for boring people with uneventful lives, people who live in boring, gray places. In Cuba, it’s different. In Cuba, it’s relatively easy to find people living in extreme situations.’
35. Have realistic expectations of the writing process
New Zealand’s Ngaio Marsh, one of the authors of the 1920s’ ‘Golden Age’ of crime-writing, cautions against unrealistic expectations:
‘Please don’t entertain for a moment the utterly mistaken idea that there is no drudgery in writing. There is a great deal of drudgery in even the most inspired, the most noble, the most distinguished writing. Read what the great ones have said about their jobs; how they never sit down to their work without a sigh of distress and never get up from it without a sigh of relief … if you wait for inspiration in our set-up, you’ll wait for ever.’
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The different parts of a book each serve useful functions. Sometimes, authors include introductory or closing sections that stand a little apart from the main narrative, like forewords or afterwords. What is a prologue or epilogue exactly? Read on for definitions, examples and tips for using them in your own books:
What is a prologue?
The word ‘prologue’ comes from the root word logos meaning ‘speech’ and the prefix pro- meaning ‘before’. It’s literally the before-word. Prologues originate in the introductory spoken parts that would typically precede an early modern stage drama.
In more modern times, the prologue is a device authors often use to:
Give the reader exposition that explains their world without having to resort to info dumps in the main narrative
Show a key event, setting or situation that is significant for the remainder of the story
Create a standalone event that casts a veil of mystery and lingering questions over the following story
We’ll get to examples of these uses as well as tips for writing a great prologue. But first:
What is an epilogue?
An epilogue, like a prologue, is a section of a book that stands outside the narrative, as a kind of commentary or supplementary addition. Except the epilogue (as the prefix indicates) comes after the main narrative.
This is most common in contemporary fiction when the story flashes forwards, after the main action has ended, to a later situation. J.K. Rowling controversially used this device to end her Harry Potter series. Rowling showed her central characters when they were much older after the series main conflict had resolved.
There are various reasons why you might include an epilogue in your book:
To hint at a coming sequel: For example, an epilogue might introduce a new, suspenseful development somewhat related to your main story arc
To foreclose possibility of a sequel: Rowling’s epilogue had something of this effect as it showed characters after much time had passed. This use is risky. To the reader the ‘I want you to know this is the absolute ending’ ending can feel more like a communication of the author’s intent than something relevant to the story arc
To show a core character or narrator’s final reflections
So what are examples of effective prologues, and how can you create one that adds to your story (rather than giving it unnecesary bulk)?
1. Writing prologues that explain your world
This type of prologue is particularly common and useful in genres like fantasy and science fiction where imagining another world is core to the reader’s journey.
If you have all kinds of mythical creatures or intergalactic trade groups, info dumps are tempting. It can be tricky to introduce these details in the ordinary flow of your book without it reading like a professor stepping in to give a lesson.
Because paragraphs that read like dusty encyclopedia entries distract your reader from the unfolding story though, a prologue may be simpler.
If you do write a prologue, keep it ‘storified’. Just because it stands outside the main story events a little doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to be compelling. It’s best not to give readers a dry, scientific outline of your world that they’ll skip for the main narrative.
So how do you write prologues that entertain while also giving some explanation of how things work?
1.1. Include humour, if relevant
If humour is part of your story, a funny or whimsical prologue is effective.
Take this example: The opening prologue from The Colour of Magic (1983), the first book in Sir Terry Pratchett’s comical Discworld series:
‘In a distant and second-hand set of dimensions, in an astral plane that was never meant to fly, the curling star-mists waver and part…’
Pratchett’s prologue is laced throughout with grand, faux-epic language (‘the curling star-mists’). This pokes fun a little at the grand, sweeping imagery and language of many epic fantasy introductions. Pratchett draws attention to the improbability and absurdity of his magical world (‘in an astral plane that was never meant to fly’).
This approach creates the playful, affectionately mocking tone that is distinctive of Pratchett’s style. Even as he pokes fun, Pratchett gives us detailed yet broad details about his world. By the time we get to the main action, we don’t need an explanation for every world building detail.
1.2. Share information relevant to key events of your story
The introduction to Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring (1954) is also a good example of an effective prologue.
Tolkien’s lengthy prologue is divided into 5 parts in the table of contents. ‘Concerning Hobbits’, ‘Concerning Pipe-weed’, ‘Of the Ordering of the Shire’, ‘Of the Finding of the Ring’, and ‘Note on the Shire Records.’
This expansive prologue allows Tolkien to share primary information about the history and nature of the race of Hobbits, as well as the history of ownership of the ‘One Ring’. We get some social history affecting characters’ viewpoints and origins, as well as the history of an object of greatest significance for the plot.
By getting all this explanatory detail out of the way in a prologue, Tolkien gives the reader a ‘user’s manual’ of sorts for the coming story. When we encounter mention of hobbits or the ring, we already have background – a frame of reference.
Tolkien keeps his prologue interesting with anecdotes and imagery. For example, in ‘Concerning Hobbits’, we read this about Hobbits’ height:
‘They seldom now reach three feet; but they have dwindled, they say, and in ancient days they were taller. According to the Red Book, Bandobras Took (Bullroarer), son of Isengrim the Second, was four foot five and able to ride a horse. He was surpassed in all Hobbit records only by two famous characters of old; but that curious matter is dealt with in this book. ‘
Tolkien’s prologue, while mostly background information, thus also gives us specific, detailed descriptions. These make his world more vivid and real. He also hints explicitly that this information about some Hobbits riding horses is relevant to the coming story. The prologue thus conveniently teases coming events.
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In the section of Tolkien’s prologue titled ‘Of the Finding of the Ring’, the author also recaps key events. We learn how the One Ring came into the character Bilbo Baggins’ possession. This recaps the events of Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit (1937). The prologue describes exciting events in summary form. While relevant, they are not the main action of this story:
‘ …just in time Bilbo saw his peril, and he fled blindly up the passage away from the water; and once more he was saved by his luck. For just as he ran he put his hand in his pocket, and the ring slipped quietly on to his finger. So it was that Gollum passed him without seeing him…’
Tolkien describes Bilbo’s escape with the ring. This part of the prologue introduces one of the ring’s powers (granting invisibility to its wearer). We thus get detail relevant to the coming story, in action-filled yet concise form.
It’s not only fantasy and science fiction that use this type of prologue, however. Paula Hawkins’ bestselling novel Into the Water (2017) begins with a brief, half-page section titled ‘The Drowning Pool’, before the chapters listed under ‘Part One’ in the contents begin.
The section titled ‘Libby’, all in italics, describes a disturbing scene:
The men bind her again. Differently this time: left thumb to right toe, right thumb to left. The rope around her waist. This time, they carry her into the water.’
Hawkins, in her unsettling prologue, gives the viewpoint of a character named ‘Libby’ as she is drowned. The reader only learns much later about this specific event and it’s fuller background, however. The following sections focus instead on events leading to other characters’ near-drownings.
Hawkins thus delays revelation explaining the scene of her prologue, yet it’s still relevant to multiple characters’ experiences across multiple time periods in her book.
Reading the above examples, how can you write a gripping foreword that adds to your story by introducing key events?
Create elements of mystery: We may well wonder what became of Gollum after Bilbo took the ring, or who ‘Libby’ was
Keep it concise and purposeful: Even though Tolkien’s prologue is one long piece of narrative, his table of contents identifies the 5 separate subjects it covers so that as we read it, we notice we are learning about five aspects of his world
Use standalone events to introduce important themes of your story: Hawkins prologue, for example, highlights the violence against women that is underwritten by problematic views on gender, an issue the book continues to explore across time periods
3. Writing epilogues that hint at forthcoming sequels
If, at the end of your book, for example, your no-nonsense detective catches a serial killer, your epilogue could show a new copycat killer, perhaps, engaged in suspicious activity. For example:
‘A man in a scruffy, faded bomber jacket sits at a greasy desk, snipping. The scissors cut hurriedly around a mugshot Detective McHarry would recognize instantly. The man slides a musty scrapbook in front of him, cuttings loosely cradled in his calloused hand.’
‘Who the heck is this now?’ your readers would likely ask themselves. When writing sequel-teasing epilogues:
Relate new developments to earlier action: If your epilogue feels completely unrelated to preceding action or narrative, it might be too confusing. Ensure continuity
Create suspense: Give enough information to intrigue. Play with leaving information open-ended. In the example above, the man with the scrapbook could be anyone.
Keep epilogues concise: When you’ve already resolved the main action of your story, anything that follows it may feel particularly tiring to read after the climax. Try to keep to a page or two at most.
4. Writing epilogues where characters reflect on prior events
An epilogue or afterword from a character’s point of view may be emotionally satisfying. For example, in Evelyn Waugh’s classic wartime novel Brideshead Revisited (1945), the main character Ryder revisits a college friend’s family manor when it has become a military station during the war.
The earlier descriptions of Brideshead are full of life, but in the epilogue, the manor is like an uninhabited shell. The sense of the manor’s former grandeur, now falling apart under siege, gives the epilogue a nostalgic, wistful tone:
‘Wonderful old place in its way,’ said the Quartering Commandant; ‘pity to knock it about too much.’
Further on, Ryder says:
‘It did not take us long to make our tour of the echoing rooms.’
The sense of ruin and abandonment in the altered setting brings home the depersonalized devastation war entails. It creates an affecting contrast with the earlier descriptions of the laughter, romance and other intrigue characters share at this stately home.
The epilogue, where Ryder experiences a profound change of place, has an emotional effect. It conveys a haunting sense of fading splendour produced by war and the march of time.
When writing epilogues such as these where characters experience the past from a new vantage point:
Evoke emotion: How does your character feel under changed circumstances: Nostalgic? Sad? Stronger? Weaker?
Imagine ways to incorporate your stroy’s main themes:‘Class’ and ‘status’ are key themes in Brideshead Revisited. The epilogue shows how war levels these. The manor is no longer quite so grand and has been damaged. History and place-attachment are sacrificed to politics and change.