Character flaws serve multiple purposes. Often, they’re the faults and shortcomings that create conflict between key players in a story. Yet flaws are also useful for creating attraction between characters. Without them, characters feel wooden, ‘too perfect’. Without them, attraction might seem too instant. Here are types of flaws that make characters interesting:
1. Physical character flaws
‘Flaw’ is a strong word to describe a character’s appearance. Body-shaming is rife in popular culture. People don’t necessarily share the notion that one physical trait is ‘objectively’ more beautiful/desirable than another.
However you feel about norms of beauty in society, the truth is that cultural ideals (and pressures people place on each other and themselves because of them) do exist. So how can you make physical character ‘flaws’ – how they differ from the norm – part of what makes them lovable?
1. Give characters positive attitudes to their physical ‘flaws’
A person’s attitude to their own flaws may can modify their attractiveness. For example, a character might have ‘curves and swerves’; a voluptuous figure. Yet despite fat-shaming, they might carry their weight confidently. Or a skinny character has an irrepressible attractiveness despite hearing or thinking they look emaciated.
Many find a positive attitude attractive. You could also make your character’s attitude to physical ‘flaws’ reflect other positive qualities. Perhaps they’re funny about their features, for example.
2. Find beauty in the eye of the beholder
The common phrase ‘beauty’s in the eye of the beholder’ reminds us that attraction is often highly subjective. One character might joke with another, saying, ‘What do you call a potential boyfriend shorter than six foot? A friend’ The friend, on the other hand, might have a strong attraction to shorter men.
Often someone’s ‘flaws’ – a mole, some or other detail – is also what gives them their ‘them-ness’. It’s the distinctive detail that another character associates with them. It represents them in the other’s mind’s eye.
When writing romance between characters, think about physical details a character might dislike about their own appearance. There could be a ‘too much’ or ‘too little’ that a lover wouldn’t have any other way.
2. Emotional or personality flaws
Emotional character flaws can be both the source of initial attraction and the ultimate cause of conflict. Conflict between characters adds extra suspense and tension.
Here are some emotional qualities other characters could see as flaws. First, consider how these character qualities could come across as positive to begin. Then see how the same qualities might appear negative in time:
Character Flaw: Neediness. Initially seems sign of: Desire for the other, emotional openness, paying attention. Negative side: Suffocation, lack of space, imbalanced co-dependence.
Character Flaw: Narcissism. Initially seems sign of: Confidence, strength, decisiveness. Negative side: Self-focus, lack of empathy, arrogance.
Character Flaw: Shyness. Initially seems sign of: Humility, endearing vulnerability, sensitivity. Negative side: Lack of self-love, passivity, weakness.
Character Flaw: Need for control. Initially seems sign of: ‘Take charge’ reliability, discipline, focus. Negative side: Dominating, punishing, demanding.
We could go on, but the basic principle is there. The imbalances in people are often the things that attract and repel others.
This push and pull between finding emotional flaws or imbalances attractive and frustrating makes relationships interesting. The character who ‘chivalrously’ holds the door for the other could easily become irritating in their determination to hold up gender ‘roles’ or traditions.
These double-edged character qualities are especially useful when you want to show how characters pass from hating to loving each other (and vice versa). An extrovert character who finds another’s shyness off-putting, for example, might find themselves getting drawn more and more to their quiet or gentle quality.
3. Ideological character flaws
The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘ideology’ as ‘A system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy.’
For example, ‘conservatism’ (holding traditionalist or nationalist views such as being anti-immigration) is an ideology. ‘Liberalism’ (e.g. pro-immigration or pro-choice views) is another.
Whatever your own ideological stance – the set of beliefs and values you hold dear – remember a character’s ideology can be a flaw and a source of attraction to others.
Let’s consider an example: A woman in her twenties meets a charming man at a bar. He’s intelligent and entertaining. But there’s a key difference in their ideologies. He’s a complete Democrat and she’s a staunch Republican.
These political differences are both flaws to each character, from where they’re sitting. They could be attractive flaws. Maybe the young woman is from a very Republican home. It’s exciting, the idea of ruffling feathers and bringing a non-conservative date to her family. Perhaps she wants to rebel, or is doubting her views.
Maybe the man in the bar thinks his super-liberal family should be more tolerant of conservative outlooks. People are capable of holding conflicting viewpoints and acting against their core beliefs.
Characters thus might find each other’s ideologies intriguing (or good fodder for jabs and jokes), at first. Yet the reality of these views would likely create conflict, too, in time.
Like emotional character flaws, ideological flaws may be sources of attraction and repulsion.
Tips for using different types of character flaws better
Whatever your characters’ flaws, explain them. While characters might be born with unusual physical features, their emotional and ideological flaws could stem from:
Traumatic backstory: Is there something in a character’s past that led them to hold a certain negative view or have a specific personality trait?
Conditioning: Have authority figures such as parents or teachers instilled values in your character that others might consider flaws?
Flawed logic: Sometimes characters make questionable deductions based on prior views and experiences. E.g. an experience with a person of a specific description leads someone to believe falsely that all similar people in that category (sex/ethnicity/nationality) are the same. This is the flawed logic of prejudice.
2. Make the flaw fit the character
Make the flaw seem reasonable to your character. It’s often said that villains don’t think of themselves as villains. To a villain, their flaws (greed, dishonesty) could easily seem like strengths (ambition, cunning). Think of flaws that make sense for characters’ goals – what they want to achieve – and the personality traits that tend to go with those goals.
3. Find additional character flaws as you draft
Flaws for your characters may be something that you plan ahead of time. It’s even more likely that they will reveal themselves along the way as you write. Try to think of each character, even the worst villain, through their own eyes. Having an empathic eye for humanity in general will help you create flawed, realistic and lovable characters.
Foreshadowing is one way to connect scenes in a story across your longer story arcs. Here are examples of how to use foreshadowing in a sentence, along with related foreshadowing tips:
1. Foreshadowing characters’ fates in exposition
Foreshadowing (literally ‘showing before’) is useful for telling readers what happens to characters in a non-linear way. For example, here an opening sentence ominously foreshadows a character’s fate:
‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.’
This sentence in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) plainly tells us that a main character will face a firing squad. Even though Marquez tells us what will happen, though, he makes this a strong hook because he doesn’t reveal:
Why the Colonel will be sentenced to death – many other events occur before we find out
More details about the expedition to ‘discover ice’ Buendía takes with his father
With this direct foreshadowing that explicitly tells us what will happen, Marquez creates mystery. We don’t know the ‘why’ or the exact ‘when’. It’s mysterious while also promising a dramatic turn of events, so it creates good suspense from the start.
2. Foreshadowing characters’ qualities using dialogue
Dialogue also foreshadows future story developments well. Your characters could talk about an absent, important figure, long before we meet them.
J.K. Rowling uses dialogue this way frequently to build suspense in her Harry Potter series. The main villain’s reputation precedes him through characters’ fearful conversations.
“Well…I don’ like sayin’ the name if I can help it. No one does.”
“Gulpin’ gargoyles, Harry, people are still scared. Blimey, this is difficult. See, there was this wizard who went… bad. As bad as you could go. Worse. Worse than worse. His name was…”
Hagrid gulped, but no words came out.
Here, the school’s gamekeeper and ‘Keeper of Keys’ Hagrid is afraid to tell Harry the series’ villain’s name. Hagrid’s fear in this dialogue foreshadows the terror the villain casts in his wake. The foreshadowing dialogue gives backstory as well as an idea of what to expect.
When foreshadowing a character’s personality, think about their most important qualities and roles in the overarching story. Make dialogue preceding their entry make sense given your ‘off-stage’ character’s core details.
3. Foreshadowing using signs in your setting
Setting is a useful tool for foreshadowing. You may be subtle or overt in how you use it to tease coming developments.
For example, in a horror novel a character might see a sign outside a haunted house. Say, for example, the sign has been vandalized:
‘The sign once said ‘Tresspassers will be prosecuted’ but someone had graffiti’d out the ‘prose-‘ to make it read ‘…will be electrocuted.’
If a character meets a sticky end involving electricity (for example, they’re electrocuted while fleeing a paranormal phenomenon), the sign would be obvious setting foreshadowing.
A foreshadowing ‘sign’ does not have to be a literal road or property sign, of course. It could be an odour a character keeps smelling; a sound a character keeps hearing. It could be anything that sets up a suspenseful unknown and implies there’s a story behind it.
When foreshadowing in a sentence describing your setting, remember to:
Foreshadow significant events (you don’t need to foreshadow what characters will have for breakfast, of course)
Match the tone of your foreshadowing to the event – ominous signs typically foretell ominous events
You can of course subvert reader expectations. Your foreshadowing might not match the event, when it comes. Maybe the persistent, strange odour in the creepy house is actually coming from the factory down the road.
This type of misleading foreshadowing plays with readers’ expectations, creating suspense. Use it with discretion, though. Over-used plot devices can become gimmicky.
Toni Morrison uses this type of foreshadowing in her unflinching examination of the effects of slavery, Beloved (1987). A single sentence at the start of each section in the book, mentioning the address where the main characters live, foreshadows the tone of events in that section. For example:
‘124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.’
It’s only in the course of the story that we understand why a house would be full of a baby’s ‘venom’.
Morrison’s recurring motif – the similar sentences describing 124 as a changing, emotional, personified character – sets the tone for each section of the story. The phrase ‘full of a baby’s venom’ foreshadows devastating events concerning the fate of the character Sethe’s infant. ‘124 was spiteful’, the opening line, also foreshadows subplots involving spite, such as when others in the village betray the main characters out of bitter envy.
Now try your hand at writing a few foreshadowing sentences. Write a sentence hinting:
A character will receive a great windfall but doesn’t know it yet
A big environmental catastrophe is coming to a small town
A narrator is unreliable and can’t be trusted to tell the whole truth
An example using the first prompt:
‘Driving over the river on his usual route to work, he almost crashed when he was distracted by a great glittering – some incredible treasure – in the corner of his eye. Yet when he looked at the water below he saw it was only shimmering light on a bird’s metallic ruff.’
This description could foreshadow the character discovering great riches in the course of the story, for example.
Writing a good book is something every fiction writer aspires to. When writers ask for help writing a book, a popular question is ‘Is my idea good enough?’ Having a great story idea to start with helps. Yet a satisfying novel is a combination of many key components. Here are 10 ingredients that will make your book better:
1. A strong opening
Your story idea doesn’t have to be the most exciting concept the world has ever seen. Virginia Woolf’s classic modernist novel Mrs Dalloway is about a woman planning and hosting a party. A simple premise. What’s made it endure (and be taught in universities) is its rich, complex grasp of character, among other aspects.
So readers may forgive a non-thrilling premise. Few, though, will forgive a disappointing first paragraph. Think of some of the openings of some of the best loved novels of all time. They create intrigue. George Orwell, for example, opens 1984 (1949) with the words:
It was a bright day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.
The reader immediately has questions: What clocks? Why thirteen, rather than the usual twelve chimes? Orwell immediately creates questions in the reader and anchors them in a key aspect of setting – time. Another example of a great opening is Toni Morrison’s first sentence in her haunting, Pulitzer-winning novel Beloved (1987). Morrison opens the book with just 3 words:
124 was spiteful.
What is 124? Why is this mysterious number described as spiteful? The reader learns that it is the street number for the house where some of the novel’s tragedy takes place.
To test whether the opening of your novel is strong enough, ask yourself these questions:
Does it have a hook that creates curiosity in the reader?
Does it introduce a place, character or atmosphere that is important to the plot?
2. Satisfying, fitting style
What makes a good story? One aspect of this is style. Writers are often told to avoid adverbs (instead of ‘ran hurriedly’ say ‘sprinted’ or ‘dashed’, for example). This is not because adverbs are ‘bad’, necessarily, but because often more descriptive verbs are available.
Something more abstract is equally important in style: rhythm.
Why is rhythm important? Because the cadence of words, the way they sound to the inner ear, is what makes some sentences more beautiful and memorable than others. Consider poetry: Besides striking imagery and metaphors, what gives poetry its ‘poetic’ quality is the rhythm the words create.
In a taut thriller, the rhythm of the prose may be fast and clipped, whereas in a lyrical historical epic, the writing might flow smoothly in long, ebbing and flowing sentences.
A good understanding for how to use the rhythm of a sentence itself in interesting ways will make your writing more interesting to read. One way to develop this rhythmic skill is to read sentences and paragraphs aloud sometimes (even if it makes you feel silly).
3. Powerful description
Once you’ve hooked your reader’s attention, you will need to sustain their interest. Plot and character development are crucial. Yet to let readers fully enter your fictional world, you also need to arrest the reader’s imagination with vivid and powerful description.
Forgettable books often have thin description, with the bare minimum indicating setting.
By contrast, here is the rich description of the badger’s home in Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s book, The Wind in the Willows (1908):
‘In the middle of the room stood a long table of plain boards placed on trestles, with benches down each side. At one end of it, where an arm-chair stood pushed back, were spread the remains of the Badger’s plain but ample supper. Rows of spotless plates winked from the shelves of the dresser at the far end of the room, and from the rafters overhead hung hams, bundles of dried herbs, nets of onions, and baskets of eggs.’
Grahame conjures an intimate and cozy dwelling. The verb ‘winked’ Grahame uses to describe the gleaming plates is well-chosen. It suggests a fitting mood of friendliness, familiarity and intimacy in Badger’s comforting home.
When writing description, remember to:
Use adjectives and verbs that carry associations or connotations that strengthen the mood and atmosphere you want to evoke (like Grahame’s ‘winking’ plates)
Use metaphors that enrich and add a breath of freshness to your descriptions
Describe (as Ann Marble suggests here) what your characters would notice. It helps characterization to filter scenes through your characters’ eyes. What will a painter notice in Badger’s kitchen, versus an architect?
4. Balanced showing and telling
The saying ‘show, don’t tell’ is one of the most abused and misused pieces of writing advice. As Ursula K. Le Guin states, if taken to heart it can inhibit you from describing at all. Says Le Guin:
‘Thanks to “show don’t tell,” I find writers in my workshops who think exposition is wicked. They’re afraid to describe the world they’ve invented.’
It’s neither better to show nor tell: It depends on whether action or description is best suited to your particular story at any particular point in your narrative. As Le Guin says, ‘dread of writing a sentence that isn’t crammed with “gutwrenching action” leads fiction writers to rely far too much on dialogue, to restrict voice to limited third person and tense to the present.’
When you’re worried that you’re telling too much and showing too little, ask:
Is this information crucial to the story? Does it illuminate anything important about my characters and their world? If the answer is ‘no’ to both these questions, it’s not that you’re showing or telling too much but that the passage is irrelevant to your story. So cut it
Are there enough active verbs? Instead of using adverbs, use verbs that carry descriptive power. Instead of ‘she stared bewilderedly’ say ‘she gaped’, for example.
Sometimes you are too close to your own writing to know whether you’re striking the right balance between showing and telling. This is where it helps to get feedback from other writers.
5. Diverse and developed characters
Writing a good book also requires skilled characterization.
Some genres do allow characters that resemble cardboard cutouts. In a typical James Bond story, a bond girl is always a bond girl. A suave assassin is always the typical suave assassin. More interesting installments in Ian Fleming’s franchise have been those where the hero displays a surprising vulnerability or the ‘bond girl’ is more than a sex symbol. The story doesn’t only peddle worn out tropes.
To make your characters diverse and well-developed, do at least some of the following:
Sketch brief backstories for each important character: Real people have histories. They have upbringings, triumphs, disappointments, aspirations
Create contrasts between characters: Characters who all talk the same, look the same or think the same are dull. Find interesting differences
Give your characters identifying attributes: Think of someone important in your life: Do they have odd sayings that nobody else uses? A distinct way of pronouncing a certain word? How do they walk and carry themselves? Give each character a signature detail or two
Grow your characters: How do your characters change as the events of your novel unfold? A major event such as the discovery of a hidden superpower or a death in the family creates cause-and-effect ripples
6. Effective dialogue
What do many of the best-loved movies of all time have in common? Memorable dialogue.
If you pay attention, characters in great novels and movies don’t talk as we do in real life. We might say ‘um’ a lot, or repeat ourselves, or make small-talk that would be completely mundane to anyone listening in. Writing a good book demands that even incidental dialogue serves the story. So what does script-worthy dialogue do? It:
Tells the reader something about your characters and their relationships.
Adds to tension and conflict
Furthers the plot by letting the reader piece together a larger picture.
This third point is the ‘subtext’ of dialogue – the reasons, feelings, suspicions (and so forth) underlying characters’ conversations. Thinking about detail such as this and incorporating it in your dialogue sometimes will add depth and dimension. Why does a character not look another in the eyes while telling them an extremely important fact? What does the combination of speech, gesture, posture, movement tell your reader?
7. Strong internal story logic
One of the most common features of ‘bad’ writing is that the story makes no overarching sense. Maybe the heroine’s actions completely contradict her psychological description and backstory. Or else there are sequences of scenes that don’t seem to contribute cohesively to the whole.
To ensure your novel has strong inner logic:
Make sure that the bulk of your story answers the central questions you set up: The narrative purpose of a scene (why the author is sharing this event) should make sense when examined alongside the whole arc of the story
Make sure your characters’ actions make sense: In the greatest novels, characters’ actions are a mix of inevitable (according to their motivations and personal histories) and surprising. If characters act completely against the personalities and backstories you create, they may seem inconsistent and confusing
8. A good balance of tension and release
Whatever you want to call it – rising action and falling action or build-up and climax – tension and release keeps readers invested in the outcome of your novel. Because balancing action and tension release is key:
Create a suitable amount of conflict and suspense for your genre: Your reader will naturally expect a greater amount of tension and suspense if your novel is a classic thriller
Have mini-resolutions along the way: It could work to have your story just keep building to a single epic showdown between protagonist and antagonist. But you can create variety and interest by having mini-conflicts and resolutions on the way to the central conflict resolving.
Combine different types of tension:Your story might pit your protagonist(s) against other characters, the environment, or an internal struggle. Alternatively, tension might arise more out of plot uncertainty rather than direct hostility.
9. A sense of originality
Many of the landmark novels of the last few centuries have built on their predecessors but also offered something new. Even though Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) tells the story of a secondary character from Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre, Rhys uses this to tell her own story about gender and racial politics.
In doing so, Rhys recombines existing characters and existing worlds into something entirely her own.
Give borrowed characters or plot structures a personal twist: What matters to you?
Put your own unique background, history and points of reference to use. Nobody shares both your history and perspective so draw on both
10. The key to writing a good book: A satisfying conclusion
One of the biggest disappointments, many readers will agree, is when a writer lets a story peter out and does not do justice to the story’s central idea. Many writers use anti-climax to subtle effect. In Kazuo Ishiguro’s surreal novel The Unconsoled (1995), the reader is made to expect a significant event that never happens.
To make sure your ending is satisfying:
Make sure you have followed through on questions you yourself have raised in the course of the book
Novel idea generators and writing prompts are some tools for finding ideas for a story. Yet once you have your central idea – the single sentence that encapsulates the key, interesting details – you need to expand this so you’re ready to draft.
Here are tips for finding interesting plots, sub-plots, characters and settings in your novel idea. Use them to fill out your story with interesting scenes that stay relevant to your starting story scenario:
1. Find latent character goals in your novel idea
Your central idea helps guide your storytelling decisions. [The first step in Now Novel’s dashboard is dedicated to this task.]
Once you have this idea, start expanding. Read over your central idea and ask:
How would this situation emotionally affect characters living it out?
What might a main character in this situation want?
What obstacles could there be to attaining their desire?
Let’s apply this idea to a central idea from a recent New York Times bestseller:
‘Sergeant Detective D.D. Warren teams up with a torture survivor to find a missing teenager whose family was gunned down.’
Using the questions above, if this were your central idea you might ask, ‘How does the torture survivor’s past affect the lead characters’ work together?’
You could ask, ‘What does my detective want?’ Most likely it’s to solve the crime, foremost.
Meanwhile, the torture survivor might have additional motives of their own. The desire for retributive justice, driven by their own pain or anger, for example.
For the third question, you could ask, ‘How does the missing person being a teenager complicate the situation?’ Given their youth and their backstory, it’s possible they’re in hiding and don’t want to be found, for example.
Focus on cause and effect: How could X backstory possibly affect the choices a character makes in the presently unfolding story?
How will this specific character goal contribute to the possible end-point of the story (e.g. in a murder mystery, solving the crime)
2. Brainstorm goal complications and obstacles that will add suspense
We often associate ‘suspense’ with mystery, horror, thriller and other genres involving higher degrees of conflict. In truth, suspense is key to every good story. Open a Dr Seuss book such as ‘The Cat in the Hat’ and you’ll notice there’s an underlying tension between what we know and don’t yet know. That’s what you might call ‘narrative suspense’.
Once you’ve found character goals embedded in your central idea, think about potential obstacles to these goals.
If we take Gardner’s novel idea above, for example, we might wonder:
What might prove difficult about this collaboration? The different emotional baggage her detective and trauma survivor bring to their investigation?
How were the mystery gunners connected to the other (teen) survivor’s family? Is there a connection that aids or hinders the investigation?
Great obstacles and complications that create suspenseful detours from characters’ main goals include:
Internal conflicts: For example, addiction that threatens a character’s ability to think or choose well
External conflicts: Your detective might have a non-cooperative colleague or local community, or maybe the environment itself (a wintry cold snap that turns the landscape into an inhospitable menace)
Unexpected setbacks: What could happen in a tense investigation to set the process back? Evidence tampering is one possibility. In a fantasy novel, an event diminishing characters’ magical powers is another possibility
3. Imagine settings adding mood and possible subplots
Once you have a novel idea, mine it for setting ideas. [This is also a core part of the Now Novel process.]
Let’s take another example and explore how a novel idea can stimulate setting inspiration:
‘Three students at a sleazy for-profit law school hope to expose the student-loan banker who runs it.’
This is the premise for John Grisham’s The Rooster Bar (2017).
Grisham’s novel idea already gives us a good indication of setting, character goals, and a villain/antagonist. There’s a clear central arc for the story already.
What about the setting, a ‘sleazy for-profit law school’. How could you show the sleaziness of the setting?
Place description: How might the school’s appearance physically suggest sleaziness and the banker’s greed being prioritized over educational values? For example, perhaps a lot of money has been lavished on luxury fittings and reception areas, but the actual school resources are woefully inadequate
Wordbuilding: How could you describe such a school, generally, in terms of culture? Perhaps there’s a culture of sexism, racism, and other bigoted behaviour entrenched in the school because of its ‘money-first, students second’ structure
Once you have core settings, think of other interesting secondary settings. For example:
What are the dorms like? How do the politics of the head honcho filter down into the student body?
How does the world of the school spill over into neighbouring areas? Some students, in a subplot, might go into the neighbouring town and pick fights. Such an event yields an additional setting to explore
From the above, see how a single, interesting setting with a prevailing mood (e.g. sleaziness) can inspire further setting details that relate to your story’s central problem (in Grisham’s case, the prioritizing of profit over values such as fairness and social or corporate responsibility).
4. Find subplots that support your main novel idea
Subplots are a key part of how to expand a novel idea so it has more than one simple arc. Subplots have multiple purposes:
Developing key themes and ideas: For example, in a story about the struggle between benevolent and malevolent forces, a subplot could show the way ordinary people are corrupted in the first place (like Gollum’s corruption by the Ring in Tolkien’s The Hobbit)
Let’s look at another novel idea and think about the subplots we could mine from it:
‘A former prisoner of war returns from Vietnam and moves his family to Alaska, where they face tough conditions.’
This idea (the premise for Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone (2018)) immediately presents possible subplots:
How the relocation affects individual family members: Each family member could have their own arc illustrating how different people cope with momentous life change. A teenage family member, for example, might go off the rails and get into self-destructive behaviour as they struggle with the change.
Remnants from the war: The main character could be visited by a former co-prisoner, for example, this ‘blast from the past’ prompting flashbacks illustrating the hardships of life as a prisoner of war.
The above subplots could thus add complications, as well as an emotional intensity to the primary character’s ‘New Life’ story arc. Showing how characters’ choices and paths intersect and affect each other and exploring the dramatic potential therein is key to strong subplots.
5. Identify interesting potential themes
Themes are the recurring motifs and ideas in stories. For example, popular sayings such as ‘be careful what you wish for’. Or else ideas such as ‘there’s power in numbers’ .
A single novel idea often contains the seeds of multiple timeless themes. For example, Grisham’s ‘David vs Goliath’ theme. How will comparatively powerless students at the sleazy law school take on the director?
In ‘David vs Goliath’ stories, the character who appears smaller/weaker often has a hidden strength. For example, students are able to mobilize fellow students and could create a wave of unstoppable change more powerful than the head’s money.
Let’s look at a concrete example of a novel idea and the theme inspiration it supplies:
‘A recluse who drinks heavily and takes prescription drugs may have witnessed a crime across from her Harlem townhouse.’
This is the premise of The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn. It’s been called ‘the hottest new release thriller of 2018’.
Finn’s book idea suggests interesting possible themes. For example, ‘the relationship between truth and power’. As a recluse (a social outsider) who also suffers from addiction, how much power does the witness to the possible crime have?
Will people believe her if she reports the crime or not? What consequences could she face for getting involved? Individual scenes could explore themes of the relationship between truth and power (e.g. the idea that powerful people have more say in defining the truth).
What is rising action? It’s the events in a book, story, play or movie that build towards a climax. Rising action consists of the character actions, encounters, and situational changes that propel your story to your denouement or ending.
In Paula Hawkins’ novel The Girl on the Train (2015), the protagonist Rachel Watson is at a low point when the novel begins. Her husband Tom has left her for another woman, Anna, fueling her alcoholism. As the story unfolds, we see Rachel harassing Tom and Anna. The tension Hawkins creates through Rachel’s actions brings in rising action. We see individual characters reach breaking point due to Rachel’s behaviour.
Through her obsessive spying on Tom and Anna, Rachel starts uncovering unnerving details about the lives of another couple living nearby. She’s slowly entangled in additional lives and lies. These events provide rising action as Rachel must decide what to do with unsettling information she gains through spying.
What we can gather about rising action from this example:
It shifts the narrative towards a high point of irresolution: Rachel cannot ignore the troubling information she pieces together
It adds complications and stakes: Because of Rachel’s addiction and questionable boundaries, the reader might wonder how much of Rachel’s experience is paranoia and how much is cause for legitimate concern. Situations become more dangerous, unpredictable; potentially explosive
This increasing sense of impending drama fuels the story towards further events. So how do you create captivating rising action of your own?
1. Create rising actions from characters’ motivations and desires
Tension in your story may come from myriad sources. You might pit characters against hostile environments, against antagonists or even against allies (if relationships sour). Yet the primary source of tension underlying these oppositions are your characters’ motivations and desires. They contain the seeds of your story’s biggest conflicts.
Let’s take, for example, rising action for a romantic lead.
In a romantic story, the first rising action might emerge from the messy, often unpredictable beginning stages of love interests getting acquainted. This time in a new relationship is fertile ground for misunderstandings, like when Lizzie Bennett thinks D’arcy is an arrogant ‘douchebag’ in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813). (Although love isn’t Lizzie’s primary motivation – her and Darcy’s meeting is more the product of society’s desire for young women of Lizzie’s age to marry.)
In a romantic character arc, you could build rising action out of motives and desires linked to, for example:
Competition: A character wants the love interest all to themselves – yet a third person (the classic ‘love triangle’ conflict) enters the scene, sparking conflict
Separation: Your characters already want to be together. Yet what if they’re driven apart by forces – interfering family; war – beyond their control? (Nicholas Sparks uses both of these rising action sources in his novel The Notebook) How could separation yield more rising action?
Write down a character’s core desires and motives at the start of your story. Now imagine possible complications and tensions a person with these goals would possibly (or likely) encounter. [Get the How to Write Real Characters workbook for extra character creation tips and exercises.]
2. Raise the stakes
In rising action, the stakes grow as the story progresses. Because his anti-hero protagonist, Rodion, commits a murder in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), the stakes are high from the start. Stakes – what a character has to lose if event X does or doesn’t happen – make scenes and chapters compelling.
For example, if the killer in Dostoyevsky’s story cannot outsmart the story’s detective, the shame of a criminal trial (and worse) await him.
What drives the stakes in a story? Internal conflict, for one. A character who has committed a crime, for example, might battle with their own conscience urging them to confess (this is true for Dostoyevsky’s Rodion).
External forces also raise stakes. For example, a character needs to pass their degree well to get funding to study their dream course. The stakes – the conditions for funding – are beyond their complete control.
Once your reader knows what’s at stake, you can turn even simple actions into rising action. For example, the example student who must get great grades is driving to the exam venue. But there’s an accident blocking the usual route. Time’s running out. They’re so close to the venue they make a snap decision to just leave their car in the middle of the road and sprint to the exam hall. This is rising action that would add invigorating suspense.
The more crucial the stakes, the more urgency in your characters’ choices and actions. Thinking up great stakes comes down to thinking in terms of cause and effect. Ask, ‘for my character to reach X desirable outcome, what absolutely must happen? What absolutely can’t happen?’ Then play with these ‘musts’ and ‘can’ts’. Give the ‘musts’ obstacles, frustrating detours. And make your characters sometimes teeter on the brink of big, game-changing ‘can’ts’.
3. Set rising action over shorter and longer periods
We often speak of story arcs in terms of ‘plot’ (the main events of the story) and ‘subplot’ (the smaller, related arcs that expand on central themes and character goals and backstories). Another way of looking at these two levels – the main story thread and smaller threads – is longer and shorter rising action.
An example: In Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant (2015), an elderly couple in pre-Christian Britain sets off on a journey to meet their long-lost son. The couple can barely remember him but have a nagging sense they’re expected. Along the way they encounter uncertain and frightening situations, such as when they stop off in a Saxon village where they do not speak the local language. The locals are agitated and mistrustful because nearby ogres have allegedly severely injured a local boy.
The longer rising action emerges from the couple’s ultimate goal – locating their son. It’s the broader goal, fraught with its own unknowns, that drives their traveling.
Shorter rising action – such as the tension in the village they stop in – creates a pervasive sense of unease. Ishiguro creates a sense through these two scales of action – the ongoing journey and the eventful stops – of rise and fall. The story ebbs and flows; breathes – and we breathe (or hold our breath) with it.
Give your characters end goals that will be reached over the entire duration of your book. For example, a detective in a murder mystery’s natural end goal is to solve the crime. Yet invest each mini-goal with its own rising action. Litter the way with roadblocks, detours and dead ends.
4. Link chains of rising action to heighten suspense
It’s like the children’s song, ‘There was an old woman who swallowed a fly’. It starts:
‘There was an old woman who swallowed a fly,
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly: perhaps she’ll die.’
From this morbid beginning, it continues:
‘There was an old woman who swallowed a spider
that wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her.
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly,
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly, perhaps she’ll die.’
The song continues with various things that were swallowed to solve the previous problem. The pleasure of the song is that the initial rising action (the old woman’s fly-swallowing) has a delayed outcome. The actions delaying the main outcome are suspenseful in their own right, too.
What is a synopsis? The word ‘synopsis’ comes from the Greek prefix ‘sun-‘ (meaning ‘together’) and ‘-opsis‘ (‘seeing’). So a synopsis is literally a way to ‘see together’, in one quick read, the unique and compelling aspects of a story. How do you write a synopsis that you can submit with confidence to publishers? Read on for summary-writing tips and examples.
First: Beyond defining a synopsis – what should a synopsis include?
Yes, a synopsis is a summary and yes, the word means ‘seeing together’, but what does the typical synopsis for (for example) a typical mystery-thriller or fantasy epic include?
On their submissions page, Bloomsbury (who published J.K. Rowling’s mega-hit Harry Potter series), specify what they require in a synopsis. It should include:
‘The story’s subject matter’ – what it’s about
‘Your intended market’ – for example, teenage fantasy genre lovers
‘How your submission compares with the current competition’
This third item may seem confusing. Bloomsbury isn’t asking you to say ‘My novel is much better than the work of that George R. R. Martin guy’. Instead, the publishers want to know you understand your audience and genre. For example, you might say in a submission:
The Lost Throne, in the vein of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire Series, unpacks the feuds and allegiances between powerful families in a struggle for succession. Yet it is closer to Le Guin’s Earthsea novels, as the protagonist’s development demonstrates the relationship between power and responsibility.
This could be worded more succinctly – the main thing is it shows an awareness of both recent and older writing that has a similar target audience.
Why should I write a synopsis?
What is a synopsis used for? As described above, a synopsis is a crucial component of submitting your manuscript to most traditional publishers.
Publishers, before they even consider leafing through the first page of your manuscript, will want an overarching sense of the story. Synopses help publishers:
Tell apart submissions that explore fresh, exciting subject matter from cliched tropes (e.g. sparkly vampires)
Decide which manuscripts to prioritize (according to the quality and interest of the synopsis and what subject matter they’re presently most interested in producing)
Set expectations for your submission: If a synopsis is worded badly, clunky, uninteresting or disjointed, the odds are high the submission itself will have similar faults
Because of the above, it’s crucial to weed out inessential words and find ways to summarize the subject matter of your story (and your knowledge of your market) in a commanding, professional way.
Writing synopses is also a useful exercise for outlining a story idea, before you reach the publishing stage. Expanding your one-sentence idea into a trio of more detailed synopses is a key step in Week 2 of our 6-week Kickstart your Novel course, designed to help you complete all that you need to pitch your best ideas to publishers.
So how do you write a book synopsis that will captivate professional and casual readers alike? Here are our top 9 tips:
1. When writing a book synopsis, make the opening good
Published author Marissa Meyer provides the following advice on her blog:
The first paragraph of the synopsis should give the same basic information you convey through the book’s first chapter: where and when does this story take place, who is the protagonist, and what problem are they facing right off the bat?
2. Stick to compelling essentials
Does your character wake up in one scene and have a full English breakfast? You might have a great way with describing food mouth-wateringly. Even so, leave out everything that doesn’t give the reader an idea of character development, key plot twists and turns, and any conflicts and resolutions. This will communicate that your book has a strong underlying creative purpose.
Purposeless waffle has no place in a synopsis or a strong final draft. For every line you write in your synopsis, ask, ‘What valuable information does this give the reader about my book? Why would it motivate a person to read more?’
3. Don’t give a dry account of the core plot events
Jane Friedman who’s had a successful career in the publishing industry makes this her number one ‘don’t’. Says Jane, ‘A synopsis includes the characters’ FEELINGS and EMOTIONS. That means it should not read like a mechanic’s manual to your novel’s plot. You must include both story advancement and color.’
Here’s a book synopsis example that does exactly this. It’s the summary for An American Marriage (2018) by Tayari Jones, an NYT bestseller and Oprah’s Book Club pick:
‘Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit. Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself bereft and unmoored, taking comfort in Andre, her childhood friend, and best man at their wedding.’
The synopsis is full and detailed without giving away the core, pleasurable surprises of the story. We get the general gist, but not too much detail. We see the starting scenario – a couple’s marital bliss – as well as glimpsing the trouble ahead. This emotional and dramatic element – the promise of a changing situation – compels.
4. Give situation and complication alike
As writers, we do sometimes like to waffle. But the only good waffle is a Belgian one. In your synopsis, you need to be concise. It’s important to give both the initial situation and a glimpse of complications that make your main plot line exciting. Instead of saying:
‘Robert Bluthe is a tough detective who has eggs Benedict for breakfast every day and is investigating a double homicide at the start of the book’, say:
‘Robert Bluthe, a tough detective and man of unswerving habit, investigates a double homicide that forces him to question everything he knows about investigative procedures.’
The second example gives not only the situation (the double homicide) but also the complication and stake for the character (a novel aspect to the crime that makes traditional problem-solving methods ineffective).
5. Stick to using active voice compellingly
Courtney Carpenter shares this tip in a useful post for Writer’s Digest, ‘Learn How to Write a Synopsis like a Pro’. Rather than say ‘The protagonist is married by…’ say ‘The protagonist marries’. Make each action described in the summary of your story’s events seem a decisive event that drives the plot forward.
Carpenter also suggests sticking to the third person (‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’) since your synopsis should read as an author standing apart describing her character’s lives and developments as an observer.
6. Make every single word count
This follows on from point three. Besides keeping your synopsis concise, make sure that the words you do use carry emotive and imaginative weight. Don’t say ‘after the wedding there is some trouble during the honeymoon’ but ‘the honeymoon is disastrous. After the newlyweds miss their flight, they must [describe challenge action] and this tests their [positive state they wish to maintain]’.
Make sure each word creates a vivid emotional or descriptive pull. Make the reader curious to know more and expand their knowledge of how your story unfolds.
7. Read your book synopsis aloud
This is common advice for writing better narrative prose. It’s also equally good advice for writing a compelling book synopsis. While reading aloud, ask yourself:
Does each sentence communicate something that improves the reader’s overall grasp of what the story is about and what makes it interesting?
Does each sentence flow smoothly with no unnecessary words or awkward constructions?
Is there any part that feels boring or irrelevant to the overall story development?
8. Use the synopsis format your intended reader prefers
What is a synopsis that doesn’t stick to publishers’ preferred guidelines? Usually, an ignored synopsis. Formatting a book synopsis in a simple, elegant way is important.
In the upper left hand corner, writes ‘Synopsis of “[Title of your novel]”
This should be followed by a space and a description of your novel’s genre: ‘Genre: [Genre of your novel]’
This should be followed by ‘Word count: [Word count of your novel]
Finally, in the right-hand upper corner, you should put your name: ‘By: [Your pen name]’
The heading of a synopsis for J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book might look something like this:
If your synopsis only spans a single page, single space your lines. Ideally, it shouldn’t be longer than one page. If it is, double-space it.
See if you can find publishers’ preferred synopsis format on their website (or simply ask in an email or on social media). If they have a preferred format, they’ll share it.
9. Don’t include irrelevant cover material
Do you have a degree in linguistics? A favourite Abba song? Don’t include any personal or quirky information as an addendum to your synopsis – keep it professional.
Biographical information should be kept for author bio material if it is requested. A synopsis doesn’t need a cover page. Ideally it’s a single page that the eagle-eyed editor can wave at colleagues frantically while shouting, ‘You won’t believe how great this novel sounds!’
Foreshadowing – a ‘warning or indication of a future event’ – is a useful device in storytelling. Hinting at what will happen serves multiple purposes (such as building tension and suspense). Read foreshadowing examples showing how to tease approaching plot developments:
Let’s take an example of foreshadowing from the sci-fi TV series Black Mirror. In the episode “San Junipero”, a character in a virtual reality world meets a boy in a video arcade near the start of the episode who invites her to play a game. The game’s video intro on the screen behind him shows a car crashing into a wall on a loop.
Later in the episode, we find out that a car crash is a pivotal plot point explaining the girl’s backstory. The brief focus on the arcade machine loop early on in the episode helps to create suspense and foreboding. It’s an ominous foreshadowing of a key, emotional plot point.
Foreshadowing, of course, does not have to be negative or ominous. You could also foreshadow happy events. For example, a character who feels lonely when she passes two newlyweds emerging from the town church might later exit that same church, arm in arm with her groom.
This is an example of foreshadowing, too.
So what are ways to use foreshadowing in a story or novel?
1. Have your narrator tell readers partial facts about coming events
One of the most common foreshadowing examples is the narrator who ‘spills the beans’ (but not all of them) early on. Often, this is a narrator who looks back on events, before letting us relive, through their narration, what happened.
Two foreshadowing examples of this type:
In Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, narrator Richard shares partial information about a murder in the opening paragraphs. Richard tells us:
‘The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. He’d been dead for ten days before they found him, you know.’
Even though the events he describes are in his past, to us they’re foreshadowing as we have not yet read an explanation for these events.
This type of foreshadowing charges scenes with suspense, although there are subtler types of foreshadowing. When we first meet Edward ‘Bunny’ Corcoran, alive and obnoxious, we wonder when the murder is going to occur.
Another foreshadowing example of this type, from Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides:
‘On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide – it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese, the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.’
Here the narrator recalls tragic events at the Lisbon household, but, like Tartt, Eugenides delays revealing causes. We continue to uncover the situation that led to these acts.
Both authors withhold key facts. We might ask ‘Who murders Bunny? Who is Tartt’s nameless ‘we’ (the narrator plus who)?’
Great foreshadowing thus makes readers ask pressing questions about the unfolding story. This question-raising is key to writing a page-turner.
2. Show settings that foreshadow or symbolize key events
There are many foreshadowing examples – particularly in visual media such as film and TV – where writers foreshadow plot points using setting description.
For example, in a story about four friends’ coming of age, the opening frame might show a dilapidated tree-house falling apart. Later in the story, we see the friends building said tree-house and what it looked like in its glory days.
Why would you use foreshadowing this way to prefigure key events?
To build tone and mood: Describing a tree-house that’s falling apart before showing its building could create a nostalgic, elegiac mood. Over the course of the story the reader or viewer has a sense of how things change (and sometimes fall apart and crumble) over time.
To create motifs or symbolism:Motifs and symbols are ideas and imagery that recur throughout a story and build the emotional effect. For example, the treehouse could be a symbol suggesting the intimacy of friendship (it’s tucked away in a tree) and the innocence of childhood. The first scene could also subtly suggest that something will happen between the main characters to test (or even sunder) their bond.
For example, Stephen King begins his classic paranormal horror novel The Shining with an interview foreshadowing future developments:
“I asked if your wife fully understood what you would be taking on here. And there’s your son, of course.” He glanced down at the application in front of him. “Daniel. Your wife isn’t a bit intimidated by the idea?”
“Wendy is an extraordinary woman.”
“And your son is also extraordinary?”
Jack smiled, a big wide PR smile. “We like to think so, I suppose. He’s quite self-reliant for a five-year-old.”
Jack Torrance, King’s central character, is interviewing for a post as winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies. The interviewer’s questions about Torrance’s wife being ‘intimidated’ and his focus on whether they can cope or not foreshadows the menacing, violent events that unfold.
The questions about Danny being ‘extraordinary’ and ‘self-reliant’ also foreshadow how Danny manages to resist the supernatural forces of the hotel. King shows this self-reliance in Danny helping his mother escape the hotel in the course of the story .
As the example above shows, you can use foreshadowing dialogue to hint:
Character traits: King indicates important traits in Danny that will help him survive the resort from the start
Plot complications and obstacles: The interviewer’s concern gives us an inkling that managing the Overlook is tougher than we or Jack Torrance might think
Think of ways you can also use dialogue to foreshadow character strengths (or weaknesses) and key events, as well as impending tone and mood.
4. Show physical signs before their results
We mentioned showing objects or settings as symbols foreshadowing events in the example of a childhood tree-house above. You can also use objects and physical signs in a more literal way.
For example, in a tragedy about a baker who forgets to turn off the gas and blows up their shop, you could foreshadow this event by showing:
Objects revealing the baker’s distracted or forgetful state (e.g. shop signs written wrong)
Physical events that would typically precede the main disaster (e.g. a recurring smell of cooking gas or a faint hissing sound)
As an example, you might write the following:
‘The lady at the counter wrinkled her nose, glancing past him, to the stove-top he’d been wiping down when the bakery doorbell rang.’
Physical signs and indications are useful tools for foreshadowing because they can be as subtle – a customer’s reaction to a smell – or as blatant as you like.
When using physical signs to foreshadow, the rules of ‘Chekhov’s Gun’ apply. If you show a gun in the first scene of your story and give it emphasis, it needs to go off or be significant in other ways later in your story.
5. Show future scenes in miniature
You might foreshadow individual plot points, but you can also foreshadow entire scenes.
For example, if there’s a punch-up in a school corridor at some point in your story, and your main character intervenes and is injured, you could precursor this scene with a minor scuffle earlier in the narrative.
Repeat scenes and character experiences often serve dual purposes. They hint at future events, and also give the means to develop character.
For example, if your main character, a caring student, can’t decide whether to intervene or not in the first scuffle, this could set up the emotional conditions (for example, his regret at not stepping in) propelling his later intervention.
This is a type of foreshadowing using narrative exposition. It entails name-checking an impending event or occasion without giving the reader any further information.
This is a useful way to be cryptic and teasing and build anticipation.
An example of foreshadowing using this method:
‘The Gathering always happened on the last new moon of the year. Everyone had grown restless as the equinox came and went.’
The key with this type of foreshadowing is to balance it with non-cryptic, clear narration in the present time of your story. If every other line is littered with mysterious allusions to events, the effect will likely tire readers.
Is there an example of foreshadowing you’ve read that you find particularly strong? Share it in the comments below.
Get help creating your plot synopsis, writing better dialogue and more – take an online writing course (starting anytime) and get detailed, actionable feedback.
The opening chapter of a book needs to hook your reader. How? By creating intrigue, suspense, lovable (or at least compelling) characters and interesting setting or action.
Writing chapter one is a challenge, yet for many authors writing chapter two is the stumbling block – how can you develop further?
Here are tips for writing chapter 2, along with a second chapter checklist to make your story strong from chapter 2 onwards:
1. Expand or complicate your story’s inciting incident
The inciting incident or ‘call to adventure’ is the action or scenario that sets your story in motion. It could be the launch of a Mars landing mission, the arrival of a mysterious letter or a death in the family. It’s the situation that lays the foundation for change, conflict or discovery.
Once you have your first chapter, how do you write a strong chapter 2?
Think about how you can broaden or complicate the initial situation to bring in other characters, for example, with their own motives and desires.
Let’s examine one or two examples:
Example 1: Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Chapter 1’s inciting incident: In a port city in the Caribbean, Dr Juvenal Urbino, the husband of Fermina Daza, dies. There is an outpouring of respect from the community, including Florentino Ariza, a man whose passionate advances Fermina spurned 51 years before.
Chapter 2’s development of Chapter 1’s hook: Garcia Marquez switches the limited third person POV to Florentino’s perspective. We read the history of Florentino’s passion for Fermina Daza.
Marquez describes the first time Florentino saw Fermina when he delivered a telegram as a young postal clerk. He creates two unfolding arcs – what happens after Dr Urbino’s death, and the lives of their younger selves.
We don’t yet learn Fermina’s response to Florentino’s new intrusion into her life. We also have to wait to find out the full extent of what happened between. This is the background detail explaining what makes Florentino’s visit stir up strong feelings.
Example 2: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
Chapter 1’s inciting incident: In pre-Christian Britain, an old man named Axl and his wife Beatrice decide to go on a journey to find their long lost son. They’re troubled by how everyone is forgetting the past in their village, as well as a nagging sense their son is awaiting their arrival.
Chapter 2’s development of Chapter 1’s hook: The couple sets off with walking sticks and bundles, struggling to remember the way to their son’s village. They come across two strangers, a boatman and lady, in a ruined villa. They find out that the boatman has ferried couples on similar journeys and the woman complains to Axl and Beatrice the boatman tricked her and took away her husband during their own boat trip.
In the above examples, you can see there is a clear through-line from chapter 1 to chapter 2.
Marquez, on one hand, splits his story into two timelines to share what came before, and what might happen after, an emotional reunion.
Ishiguro creates a ‘call to adventure’ for his main characters in chapter 1, and shows, in chapter 2, the perils and the encounters of their journey (the boatman subplot symbolizes death, in one interpretation. It reminds us of the elderly protagonists’ mortality and possible separation).
Where should chapter 2 start? Look at the opening of your first chapter. What is the biggest unanswered question?
In a sci fi novel, for example, your protagonist might be a scientist planning a dangerous, controversial experiment. Say, for example, your in chapter 1 your protagonist fights with a superior for authorization. You could begin chapter 2 with the moment they finally receive the go-ahead.
There are many interesting ways to begin second chapters. So it’s natural for making the choice to feel daunting. Some ways you could begin chapter 2:
A change of setting: If there’s a second location as important as your first, you could show the additional tensions or complications here. For example, if your first chapter describes the tough decisions a scientist must make at work, chapter 2 might begin with his arriving home from work and the issues there (such as marital tension), to show additional pressures affecting his choices
A new complication: If a character has a difficult goal in chapter 1, what could make attaining this goal harder? Begin chapter 2 with this complication for immediate suspense
3. Answer some unknowns and create new ones
Plot is, essentially, the progression of old unknowns being answered and new or related unknowns emerging. For example, in the Marquez example above, unknowns we have from the inciting incident of chapter 1 include:
How do Florentino and Fermina know each other?
What is the nature of this knowing? (e.g. Are they friends? Former lovers?)
How will Fermina react to the man’s reappearance? How will Florentino behave? Why is their encounter in chapter 1 such an emotional experience for each?
Marquez proceeds to answer some of these compelling questions in chapter 2:
Florentino met Fermina decades before when he delivered a telegram to her father one afternoon
Florentino was infatuated at first sight. We see Fermina’s first definite rebuff of his advances towards the end of chapter 2
We find out Florentino repeats his ‘vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love’ on Fermina’s ‘first night as a widow’. Finding out the older Fermina’s complete reaction is delayed beyond the second chapter
By concealing some information – (the older Fermina’s response), Marquez builds suspense. He creates new questions, such as ‘what will happen now that Florentino is making overtures again, so soon after Fermina’s husband’s death?’
Think of questions you created in your first chapter. What can Chapter 2 answer to keep the story developing? What aspects can you delay revealing to keep your reader interested?
4. Introduce characters key to primary characters’ arcs
When you’re stuck on chapter 2, it’s sometimes because you haven’t thought further about your ensemble characters. Secondary characters who will help – or hinder – your main characters’ progress towards their goals.
For example, when a melancholic, obsessive postal clerk is courting a young girl, how might her caretakers react?
Marquez shows this in chapter 2 of his novel. We meet younger Fermina’s aunt, Escolástica, her ward and teacher (the name ‘Escolástica’ means one who teaches). Through the aunt character, Marquez foreshadows future chapters. The older aunt, wise to the way people in love behave, tells Fermina:
“Poor thing. […] He does not dare approach you because I am with you, but one day he will if his intentions are serious, and then he will give you a letter.” (p. 58)
The aunt’s words make Fermina urgently want to know whether Florentino will give her a letter, and, if so, what it will say:
“…[O]ne night she awoke in terror because she saw him looking at her from the darkness at the foot of her bed. Then she longed with all her soul for her aunt’s predictions to come true, and in her prayers she begged God to give him the courage to hand her the letter just so she could know what it said.” (p. 58-59)
In this way, Marquez uses the figure of the teaching aunt to show how Fermina’s desires and expectations form as a result of Florentino’s advances. The aunt continues to be an advisor figure, telling Fermina when Florentino proposes:
“Tell him yes […] Even if you are dying of fear, even if you are sorry later, because whatever you do, you will be sorry all the rest of your life if you say no.” (p. 71)
Although Fermina does not take her aunt’s advice, her words underscore the book’s themes of unrequited love and the regret.
5. Hint at how the tensions chapter 1 introduces will unfold
We often talk of ‘foreshadowing’ in storytelling, yet you don’t have to bluntly tell the reader ‘Little did she know that [x would happen]’. Foreshadowing, hinting at what comes next, can be as simple as returning to the preoccupations of the first chapter, for example, and showing that they have not yet been resolved.
For example, towards the end of chapter 2 in Love in the Time of Cholera, Marquez writes:
‘Florentino Ariza never had another opportunity to see or talk to Fermina Daza alone in the many chance encounters of their very long lives until fifty-one years and nine months and four days later, when he repeated his vow…’ (p. 103)
By returning to the action of the first chapter – Florentino approaching the newly widowed Fermina Daza – Marquez shows the unfinished business of that scene. He creates anticipation for the drama and conflict (or love and harmony) that will result from Florentino’s unswayed motives and desires.
Conflict is key to a good story in any genre. Understanding how to write fight scenes and action scenes will help you punctuate your chapters with moments of gripping high drama. To write scenes that hold your readers’ attention, try the following:
1. Maintain and build tense tone and mood
Conflict is a situation boiling over. Too long a tyrant’s rule; too long two lovers’ nearness without breathing space. So how do you start bringing your story to a simmer? Using tone and mood:
What are tone and mood?
‘Tone’ in writing means the ‘general character or attitude’: feel, style and effect. The Oxford English Dictionary defines mood as ‘the atmosphere or pervading tone of something’. In other words, ‘mood’ in story writing is how the tone of individual actions, descriptions, and lines of dialogue build to form an overarching feeling.
How do you build tone and mood for fight and action scenes?
Conflict in a story has many forms. It may unfold at a low simmer – characters taking jibes at each other on a long car ride. Or it might be ‘balls-to-the-wall’ fighting in an epic fantasy battle scene. Whichever type of conflict scene you’re working on, build conflict-foreshadowing tone and mood by:
Narrating a darkening, intensifying mood. Example: ‘She was quiet and sullen for the first half hour of the trip’; ‘He wiped the blood clinging to his sword on the last unstained grass, steeling himself for the onslaught’
Showing factors aggravating the already-tense situation. Example: ‘He slid an Abba CD into the player, knowing full well, she thought, that she wanted to mull over their disagreement at the gas stop in silence’
Showing setting description through characters’ moody perspectives. Example: ‘She glared out the window at the road that seemed to pass them by slower than treacle, the sky so cheery and blue it only made her fume more
The above tone and mood examples make it clear the unfolding narrative is ripe for escalating conflict.
2. Match the intensity of verbs and adjectives to the scene
Verb and adjective choices are key in how to write fight scenes and action scenes that sweep your reader along. Compare ‘he ran quickly under a burst of enemy fire’ to ‘he bolted for the next sand trap through scattershot enemy fire.’
Why is the second example better?
‘Bolted’ as a verb conveys a sense of hurry and an emotional component of fear, unlike ‘ran quickly’ which is nondescript (‘quickly’ describes the ‘how’, not the ‘why’, whereas ‘bolted’ gives us the character motivation – fear)
There’s character direction (‘for the next sand trap’ gives us a sense of where the action takes place and adds intensity. There’s a sense of direction and progression. The same goes for the change of preposition from ‘under’ to ‘through’ – there’s a sense of the character being in the middle of a hazardous situation
‘Scattershot’ as an adjective suggests luck, haphazard conditions – there’s a sense of ‘hit or miss’ that adds to the tension. The percussive sound of the word mimics the sound of rattling gunfire
This all comes down to thinking about the emotional core of a scene. What would a character trying not to get shot be feeling? Fear, most likely. Maybe anger too. So find verbs and adjectives that make readers feel what your characters do.
3. Avoid effect-weakening cliches
If you want to write fight scenes and action scenes that feel like parody (poking fun at genres’ or authors’ indulgences), using cliches would be a good approach. Generally, action cliches and tropes in conflict scenes could distract your reader from the grit of unfolding events.
Unless you’re actively writing a parody or spoof of your genre, you’d want to avoid, for example, a villain revealing to your protagonist they’re a long lost parent at the height of a fight scene (as in the classic Star Wars scene).
Other fight scene and action tropes and cliches include:
Villains blabbing and revealing all their plans at great length (e.g. villains in the James Bond franchise)
Taunts and intimidation: There are stock phrases from movies and video games (e.g. ‘Go ahead, make my day’ in the Clint Eastwood movie Dirty Harry) that should be avoided. Instead, create your own memorable dialogue
Physical improbability: Death-defying physics in movies often pass us by too quickly to notice. Yet readers have time to take everything in. If your protagonist is shot 10 times will they still sprint to the nearest emergency exit? Highly unlikely
4. Think ‘goals’, ‘obstacles’ and ‘confrontations’
Conflict can be broke down into three simple components: A character’s goal, an obstacle to said goal, and the confrontation that results.
Some genre-specific examples for conflict scenes:
Character goal: Intimacy with desirable character. Obstacle: Their own controlling, disapproving parents. Confrontation: Tense encounter with parents ending in a shouting match.
Character goal: Stop antagonist obtaining an emblem that will give them boundless power over the land. Obstacle: Henchmen the villain sends to slow the hero’s progress towards the emblem’s location. Confrontation: Interception of hero by henchmen, leading to a bloody duel.
Character goal: Uncover the identity of a killer to make an arrest. Obstacle: Mistrustful, non-cooperative townspeople. Confrontation: A local gives the detective false information about a dangerous overpass and they encounter environmental hazards.
As you can see in the above examples, boiling down action and fight scenes to character goals and the obstacles they have to confront en route gives you a clear breakdown of what needs to happen in a scene. Then remember the tips of the first point on tone and mood to create the build up.
5: Learn how to write fight scenes and action scenes that develop characters
What the above point clarifies is that fight and action scenes illustrate characters’ goals and their challenges or hurdles. They show us, among other things, a character’s:
Level of determination
Courage (or fear)
Ability to solve problems (e.g. Time-based problems such as facilities entering lock-down, making fast escape vital)
Vulnerability or mortality: We realise the lover can be hurt, the figher can be injured. We understand the stakes
So when you write fight scenes and action scenes involving central characters, ask:
What does this scene help the reader learn about the character’s strengths or flaws?
What does the scene help the character learn about their own strengths/flaws?
How could this relate to what’s coming up (for example, does a fight scene between hero and villain reveal just how dangerous the villain is? Or perhaps what flaw the hero needs to work on to emerge victorious the next time?)
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The Oxford dictionary defines dialogue as ‘a conversation between two or more people as a feature of a book, play, or film’ (OED). Yet the ‘or more’ (dialogue between more than two characters) is often confusing to write. How do you write and format dialogue well in a scene involving more than two characters? Here are some tips:
1. Place your characters clearly within your scene
In a stage play, it’s easy to tell who’s speaking most of the time because the characters are positioned on the stage so that we know where each voice is coming from. We don’t have this aural (hearing) element in a book, of course. To write clearer dialogue between multiple characters, begin by placing characters clearly in a scene.
For example, imagine a tense exchange in a kitchen. If you seat one character mid-activity (e.g. chopping onions), and have the other two standing by a sink, you can show who is speaking by dropping in these elements of ‘staging’:
Sarah was chopping onions, scrunching her eyes tight and trying not to remove a thumb.
“Could you two stop bickering for a second?” She put down her knife, glaring over to where Tom and Judy lounged against the double sink.
Tom turned to wash his hands, grumbling, “I only came in to wash my hands. Why do we always end up talking politics anyway?”
“Because yours are so freaking shitty,” Judy said, her voice soft as Sarah caught her eye, showing with a withering stare her displeasure at her daughter’s casual cursing.
Here the simple actions and objects in the scene – the table with the vegetables, the sinks, give us a sense of characters’ position in relation to each other.
2. Practice writing dialogue with and without closeups
Another convention we have in film and TV that we achieve differently in writing is the ‘close-up’. In a show, we might see a close-up of a character’s face as they deliver a particularly emotional, funny or beguiling line. In dialogue in books, we have to achieve these effects using character description.
As is the case in TV and film, be sparing with visual closeups of characters in dialogue. Showing characters’ faces is a useful way to describe how characters react to conversation when there are more than two in a scene. Yet if every new line of dialogue is an animated facial description, your story could start to read like a soap opera or children’s book. For example:
Sarah stopped chopping.
“Will you stop this continuous bickering?” She glared at her children.
Tom glowered and turned his back to wash his hands, grumbling, “I only came in to wash my hands. Why do we always end up talking politics anyway?”
Judy rolled her eyes. “Because yours are so shitty,” she smirked, but Sarah caught her eye and glared, showing her displeasure at her daughter’s casual cursing.
Although this isn’t ‘wrong’, balance is key. Here, the continuous focus on characters’ facial expressions is at least broken up and given variety by Tom washing his hands.
Practice rewriting a piece of dialogue with facial descriptions for every line of dialogue. Then try rewrite the same dialogue and make characters’ words communicate the emotions their faces showed before. Take out any narration describing their faces. Which works better?
3. Give each character a distinctive voice
‘Voice’ is a crucial element of writing dialogue. In stage, film and TV we have the sound of individual characters’ voices and their identifying features (the way they laugh, if they sigh a lot when they’re sad or bored, etc.) to tell characters apart. In writing, dialogue needs to convey these differentiating elements with words.
When we talk about characters’ ‘voices’, we don’t just mean the sound of a voice. It’s also the character – the personality – that shines through their speech. Details such as:
Favourite subjects (for example, a Charles Dickens character might humble-brag a lot about how poor they were growing up to show others they’re a self-made man)
Striking vocal features (a high/low/soft/loud voice, speaking fast, speaking slow, slurred speech)
Vocabulary (does a character speak mostly in elegant, complex phrases, or is their speech rough around the edges?)
Here’s an example from George Eliot’s classic novel Middlemarch illustrating the above. The character Sir James wooing Dorothea, yet she’s more interested in the dry, pious Mr Casaubon and is annoyed by Sir James’ attention. Dorothea’s sister Celia is more interested in Sir James herself. Sir James starts:
‘I saw you on Saturday cantering over the hill on a nag not worthy of you. My groom shall bring Corydon for you every day, if you will only mention the time.’
‘Thank you, you are very good. I mean to give up riding. I shall not ride any more,’ said Dorothea, urged to this brusque resolution by a little annoyance that Sir James would be soliciting her attention when she wanted to give it all to Mr Casaubon.
‘No, that is too hard,’ said Sir James, in a tone of reproach that showed strong interest. ‘Your sister is given to self-mortification, is she not?’ he continued, turning to Celia, who sat at his right hand.
‘I think she is,’ said Celia, feeling afraid lest she should say something that would not please her sister, and blushing as prettily as possible above her necklace.
The tone of Sir James’ voice is chivalrous. Single-minded Dorothea’s voice by comparison is curt, abrupt. Her sentences are short and full of purpose (‘You are… I mean… I shall not’). Compare to Celia’s voice, which is more uncertain, and shows how the younger sister tiptoes around her older sister because of Dorothea’s high standards regarding people’s words and behaviour.
James’ subject (lending Dorothea a horse to ride) is typical of the character. He appears generous and affable. Solicitous (aiming to please) suggestions are typical of him. Celia’s uncertainty and hesitance in her dialogue is similarly typical. Through the kinds of things characters say, we tell them apart in dialogue easier. Eliot also uses small elements of staging (Celia sitting at James’ right hand) to clarify the focal character for each line of dialogue.
4. Use dialogue tags where necessary to keep dialogue clear
Dialogue tags are a necessary evil – use too many of them in one conversation between characters, and your reader becomes too aware of the author’s presence.
For example, you could solve the problem of how to write dialogue between multiple characters simply by putting ‘[character name] said’ after each utterance:
‘I want to go to the beach,’ James said.
‘Ugh, too much sand,’ Jane said.
‘You’re such a killjoy,’ Sarah said.
This isn’t completely bad. The characters’ voices are at least differentiated clearly: Jane is clearly dramatic and perhaps a little negative. Sarah’s accusing tone makes her sound like the scolding, judgmental one of the group. James simply states a clear desire, thus his voice is more neutral.
Even so, the end-placement of each dialogue tag is clunky. You could rewrite the same better, thus:
‘I want to go to the beach.’
‘Ugh, why, James? Too much sand!’ Jane shuddered.
‘You’re such a killjoy,’ Sarah said.
Here’s why the above is better:
There’s more anticipation and delay: We wonder (until the next line), who spoke the desire to go to the beach
The author’s presence is subtler (there’s less of a sense of ‘here the author is using dialogue tags to show who’s speaking’) – dialogue tags are less intrusive
Some tags are replaced with gesture and action, emphasizing the emotion behind characters’ words (‘Jane shuddered’)
We know who said the first line thanks to another character using the speaker’s name in response – context supplies some of the information
Try write a piece of dialogue using ‘he/she/other pronoun said’ after every utterance. Then leave some lines without dialogue tags, change others to gestures or actions, and think carefully about where a simply dialogue tag (‘said’) would make the most sense.
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