Write your best story. Change your life. Astound the world. Award-winning and internationally published author of the bestselling Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. Writes speculative and historical fic.
There are many lies writers believe that hold them back. When you think about it, this is kind of ironic. After all, aren’t stories stories lies that serve to tell the truth?
I think the reason most writers get a perverse chuckle out of that last idea is because, as humans, we are hard-wired to have a complicated relationship with truth. We crave, we need it, sometimes we even want it. But like those green beans I was supposed to eat when I was four and instead shrewdly dropped under my brother’s chair, we also exercise an incredible amount of creativity in avoiding the truth—and then denying we’re avoiding it.
In a Positive Change Arc, the character starts out clinging to a Lie (without, of course, acknowledging it is a Lie) because she believes this Lie protects or provides for her. It is only over the course of the story that she begins to realize this Lie is, in fact, holding her back. The journey to accepting and living the Truth is never easy (otherwise, she wouldn’t have fought against it so hard), but it is always a necessary step toward empowerment, freedom, and health.
In most Negative Change Arcs, the character resists the Truth (aka, refuses to eat the green beans) and as a result of his crippling reliance on the Lie ends up in a worse place, morally and/or physically, than that in which he started (aka, frames little brother for not eating the beans and grows up with the rickets or something).
The one exception is the negative arc I call the Disillusionment Arc. In all respects, the Disillusionment Arc is just like the Positive Change Arc, except the Truth the character finally learns to accept is not an immediately positive Truth. In a Positive Change Arc, she might learn “the world is shaped by love,” while in a Disillusionment Arc, she might have to face the equally potent reality that “the world is shaped by violence.” It’s important to realize the Disillusionment Arc is just as viable and important as the Positive Change Arc, since avoiding negative Truths is ultimately just as unhealthy and self-defeating as avoiding positive ones.
And, finally, in a Flat Arc, the protagonist already understands and accepts the story’s central thematic Truth. Thanks to his personal maturity and wisdom in this area (which, presumably, is the result of previous Positive Change Arcs in his life), he is able to use that Truth to help others around him overcome their own Lies.
In real life, we all experience every single one of these arcs. Unlike a book, in which one central arc defines the protagonist, our lives are a complex, ever-shifting evolution from arc to arc to arc—and, often, multiple arcs at the same time. Whatever our personal hang-ups, I think we all instinctively understand we need to be moving toward Truth. We struggle through Positive Change Arcs toward liberation. We get stuck—hopefully, only temporarily—in Negative Change Arcs. We grieve over our Disillusionment Arcs. And when we’ve emerged victoriously, we stand upon our mountaintops of hard-fought Truth and walk confidently through Flat Arcs that allow us to encourage positive change in the world around us.
5 Lies Writers Believe
We all share in the journey of overcoming the Lies we believe, unhitching them from the emotional baggage that motivates them, and moving toward the often scary but always peace-giving and life-affirming Truths. And yet each journey is deeply unique and intimate to each person.
Although we won’t all face the same Lies, there are many, many Lies so prevalent that most of us can relate to them. These begin with the big life Lies that are rooted in primal desires for love, safety, and validation—and the instinctive, if ultimately counterproductive, survival mechanisms we enact defensively out of fear that we won’t get them.
These Lies are heavy. It can take years, perhaps even lifetimes, for us to peel back the many layers of Lies before we get down to their cores. But along the way, there are many “smaller” Lies, which although (arguably) easier to overcome are just as potentially damaging. Here are five lies writers believe that I hear all the time—all of which I believed in at one point before fighting through to better Truths.
Lies Writers Believe #1: Being a Writer Should Be Easy
Entry Truth: It Ain’t Easy.
Ultimate Truth: Writing Is a High-Level Skill Set.
Many would-be writers enter storytelling through the door marked “Fun.” Just as many of these would-be writers exit right back out through the same door.
Writing—I mean really writing—is a deeply complex art form. Doing it well requires from its author the ability to master such widely ranging subjects as philosophy and even psychology (because what else is story theory?), dramatic structure, a thousand different prose techniques, and not least of all David McCullough’s art of “thinking clearly.”
Accepting that writing should be challenging eliminates our ability to defend our inherent human laziness and dares us to become more than we ever dreamed we could.
Lies Writers Believe #2: Being a Writer Is Too Hard
Entry Truth: Writing Is Not for Lazy People.
Ultimate Truth: Writing Is Rewarding and Important Exactly Because It Is Hard.
Other writers (or sometimes the same writers) stick around to lament the high bar of storytelling’s difficulty level. We want writing stories to be as fun, easy, and instantly gratifying as reading or watching them. But it’s not, never has been, never will be. Oh yes, it’s fun—it’s rewarding—it’s sublimely empowering and enlightening.
But I say thank God that’s not all it is. Thank God writing isn’t a fun little game we can master in an afternoon. Indeed, the very worth of stories is found in all the things that make them tricky to write. It is the difficulty inherent in every new book we write that gives each of us the precious and irreplaceable gifts of growth.
Lies Writers Believe #3: You Need Someone to Show You How to Be a Writer
Entry Truth: No, You Don’t.
Ultimate Truth: Learning From Others Is a Self-Motivated Process Completely Different From Expecting Others to Magically Transfer to You Their Knowledge and Experience.
Sometimes people ask me, “Can you help me be a writer?”
This is a tricky one to answer. It’s one of those “yes and no” scenarios. Can I share with you what I’ve learned from my own experiences as a writer, just as others have shared with me in their turn? Yes.
But can I give you the keys to the kingdom? No. I can only show you where the door is. Writing is ultimately a journey of self-growth. No one can take that journey for you. No one can hold your hand along the way. And they certainly can’t give you a piggy-back ride. We can cheer you on from the sidelines, but that’s it.
All the information and encouragement in the world won’t give you the secret formula to being a writer. You have to eat that information, digest it, and transform it into your own personal brand of creative energy. You won’t understand story structure until you make it yours. You won’t find a comfortable writing process until you create your own. And you won’t write worthwhile stories unless you’re writing your stories, up from the deepest depths of yourself.
Lies Writers Believe #4: You Don’t Have Anything Worth Saying and/or Will Never Say It Well Enough
Entry Truth: If You Believe That, Stop Writing Right Now.
Ultimate Truth: You Are Alive, Therefore Your Experience Is Valuable; You Are Writing About Your Experience, Therefore You Believe You Have Something Worth Saying; You Are Persevering, Therefore You Will Learn to Say It Better.
This Lie is a masquerade. Writers don’t actually believe they have nothing to say. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be saying it. Rather, what they believe is that they need the validation of the others to put the stamp of approval on what they’re saying.
There is a certain measure of practical truth to this. After all, if you want to be published, you’re going to need someone’s approval somewhere along the way.
But instead of falling into the slough of self-pity (a sure sign you’re in denial about a Lie of some kind), acknowledge these two truths:
1. On a personal level, you need no one’s validation. Recognize your own inherent self-worth and by extension the worth of you’re writing.
Lies Writers Believe #5: Where You Are Today Defines Your Success
Entry Truth: Your Journey Isn’t Over.
Ultimate Truth: You Can’t Judge Your Story’s Ending by Its First and Second Acts.
At any given moment in your life, it is so easy to look up, look around, realize you aren’t anywhere close to where you want to be, and start feeling like an unmitigated failure.
But your story isn’t over.
Just take a look at whatever fix your characters find themselves stuck in at this very moment in your work-in-progress. Doesn’t look too good for them either, does it? But you, as their author, know their story isn’t over. They’re not even close to the ending yet; they will not be judged by the mistakes they’re making in the middle.
And neither should you judge yourself. Keep writing, keep living.
With a dedication to overcoming your Lies and pursuing your Truths, you can trust the story of your own life will roll to an ending better than you can even imagine right now.
POV. Writers can’t live without it. It influences every aspect of story, right down to word choice. But in all frankness, sometimes POV can be a little hard for us to live with as well. The vastness and the complexity of the topic makes it all too easy for authors to accidentally stumble into POV problems. But fear not! Today, we’re going to clean everything up.
POV—short for Point of View–refers to the perspective from which a story is told. This might include:
Basically, POV is the artifice of suggesting that the story is not being told from the author’s perspective but rather from the perspective of a character, the perspectives of multiple characters’, or sometimes even the perspective of a nameless narrator who while technically you is understood to not be you. (Confused yet?)
I frequently talk about the importance of strong, cohesive POVs. In a recent comment, Meghan Weyerbacher asked:
I am itching to read an example of what you think would be a sloppy character POV. Do you offer this anywhere? I am still on my first draft of my novel but want to learn as much as I can along the way.
Today, we’re going to examine the fundamental principles of excellent POV—and the four major pitfalls I see creating POV problems over and over again.
The Art of Strategic POV
When chosen strategically, POV contributes to the immersion of a carefully-crafted narrative designed to communicate a very specific experience to readers.
Great POV choices=great storytelling.
Poor POV choices=poor storytelling.
Truly, great POV is an advanced skill that will immediately set your book far above the pack. Great POV is one of the major “it” factors that tell readers, right from the beginning of the book, You can trust me—I’m awesome and totally know what I’m doing!
There are a few hallmarks of excellent POV:
POV should never, never, never be arbitrary. Let me say that again: NEVER. Great POV is built on the foundation of the author’s specific vision for the story. When you know what your story is about—on the levels of both plot and theme—you’re able to deliberately make POV choices that contribute to that vision.
Random POVs? Also bad. When you view POV as the frame that shapes your entire narrative, you realize it is a powerful tool for providing readers with a consistent reading experience. Stories that lean into strong, consistent POVs, rather than randomly popping in convenient narrators, create a much more polished and professional storyform.
The fundamentals of POV are all about control. One POV=one narrator. And, yes, this is true even in an omniscient POV that looks into the minds of multiple characters. This means you must exercise absolute control in “staying in POV” and avoiding head-hopping.
Great POV is about so much more than just technical excellence. It’s also about spirit, surprise, memorability, verve, and entertainment. Great POVs bounce off the page thanks to strong narrative voices. They’re not just matter-of-fact tellings of the story; they’re evocative explosions of personality.
4 POV Problems You Should Avoid in Your Writing
Very often the best way to learn how to do something well is to first identify how to avoid doing it poorly (which is the whole point of this series of Most Common Writing Mistakes). In response to Megan’s question and in the interest of notching our stories up from good to great, let’s take a look at the top four examples of POV problems you should guard against in your writing.
1. Inconsistent Viewpoints
The first POV decision you have to make in writing any story is: What type of POV should I use?
The first of several choices you have to make is about what “person” the story will be told in. Although there are also a few experimental options, the following are the most prevalent and useful:
1st-person (I, me)
3rd-person (s/he, him/her)
Next comes choice of depth:
Omniscient (widest view of the story, not told from any one character’s POV, but rather from a distant, all-knowing narrator)
Tight (told strictly from only one character’s perspective per scene)
Deep (goes even further than “tight” to show the narrative from the POV character’s perspective, rather than simply telling or describing this person’s experience)
And then tense:
Past tense (this happened)
Present tense (this is happening)
There are no right and wrong choices. But whatever you choose, stick with it. Inconsistency in POV is one of the quickest tip-offs of an amateur narrative (and also one of the trickiest writing techniques for any of us to learn).
The ability to dip into any character’s perspective or experience is a heady feeling for any author. But as you learn to recognize the different types of POV, you will also learn how to limit your own narrative to your story’s advantage.
What Inconsistent POV Looks Like:
Take a look at this sloppy mess:
Alessi had the sensation she was being watched. She didn’t know the creepy guy who had stolen her car was stalking her. She resisted turning and acting like a paranoid fool. But as she stated past the Laundromat, the creeping sensation of her spine grew, and when she heard a sound, she shot a glance over her shoulder. Stupid girl, the man thought, drawing back into the shadows.
And now compare this to Kristen Heitzmann’s solid handle on her character’s POV in Halos:
Again Alessi had the sensation she was being watched. She resisted turning and acting like a paranoid fool. But as she started past the Laundromat, the creeping sensation up her spine grew, and when she heard a sound, she shot a glance over her shoulder. She thought she saw something move into the shadows between the Hawkeye Gift Gallery and the Bennet’s Books front awning.
2. Too Many/Poorly Chosen Viewpoints
Here’s where we start getting into “advanced” POV problems. Most writers learn early on to avoid the basic problems of inconsistency with any individual POV. However, what many authors fail to recognize as equally vital is their choice of which characters, and how many, should be given POVs.
Everything in a story should be carefully chosen to contribute to an overall whole of cohesion and resonance. If this stands true when determining the importance of every scene’s presence in your story, it certainly stands just as much for every POV.
Here are guidelines for identifying and choosing the best POVs for your story:
1. The Fewer POVs the Better
Obviously, this is just a rule of thumb. Many successful books pull off dozens of POVs with beautiful aplomb. But the unique requirements of these stories (not to mention the authorial skill involved) will always be the exception to the rule.
Usually, you will accomplish a much stronger, more cohesive, more immersive, more resonant storyform by limiting the number of POV characters. Sometimes just a single narrator will be the best choice. Yes, fewer POVs will create limitations and challenges for showing all a story’s action. But most stories are better for forcing their authors to face a few challenging limitations (just ask Golden Hollywood).
2. Examine the Action
Keeping in mind that you’re striving for a minimum not a maximum of POVs, take a look at what you know about this story. Where is the plot going to take the characters? What’s going to happen? Which characters are going to be present at the most important events?
With a little ingenuity, it’s amazing how much action you can successfully convey to readers without needing a POV character to be right on there on the scene. But it’s best to examine the overall needs of the story’s plot before choosing POV characters. You won’t always know which character this story is even truly about until you figure out whose POV is most useful.
3. Examine the Climactic Moment
With the obvious practical considerations out of the way, take a moment to consider which POVs really matter to your story—on a thematic level.
How do you know? Easy. Look at your Climactic Moment. Which characters are involved in this final confrontation that definitively decides your conflict one way or another? These are (or should be) the characters who are most inherent to the story’s thematic arc. These are the most important characters in your story. These are your best and most obvious choices for POVs that will meaningfully contribute throughout the story.
This does not, of course, mean all the characters present at the Climactic Moment should be given POVs. But if they’re not present at the Climax, you have to question if they’re really important enough to get POVs earlier in the story.
What Poorly Chosen POVs Look Like:
For my money, Anthony Ryan’s fantasy trilogy Raven’s Shadow offers perfect examples of how to and how not to choose the right POVs.
His first book Blood Song (my favorite read of 2017) was an incredibly solid and resonant read that featured just one POV: the protagonist’s.
His second book Tower Lord veered from this formula to include three extra POVs. These POVs were well-executed—and yet, they still drastically weakened this second book. Unlike the first book, this one lacked focus, cohesion, and resonance in nearly every other respect (structure, theme, etc.), an unfortunate effect that was largely due to the unnecessary extra POVs.
3. Randomly Distributed Viewpoints
Okay, fewer POVs are better. Got it. So let’s say you’ve got a book with two POVs. The protagonist’s POV and one minor character. The protagonist’s POV is front center for 99% of the book. Then there’s just this one little POV scene that pops in toward the end of the book to offer an important snippet of info from a minor walk-on character. Surely, that’s okay, right?
Considering the tiny size of the anomalous POV scene, it’s not likely to upset the apple cart. But is it sloppy? Oh yeah.
Not only must you choose your POV characters wisely, you should also, optimally, be distributing those POVs in a consistent manner throughout the story. If a character’s POV shows up just once or twice, you have to question whether it’s really necessary. And then question again: Is it really so necessary that it’s worth creating a bump in your story’s otherwise strong and seamless narrative?
When selecting POV characters, you should be examining if it’s possible (or how to make it possible) for these POVs to show up at regular intervals throughout your story. This does not mean a secondary POV must be given exactly the same number of scenes as your protagonist. But it does mean that if it’s going to show up in the second half, it needs to be introduced in the first. Preferably it will appear at least once in every quarter of the book, creating a consistent pattern readers will recognize and lean into.
Doing so not only prevents the jarring effect readers experience when they run into a completely strange POV deep in the book, it also enhances thematic resonance by highlighting how the plot’s progression is impacting this secondary character at every juncture.
What Random POVs Look Like:
I see this one all the time in stories with average narrative control—in other words, stories that are functional but not artistic, decent but not great. One example that always comes to mind was in a popular fantasy that kept its focus on two main characters throughout only to suddenly, in the Third Act, jump randomly into the POV of a man who was a prisoner in a city about to be liberated.
This was his first appearance and he was never heard from again. His POV existed only to provide an outside perspective of the sounds of the siege the heroes were about to enact upon the city. It was totally extraneous and definitely not worth the bump of confusion when the narrative moved away from the familiar characters.
4. Weak Voice
Great POVs aren’t just about control, they’re also about style (said in a Kingsley Shacklebolt accent). They needn’t be blatantly flamboyant, but they must never be ordinary.
A compelling narrative voice is ultimately all about breathing life into a character (even if that “character” is an unnamed omniscient narrator). It creates a story that couldn’t possibly be read aloud in a dry monotone, but rather one that offers its own inherent inflection and verve.
Great voice usually starts with great characters. But, sometimes, great characters are born of a great voice. The key word is personality. Seek to make each voice distinctive to the narrating character, even if the differentiations are subtle. Look for lively word choices and interesting constructions.
What Weak Voice Looks Like:
My TBR pile is now literally five feet high (not counting e-books). I’m not adding anything to that pile unless it looks amazing. And how can I tell it’s amazing? Voice is always the first thing I examine. I use Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature to read the opening paragraph.
Is the voice a bland “I was doing graffiti”?
Or is it an opinionated directive that tells me this author (and this character) knows exactly what this book is supposed to be about, as in You’re Welcome, Universe by Whitney Gardner:
Six stencils in and it’s gone. Okay, the tag vanished by Stencil Number Two, but I have a point to prove. I’m not covering your scribbled slur with just anything. I’m making art here. I’m creating. I’m on fire.
If you’re uncertain how to write a living, breathing voice for a POV character, ask yourself: What is one sentence I can write from this person’s POV that will tell readers exactly who she is?
Start there. Then right another one.
As a reader, nothing makes me happier than an author’s mastery of POV. And… nothing makes me grumpier than sloppy POVs. So here’s to writing strong stories told confidently through excellent POV choices. (Because trust me, you really, really don’t want me to be grumpy.) Happy writing!
Dialogue is the best part of stories. (Yes, even better than Dickensian narratorial diatribes about crooked politics.) But it’s tough to write scintillating dialogue when you find yourself asking that fundamental question: “What should your characters talk about?”
As writers, we’re familiar with the rant about “show, don’t tell.” We’re supposed to bring our stories to life so vividly readers can see it all happening and forget they’re being told a story. But the truth is all our best efforts at showing are really just a magic trick. Written fiction is always and inevitably about us telling our readers a story—with one exception. And brownie points for you if you already know that exception is dialogue.
Dialogue is the one aspect of story you can share with readers without needing to describe, embellish, or otherwise bring it to life. All you have to do is record exactly what your characters say, and let their words speak for themselves.
But first your characters need something to talk about, right? And it’s gotta be good. Like Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn good. More than that, it’s got to be good and it’s got to move the plot in meaningful ways. No pressure, right?
A few weeks ago, “Jamie” left a comment talking about this common dilemma among writers and offering some excellent advice:
I had a colleague ask me once about dialogue, as in the characters having something to say to each other. Not even making dialogue witty or full of subtext, but just talking to each other, period….
[F]or me the idea is that characters should have something to say to each other, or there’s something wrong. There should be an immediate purpose—“hey, want to get a pizza?”—and a larger purpose, e.g., strategizing how to thwart an upcoming heist while they eat the pizza. Dialogue should reveal something of the characters, as in maybe one character always orders something different on her pizza, and the other one has a specific topping combination named for her because she only ever orders that one.
I think I advised her to consider her plot and themes, on the grounds that dialogue may flow from there. I don’t know if you’ve ever addressed dialogue from the angle of “what do they say when they’re talking?” But I’ve seen a few other writers struggle with that question. I suspect it would be a breakthrough if they could crack that particular element.
To that end, let’s take a look at what meaningful dialogue looks like and how you can find answers to “what should your characters talk about?” on every single page.
3 Different Types of Dialogue
Dialogue manifests in several different ways, all of which are perfectly legit.
First off and most obvious is dialogue that occurs in the action half of scene structure—the scene portion which focuses on goal, conflict, and disaster. These are the scenes in which your POV character wants something. She has a goal, and it’s very likely she’s going to need to talk to someone else along the way because:
She needs information (a goal in itself).
Another character is creating conflict by verbally and/or physically blocking her ability to reach that goal.
“I’m okay. Can you guys do me a favor?” They nod. “Gomez, go back to the church. I’m there, waiting in the vestibule. Pick me up and bring me here. Smuggle me into the downstairs men’s john and leave me there. Ben, keep an eye on me,” (I point at my chest) “and when I tell you to, grab my tux and bring it to me in the men’s room. Okay?”
Gomez asks, “How much time do we have?”
He nods and walks away.
2. Conversations in a Sequel (Reaction-Oriented)
After the action-focused scene portion comes the sequel, in which characters react to their thwarted or semi-thwarted goal in the previous segment and figure out what to do about it via reaction, dilemma, and decision. These scenes are often the talkiest of the entire story. This is where a lot of great character reflection and development can happen and where characters can share interesting facts about each other—insofar as those facts are pertinent to the conflict. These conversations aren’t usually as focused as the dialogue in scenes. They offer the opportunity to deep-dive into character motivations.
BOSS: I married once. Never knowed that, did you, Charley? Had a wife and child. Sweet little spread, too. It was nothing fancy, but we was young. Loved each other. Never had a cross word. They caught the typhus and died. And after that, home didn’t seem a place to spend time. Believe I’ve changed my mind on that now that I’m getting on in years. If Button lives and we survive Baxter, I swear I aim to see to it there’s a home he’s sleeping in instead of the cold prairie. Have yourself a last cup of tea, Charley. I’d like to see Button again, Miss Barlow.
SUE: Of course.
BOSS: I know the way.
CHARLEY: Whew. Been riding with him years. Never said nothing about being married.
LUKE: Since the coffee cake I baked for you and the stupid balloons I blew up are at that table, over there.
RORY: You blew up balloons for me?
RORY: Oh, Luke, you old softie.
LUKE: I count to three, it’s gone.
RORY: Thank you.
4 Types of Information Dialogue Can Share
What should your characters talk about?
In a nutshell, a story is a sharing of information. This is just as true of dialogue as any other device used to tell that story. This means that whatever your characters are talking about should be designed to share information of one sort or another, in one way or another.
Although dialogue should never be used to info dump information (especially via the clumsy “as you know, Bob” crutch), it is actually one of the best ways to share info. This only works, however, when what you’re sharing moves the plot. Done skillfully, the very sharing between characters becomes a plot movement in itself.
There are three types of information you might share in your dialogue:
1. Your Characters Can Talk About Worldbuilding
Story is a give and take between characters and the world in which they live. The things your character knows about the setting and the things he does not will always be pertinent. Many setting facts will be shared in narrative, but the most interesting and important can be shared in dialogue. This is especially true in the beginning of the story, when readers are being introduced to the setting, the rules that govern it, and the specific problems it is presenting the protagonist.
RAMSEY: Colonel, do you expect officers to forget their duty?
VON LUGER: No. It is because we expect the opposite that we have brought you here. This is a new camp. It has been built to hold you and your men. It is organised to incorporate all we have learned of security measures. And in me, you will not be dealing with a common jailer, but with a staff officer personally selected for the task by the Luftwaffe high command. We have in effect put all our rotten eggs in one basket, and we intend to watch this basket carefully.
RAMSEY: Very wise.
VON LUGER: You will not be denied the usual facilities. Sports, a library, a recreation hall, and for gardening we will give you tools. We trust you to use them for gardening. Devote your energies to these things. Give up your hopeless attempts to escape. And, with intelligent cooperation, we may all sit out the war as comfortably as possible.
Most people like to talk about themselves. Same goes for characters. And if they don’t like to talk about themselves, why so much more the delicious, since other interested characters get to pry out the details. But the tricky key here is that, as with all dialogue, the character information can’t be just random info.
Your protagonist had a treehouse when she was eight, loves red licorice, and can’t stand penny loafers—so what?
Taken at face value, none of these facts are particularly interesting and, out of context, certainly don’t seem likely to move the plot. But if she hid in the treehouse when her scary uncle came to visit, associates red licorice with her best friend’s funeral, and resents loafers because her lazy first boyfriend wore them—now you have something worth exploring in dialogue, especially if these details and another character’s learning of them via dialogue will advance the plot.
The young man looked up. “Whenever I can get away with it.”
“Doesn’t that kind of defeat the purpose of coming?” Vin asked. “Why attend if you’re just goign to avoid socializing?”
“You’re up here too,” he pointed out.
Vin flushed. “I just wanted to get a brief view of the hall.”:
“Oh? And why di you refuse all three men who asked you to dance?”
Vin paused. the man smiled, then turned back to his book.
“There were four,” Vin said with a huff. “And I refused them because I don’t know how to dance very well.”
3. You Characters Can Talk About the Plot
Your characters don’t live in a vacuum. They live in a plot. So when in doubt about an appropriate subject for them to discuss, take a look at that delightful little humdinger of a plot you’ve got going on. Your protag’s a detective trying to solve a mystery? He can talk about that. She’s a single mom trying to keep her kid out of trouble? Tons of conversation fodder right there. He’s a soldier trying to overcome PTSD? Sounds juicy to me.
FURY: This is Project Insight. Three next generation helicarriers synced to a network of targeting satellites.
STEVE: Launched from the Lemurian Star.
FURY: Once we get them in the air they never need to come down. Continuous suborbital flight courtesy of our new repulsor engines.
FURY: Well, he had a few suggestions once he got an up close look at our old turbines. These new long range precision guns can eliminate a thousand hostiles a minute. The satellites can read a terrorist’s DNA before he steps outside his spider hole. We gonna neutralize a lot of threats before they even happen.
STEVE: I thought the punishment usually came after the crime.
FURY: We can’t afford to wait that long.
STEVE: Who’s “we”?
FURY: After New York, I convinced the World Security Council we needed a quantum surge in threat analysis. For once we’re way ahead of the curve.
STEVE: By holding a gun at everyone on Earth and calling it protection.
The best way to write dialogue is to start with a focus (what does this conversation need to accomplish in the story?) and then just loose the characters’ wagging tongues. Writing fast and furious dialogue is not just fun, it’s also a great way to come up with some gems. But once you’ve got all those quote marks littering your page, how do you know if what your characters are saying is actually important enough to keep?
Here are five questions to ask about every dialogue exchange.
1. Does It Have a Point?
This is the big one. Are these characters talking just to fill space—because they’re bored and have nothing better to do and because you’re bored and didn’t know what else to write? Or is there a reason they’re talking? Does one—or preferably both—characters have a goal in this conversation?
The goal doesn’t always have to be explicit (e.g., the detective wants to to know where his suspect was on the night of the murder, so he says, “Tell me where you were on the night of the fifteenth!”). Sometimes it can be implicit subtext buried beneath what is otherwise meaningless nothings (the single mom is worried about her kid but doesn’t want to smother him, so she says, “Did you see that cute cat video?”).
THREEPIO: He says he’s the property of Obi-Wan Kenobi, a resident of these parts. And it’s a private message for him. Quite frankly, sir I don’t know what he’s talking about. Our last master was Captain Antilles, but with what
we’ve been through, this little R2 unit has become a bit eccentric.
LUKE: Obi-Wan Kenobi? I wonder if he means old Ben Kenobi?
THREEPIO: I beg your pardon, sir, but do you know what he’s talking about?
LUKE: Well, I don’t know anyone named Obi-Wan, but old Ben lives out beyond the dune sea. He’s kind of a strange
old hermit. I wonder who she is. It sounds like she’s in trouble. I’d better play back the whole thing.
Like all scenes, dialogue can’t exist in a vacuum. If the story remains unchanged at the end of any conversation, then it’s probably extraneous. Change is the only way to know if your plot is progressing. If that “hi, how are you?” across the fence with the neighbor adds no new information that prompts a new action (or conversation) from your character, then it’s not moving the plot. This is where conflict plays a vital role. Dialogue exchanges between characters with opposing goals can be a fabulous way of presenting obstacles and, thus, conflict.
“She has frocks of every other color. Has she a black one?”
Miss Amelia began to turn pale.
“No—ye-es!” she sniffed. “Oh, sister! What can have happened?”
Miss Minchin wasted no words.
“Captain Crewe is dead,” she said. “He has died without a penny. That spoiled, pampered, fanciful child is left a pauper on my hands.”
3. Does It Share Important Information?
Whether or not a piece of information is important is entirely contextual. “My favorite color is fuchsia” could be either incredibly boring nonsense—or that one clue upon which the whole story pivots.
So here’s the rule of thumb: even the most boring and seemingly surface bits of dialogue should have deeper meaning. If you need a character to be momentarily distracted on the subway by a walk-on character, then try your best to make even that tiny exchange have at least a thematic purpose. Nothing in your story should ever be throwaway—including the dialogue.
And now, I’m sorry to say, I’m about to complicate everything. It’s not enough for dialogue to ace all the above by being pointed and purposeful and the natural outgrowth of your character’s super-important goal. It’s also got to..
The reason the first chapter of a story is so complex is because it bears a triple load of responsibility. First, it must hook readers. Then it must offer a compelling and interesting scene of its own. And finally, it must set up the entire story to come. Today, let’s dive into our third and final first chapter checklist: setting up the story.
Personally, I have always found that writing a first draft gets easier almost chapter by chapter. By the time I get to the Third Act, the book practically writes itself. This is because, when you do your job right in the early chapters, you will already have accomplished the meticulous work of setting up your dominoes. By the time the final parts of the story roll around, you get to flick those dominoes and watch them fall neatly under their own power.
But, by implication, this means the first chapters are where you have to do most of the heavy lifting. Although hooking readers and writing a strong opening scene are crucial to convincing readers to read on, it’s the third of our checklists—setting up the story itself—that decides whether the ending, and thus the book itself, works.
What does it mean to introduce your story in the first chapter? Doesn’t that just mean starting at the beginning and letting the plot unfold, scene by scene? In part, yes. But a successful introduction involves much more than just the obvious context of the first scene (which we discussed in Part 2). A successful introduction of your story is an introduction of the deeper subtext—the thematic principle, the protagonist’s arc, and the aspects of the plot that will drive or be driven by it.
Some of these will be introduced explicitly. Many of them will be introduced implicitly, via foreshadowing. In some stories, not all these elements show up in the first chapter. But everything on the following checklist should be introduced early.
First Chapter Checklist #3: Setting Up the Story
1. Introduce the Story’s Protagonist
We’ve talked before about introducing the protagonist. This is for obvious reasons, since without this person, you don’t have a story. But it’s worth mentioning again one more time here, since your protagonist is your story.
Not only is she the engine that drives the outer plot, she is also the symbolic representative of the deeper inner story of the theme. When you introduce your protagonist in the first chapter, you’re not just hooking readers with an interesting person or explaining who this story is going to be about. You’re also introducing and foreshadowing the entire storyform to come.
This is yet another reason why it is ideal to open with the protagonist, rather than another character. Your protagonist is your theme. The theme frames your story. When you open thematically, you are fulfilling the idea that your story’s “end is in the beginning.”
When you have multiple protagonists, open with the character most representative of the theme—or at least the character who will be most integral to the Climax.
If you’re writing a story, such as a mystery, which is unable to open with its protagonist, it gets tricky from a thematic standpoint. These stories require more creativity in symbolically representing the personal conflict of the protagonist, which is yet to come.
Example From Wayfarer:
Again, I’ll be using examples from the first chapter of my superhero historical Wayfarer, which will be published later this year. As you know by now, my protagonist Will Hardy is introduced as follows, in a quick opening line that hints at his slightly cynical insistence on believing in only what is visible—a belief that will be challenged both realistically and thematically by the end of the story:
In the hamlet of Affery, folk cherished the plague.
Will Hardy was not one of those folk. In all truth, he held no belief whatever in a plague he’d never had sight of in all his life.
2. Create and/or Foreshadow the Main Story Goal
We talked last week about the necessity of opening your first chapter with a scene goal. This is so your character will be moving toward conflict right from the start. But as we also talked about, this opening scene goal may not have any direct relationship to the main story goal.
Depending on the story, it can take the protagonist half the First Act to work his way up to an explicit encounter with the main conflict at the Inciting Event. This doesn’t mean the main conflict shouldn’t be present right from the start. There are two ways you can accomplish this.
1. The Character’s Initial Goal Leads to the Main Story Goal
By the very nature of being the first domino in your plot, your first scene is what creates the causal chain. What happens in this scene causes what happens in the next scene and so on, until the main conflict is officially joined.
For example, in Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy isn’t even on the scene yet in the first chapter, but it is Mrs. Bennet’s goal of getting Mr. Bennet to introduce her daughters to Mr. Bingley that sets everything in motion.
2. The Character’s Initial Goal Foreshadows the Main Story Goal
Sometimes you will open with a scene that is less directly related to the main conflict and more symbolic of what is to come. In these instances, it’s possible the protagonist doesn’t even yet suspect the main plot goal he will develop later on.
For example, Raiders of the Lost Ark opens without Indiana Jones having any idea the Ark of the Covenant actually exists. Rather, it opens with a mini-episode that foreshadows everything to come: Indy’s pursuit of relics through dangerous and exciting obstacles—in opposition to his unscrupulous nemesis Belloq.
Ideally, I like to open stories with both of the above: a direct domino and implied foreshadowing. Wayfarer‘s first scene finds its protagonist Will Hardy without any suspicion whatsoever of his impending adventures. But the job he fails to get in this scene leads directly to the plot encounters in subsequent chapters that eventually cause him to accidentally gain superpowers in the Inciting Event.
The first time we see Will, we find him running at top speed—a subtle bit of foreshadowing indicating the type of superpower he will gain. More than that, though, I wanted to immediately foreshadow the supernatural aspects by indicating all is not as seems. This starts with the first line about the plague in Affery and culminates in Will’s ill-fated conversation with the doctor:
“Well,” Will said, “they say folks around here used to fall down ill, their livestock along with them.”
“Why do you think I’m here? I know all about that.”
“But ’tisn’t the interesting part, is it? The interesting part is the ones who survived were supposed to have found old ailments made well.” He tried to remember. “Umm… things like blindness, swollen joints, even one old farmwife who couldn’t have children.”
“Hah!” Dr. Silas laughed in his face. “Maybe it’s you who doesn’t know. There were others affected. They were not merely cured. They were changed: two-headed calves, dogs that could smell meat cooking at the far side of the village, men too tall, men too short, women too strong. That’s what I want to know about. Tell me about that, why don’t you?”
“Those are mere fables.”
“The plague, boy! Never been a natural discovery like it.” Dr. Silas snapped his fingers. “Or is it the fairies a-dancing? I heard that too. But did I credit it? No.”
“The rector says ’twas the devil’s work.”
“He’s wrong. They’re all wrong. But you—you’re a wonderful disappointment. I was counting on you, and here you are, with no symptoms a’tall. You’re certain your family hadn’t aught strange about them? Extra digits on their hands?”
Will jutted his chin. “Sir. I have no more to say about my family—or the godforsaken plague.”
3. Establish the Thing the Character Wants
Every bit as important as your character’s goal in your first chapter is her Want. The Thing Your Character Wants is not just the story goal. Although it will provide a motive for the story goal, the Want goes deeper than a physical goal. This is something your character Wants on a soul-deep level. It is something she believes will transform her life if she gains it. She may be right, or she may be wrong—but either way, this Want is driven by a mistaken notion about life (the Lie, see below).
In other words, this Want is deeply thematic. If the character’s story goal is the what of the story, the Want is the why. The outer goal is merely a external manifestation of this Want. It is, in some senses, symbolic of the deeper thematic premise at play.
Your character’s main story goal may not be explicit from the opening chapter, but her Want should be.
If, like Jane Eyre, her story goal will be finding a way to be with her true love, her Want might be a deep and abiding craving for love.
In essence, the Want foreshadows the plot yet to come when the character will begin acting on that desire by forming it into a specific story goal.
Example From Wayfarer:
Will’s Want is to grow beyond the legacy of poverty and shame left him by his workhouse parents and, instead, become respected by society. This Want is present immediately: he is pursuing an initial goal of finding an “opportunity” that will take him to London. This is not his main plot goal—which will end up manifesting as saving the downtrodden of London from the antagonist—but it is the driving motive beneath everything he does both in this first chapter and throughout the story.
I hint at the Want in several ways throughout the story, largely by implication through Will’s continuing shame and grief over his family, but also more directly in explaining why he wants this job so badly—both for himself and his debt-ridden adopted father:
He’d fight to his last fingernail to gain London. The world started there, and the world was the very place he needed to see. “I’ve waited all my life for this opportunity.” And I need it. Tom needs it.
4. Hint at the Lie the Character Believes
The Lie the Character Believes is the foundation of the entire thematic principle. It is the engine driving the change at the heart of your character’s arc. Your theme can almost always be summed up as the Truth at the heart of your story. The best way to identify that Truth is to first identify the opposing Lie.
I’ve talked about the Lie at length elsewhere, so for today, suffice it that you can often bring the Lie onstage right alongside your character’s Want. The two are intrinsically related. The Lie is the reason the character mistakenly believes the Thing He Wants will fix all his problems and make his life perfect.
The earlier you can hint at the Lie, the earlier you will be able to introduce your theme, and the earlier you can frame your story in its theme, the stronger the entire foundation will be.
Example From Wayfarer:
Wayfarer‘s theme is that of respect—what it really means, what it’s really worth, and what someone really has to do to achieve it. Will starts out with the Lie that in order to gain the respect of the world (and, thus, his self-respect), he must put on the show of being wealthy and socially acceptable.
I indicate this primarily by implication through Will’s reasons for desiring to get to London—as well as his short temper when Dr. Silas treats him poorly—but also more explicitly in the chapter’s closing lines when Will meets a gentleman from London who overheard his embarrassing exchange with Dr. Silas:
The man smiled, small at first, then all the way to the crinkled corners of his eyes. “No doubt you’ve heard that regard is something you must earn.” He unbuttoned his coat and withdrew a silver shilling from his waistcoat. “This is what you earn.” He filliped the coin into the air.
5. Establish the Normal World as a Thematic Starting Place
The setting you introduce in the first chapter should never be just a setting. It is a symbolic representation of your character’s internal starting place within the story’s theme. The setting of the First Act represents your character’s Normal World.
This Normal World represents a specific mindset in the story—one which the character will either overcome, champion, or succumb to–depending on what type of arc he is following. Ultimately, the Normal World is a symbol. It can be represented by:
A physical setting the character will leave behind in the Second Act (as in Jane Eyre, when she journeys from Lowood School for Girls to Thornfield Hall).
A physical setting that remains throughout the story but which is altered in some way in the Second Act (as in Monsters, Inc., when Boo’s arrival throws Monstropolis into a panic).
Whatever the case, your opening setting should be chosen carefully to represent everything that is about to change in the story to come.
Example From Wayfarer:
Wayfarer opens in the sleepy hamlet of Affery—a backwater place populated by poor farmers—a place that symbolizes everything our ambitious protagonist desperately wants to overcome. The great thing about Normal Worlds is that they allow you to introduce them casually with little explicit emphasis on their symbolic nature. I introduce Affery as I would any other setting—distributing important details throughout. What’s most important is Will’s attitude toward it, which I’m able to indicate mostly by implication through his desire to escape:
A ride on the mail coach up to London—a letter of introduction to a shipping agent or one of those folks who were always discovering gold in Abyssinia or wherever—those were not opportunities coming to Affery boys every day.
And there Will was, opening his mouth and letting out his temper. He couldn’t have pulled his forelock and shuffled his feet and said, “My humble honor, sir. Anything you say, wise sir”? No. He had to spit it back into the duffer’s face.
The First Plot Point is the first major turning point in your story. It is the doorway between the Normal World of the First Act and the Adventure World of the Second Act. It signals the first big shift in your character’s outlook: from here on, she will firmly grasp her story goal and move forward toward it. The First Plot Point is not beginning of the story (obviously), but it is the beginning of the main conflict.
One of the best ways to know your opening scene is the first domino in your story is to ask whether or not it is the first moment that sets up the First Plot Point. For example, in Howl’s Moving Castle the first chapter immediately begins sowing popular legends about Howl—even though the protagonist Sophie won’t meet officially him until the First Plot Point.
First chapters are complicated, which is why writers everywhere need a first chapter checklist. But even the checklists are complicated! Which is why I’ve broken down our exploration of excellent first chapters into three parts.
Last week, we talked about what is, arguably, your first chapter’s most important job: hooking readers. But if you’re going to provide readers with all kinds of juicy hooks in your opening line, opening situation, and characteristic moment, then you have to a place to put them. Your story’s opening scene is the box that holds all the goodies.
In many ways, the opening scene is a scene just like every other. Like any proper scene, the opening scene must fulfill basic principles of structure—a beginning, a middle and an end. But the opening scene is also special in many ways. It takes the normal duties of a normal scene and amplifies them into a microcosm of the entire story to come.
This scene is chosen not just to advance the plot, but to introduce it. Learn how to ace each of the scene requirements and then add in the special sauce that will make your first chapter strong enough and clear enough to launch the entire line of dominoes that forms yours plot.
First Chapter Checklist #2: Writing the Opening Scene
1. Introduce the Opening Scene’s Main Character
Story begins with character. The earlier you can introduce a character in your scene (and thus your book), the better your chances of hooking readers. It’s true some stories, especially older ones, open with “atmosphere” that focuses more on physical or social settings or even theme (Thomas Hardy’s classic Return of the Native spends its entire first chapter on scenery). But it requires a master’s touch, a sure understanding of language, and the right genre to make this work as a successful hook for patient readers.
Either way, you’re going to have to introduce characters sooner or later. Aim for sooner. As the engine driving your story’s conflict, your character is what makes the story move.
Your opening scene has the added challenge of introducing a character whom your readers are meeting for the very first time. When you write your character’s name on the first page, you must surround him with just the right amount of descriptive details. These include:
Descriptive details to indicate gender, age, possibly occupation, and pertinent aspects of appearance and sometimes clothing.
Drama and/or dialogue that brings personality to life.
A sense of something missing or out of place in the character’s life—either physically or spiritually (which we’ll discuss more in the section on scene goal below).
You have the space of the entire scene to convey most of these details. Don’t info dump in the beginning. Choose early sentences carefully to immediately give readers as full a sense of your character as possible without overwhelming them.
(By the way, although your opening scene won’t necessarily open with your protagonist, that’s always the best route when possible. The first character your readers meet will be the character to whom they will instinctively want to attach their loyalties. They want to meet your protagonist; don’t make they wait unduly.)
Example From Wayfarer:
As I did last week, I’m going to continue using examples from the first chapter of my soon-to-be-published superhero historical Wayfarer, which opens with this initial introduction of my protagonist:
In the hamlet of Affery, folk cherished the plague.
Will Hardy was not one of those folk. In all truth, he held no belief whatever in a plague he’d never had sight of in all his life.
That was why he ran, head up, arms pumping, directly towards the source of it.
This names the character, shows him wanting something (although readers won’t immediately know what it is) and moving toward it, as well as telling us something about Will’s slightly cynical nature.
Other details are sown throughout the chapter:
Will’s age: “She could not be more than eight and ten—no more than year younger than he.”
A pertinent detail about Will’s appearance: “Will was no hulking lad, but this Dr. Silas undercut even him by at least a hand’s span.”
An indication of Will’s occupation and station in the world: “’I’m a good worker. Anyone hereabouts will tell you. Ask my master at the forge, Tom Colville.’”
2. Establish the Main Character’s Scene Goal
Although we’re discussing them separately here, character and goal should never be seperate. The moment your character shows up on the scene, he should be in pursuit of something. He wants something. But he’s not just sitting around wanting it. He’s already up in motion, pursuing it.
Three things to note here:
1. The Right Way to Understand In Medias Res
Opening with the character already in pursuit of a goal is the essence of how to open in medias res (“in the middle of things”) and to do it well. There’s a common misconception that opening in medias res means opening in the middle of fireworks—battles, car chases, explosive arguments, etc.
Nothing wrong with these openings, but forcing the action too early in the plot or too explosively can sometimes make it difficult to include all the elements on the first chapter checklist. It’s just as easy—sometimes easier—to hook readers with a small, pertinent character goal as it is an in-progress terrorist attack.
2. The Opening Scene Goal’s Relationship to the Main Plot Goal
Your character’s goal in this opening scene must be related to the main plot goal she will develop later on. But it almost certainly will not be the main plot goal. This is for the simple reason that the main plot goal will not entirely form until the protagonist fully encounters the main conflict as she enters the Second Act.
In most stories, the protagonist won’t get even get her first full look at the main conflict/goal until the Call to Adventure at the Inciting Event halfway through the First Act (around the 12% mark).
Instead, the goal in this opening scene will be setup for that Call to Adventure. What happens in this scene, however ancillary to the main conflict, will be the first domino pushing the character (probably unawares) toward that Inciting Event. This means the opening goal will be related to the main conflict, but not in a way the character is yet fully conscious of.
3. Opening With a Sequel Instead of a Scene
In discussions of scene structure, I’m often asked whether a book can open with the reaction or “sequel” half of a scene, in the aftermath of an off-screen scene disaster. The short answer is “yes.” In fact, opening with the character in full-on reaction mode to something earth-shattering can create an excellent hook. But the character must then immediately progress from reaction to a new goal. Don’t open with the character sitting around thinking; open with the character in action, pursuing something important.
Example From Wayfarer:
As we’ve seen, Wayfarer opens with the protagonist in literal action—running as fast as he can across a field. Readers understand immediately that he wants something. This provides a little space for me to wait until a few paragraphs later to reveal this something is a job:
The doctor’s eyes lit up. He grinned, revealing a full yellowed set of teeth. “Now we come to it. Do you know why I asked you here?”
“Your note suggested you’d pay the fare for a likely boy to transport something of value to London.”
3. Establish or Foreshadow the Antagonistic Force via Conflict
In any properly-structured scene, the next step after establishing your character’s goal is obstructing that goal with conflict. The character wants something, but getting that something isn’t a straightforward proposition. Something or someone interferes, causing the protagonist to:
1. Fail in gaining her desire.
2. Gain her desire but with consequences.
3. Partially fail in gaining her desire, forcing her to formulate a new strategy.
In your opening scene, this conflict should be even more faceted than usual. This conflict will introduce the main plot by either establishing or foreshadowing the story’s main antagonistic force.
Now, wait a minute. You’re probably thinking, But didn’t you just say the opening scene doesn’t introduce the main conflict because the protagonist hasn’t even seen it yet? Too true.
The important distinction here is that in the Second Act, the character’s main goal will have met the main obstacle/antagonistic force, creating the main conflict. Either the main goal or the main obstacle—or both—will not yet be present in the story’s beginning.
But—and here’s the important part—neither of these things come out of nowhere. They develop from seeds of motivation, on both the protagonist’s and antagonist’s parts, and from causal circumstances. Your opening scene needs to present or at least foreshadow the first of these causal circumstances.
Here’s an easy rule of thumb to ask yourself when deciding if your opening scene’s conflict is pertinent enough to the main conflict to come: If you removed the goal/conflict of this opening scene, would the protagonist still find his main goal or be able to meet the antagonist in the Second Act? If the answer is no, then the opening scene’s current conflict is likely too ancillary.
Even if you choose to open with a segment that is essentially a self-contained episode (as is currently popular in many action movies), that opening episode still needs to plant seeds for the conflict to come.
Example From Wayfarer:
In my opening scene, Will wants the strange Dr. Silas to hire him to take something to London. That’s his goal. But Dr. Silas proves unreliable and, after Will loses his temper, refuses to hire him. Mortified to realize a London gentleman witnessed the exchange, Will is then intrigued when that man offers him a new opportunity for finding his way to the city.
This opening goal (Will wants to go to London) and opening conflict (Will doesn’t get along with his potential employer) are not the main goal and conflict Will will encounter in the Second Act. But they are directly pertinent to setting up first the Call to Adventure at the Inciting Event (in which Dr. Silas is directly involved in Will’s gaining super-speed), in Will’s eventual sojourn in London, and in Will’s primary plot struggle of protecting his master from the antagonist. Just as importantly, this scene “disaster” is what forces Will to take specific actions in the following chapters, completing the necessary setup in the First Act.
4. Introduce Other Important Characters
Many scenes in your story will introduce new characters, but none will introduce them with more power than your first chapter. The number of characters you’re able to introduce in this opening scene will depend greatly on the choreography of the scene itself.
Here are a few rules:
1. Don’t Overload Characters
Don’t feel as if you need to introduce all the characters right away. It’s better to focus on a few in the first chapter, then sow in the rest later on. Particularly for characters who are important to the story, you will want to give yourself the time and space to introduce and develop them properly. This may mean saving certain character introductions for the second or third chapters—or even later.
2. Try to Include at Least One Supporting Character
The most interesting opening situations are almost always those in which your protagonist is interacting with another character—preferably in dialogue. As arguably the only true form of “showing” in a story, dialogue is one of the most engaging ways to grab readers and disseminate information (preferably more by implication than outright explanation). I think it was writing instructor Nancy Kress who observed that her books didn’t start selling until she started putting dialogue on the first page.
3. Remember That Early Characters Are the Most Important
Here’s another rule of thumb: The earlier an element (character, setting, theme, plot device, etc.) is introduced in the story, the more importance readers will attach to it.
In short, your opening chapters should be reserved for your most important characters. This is not the time to introduce arbitrary elements that will never again be mentioned. In itself, this is yet another reason why it’s best to open with your protagonist where possible. But don’t stop there: open with her most important relationship (or at least the most important relationship currently available within the story).
Example From Wayfarer:
Wayfarer‘s opening chapter introduces the protagonist, his love interest, his primary antagonist, and a crucial catalyst character. Almost right from the beginning, Will has someone to talk to. The introductory information is largely disseminated via dialogue and much of it by implication through the conflict of that dialogue. (Other important characters are introduced at the earliest possible moment in subsequent chapters.)
5. Ground the Setting: Place, Time, Season, Weather
As in any scene, it’s important to ground readers in the setting. They need to have a visual sense of the physical space in which the character finds himself. As always, the importance of these details is magnified in the opening chapter. Not only are you introducing details of the scene, you are also introducing details of the story itself.
Where is the story taking place?
Where are the characters oriented within the setting?
When is the story taking place (year, season, month, day, hour)?
As with character details, much of this information doesn’t need to be shared immediately—it can be dissemminated throughout the scene. But readers need to be grounded with at least a few pertinent facts right away.
Example From Wayfarer:
I “cheat” a bit by opening Chapter One with the informative header: “Northern Surrey, September 1820.” I then follow up with an informative paragraph that further emphasizes the season, the physical locale, and the weather:
After last month’s barley harvest, the fields lay in barren contentment, even with his feet flinging soil clods. The sun burnt through the crisp autumn breeze and heated his face. He was belated, and considering what awaited him, that was far worse than any fabled plague.
Your opening scene is make or break territory for your book. Not only will it be a key factor in determining whether readers engage with your story, it will also plant the first stone in what will either be a strong foundation or a weak foundation for your entire plot to come. Make the right decisions about these five aspects of your opening scene, and you won’t have anything to worry about!
Next week, we’ll explore your First Chapter Checklist #3: How to Set Up Theme and Plot in Your First Chapter.
Did you know Literature and Latte released version 3 of their acclaimed writing software Scrivener?
Scrivener is famous for its rich functionality, but also its steep learning curve. If you’ve taken the time to learn an existing version of Scrivener, or are a newcomer looking to try it out yourself, making the move to version 3 might seem overwhelming or unappealing.
So why exactly should you consider making the change?
Today, I’d like to share with you some of the reasons why many authors are making the upgrade to Scrivener 3, as well as the key facts related to upgrading and whether you should.
Scrivener 3: Key Facts for Interested Writers
Here’s what you need to know about Scrivener 3.0 in a nutshell:
Scrivener 3 is currently available for MacOS, with a Windows version in development.
Scrivener 3 costs $45 for new customers.
If you purchased an older version of Scrivener at a date later than August 20th 2017, Scrivener 3 is available as a free upgrade.
If you purchased an older version of Scrivener prior to August 20th 2017, Scrivener is available for $25.
Scrivener 3 is fully compatible with its iOS version.
Also, be sure to look for updated scrivener coupons, regardless of whether you are looking to upgrade or just check out Scrivener for the first time.
So, now that you know the “what’s” of switching to Scrivener 3, let’s consider the “why’s.”
Scrivener 3 Is More Intuitive With a Cleaner User Interface
Scrivener 3 has moved towards a more intuitive and aesthetically-pleasing experience without sacrificing complexity, which you can see in action here. They have achieved this by:
Simplifying the process of using features such as “Compile,” without sacrificing any of their power.
Replacing Project Notes, References, and Favorites with a single “Bookmarks” mode.
Refreshing the visual feel of Scrivener to be more modern.
Scrivener 3 Has Better Writing Stats to Assist Your Planning and Productivity
I’ve long felt one of the best reasons to switch to a pro writing software such as Scrivener is the ability to plan and track word counts, along with other quantifiable features which greatly assist productivity and output.
Scrivener 3 can help with this by:
Allowing you to set word counts for an entire project, or particular writing session, and monitoring your progress towards them.
Assigning statuses and keywords to different aspects of your project, allowing you to keep a track of your efforts.
Viewing your Writing History to gain greater insight into your productivity patterns.
Scrivener 3 Has a Brand New “Linguistic Focus Mode” for True Language Lovers
One of the new modes authors are loving is the “Linguistic Focus Mode” which can be seen in the below image.
This new mode allows you to:
Highlight specific categories of words, such as verbs, adjectives, or direct speech. This can help you notice your own repetition and other blind spots.
Craft more believable dialogue. By having everything but direct speech fade into the background, you are forced to confront any cliched or repetitive conversation.
Prior to Linguistic Focus, you would have to use a separate tool to carry out this type of analysis, thereby losing flow and focus.
Want to Learn More About Scrivener?
Thanks to the widespread use of Scrivener, there are a couple of resources authors should check out if they are looking to learn more about Scrivener:
Scrivener’s Blog — Although they don’t keep it up-to-date as much as I’d like, it does have great information.
Scrivener’s Forum — A great place to look for help, recommendations, and any known bugs you might run into.
Scrivenerville — A website devoted to teaching authors about Scrivener features and ways to use Scrivener best for your writing needs. It’s sort of what I’d wish Scrivener’s blog would do.
Scrivener: To 3 or Not to 3?
In addition to the above benefits offered by version 3 in particular, I love Scrivener in general because it allows me to:
Research, write, edit, and export in a single-software environment, no matter whether I’m switching between Mac, Windows, or iOS.
Participate in a community of writers developing and sharing scrivener resources/
Use the same software favored by bestselling writers I respect such as Michael Hyatt.
Enjoy a no-pressure, 30-day trial of the software, where a day is only deducted when the software is used.
I personally love the fact that this new version will help me to be more organized when setting up to outline my books using different Scrivener functionalities. This will help me to be a more effective and efficient writer.
So give it a go, and you might just find that when it comes to Scrivener, version 3 really is the magic number.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Do you use Scrivener for writing your stories? Why or why not? Tell me in the comments!
Your story’s first chapter is one of the most important pieces of your story. Not only does it provide the foundation for a solid storyform to come, it is also your first and only chance to pique readers’ curiosity and suck them in. For better or worse, the first chapter is also one of the most challenging parts of any story. There’s just so much that has be set up in these opening moments. Too bad we don’t have a first chapter checklist, huh?
Well, today we do!
Because I often comment about the “whole list of stuff a first chapter must accomplish,” I’ve gotten a lot of requests for a post that would provide that full first chapter checklist.
3 Different Kinds of First Chapter Checklist
Like every chapter to follow, your first chapter must fulfill all the usual requirements of a chapter: introducing the scene, the characters’ current orientation within the setting, and their personal goals for this particular episode within the larger story.
But first chapters are special—as we all know, since that’s why we’re here today! First chapters don’t just have to introduce themselves. They have to introduce the entire story. More than that, they have to offer all these introductions within the context of one singularly fascinating event in your characters’ lives—so that readers will be hooked into reading the rest of the story.
That’s a lot for one little ol’ chapter to accomplish all by itself. Which is why first chapters are hard. Which is why I’ve broken down our first chapter checklist into three parts, so you can better see the various aspects of a successful first chapter. Starting this week, we’re going to talk about what is, arguably, the first chapter’s most important job: hooking readers. Because if they don’t keep reading, none of the rest of it really matters, does it?
I’ll be including fast examples from the first chapter of my soon-to-be-published superhero historical Wayfarer, so you can see what each necessary element looks like in actual execution.
First Chapter Checklist #1: Hooking Readers
1. Opening Line Hook
Your first chapter starts with a first line—and that line needs to be brilliant. Optimally, it will hook readers all by itself by presenting something so entertaining, curious, or shocking they can’t turn away. But even if the first line is just setup for a hook that follows in the lines to come rather than being the hook, it needs to be an example of your best writing. Readers want to look at that first line and know they’re going to be in good hands.
Example From Wayfarer:
In the hamlet of Affery, folk cherished the plague.
Although there are many recommended tricks for accomplishing this (including the controversial method of in medias res), it’s important to realize you don’t actually have to open in a moment of high action. Instead, there are two keys to choosing an opening situation/characteristic moment that will hook readers:
1. The character needs to want something that is being blocked (which will create its own inherent sense of forward motion and action).
I hope the opening line about hamlet folk cherishing the plague will provide that initial element of the unexpected and get readers to wonder why anyone would appreciate mass illness. From there, the story moves on to show protagonist Will Hardy hurrying toward the “source” of that plague in search of a job. He is, however, immediately blocked in that goal when he literally runs into a young woman who is not what she pretends to be.
After last month’s barley harvest, the fields lay in barren contentment, even with his feet flinging soil clods. The sun burnt through the crisp autumn breeze and heated his face. He was belated, and considering what awaited him, that was far worse than any fabled plague.
He reached the stile in the midst of the tumbled stone wall. In one stride, he leapt the three steps. The second stride would have been no difficulty—save for the singularly lovely face that distracted him from the corner of his eye. He caught his toe on the bottom step, and from there it was top over tail into the road.
In a flurry of green skirts, the girl scarcely halted before tripping over him. “Oh!”
3. Scene Disaster Hook as First Domino Setting Up Main Conflict
You do this via your opening scene’s ending disaster. Your character wants something in this scene (her goal), which is met by an obstacle (the conflict), which at least complicates her initial goal, leading to further consequences she must deal with (the disaster).
In any chapter, the disaster that closes out the structure of one scene will set up the goal that begins the structure of the next scene. Your opening chapter, however, carries the larger responsibility of not just setting up Chapter 2 but, indeed, setting up the whole book.
Your first chapter’s conflict will not yet be the main conflict (that is, the direct struggle between the protagonist and the established antagonistic force). However, its conflict must still be absolutely pertinent to the story. You can’t just choose a fun characteristic moment that introduces your protagonist’s outrageous personality unless that moment also relates to the main conflict.
Your character’s goal in the first chapter may not be directly related to the main story goal she will be chasing in the Second Act, but the disaster that keeps her from this initial goal must be her first nudge toward the Inciting Event that will entangle her with that main conflict.
Example From Wayfarer:
My protagonist Will doesn’t start out the first chapter with the superpowers that are central to the story’s premise. Neither does he start out with a scene goal that is directly related to the main story goal of saving his master from debtor’s prison and defeating the antagonist who wants to take over London. In fact, he doesn’t even start out knowing the antagonist exists.
All he wants in this first chapter is to get a job that will help him escape the hamlet on his way to an adventurous life in London where he believes he can become respectable and wealthy. It’s what stymies this goal that is important and that sets up the following chapters by introducing both the means by which he will gain his powers and the antagonistic forces at play.
In short, this first chapter sets up the second chapter, which sets up the following chapter, which then sets up the Inciting Event.
4. Tonal Hook
One of the most overlooked opportunities for a hook in the first chapter is a story’s tone. The voice and vibe of a story create its personality, and its personality is a subtle foreshadowing trick that primes readers for what to expect.
The “it” factor of a distinct narrative voice signals to readers that you are a writer who is confidently in control of the reading experience. Even more than that, an appropriately interesting tone can act as a hook all its own.
Which would you rather read?
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
All woman want to marry rich men.
This tonal attitude is most obvious in stories with humorous or outrageous voices. But it’s just as important and accessible in stories that are quieter, sadder, or plainer, as in Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking or Charles Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities:
Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. The question of self-pity.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.
The trick is to know exactly what your story’s personality will be and to convey it with precision.
Example From Wayfarer:
This book, set in 1820 England, is a story with a darkly serious spine but overlaid with lots of humor and romance. It’s “Charles Dickens meets Spider-Man”—which is, in itself, a fun juxtaposition. In creating the first chapter’s tone, I wanted to take advantage of the setting’s slightly archaic verbiage to overlay the serious nature of the story’s plot and theme with the fun adventurousness that accompanies the crazy idea of a superhero coming of age in Georgian England.
In the hamlet of Affery, folk cherished the plague.
Will Hardy was not one of those folk. In all truth, he held no belief whatever in a plague he’d never had sight of in all his life.
That was why he ran, head up, arms pumping, directly towards the source of it.
If you can mark all four of these important hooks off your first chapter checklist, you will have accomplished the first of your story’s most important jobs: convincing readers to keep reading!
Next week, we’ll explore your First Chapter Checklist #2: The Special Requirements of Your Story’s First Scene.
Truth is beauty. Beauty is truth. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in art, which deliberately and consciously explores both. Words, in particular, are the explicit context in which humanity presents, investigates, and shares its truth. Perhaps more than any other art form, writing gives us a blatant venue for exploring the truth side of the equation. But, of course, as writers we are also given the opportunity to create beautiful prose.
It’s the balance between the two that can sometimes get tricky.
Much like the creative/logical balance of writing/storytelling, creating a meaningful harmony of beauty and truth demands two different skill sets. Learning how to evoke beauty from even the simplest truths, or truth from the most decadent beauty, isn’t always a straightforward proposition.
In fact, writing a story that is both beautiful and true is largely a matter of knowing when to utilize which.
Writing Prose on the Continuum Between Truth and Beauty
Lately, I’ve found myself (rather glumly) realizing that I don’t really write beautiful prose anymore. In fact, in my outlines for my last two works-in-progress (the superhero historical Wayfarer due out this fall and the portal-fantasy sequel Dreambreaker), I made notes to myself along the lines of Go deep in the narrative! This wasn’t so much a craft instruction as coded encouragement to myself to revisit the more poetic “beautiful” style of writing I had used in earlier books, such as Behold the Dawn.
I admit it: I really love the writing in that book. Sometimes I’ll pick it up just to read over the poetry of some of its phrases. And I’ll wonder: why don’t I write this way anymore? Despite my outlining directives, I seem to write less poetically, less lushly, less beautifully with each subsequent book.
Oh, sure, there are some beautiful passages here and there, the occasional turn of phrase that just sings. But mostly, the writing is more functional than elegiac. It wears workaday clothes rather than party clothes. It’s prose, not poetry.
So what happened? Has my writing ability digressed over the years? Or have I maybe just gotten out the habit of writing beautifully?
That’s what I was thinking—until I read Ethan Canin’s essay “Rehearsals for Death” in that lovely anthology Light the Dark. He made an observation about the limitations of beautiful writing:
I have a theory about writing, which is that you cannot simultaneously write something true about character and, at the same time, write something linguistically beautiful. There are too few words to express both truth and beauty….
I immediately resonated with that. Wasn’t that exactly what had happened to me, as a writer, in between writing Behold the Dawn fourteen years ago (!) and writing all the books that followed?
Even though Behold was the sixth novel I had written up to that point, it is really the book I view as seminal. It is the first of my books that I’m proud of. It is the first book I wrote as an adult. It’s the book on which I refined my personal outlining process. It’s not like I actually knew what I was doing when I wrote it, but it’s the book where I started to consciously grasp the theories of story.
From there on, my understanding of the “truth” of stories—as presented by plot, character, and theme—would grow with each book I write. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that with each book, my prose got less beautiful. What I hope that means is that, with each book, the prose is also getting more truthful.
4 Ways to Write True Prose
Naturally, as writers, we all want to write both: words that are beautiful because they are true and words that are true because they are beautiful. But it’s important to consciously realize the purpose of each word, phrase, and sentence. Which is called for at each moment in the story—the simplicity of truth or the luxuriousness of beauty?
Today, let’s take a look at the principles of writing both plain prose and beautiful prose.
1. Know Your Truth
There are many facets to “truth” in a story. There’s the foundational truth of theme, which presents and comments upon universal facts of life. There’s the truth of accuracy, in our researched facts. The truth of geninuiness in our presentation of our characters as realistic human beings. And there’s the simple truth of a well-placed word that resonates with readers like a perfect note of music.
You can’t convey any of these truths if you aren’t aware of them personally. As we’ve talked about frequently this year, being a writer means assuming the sometimes-heavy, always-liberating responsibility of personal honesty. This involves more than just passive honesty (accepting the truths you see) but also active honesty (seeking to identify and overcome your own misconceptions about yourself and the world).
There will always be times when you have to fight to write true prose—when the truth is too abstract, complicated, or even unformed to be easily translated into words. But when you seek truth in every moment of your life, that truth will often show up in your writing without concentrated effort. Your writing is you and when you’re a truthful person, your truth will necessarily show up in your words. (And, by the same logic, so will your lies!)
There are lines from my own books that I find myself quoting over and over again. They’ve become mantras of my life and my personal beliefs. Obviously, I wrote these lines; they came from me. But it doesn’t really feel like that. I didn’t consciously know these truths before I wrote them down in their stories. Rather, it feels like I discovered the truths by writing them, by just letting the words flow out of me in response to the needs of the story.
As a matter of fact, the lines in my stories that feel most true to me are not the ones I labored over. They’re not the truths I deliberately chose to share in carefully parsed sentences. They are, instead, these truths that just poured out naturally when I wasn’t looking.
The lesson here is: don’t worry too much about being “truthful.” Sometimes that kind of awareness can be a fast-track to preaching. After all, “truth” is such a lofty word. For any of us to assume we own some great “truth” that no one else has discovered is not only arrogant but (most ironically of all) untrue. While it’s great to deliberately share the insights life has taught us, it’s even more important to simply open ourselves to the page, eliminate any censorious impulses, and just see what flows out.
3. Write Simply—Short Sentences, Small Words
Beauty needn’t always be decadent. Sometimes it needn’t even be, strictly speaking, beautiful. There is beauty even in ugliness—when that ugliness is true. In his essay, Canin went on to comment:
[M]ost empathetic—or another way to say this might be character-driven—writers tend to naturally reserve their beautiful constructions for when the content is less urgent. You’ll see [Saul] Bellow get poetic when he’s writing about scenery…. But when he’s trying to write something that really gets to the narrator’s deep emotional experience, the prose is mostly very simple: That was how he was. Five plain words.
One of the passages I’m most proud of in my own writing is a scene in Dreamlander that presents the protagonist with his first experience of war. It’s the benchmark I always use in challenging myself to write honestly. In writing this scene, I used the old trick of putting myself in the character’s shoes and asking: What I would I be thinking? The answer I came up with was a single simple phrase that got repeated over and over throughout the scene: So this is war.
Plain words, short sentences, and simple constructions all lend themselves to the clarity and emphasis of truthful statements. They stand on their own. They never get in their own way. They’re unvarnished.
4. Seek Subtext—Let Readers Find Their Own Truth
Something life has taught me: you can’t give someone the answers. They have to find the answers for themselves by first asking the right questions.
The same is true for your readers. You may want desperately to share important truths with them. But just handing them those truths will often be, at best, ineffective. Asking them to do a little work, to look for the truth, to make an investment of themselves in your story—that’s where truthful writing rises above platitudes to the level of transformative experience.
Creating truthful subtext begins by creating truthful context—which sits upon the foundation of all three of the principles we’ve discussed so far. Writers must seek the connection between conscious and subconscious, outer experience and inner experience to the point that we grow skilled in prompting readers to understand the truth of the subtext based on nothing more than the outstanding truth of our context.
4 Ways to Write Beautiful Prose
If writing truthful prose is primarily about getting out of the way of your own honesty, then writing beautiful prose is a little more craft-oriented.
1. Practice Poetic Techniques
Beautiful writing is often called “poetic” writing—and for good reason. Poetry is a pursuit of truth through beauty. It uses wordplay and word tricks to please both the ear and the eye. Some of the best of these are:
Even in prose, you can occasionally make use of rhymes to smooth the flow. This can get corny quickly, but used skillfully, it blends into the prose, creating gentle beauty without necessarily catching the readers’ conscious attention.
Perhaps even more important than word choice is the balance of your sentences in evoking beauty. A mix of sentences—short, long, simple, complex, compound, fragment, run-on—gives you the tools to create music on the page.
Also to be used with sparing care, alliteration is the technique of choosing multiple words with the same beginning sound (beautiful blonde bombshell). Used with subtlety, so it does not draw undue attention to itself, alliteration creates both the beauty of pattern and enhanced meaning via repetitive emphasis.
2. Seek Vivid Analogies
Sci-fi wizard Robert Heinlen may have claimed, in Starship Troopers, that “analogies are always suspect,” but he was talking about political science, not beautiful prose. Analogies—similes and metaphors—are the gateways to understanding. They allow us the opportunity to shed greater clarity and insight on prosaic items and ideas by exploring their similarities with other items and ideas.
A well-placed simile or metaphor can immediately skyrocket your prose into top-notch prose-poetry. But analogies are easy to abuse. Comparing your heroine’s wedding dress to a “cloud of toilet paper” might seem apropos in the rush of the first draft, but on revision, you may realize that the plainer “white” might be the better descriptor.
3. Expand Your Vocabulary
In alignment with Canin’s original idea that stories are often either truthful or beautiful, some of my favorite books are not those that do an objectively excellent job with plot and character but rather books that are simply beautiful in their choice of words. Some of these words are the plainest and simplest. But often, beautiful prose is the result of a vocabulary master who knows how to discover and use beautifully unusual words.
For example, a recent phrase that I loved in my own reading was Brent Weeks’s “blood incarnadined the water” from his fantasy Blood Mirror.
You can’t use beautiful words to beautiful effect unless you know the words. Become a student of vocabulary. Master your words. Naturally, don’t use big or unusual words just because they’re big or unusual, but add enough of them to your repertoire so you’ll have the right one for the right moment.
4. Choose the Right Moment
The ability to craft and use beautiful prose is a talent every writer should hone. Beautiful prose will set you apart from other writers just as surely as the ability to craft solid plots. But you must know when to employ beauty—and when doing so will just get in the way of the story’s impact.
At the crux of the story it pays to write what’s true, rather than try to write what’s true and then dilute that by making the prose beautiful. It’s a continuum, of course, but I don’t think you can be at both ends of the continuum.
As for me, I’m no longer worrying that my prose isn’t beautiful enough. There are appropriate moments in every story for poetic passages. But the story comes first, and most of the time, that means focusing more on honest prose than elaborate prose.
The amazing thing about being a writer is that you get to be part of a writing community. Especially now, in the Internet age, you have access not just to the writings of the great minds who have gone before, but also to the shared wisdom, common sense, commiseration, and encouragement of all your contemporaries. If you have a question about the writing journey or craft, you can be sure it is one of many frequently asked writing questions that have been asked before. This means the answers are out there!
I conservatively estimate I receive more than 1,000 writing questions every year—and that’s just in emails. Some of these questions are brand-new ones I’ve never seen before. Most are on topics I’ve covered here on the blog. Some are stumpers that prompt me to learn new things and write new posts. But many of them are ones I see over and over, because they are foundational questions in nearly every writer’s journey.
Today, I want to share just seven of the most frequently asked writing questions I receive, along with my answers. If you guys enjoy this format, I may share more posts in the same vein in the future.
7 Frequently Asked Writing Questions
1. Must My Story Have an Antagonist—or Can the Protagonist Be His Own Antagonist?
Man Against Himself is a time-honored storyform. Nothing wrong with writing a book that centers primarily around a character’s inner conflict.
However, that conflict will almost always manifest in the outer world as well. The best way to think of conflict is as a series of related obstacles that prevent the character from reaching her overall goal until the end of the story. The best way to think of an antagonistic force is as whoever or whatever is presenting those obstacles. (The antagonistic force’s moral alignment within the the story is irrelevant as far as the foundational conflict goes.)
Take a look at what is consistently standing between your character and her goals throughout the story. Whatever you find, that‘s your primary antagonistic force.
2. Can My Antagonist Be Non-Human?
Short answer: no, your antagonist does not have to be human. In fact, I generally prefer the term “antagonistic force,” since it allows for any type of obstacle to fill this role within the story.
Although you often get more mileage out of personifying your antagonistic force (see above), you don’t have to. The most important thing to remember about antagonistic forces is that they are nothing more or less than an obstacle between the protagonist and his goals. As long as that obstacle is thematically pertinent, that’s what’s most important.
3. Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Backstory?
Backstory is the subtext for the context of the main story. The deeper it is, the deeper the subtext can be. So there really isn’t such a thing as “too much backstory.”
However, there is definitely such a thing as sharing too much backstory within the main story. The best rule of thumb for knowing when and how much backstory to share is to try to refrain from sharing anything but hints about the backstory until the moment when the reader absolutely needs to know in order for the main story to work and progress.
4. What’s the Difference Between Scenes and Chapters?
The important difference to understand about scenes and chapters is that chapter divisions can be arbitrary; scene divisions cannot.
Chapter breaks are really just about breaking up the book at opportune moments to create a well-timed reading experience for readers.
The action half is made up three parts of its own:
As is the reaction half:
For a scene to work, it must possess all of those parts, to one degree or another. But you could stick in a chapter break at any moment. Personally, I often prefer to break my chapters right in the middle of the scene (after the disaste), then open the next chapter with the sequel/reaction and end it in the middle of the next scene.
5. Should I Edit As I Go?
As I’m sure you know, there are many opinions on whether writers should or should not edit as they go. Personally, I take something of a middle-ground approach.
My approach goes like this: each day, I allow myself to read whatever I wrote the previous day. This lets me clean it up and also get back into the same frame of mind in order to continue writing.
I also stop every quarter of the book and re-read the whole thing. I call this a “50-page edit.” It’s a great tool for turning out relatively clean first drafts and also for helping me stay oriented within the overall story. It can be so easy to lose the forest for the trees when writing a story over a long period of time, and this method is great for both helping me keep the big picture in view and scratch the edit-as-I-go itch.
6. How Can I Successfully Incorporate Themes of Faith Into My Fiction?
For me, the first consideration in how explicit faith is in any story is always the characters and the setting. Probably my most explicitly Christian novel is my Crusades-era historical Behold the Dawn, simply because the era is steeped in Christianity. The setting and the protagonist’s central struggles with his own faith meant that I could effortlessly discuss blatantly religious subjects without it seeming as if they were shoehorned into the story.
The same goes, more or less, for my portal fantasy Dreamlander. I was able to build a fantasy society in which religion was widespread and widely accepted. I dealt with Chris—my “real world” character—and his faith much more subtly, because, although I wanted to deal with religious themes, I didn’t want the story to necessarily be one that was about his personal redemption. So I got to discuss faith-based elements much more obviously in the POV of the dream-world character Allara.
My most recent book Storming is set in Nebraska in the 1920s and is basically an adventurous romp about barnstormers and steampunk-ish flying weather machines. I ended up touching on spiritual elements only obliquely in this story, since anything more just wouldn’t have flowed smoothly with the characters and the setting.
One other thing I always keep in mind is trying to address meaty spiritual themes from a place where the characters don’t have a handle on it. I think readers are much less likely to find subjects preachy and much more likely to relate to them if the characters are struggling through them. In essence, the characters are asking questions, not necessarily providing answers.
7. Should I Use Real-Life Settings or Made-Up Settings?
Since I write a lot of historical fiction, this is something I have to consider in every book. I’ve done it both ways.
Real-life settings present the obvious benefit of being instantly recognizable. Even if readers have never visited your setting, most will recognize the name and conjure up certain associations that will help them fill in the blanks and build the setting within their imaginations. Real-life settings offer built-in verisimilitude. The very fact that your setting is a real place gives readers a firmer belief in it and all the story events that happen there.
Because the facts are already there for you to draw upon, you won’t have to worry about creating a real-life setting from scratch. All you have to do is record what you see or learn. However, by the same token, you will also bear a greater responsibility for establishing an accurate portrayal. Get something wrong and some reader, somewhere, will notice. You’ll also have to deal with the possibility that real-life people living in your real-life setting may not like how you’ve portrayed them or their home.
Made-up settings, on the other hand, free you from the burden of the facts. If you want to maintain the verisimilitude of a real-life town, but need to tweak a few minor details, all you have to do is rename it. If you want to get a little wilder (as you almost certainly will if you’re writing speculative fiction), a made-up setting gives you the power to alter whole swatches of reality. To some extent, all stories include made-up settings, even if it’s only a street or a house.
Made-up settings offer partial or total freedom from the constraints of the facts, but they also impose a heavy demand for active creativity. With the power of total creation comes total accountability. Because even the most realistic of made-up settings will always lack the added punch of being real, your attention to detail must be even more obsessive than usual.
In most instances, the choice between a real-life setting and a made-up setting won’t significantly affect your plot (for example, Batman could just as easily have lived in New York City as its made-up doppelgänger Gotham). But, in application, the decision will affect every page of your story.
And there you have it: a small portion of some of the most frequently asked writing questions I see. Perhaps you’ve even asked these questions yourself. If so, I hope you find the answers helpful in moving forward with your stories.
Wordplayers, what’s your opinion? What are some of the most frequently asked writing questions you hear from your fellow writers? Tell me in the comments!
We writers are really kind of a whiny bunch. Our Facebook and Twitter streams, our blogs, sometimes even our books are full of discussions about how hard it is to to be writers. There’s a lot of (mostly) good-natured woe-is-me-ing; sharing of commiserative quotes from our patrons, St. Hemingway and St. Plath; and so, so much of that fantastically cathartic black humor we all love so much about how hard it is to take risks with your writing.
There’s a reason the #YouKnowYouAreAWriter hashtag is popular. There’s this sense within the community that “only another writer could understand.” Non-writers glaze over in the face of our whinging. Even if they’re too polite to say it, there’s this sense they’re thinking: “What’s so hard about writing? Anybody could do that. I wish I could stay home in my pajamas and play on the computer all day.”
In all fairness, there’s a certain justice to that. I’ve talked before about what I call “the myth of the suffering writer.” We definitely can take ourselves too seriously—our melodramatic existential blocks, our laziness in the face of the the blinking cursor, and our insistence that the process of writing will never be easy, can never be easy, should never be easy.
I can attest that the process of writing gets easier with time, patient practice, and gradual mastery.
So why are we still whining?
Because the difficult intricacies of the craft aren’t really what scare us witless, are they? The scariest part of writing—the part that never really gets less scary—is the inherent risk of writing our guts out every single day.
And yet, if you want to write anything worthwhile, on either a technical or thematic level, you have to be willing to take risks with your writing.
The Riskiness of Good Art
Art that is safe is art that doesn’t matter.
Safe writing doesn’t challenge the reader, and it certainly doesn’t challenge the writer. This is true on so many levels: personally, socially, even commercially. Safe writing is stagnant writing. Where the art is stagnant, so too is the society.
Even just stating that feels a little scary, a little risky. Writers are just humans, after all. We like to be safe. We like to be able to control our worlds, our lives, our beliefs, and other people’s beliefs about us. For many of us, our writing is our safe spot—or started out that way. We started writing in private, perhaps for fun, perhaps for catharsis, but in the understanding that our words were sacred secrets held between us and the page. No risk involved.
But time goes on. People begin to read our words. They begin to learn about us through our words. More than, that we begin to learn about ourselves through our words. The page is no longer a silent receptacle. It is a reverberating challenge to ourselves: be honest, be brave.
You can either stop your ears to that challenge and close off the call of life itself. Or you can rise to it and seek to take risks with your writing that may leave you feeling unsafe but that will also spur you to greater growth as individuals—and, by extension, give you the opportunity to share that growth with your communities.
5 Ways to Take Risks With Your Writing
Sounds exciting, right? But… how do you do this? What does it mean to take risks with your writing? Does it mean dramatizing your most embarrassing moments? Villainizing problematic family members? Spouting only your most radical ideas and beliefs? Choosing vulgar language and situations just for shock value?
Maybe. But probably not. Taking risks with your writing is actually a pretty precise science. Hanya Yanagihara put it all in a nutshell in his essay “Writing for Right Now” in the anthology Light the Dark:
Whether it’s plot, or characterization, or structure, or a voice, or the language, a book has to take risks with at least one thing.
1. Be Honest: Question the Narrative—Your Own and the Story’s
Frankly, sometimes they don’t. But as the science of character arcs teaches us so clearly, the only way to move forward in life is to be willing to abandon the comfortable Lies in favor of the oft-painful Truths.
Being honest on the page begins by being honest with yourself. I am coming to see that, really, this is the whole journey of life. Could it be that in giving us life, God also gives to each of us a great gift—a great mission? That gift is ourselves—and that mission is finding ourselves.
Your job on this earth is to find yourself. No one else can find you. Others can see you, learn from you, love you, use you as a mirror in finding themselves. But no one else can find you. You are here to find yourself. It is one of the most important things you can ever do, because you are the only person who can do it.
The only way to do this is to be honest with yourself—about who you are, what you want, why you want it, and what you believe.
Your view of life is the single most important thing you bring to your fiction.
From that springs the further honesty of telling honest stories. Choose your narratives, your premises, your genres because they are yours, not because they are familiar and easy. In these days of commercial pressure to conform to popular genres and narratives, this in itself can sometimes feel inherently risky. And that’s just the beginning.
So when I say “never write the same book twice,” I’m not saying you have to reinvent yourself with every new story. You like writing procedural mysteries? Keep writing ’em.
But don’t settle for the familiar. You should be risking something new with every book. If you’re taking the same risk in this book that you took in the last, you’re not pushing yourself. Even as you try to satisfy readers, you want to be putting them ever so slightly off their guard with each new book. Don’t ever give them exactly what they expect.
Curiously (or not), a majority of the books and movies I love most passionately were those to which I initially had a knee-jerk negative reaction. And yet with a little time and re-reading/watching, I not only learned to appreciate the unexpected in these stories, I came to love them. In his Light the Dark essay “Music for Misfits,” Mark Haddon observed:
I think it was Jean Cocteau who said fashion is what seems right now and wrong later. Art is what seems wrong now and right later. Great art has the slight discomfort to start with. It takes you a while to think, Yeah, this is right. I just didn’t realize that it was right at the time.
It feels this way because good art is innovative art. It is not what we initially expect. It takes time for us to adjust our expectations. “Bad” art, on the other hand, is what we initially expect, in the sense that we’ve been there before. It’s familiar and therefore often cliched. It’s not risky. It’s very, very safe. And as a result, it’s ultimately forgettable.
3. Be More: Look Beyond the Mere Gratification of Fiction
I write for pleasure. I write for gratification. I write for escape. I write for catharsis. If I didn’t get these things from my writing, perhaps I wouldn’t write at all. They’re important. But if I lose myself too deeply in them, I risk writing stories that are not only self-indulgent but probably vapid.
You must challenge yourself to consciously seek a higher level of writing, a higher purpose. Please: write fun, entertaining stories. But don’t write just fun, entertaining stories. Use that simply as a launchpad for stories of greater depth, meaning, and honesty. This requires guts. It requires bravery. But it’s the doorway through which all great art enters.
Writing then, must feel risky in order to feel like life. I used to cringe when people talked about “brave” writing. I’d think, calm down, it’s not like you’re a fireman or a Special Forces commando. If the mission fails, just toss it in the wastebasket. But I do think, upon reflection, that there is a need to generate emotional risk, a sense of imminence, of danger, in order to transmit that aliveness to the page. This needn’t mean personal revelation or offensive language. Sometimes quiet, dense writing is the most deeply and complexly honest. Sometimes intellectual discourse is brave in our Twitter culture. Genuine and sincere emotion can be risky in a world of snark and irony. So can making silly jokes about matters our society regards with sanctimonious seriousness. Sometimes it is just a matter of a writer doing what she does not yet know how to do, speaking about something he does not yet understand. The risk of ambitious failure.
4. Be Rebellious: Never Follow the Rules Blindly
I pledge allegiance to the writing rules. I love them, and they love me back. But our relationship is not that of a dictator to his slave. It is a vibrant, evolving relationship of constant interchange, a dialogue of learning and refining.
In short: it’s a good idea to follow the rules, but never follow them blindly. Questions are our greatest tool in this life. Question the rules and keep questioning until you find the right question that leads you to the right answer—a full and personal understanding of your craft.
Where have the principles of story theory come from? Why is it that the patterns of structure and character arc are the way they are? (Or are they?) How do you see story? What patterns, archetypes, and symbols are most powerful and pertinent for you? Why?
Occasionally, I watch Michael Tucker’s great YouTube channel Lessons From the Screenplay. Recently, he posted thoughtfully about why it is that some writers reject the idea of classic structure, find it confining, even condemn it as formulaic. The answers he came up with were deeply personal to him and, as a result, usefully honest to everyone else who watched his video. Although he more or less ends by confirming the same ideas of story theory, he did it in a way that was intensely personal to him. He’s a perfect example of a writer who embraces the “rules” from a place of understanding rather following them blindly.
The Avengers — Defining an Act - YouTube
5. Be Committed: Don’t Give Up
Sometimes the riskiest part of writing is just doing it. Showing up at your desk every day, going to that raw honest place inside yourself, putting words on paper with the utmost of your own ability—that takes guts. That takes commitment.
In the course of writing our lengthy first drafts—before anyone else even sees them—we face down our own doubts about the worth of what we’re doing. We struggle with our inadequacies. We admit our fears about sharing these dangerously vulnerable parts of ourselves with others.
And then we let others actually read what we’ve written—and some of them love it and some of them hate it. We have to deal with the fallout. In the harsh light of new realities, we face new truths about ourselves—as people and as writers. We pick up the pieces, we try again, we fail again, we fail better.
It is a life of risk. But we do it because we must. It is the only way to reach for our potential, the only way to live our lives to the utmost, the only way to give all we have to give to our world.
Perhaps it is impossible to write and not risk. Perhaps even if we are trying our best to protect ourselves and only write what is safe, we are still inevitably risking something—some part of ourselves that trickles around the edges of our defenses.
But today I challenge you—I challenge myself—to write every word with honesty, innovation, bravery, awareness, and commitment. Let’s risk.