Fear is what the character is afraid of most. Many stories involve an act of overcoming. The character finds him or herself in an increasingly uncomfortable or dangerous situation, and the story is about extrication from that situation and reaching one that the character wants. But to get there, the character must struggle, must face inner and outer hindrances and obstacles. The journey towards the goal steels the character for the moment of confrontation. Since the worst obstacles are the ones we fear most, the character must face and overcome his or her worst fear. In a word, what is this character most scared of? This needs to be established near the beginning of the story.
Certain universals are feared by almost everyone. Such as death.
If a character in a story has loved ones, losing them is an even stronger fear.
A story engages the audience or readers more strongly when there is something valuable at stake for the character, such as his or her own life or that of a loved one. So giving a character a universal fear is usually a good place to start.
Giving a character a specific fear to overcome requires this information to be placed early in the narrative. The fear is then faced at a crisis point in the story, usually the midpoint or the climax.
Characters can have specific fears. A fear which is specific to one character must be set up early in the story, so that the audience or reader is aware of it. When the moment comes that the character must face their fear, the audience remembers that they already knew about this fear. If the author has not dropped this bit of knowledge prior to the point when it becomes relevant, the audience will not react as intensely. This is an example of a storytelling technique known as set-up/pay-off. The surface structure of a good story will be full of set-ups that are paid off later in the narrative. Sometimes the technique is called foreshadowing.
A specific fear can be concrete. Indiana Jones hates snakes, as we learn in the opening of the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. Of course he has to enter a snake pit later. Winston Smith is mortally afraid of rats, the narrator tells us early in 1984. Of course the Party knows this and ends up using this knowledge to torture Winston most effectively.
Note that the snakes provide a dramatic scene, but not Indy’s biggest crisis. For Winston, the fear of rats is so great that it provides the climax of the story.
A character’s specific fear can also be the loss of a quality they hold dear, such as their reputation or their honour. Such a fear can be a powerful motivator to action, and can produce moments of dramatic power when the quality is endangered or the fear has to be faced.
The fear may be an expression of the internal problem. As such, the character may not even be aware of his or her fear. It is nonetheless important that the audience or readers become aware of it. For instance, it may be a fair to say that the title character of Tootsie fears genuine emotional relationships with women, or in short, fears women. By “becoming” one himself, he deals with and overcomes his fear.
I’ve been thinking a lot about dialogue lately, because when it’s done poorly, it pulls me right out of the story. There are a lot of issues that contribute to weak dialogue: incorrect mechanics, stilted speech, characters calling each other repeatedly by name (Hi, Bob. Hey, Mary. Could you help me with this, Bob? Sure thing, Mary!)…The list goes on. But instead of talking today about the wrong parts of our characters’ conversations, I want to focus on an important element that’s often missing: tension.
Tension is that gut-curdling, oh-crap feeling you get when you realize trouble’s coming. It’s the rising emotion that emerges at the onset or even the barest hint of conflict. Tension is incredibly important because it stirs the reader’s emotion and builds their interest. It should exist in every scene, and an easy way to add it is through our characters’ verbal interactions.
Think about recent conversations—verbal or written—that have generated tension for you. They probably come to mind pretty quickly. This is because every person is different, and when these differences manifest in our communication, it can result in misunderstandings that lead to heightened emotion. The same should be true for our characters. So if you’re looking for ways to up the tension in a scene, plan any verbal exchanges thoughtfully by incorporating one or more of the following elements.
At her core, who is your character, and how does she communicate? Maybe she’s very efficient—a fixer who quickly and accurately analyzes and applies information. Now suppose she’s talking to someone with a disorganized mind and rambling conversational style. This can cause frustration for your character, who just wants her friend to get to the point already. She responds by cutting him off, or nods her head impatiently while he’s talking. This triggers the friend’s defenses, putting him on edge. When you build your cast with personality and the potential for conflict in mind, those tension landmines are easy to set.
Characters often have conflicting story and scene goals, but what about opposing goals in conversations? We do this all the time in real life—talking to people with a subconscious objective in mind. Your protagonist might be communicating with someone because they want to be heard and appreciated. But what if the other party just wants to prove they’re right? Each character will try and guide the conversation toward what they want, and someone—maybe both parties—will be thwarted. When even our small goals are threatened, our emotions kick in, so this can be a good way to add tension to a scene.
Emotions in Play
We’ve all experienced this situation: you start a conversation with someone who, out of nowhere, bites your head off. Upon closer examination, you realize that the person was upset about something that had nothing to do with you. This universal scenario can be used in our stories. Pile on the emotional baggage just before an interaction, then sit back and watch the sparks fly.
Our insecurities hobble us all the time. We’re sensitive to certain kinds of comments or tones and read unintended meaning into harmless banter. Think about how this might play out with your character. What are his insecurities—in general, but also regarding this particular person or situation? How might they impact him in an upcoming conversation?
How often have you engaged in conversation with an expectation in mind for what the other person will say or how it’s going to go? Sometimes our biases are confirmed, but just as often, they taint our interactions, dooming them to failure before they even begin. We may have a chip on our shoulder that sets a negative tone for the entire exchange. Expecting certain things, we might read into what the other person is saying, misconstruing their true meaning or intent. When it comes to your character, ask yourself: Is there any bias he might bring into this conversation that could result in misunderstanding?
Maybe you’ve heard the old saying about the word assume: it makes an ass out of u and me. How many arguments and mix-ups have come about because of incorrect assumptions? How can we apply this common occurrence in our stories? Think about what knowledge your protagonist may take for granted—something they think the other person knows or doesn’t know. Or maybe they believe that the person shares their opinion about a certain topic when they really think the opposite. How might assumptions like these cause a conversation to go south?
Your protagonist might begin a scene with great intentions, expecting to enjoy a happy chat with one of their favorite people. And everything is fine—until that person starts doing something that grates on your character’s nerves. Frequent interruptions, talking with their mouth full, listening while checking their email, consistently mispronouncing a certain word—it could be literally anything that drives your character bonkers. What might that thing be for your protagonist? What quirks can you give the other party to add an element of tension to the conversation?
A character’s culture is going to impact their communication style, determining what is acceptable and what isn’t, what’s respectful and what’s offensive. Gestures, eye contact, word choices, personal space—these things vary from one locale to another. Your character’s ignorance about these factors could result in all kinds of fallout, from busted business deals and problems at work to the death of a budding romance. This is definitely something to keep in mine in a multi-cultural cast.
I’ve saved this one for last because it plays a very subtle part in most conversations, but it’s so understated, we don’t always pick up on it. Subtext is what you really mean, as opposed to what you say. It’s saying He seems nice when what you really mean is He is a tool of the highest order. We’re not always 100% honest with our words, and the same should be true of our characters. When we take the time to figure out what they really think or want to hide, we end up with interactions that are realistic and nuanced. And the potential for tension and conflict are huge.
These are just some of the elements that can contribute to misunderstandings and tension in our characters’ conversations. Regardless of which you choose to explore, there’s one thing they all have in common: unrealized expectations. The protagonist expects Character B to share her beliefs, want what she wants, have a base of knowledge on which to build, or communicate the same way. When these expectations are shattered, it sets her back on her heels and triggers frustration, embarrassment, hurt, and a range of other emotions. So figure out what your character expects out of a conversation, then block her, and tension is sure to follow.
(Almost) Everything I Know About Writing Fiction I Learned From the Newspapers
Award-winning author Erica Plouffe Lazure walks through everything a newspaper has to offer fiction writers—from the truly unbelievable to examining the full arc of a person’s life to help shape the lives of those on the page.
The former Washington Post publisher Phil Graham once said that journalism is the “first rough draft of history,” and anyone who’s delved into newspaper archives in their local library knows this to be true. But perhaps journalism—and community journalism, in particular—has the potential to be a “first rough draft” of fiction.
When someone says “you can’t make this stuff up,” it’s because the strangest stuff is oftentimes true. Where else, but in the May 22, 1990, edition of the Lodi (Ca.) News-Sentinel, can you read about the fate of the Lady Flames softball team, or which Muppets sang at Jim Henson’s funeral, or that the theme for the new teen Queen of the International Order of Job’s Daughters, Bethel No. 276, was “A friend, like a star, is a gift of love sent by the Lord from Heaven above.”? Any writer in search of authentic details to build their characters, or to write about a particular era or region, would find what they need in a local newspaper. And as access to print issues wane, many libraries are transferring old issues into digitized and searchable newspaper archives.
I have never been to Lodi, California, but their digitized issue of the daily News-Sentinel (which I stumbled upon at random) provides a novel’s worth of storytelling. We discover that Lodi in 1990 (beyond the song made famous by Credence Clearwater Revival) needs bilingual teachers in Vietnamese, Cantonese, Punjabi, and Arabic. An op-ed columnist who quips about farmers feeding newspapers to their cows expresses a broader concern for the region’s dairy industry. And it turns out that streetsweeper safety is so worrisome that the local DPW, claiming that the “rotating brushes of a streetsweeper could squash a copper penny,” decides to host a student safety awareness program.
Any of these articles could make great starter seeds for a story, but even beyond these headlines, lesser-read sections of newspapers are loaded with potential. Often viewed as “filler” by both editors and readers alike, these sections are true gems in the rough when it comes to developing characters, sourcing local voices, and contemplating story arc. Let’s dig in:
The Lodi classifieds provide a fascinating crosscut of a community, both its interests and its values as well as its oddities. Consider what kind of character might post (or respond to!) this job listing:
AUTOMOTIVE SALESPERSON WANTED Must have neat appearance and be aggressive
This ad calls to mind Ernest Hemingway’s famous “six-word story,” which borrows from the classified ad format: “For sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn.” Like the Hemingway story, what is unstated in these lines is as poignant as what is on the page.
Long before Craigslist and eBay, newspaper classifieds were a vast and peculiar cross-pollination of local economy, quirky regional culture, and ecumenical desire. For about four dollars a day, you could sell your Baldwin Acrosonic spinet piano, or buy bales of red oat hay (presumably for the newspaper-eating cows), or offer thanks to St. Jude via a Novena. Lost dogs and lockets, babysitting gigs, non-smoking accountants, and a “Christian certified massage therapist” all have a home in Lodi’s classifieds.
A fiction writer could consider why someone needs to sell a piano, or question what’s so special about “red oat” hay? And what exactly would Ramona, the “Christian” massage therapist, do for $30 an hour?
Mostly it’s people in crisis who write to advice columnists like Dear Abby and Ann Landers, and inadvertently offer any writer a near-ready made story. In the May 22 issue of the News-Sentinel, for example, Ann Landers published a letter from someone who’d been wrongfully accused of stealing a flute from a friend in 1977. Thirteen years later, in 1990, the writer still holds a grudge against the band director, who never admitted the error.
As a fiction writer, I have questions: What was the fight with the friend about? What’s the deal with the band director? What instrument does the writer play? And who found the flute in the pawn shop two weeks later?
While Ann Landers tells the writer, “You can’t saw sawdust” in chasing after an apology, a writer could certainly reconfigure these parameters into a fiction.
Anyone in need of a character jump-start should look no further than the horoscopes crafted by Jeane Dixon. Dixon’s rise as an astrologer in the 1960s came on the heels of her prediction of JFK’s assassination, and her widely syndicated daily column dutifully parsed out a few sentences for all 12 zodiac signs for well over four decades. The potential here is storytelling gold.
Consider this horoscope from May 22, 1990:
Libra (Sept. 23-Oct. 22): Thwarting influences may upset your regular morning routine. Curb a tendency to think of “I” instead of “us.” Teamwork will help you perform miracles. Avoid financial risks. Loved one shares a secret.
Whether you believe in astrology or not, it’s clear how the constellation of elements in this Libran’s tiny cosmos might form a story. For starters, what is this character’s routine and what would thwart it?
Maybe her girlfriend reveals a financial secret, and their conversation makes her late for work. Her boss relegates her to do inventory in the stockroom, rather than attend an important meeting with the sales team. A colleague invites her to the group lunch (against the boss’s wishes), and asks if she wants in on the Super Bowl kitty that weekend—$100 to play. At first, she says no, but then, thinking about her girlfriend’s financial issues, opts to join in at the last minute.
And then what happens? Just add water and stir!
An editor at my hometown paper, the Southbridge Evening News, once said that community journalism is important because it’s in the local paper where its citizens are literally “born” (through a birth announcement) and “die” (through an obituary).
As a fiction writer, combing through the obituaries helps you think meaningfully about the arc of a life story, how one life event leads to and shapes the next, and provides a window into the larger world and the generation in which this person lived, the choices they made, the places they worked and activities they loved, and those they left in their wake.
It is an entire biography and family tree, encapsulated in a few hundred words, and in the hands of the right writer, could easily anchor a fictional story.
News in Brief
Local newspapers often teem with “good news” tidbits that a fiction writer could co-opt for creative purposes. Consider Dan Peeler* of Ripon, California, named “Lab Person of the Year” by the California Water Pollution Control Association. At first glance, he leads a fairly normal life: college educated, married with three kids, and is a lifelong resident of Ripon.
But then, we learn that not only does Peeler have dual Swiss and American citizenships, and holds four state bench-pressing records, he also plays saxophone and clarinet in TWO local polka bands and competes regularly in Swiss wrestling matches. I don’t think I could make up a character with such intriguing underpinnings, and yet this small news item about a man receiving an award provides a perfect frame from which a fictionalized story might be crafted.
*I changed his name slightly, to protect his identity
Like most kids, I was always drawn to newspaper comics. As a writer, what I now appreciate about comics is the form’s sense of sequence and pacing when it comes to storytelling. Writers have lots to learn from graphic novels and the “funny pages,” as far as selecting key scenes, crafting succinct dialog, and accounting for our characters’ surroundings, physical attributes, and personalities.
If you’re stuck on your story, check out the comics page or a graphic novel and study it as an exercise in sequence and visual language. Then try sketching out your story, panel by panel, and see what key scenes surface. What dialog do you use? What do you scrap? What are your characters holding in their hands? What are their surroundings like?
I promise, you’ll learn a lot about your storytelling by drawing it out, and studying comics provides a great model for how to do just that.
Beyond the Headlines
For decades, local print newspapers were the center of their communities, and while many are slowly dying out or going online, their archives can bring an era and a region back to life. I first got my start in newspapers back in fifth grade, as a paper girl, and ended up as a reporter in smaller daily papers in Massachusetts and North Carolina.
There I learned firsthand the challenges and joys of getting to know a community, not only by listening to and observing the people I met, but also by attending their pancake dinners, city council meetings, and ribbon cuttings. As I’ve moved away from journalism and toward fiction, the particulars of what people are interested in and care about—what motivates someone to pen a letter to the editor, or post a classified ad, what moves them act—continue to find their way into my fiction.
If you’re lucky enough to live in an area where a small-town paper still exists, please consider subscribing or picking up an issue to see what’s making headlines—you never know what stories you’ll find lurking inside, waiting to be (re)told.
Erica Plouffe Lazure is the author of the New American Fiction Prize-winning collection, PROOF OF ME AND OTHER STORIES(March 24, 2022; New American Press), as well as two flash fiction chapbooks, Sugar Mountain (Ad Hoc Press, 2020) and Heard Around Town (Arcadia, 2015), and a fiction chapbook, Dry Dock (Red Bird, 2014). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, the Greensboro Review, The MacGuffin, Carve Magazine, Phoebe, Meridian, Iron Horse Review, American Short Fiction, The Journal of Micro Literature, Fiction Southeast, Southeast Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Flash: the International Short-Short Story Magazine (UK), and elsewhere. She is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars, East Carolina University’s MA in creative writing, and UMass-Amherst. She has taught English at East Carolina University, Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, NH, and at School Year Abroad in Viterbo, Italy. You can visit her online at ericaplouffelazure.com.
The stake is the danger or risk involved for a character. The character has a goal, and things he or she needs to do in order to achieve it. The character feels that by achieving the goal he or she will attain the want. But so what? How badly does the character want the want? What if the character does not reach the goal? What will happen if the character fails? How bad can that be? In general story terms, the worse the better. If the character has nothing to lose by failing, then he or she has nothing to worry about, and the reader/audience has nothing to care about. In a nutshell: what’s at stake?
You’re on a boat, and you see somebody fall into the water. Which of the following two cases would cause you to react with stronger emotion?
The water is four feet deep and you know that the guy who fell in is a good swimmer
The water is four feet deep and the person who fell in is a three year old girl who can’t swim
Presumably your emotional reaction would be stronger if the child fell off the boat. Because you know that the child’s life is at stake. The first situation is not life-threatening, the only thing at stake is the dryness of the man’s clothes and his self-esteem.
The degree you care about events that happen to people, and to yourself, is directly related to what’s at stake. This applies as much to fictional characters as in the real world.
Hence it is immensely important for storytellers to impart to their audience or readers how threatening the problems are that the characters face. The audience or reader must know what is at stake for the character. What have they got to lose? Their life? Their soul? Their mobile phone?
The risk to life and limb may be apparent from the beginning, when the problems are set up. Alternatively, the scale of the threat may increase or become more specific as the story progresses. When the threat is immediate – rather than heralded for the future – the audience or reader is more likely to respond emotionally.
What must not happen is that the level of risk, threat or danger decreases as the story goes on. What’s at stake is about the turn of the screw: at first the pain is not so great, but with each stage of the story journey the pain grows more intense. For the character, and with that for the audience or reader.
That’s why in many stories the family of the protagonist is dragged into danger, usually by a nasty antagonist. The protagonist has already risked his or her life, so how does the author increase what is at stake? Threaten the spouse or child. Then what is at stake may be greater than life because, of course, a hero loves his or her family more than life itself.
Often the stakes are basic. Certain issues recur in stories because they have resonating effects within us as a species, such as survival (the necessity of food or shelter, threats to life), procreation (the omniscience of sex), or community (protecting the clan, family or home). However, what’s at stake does not have to be as universal as life and death. It is possible for an author to set up a stake and load it with meaning in the context of the story. So the stake can be something very specific to a particular character. If, say, it becomes clear early in the story that the character lives in fear of losing his or her good reputation, then that can be the stake. In Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, for example, Torvald’s action hinges on his perceived need to maintain his reputation. It might not be something the audience or reader worries about too much for him or herself, but it helps them to understand the character’s motivation if the author has established a character-specific stake. In other words, the stake does not have to be physical life or death, but may mean the equivalent of emotional or spiritual death; the person, thing or quality a character has invested the meaningfulness of his or her life into might be at stake. In Torvald’s case, the choice of investment is also his internal problem.
If a character has a prized possession, such as Linus’ security blanket, then losing it could be at stake. Indeed, a McGuffin can have this function; it is something valuable the protagonist attains, and its loss could be the stake, for example the Bodyguard’s ward.
A character does not even necessarily have to be aware of what is at stake. But the audience or reader must know. Otherwise, why should they care?
The stake is what the character has to lose, what is at risk in case of failure, and must be communicated to the audience in order to arouse empathy.
One of the things I love most about being an author is the opportunity to read books from people I personally know. I have read fabulous books by authors whom readers have yet to discover, and despite efforts with marketing, despite amazing blurbs from bestselling authors, despite an enviable collection of awards, they have yet to make their name known.
And I have witnessed some of these authors give up.
That’s the most heartbreaking thing. They did the hard, time-consuming work of developing their craft. They learned the business of writing. They made the necessary connections. They. Did. The. Work.
But…it can be hard to keep writing, when book after book gets rejection after rejection, or you just aren’t seeing the sales you hoped to see. That dream of recreating one of your books on a private island like your very own Harry Potter world? It keeps sailing off into the horizon while you’re stuck paddling after it with one oar.
Recently, my husband made me listen to a Joe Rogan podcast. Dave Chappelle was his guest and I, not being super familiar with either comedian, didn’t expect to get much out of the episode.
Then they mentioned The Anonymous Road.
The Anonymous Road
It always amazes me how closely different types of creatives’ journeys follow each other. If you were to put an author, a comedian, a painter, a potter, a singer, and an actor in the same room, we’d find common ground in under ten minutes.
So I really should not have been surprised to find myself intensely engaged in Rogan and Chappelle’s conversation.
The anonymous road–brought up in Rogan’s podcast episode #1647–is that time in which an artist, be they comedian, author, or singer, performs to an empty room. Rogan and Chappelle mentioned ten to fifteen years of walking this road.
Ten to fifteen years. For two incredibly successful and well-known creatives.
And they said this road was essential to their success.
Without this road, they wouldn’t have had the freedom to discover who they were as an artist. This road allowed them to develop their craft in a safe space. The road allowed them to fail, start over, fail again, start over again.
For those artists who leaped over the anonymous road into instant fame, many of them lacked the depth or tenacity to survive as lifelong comedians or artists.
Depth comes after time. Tenacity comes after testing. Success comes after perseverance.
It can be hard, especially after the worldwide disruption that has taken place this past year, to keep up with creative pursuits. Some days, I only write a sentence and a half before I’m called away to take care of all the other. I have to constantly remind myself that this is an extraordinary time in every sense of the word, and that it is okay to take a rest stop on the side of the anonymous road.
With that in mind, I find encouragement in these stories. I hope you do as well.
The Journey to Success
Carmen Herrera is 103 years old, and has been a minimalist abstract artist since the 1950s. However she wasn’t ‘discovered’ until 2014, some sixty years after beginning her career. Today, her art is installed in collections around the world.
Diana Galbadon started out as a comic book writer in the late 1970s, before transitioning to an educational career, then eventually back to writing. OUTLANDER was published in 1991, and won the RITA that same year for best romance novel. However it took another twenty-three years for the book to hit the New York Times Bestseller list, the same year the Outlander TV series premiered in the US.
Morgan Freeman began acting at nine years old, landing his first role in a school play. However, he didn’t land his breakout role until forty-one years later in “Street Smart” in 1987. It took another seventeen years for Freeman to win his first Academy Award for “Million Dollar Baby,” in 2004.
Lizzo, rapper, singer, songwriter, and classically-trained flutist, began her musical career in 2005 while in high school. However, she didn’t see commercial success until 2016, eleven years after making the commitment to a creative life.
Your Anonymous Road
There is no set time for how long this road is. Maybe you’ll see instant success but have to journey the road afterward. Maybe you’ve been on this road without even realizing it. Most likely, you’ve stomped your feet on the road, kicked and screamed at it, and/or thrown a few rocks.
Challenge yourself to instead thank the road. Its purpose has been well documented from artists across a wide variety of creative genres and is essential. This is the time of deepening. Savor these years and recognize them for what they are. You’re in the womb of creativity, and are still developing all the amazing parts that make up your artist voice.
N.K. Jemisin says in her Masterclass series that one of the best pieces of writing advice she received was “Persist.” She goes on to say that, “if you continue to work on your craft and continue to improve and continue to submit, you will eventually break through. I’ve found this to be true.”
Persist, people. And in the meantime, love the anonymous journey.
P.S.: N.K Jemisin worked a full-time position as a career counselor for twenty years as she developed her author career. Her writing goals during that time? “I had very modest writing goals on work days—like 100 words, or 250, no more. I was perfectly OK with doing nothing but editing a previous chapter on those days, too.” Now she’s the only author to have won the Hugo award three times in a row, as well as the first to win the Hugo for all three novels in a trilogy.
The action is what the character does in response to the task. The action is usually the character’s attempt at solving the external problem. Action here refers to acting as in doing (not in the sense of pretending to on stage or screen, and not as in action-movies either). The reader/audience gets to know and care about a character through what the character does. Action might be representative of the archetype of which the character may be an example. This means that while a character does lots of things in a story (i.e. performs a succession of individual acts), there might be an overriding connection that can be summed up in one verb. As in, the good guy FIGHTS the bad guy. Usually the action leads to conflict, even if it is peaceful, like loving, because it is in opposition to another character’s action. Often for main characters, there is one central action which is indicative of their true nature. For a protagonist, such a key deed is well-placed in the centre of the story, at the midpoint.
So the old storytelling adage. What does that mean, exactly?
In this post, we’ll consider:
The central or pivotal action – the midpoint
Actions – what the character does
Character and Archetype
The central or pivotal action – the midpoint
More or less explicitly, the main character of a story is likely to have some sort of task to complete. The task is generally the verb to the noun of the goal – rescue the princess, steal the diamond. The character thinks that by achieving the goal, he or she will get what they want, which is typically a state free of a problem the character is posed at the beginning of the story.
The action is what, specifically, the character does in order to achieve the goal (rescue the princess, steal the diamond). In many cases, this action takes place in a central scene. Central not only in importance, but central in the sense of being in the middle.
Let’s look at some examples.
1. The Godfather
Micheal’s world is the mafia. One day, his father the Don gets shot. Then Michael wants to help the family. As a consequence, Michael shoots a rival mafioso and a police captain. Until at last, Michael is the new Godfather.
The pivotal and central action of The Godfather is the midpoint restaurant scene where Michael Corleone takes the irrevocable step of shooting the enemies of the family. It is a point of no return for him. It marks how he has abandoned his initial wish to be free of the family business, and has instead embarked on the path that will lead him to become the Godfather.
2. Star Wars – A New Hope
Luke’s world is set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. One day, he sees a message from a princess. Then Luke wants to help the princess. As a consequence, Luke breaks into the dungeon in Darth Vader’s Death Star. Until at last, Luke destroys the Death Star.
Stories are chains of cause and effect set off by trigger events, in Luke’s case, the “call” from Princess Leia. By finding her in that dungeon, Luke has achieved the want that seeing her image set up. The incident happens in the middle of the story, between the heroes’ being sucked into the Death Star and their escaping from it.
In the two examples above, the pivotal action is a consequence – via a chain of cause and effect – of the protagonist’s want. While it is highly advisable for authors to make the pivotal action a result of characters’ motivations, there are cases in which an outer force provides the central action. This is so in James Cameron’s version of the Titanic story. In general terms, the defining event in the story of the Titanic is the fact of the ship ramming the iceberg. James Cameron wisely places this major occurrence in the middle of the love story he weaves around it.
The central action tends to be a defining moment, in the case of the protagonist for the entire story. In the case of all main characters, their central action defines who they are at heart. Micheal Corleone is ruthless. Luke Skywalker is the fairy tale prince who rescues the princess. Protagonist Luke has a contrastor figure, Han Solo, whose defining moment comes at the climax when he returns to perform his central action by helping his friend Luke.
Actions – what the character does
If a character usually has some kind of task to perform, how does the character react to being set such a task? What does he or she do? These are the actions.
What exactly does the character do? The actions are “don the armour, ride the trusty steed to the dragon’s den and slay him (maybe)”. In a heist caper, the actions might be “persuade potential allies, plan the heist, attain the necessary gear, break into the house and the safe, and get away (maybe)”.
Notice the strength, the inherent “visibility” in the mind’s eye of these verbs. Actions are better seen than told. For the audience or reader to experience the actions as such, i.e. as an emotional experience, it is usually related in such a way as to allow perception of the action as an experienceable event, rather than a report. In other words: show, don’t tell.
As the story begins, there may be some reluctance to set forth about the task at all. This has become a bit of a Hollywood cliché – the detective is usually an ex-detective, who must first be persuaded to take on the case. That so many screenwriters build protagonist reluctance into the first act of their stories may be the result of a popular interpretation – we would say a misreading – of Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces.
Be that as it may, in a way it is only natural that the protagonist feel some reluctance. After all, the task ultimately arises out of a problem – and who likes problems? Most of us would prefer to stay in our cosy armchairs rather than embark on a perilous journey with unknown end or consequences.
It is, of course, quite possible to show reluctance without resorting to hackneyed story devices. Michael Corleone initially does not want to get involved in the family business. But he later shoots the gangster Sollozzo and police captain McCluskey anyway, because the story gives him plenty of reason to do so.
And while we’re on the subject of Campbell – once the character has overcome the reluctance, gotten out of the armchair comfort zone, and embarked on the story journey to perform the task, he or she will likely meet the first resistance. Campbell calls this the Threshold Guardian. Getting past this character or difficulty marks the beginning of the story proper. The protagonist is out of his usual environment and on the journey towards the goal.
The specific action the character performs in order to achieve the task is usually the response to the perceived need. In other words, once the problem and the potential solution, i.e. the task, are established, a way will usually be made apparent, a plan will be set forth. Sometimes, an entire plan is mapped out, as in a quest or heist story (cf. Lord of the Rings or Ocean’s Eleven). And sometimes, the way or the plan are no more than the first step on the story journey, the first clue in the chain of clues which, for example, will lead the detective to solving the case. The character has to find the way step by step. “What will you do now?” Indiana Jones is asked. His answer: “I don’t know, I’m making this up as I go.” Unlike the author, of course, who knows exactly what the character will do now.
Furthermore, stories are about characters needing to learn something in order to change. The best way to learn is to do. Doing is action, action is direct experience, and one learns best by experience. So it is more effective to show characters as learning something when they are active. Instead of waiting that things happen to them, active characters make decisions and try things out. Since learning implies changing, active characters tend to change more than passive ones, which is one more reason why passive characters are bad for stories.
Character and Archetype
We have said before that in story, action defines character. Take a step back to look at the overall story. You can see that the action the character takes to perform the task provides the story with an overriding verb. A direction, if you will. Try to describe the story in just one sentence (which you will have to when asked to provide a logline), and the sentence is likely to include the protagonist as subject and his or her action as predicate, i.e. verb. An adventurous archaeologist seeks an ancient religious artefact. When the father is shot, the son of a mafia boss must govern the family business.
Depending on how you express the action, you might find that the protagonist resembles an archetype. Luke Skywalker fights the forces of evil. During the course of the story, Luke becomes a warrior. Michael Corleone turns from the son, the prince, into the ruler of the family, into a father figure, into the (dark) patriarch.
“If character is the foreground of fiction, setting is the background,” the narrator of Writing Fiction tells us. But how do you create engaging settings that enhance your story? And how can the popular writing software, Scrivener, help you create setting sketches perfect for particular your story?
Illustration by Guy Moll (creative commons). Modified by The Write Practice.
People (and characters) are a product of their environment, for good or for ill. In order to write compelling stories that draw readers in, you have to not only know your setting intimately, but be able to manipulate that setting to bring out the best and worst in your characters.
A good setting can take on personality traits of its own, and some tend to think of a setting as another character in the story.
However, all settings have to start somewhere. In this post, we’ll go over a classic method to help you flesh out your settings early in the process so that they can become a vital part of your story.
What Is a Setting Sketch?
A setting sketch is an outline of a fictional place. What it looks like, smells like, feels like. You can discuss a setting objectively, as an author, through the lens of your own experiences, or you can take the same setting and examine it through the eyes of a character.
Settings also create an atmosphere and tone of your story. Horror stories are great examples of setting because they create an atmosphere of fear that is almost palpable; it’s what makes them, in their own unique way, such gripping stories, whether you’re working with a haunted house, a zombie apocalypse, or a ruined castle.
As with character sketches, I like to start with visuals using Scrivener’s cork board interface.
You might be wondering which should you work on first, your character sketches or your setting sketches?
Both character and setting sketches are fundamental to the planning phase of the creative writing process, but the order in which you tackle them is really up to you.
I’m of the mindset that you can do setting, character, or plot (which we’ll talk about next week) in any order that makes the most sense to you. Play to your own strengths.
One of the points I’ll be emphasizing as we go through this series is that you should develop your own process, and adjust these tactics and tools to fit your style.
Using Template Sheets in Scrivener for Setting Sketches
We went over how to use template sheets in Scrivener last week for character sketches. Using template sheets for setting sketches is exactly the same. In fact, you can put as many template sheets as you want in Scrivener, so if you need multiple setting sketches to look at a particlar setting from the points of view of each character, the world is your oyster.
Sidenote: I reference Scrivener’s features and include screenshots of the software, but you can still use these methods without Scrivener. Simply create a separate text file for each character and keep them in a folder named “My Story – Character Sketches.” If you’re interested in Scrivener, Joe reviewed it here.
Visualize Your Setting
Start with a notecard for each setting in your story. If the whole story takes place in one room in one house, you might only have a single card. More likely though, your story takes place in multiple settings.
Try to be as specific as possible with your locations. Instead of “New York City,” name your card “The Village” or, even better, “Artichoke Pizza in the Village.” The more specific your setting, the more likely it is to come to life.
Once you have all your setting notecards set up, go out and find a single image that feels like your setting. There can be discrepancies between what you see in the photo you choose, and the actual setting in your story. The idea isn’t to find a photo that represents your story in every way possible, but to capture the spirit of that particular location so that you have a place to start your sketch.
If you find it necessary to use more than one photo, you can add more inside the Scrivenings view of a particular setting, where you’ll be doing the sketch itself.
Write About Your Setting
Now for the fun part: open up a setting and start writing.
Here’s a screenshot of what the default template sheet for a setting sketch looks like in Scrivener. I’ve filled it out with one of the settings in my novel:Pin
Aim for 500+ words. Any more than that, I find, is icing on the cake. But any less than that and you may find yourself coming back to the sketch to flesh it out more as you write. That’s okay. Better to have it and not need it than the other way around.
An Alternate Setting Sketch Template
Here’s an alternate setting sketch template you may use in your writing practice. This is my preferred setting sketch, and I keep it in a separate template file I created for any future novel or short story I create.Pin
What I like about this version, compared to Scrivener’s default, is that it’s less prescriptive and more free form. It leaves room for the imagination to run wild, cuing you with suggestions rather than specific questions. For example, you see in the default sketch above, the label “season”? All I wrote there was “summer.” That wasn’t important to my story, so it was really just a waste of a label. In my sketch below, I’ve combined “Weather & Seasons,” as I find that there is a lot of information to mine with both those categories, whereas a season alone isn’t very significant in the stories I want to tell.
Maybe this will change over time. You have two options here, so mix and match until you find what works for you.
Setting Sketch Checklist
How do you know when you’re setting sketch is done? Again (the nail is in, stop hammering!), that depends on your own unique process. You’re done when you think you can squeeze any more juice out of the setting you’re working on.
Just in case you’re still not sure, here’s a checklist you can run through that may help you out. Consider each of your setting sketches and ask yourself:
What unique atmosphere does this setting evoke?
What important role does this setting play in the story?
Would my story be the same if I changed this setting? Why or why not?
Go through the weather patterns: rain, wind, snow, hot, cold, humid—what about this setting is consistent in each type of weather? What about this setting is inconsistent?
What year is it in this setting? Why does that matter?
How has this setting influences each of your characters?
The perceived need is what the character believes she or he needs in order to reach the goal. If the goal is the apparent thing that ought to be achieved in order to solve the external problem, then there may well be certain knowledge, objects or people that the character needs to find or attain first in order to reach the goal. A character may have to do a number of things before it is possible to reach the goal. Attaining these needs marks stages or phases of the story journey. What stages are there in this story?
A character with a goal needs to do something in order to reach it.
The outward needs of a character – things she needs to acquire or achieve in order to reach the goal – divide the story journey into stages.
In storytelling, characters usually know they have a problem and there is usually something they want. They tend to set themselves a goal which they believe will solve their problem and get them what they want.
In order to get to the goal, the character will need something. Some examples: If the goal is a place, a means of transportation is necessary to get there. If we can’t rob the bank alone, we’ll have to persuade some allies to join our heist. If the goal is defeating a dragon, then some weapons would be helpful. If magic is needed, we’ll have to visit the magician to pick some up.
While the perceived need might be an object or a person, it usually requires an action. We’ll need a car, so do we buy one or steal one? We’ll need a sword, so do we pull one out of a stone or go to the blacksmith? If we need help, who do we ask and how do we talk them into joining us? We’ll need magic, but how do we find a magician? Ask an elf or go to the oracle for advice?
So, once the goal is set, a vision of the way to reach it opens up to the protagonist – and with that to the audience/reader. At the very least, the first step of the way presents itself. All this is what the character is conscious of.
In other words, the character forms a plan.
The plan is communicated more or less explicitly to the audience. The anticipation of how things will not go quite according to plan is part of the pleasure. There must always be surprises in store for the characters as well as for the audience.
Stages and Obstacles
The perceived needs are external insofar as they are plot requirements to solving the external problem. There are two things to note about all this. Firstly, the character is aware that she or he will first do this, may then do that and possibly the other after that. Secondly, we are setting up stages or legs of the story journey – for the character, for the audience/reader, and for the author to write.
The story therefore consists, on the surface at least, of the main character reaching the goal by going through several stages of a journey. The story journey is the way to the goal, which involves the character overcoming obstacles on the way. Each stage of the journey contains at least one obstacle. And typically, the obstacles get harder and harder to overcome as the journey goes on.
Quest and heist stories tend to announce many of the stages of such a story journey in advance, including the needs the characters perceive. Often this announcement of what is to come makes the story world feel more believable, because some of its components have been set up before they are actually reached. In The Lord Of The Rings, the journey the characters must set out on and some of the troubles they will encounter on the way are literally mapped out before they set off. In Ocean’s Eleven, the audience is presented the plan of how the robbery will be carried out, or at least part of it, before watching this set of actions being performed. The fun is seeing what goes wrong and not according to plan. In many other genres, the stages of the journey may not be announced in such a direct way, and may come as a surprise as much to the characters as to the audience. But there is always a succession of perceived needs.
We have suggested that the story journey – the plan, the chain of perceived needs that is the way to the goal – is part of the surface structure of the story. Surface essentially means what the main character is conscious of. Beneath the surface, there may be a whole load of other things going on, starting with the internal problems of the characters. Of course, the author may be interested in exploring all sorts of other fields of meaning, using devices such as metaphor, allegory, symbolism, etc. In terms of dramaturgy, the surface structure amounts to plot and the deep structure to character development, i.e. what the character learns and how she changes because of this.
In other words, the surface structure is not necessarily what makes the story interesting. Nonetheless, every story needs such a surface structure. In order to make a story deep and meaningful, you must have the story. Once the author has that, she or he is able to imbue the plot and the actions of the characters with all sorts of depth and resonance. But without characters doing things, and through these actions forming a plot, the text will remain just that: a text. Such a text might be an intellectual masterpiece. But it won’t be an emotionally engaging story.
To add a deep structure to a story, it helps if the characters have emotional needs.
You can’t write a great story if you don’t master plot and structure. But what is the best structure for a novel? How do you plot a novel?
Figuring out your plot structure is essential for your story’s success. Even if you have an exciting idea for a story, great characters, and a memorable setting, you still need to put your protagonist through events that have high and escalating stakes, and structure them for maximum effect.
If you want to write a great story, you need to include the elements of suspense. You can do this by using writing techniques and devices like:
But without a sound plot and structure, you risk failing to thrill your readers. Today, we’ll look at dramatic structure and learn how you can build an effective plan for your entire plot. By planning for success, you can create a story packed with suspense, with all the right twists in all the right places.
Definition of Plot and Structure
What is story plot? What is the best structure for a novel?
Plot is the series of events that make up your story, including the order in which they occur and how they relate to each other.
Structure (also known as narrative structure), is the overall design or layout of your story.
While plot is specific to your story and the particular events that make up that story, dramatic structure is more universal and deals with the mechanics of the story—how the chapters or scenes are broken up, how conflict is introduced and amplified, where the climax is placed, how the resolution plays out, and so on.
You can think of plot and structure like the DNA of your story. Every story takes on a plot, and every piece of writing has a structure. While plot is unique to your story, an understanding of effective structures and devices can help you develop better stories and hone your craft.
Searching for Structure
From the beginning of my writer’s journey, I knew story structure had to be a vital part of creating successful stories. But I wasn’t sure how to best construct a story, which of the many models would produce the best results for me.
I started writing short stories using a nine-point, three act structure consisting of hook, backstory, and trigger in act one. Crisis, struggle, and epiphany in act two. And plan, climax, and resolution in the final act.
This worked fine. At first. But as I expanded into longer writing forms like novellas and novels, I realized I needed something more. And something better-suited to the types of suspense fiction I like to write.
I explored several models of story structure, including the Algis Budrys seven-point story structure of simply putting a character in a setting with a problem and then employing try/fail cycles until the climax where he succeeds or ultimately fails before ending with a validation.
I found a lot to like in Syd Field’s model for storytelling. I tried the Lester Dent Master Plot Formula for dramatic writing and found it works quite well for writing an exciting short story. But again, these models weren’t a perfect fit for me. My search continued.
Just as I began writing my first novel, I stumbled upon Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid and I knew at once that it would be a game-changer for me. I wrote Nocturne In Ashes and Steadman’s Blind using Shawn’s Five Commandments of story to structure each scene and the overall shape of the books.
Following this pattern, I learned an incredible amount about how to hit all the right points in a three-act structure and make sure each scene is vital and has a turning point. But my writing process is still evolving. Though I would never trade my experience with the Story Grid structure which really helped me get a handle on the micro view of storytelling, I was still looking for something ideally suited for writing mysteries and thrillers.
Let me tell you about what I’ve been using lately!
Six Elements of Plot That Strengthen Story Structure
When Joe Bunting published The Write Structure, I purchased it right away. However, it sat on my virtual reading shelf for a couple of months before I cracked it open and began reading.
Once I finally got started, I was delighted to find that The Write Structure resonated with me in so many ways and I knew I could use this pattern to write anything from a short story to a full-length novel and make it shine.
The book is filled with great tips, techniques, and advice for writers, backed up by examples and Joe’s own experience as a best-selling author. He takes you step-by-step through the six elements of a plot that will guide you in writing a stellar story and shows you how to develop each element effectively.
These are the six plot elements, as set forth in The Write Structure:
The Exposition is where you introduce your hero and establish the story setting, your hero’s world. By focusing on the core value at stake from the very beginning, you confirm genre for your readers and introduce dramatic tension by setting up conflict and forcing your character to act on a choice.
In most types of suspense fiction, the story will turn on a core value of Life vs. Death or perhaps a Fate Worse than Death. Often, the internal value at stake is Good vs. Evil. Crime stories, on some level, usually deal with issues of justice and good guys vanquishing bad guys while lives are in danger.
Once your reader is grounded in the story world and emotionally invested in your character, something needs to happen to interrupt the established pattern and rock your character’s world in some way. An Inciting Incident begins the story arc that will eventually culminate in the climactic scene and ending resolution of your story.
The inciting incident should be inspired by, and reinforce, the core value at stake in the story. In a crime story, this event—whether coincidental or triggered by a story character—works best when it reflects a conflict between life and death or something worse.
Rising Action is where you raise the stakes and ratchet up the tension in a buildup toward the dilemma. These are the try/fail cycles, the struggle to understand the antagonistic force and find a way to defeat it through trial and error.
When thriller writer, Lee Child, was asked to divulge his recipe for creating suspense, he said it’s not so much about the ingredients as it is about making your family hungry, making them wait. This is where you spin out uncertainty and worry, making your reader hungry for the payoff.
I’ve written several articles about how to increase tension in a story’s plot by focusing on the elements of suspense. The writing techniques I’ve taught in these articles, such as how to create cliffhangers, write an action scene, and plant clues and red herrings, will help you develop rising action in your story. Learn more about how to use these powerful techniques in your stories by reading each article (linked in the previous sentence).
All of these writing skills will help you keep the story pace moving along through the middle, where many writers flounder.
Now we get to the crux of the story, where the rubber meets the road. The Dilemma boils down to a choice your protagonist must make—a difficult and crucial choice.
There are two types of choices that create the most conflict and drama. The first is often called the Best Bad Choice, where there is no happy alternative and your character is forced to choose from a menu of unsavory options.
For instance: Does Katniss cut down a tracker jacker nest and kill some of the tributes, or does she wait for the tributes to kill her?
The other variety of tough choices involves having to decide between conflicting goods, otherwise called an Irreconcilable Goods Decision. In this scenario, someone benefits while someone else is harmed. There is no win/win.
For example: Does Kramer hire someone to take care of his son in order to work a prestigious job, or does he step down from his career to be a reliable parent?
The dilemma is the heart of your story. It’s where your hero demonstrates his true character development. If you’ve created a sympathetic protagonist readers care about, they will be desperate to learn how he chooses and what happens as a result of that choice.
Your hero faces a difficult choice in the dilemma, but the Climax is where she acts on that choice and reaps the consequences of that action. This is the payoff you’ve been building toward since the beginning. This is the summit readers want to reach when they open a book.
This is also where your hero gains or ultimately loses what she seeks. In suspense fiction, that sought-after objective is usually solving a crime and bringing the perpetrator to justice. Or it might be revenge, rescue, or the acquisition of wealth or power.
Whatever it is, it centers on the conflict between the core values at stake—life or death. The events in your story have transformed and prepared your protagonist for this final confrontation.
Now it’s showtime.
Knowing your story’s climax also helps to hone your skills of foreshadowing. You’ll be able to properly place your setups and readers won’t feel cheated.
It’s also a good idea to make sure you’ve honored reader expectations and delivered a story suited to what suspense fans crave.
Writers are sometimes tempted to skip writing the Denouement of the plot, or give it short shrift.
Don’t. If you want readers to look back fondly on your story and pick up your next book, give them the closure they desire.
Readers need a moment to savor the climax and feel the release of tension. If you’ve done a good job creating compelling characters, readers won’t want to say goodbye right away. Let them spend a little more time together.
This is where you validate your protagonist’s arc and reflect on how she’s changed. Even if the world around her is back to normal, she’s not the same person who started the story.
This is also where you wrap up any loose ends and it’s the perfect place to bring secondary plotlines to a close. Read below to learn more about subplots.
Master the six elements of plot to write a great story. Then, plan the whole structure of your story by weaving in subplots. Learn how in this article.
The Write Structure addresses the complexities involved in putting together a story that works on multiple levels to engage an audience, and it does so in a user-friendly way. Instead of overwhelming, it simplifies the process so that you can actually create a plan for your own full-length book in just eighteen sentences.
In The Write Structure, you’ll learn the nitty gritty details about how to craft these six elements in your story to develop your idea into a full-blown, living, breathing creation that readers will love. The process gives you the tools to create the right structure for your book while still leaving plenty of room for flexibility and creativity.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of the process is how it can be geared toward a particular genre—in our case, that means mysteries, thrillers, and adventure stories. In my opinion, that makes The Write Structure an excellent model for writing suspense fiction.
Plot AND Structure: Don’t Forget Subplots
If you use the six elements of plot, you’ll develop a sound structure for your suspense story—or any story. However, these vital scenes in the structure won’t uphold a story that can stretch the length of the novel. In order to develop the plot, you need secondary storylines, or subplots, too.
How do you use subplots?
What Are Subplots?
A plot is a series of linked moments, a chain of events with one leading into the next. In a short story, you’re better off sticking with a single plotline in most cases. Anything longer than a short story, however, is enriched by weaving in one or more secondary plotlines, or subplots.
You can see this clearly in just about any television episode. There’s an A plot and a B plot. The A plot is the main story. The B plot forms a supportingstoryline that plays off the A plot and may highlight theme or act as a foil or contrast to the A plot.
Subplots are the supporting storylines in your plot and structure. Don’t forget them! Doing so will hinder your main plot.
Sometimes the plotlines tie together at the end. Other times, they simply run parallel and the secondary plotline has its own conclusion, usually in one of the last scenes in the book.
Here’s an example of how a subplot may operate to support the main plot.
Mr. Monk Goes to The Circus
In the television show, Monk, there’s an episode where Monk solves the murder of a circus ringmaster. That’s the A plot.
The B plot is introduced when Monk and his nurse, Sharona, go to the circus to investigate.
Here’s a clip from the episode:
The B plot comes into play when Sharona encounters the elephant and freaks out. We learn she’s terrified of elephants due to a traumatic scene she once witnessed at a zoo.
Monk is oblivious to her distress—his only concern is that she isn’t responding to his needs. Sharona gets upset because she has to deal constantly with his phobias and idiosyncrasies, yet he has zero compassion for her over her fear of elephants. He enrages her by telling her to “suck it up.”
Sharona starts a campaign to teach Monk a lesson. This campaign manifests at various points throughout the A plot when she refuses to hand him a wipe, drinks from his water bottle, coughs in his face, and messes up his orderly magazines. When he protests, she tells him to “suck it up.”
Monk sends her flowers. He calls her to talk about the issue and when she finally opens up and begins sharing her feelings, Monk gets distracted and hangs up on her to follow a lead from the A plot.
Monk discusses the problem with his therapist, Dr. Kroger. Of course, Kroger understands why Sharona’s angry, but he refuses to explain it to Monk, insisting that Monk will have to figure it out for himself—the answer is inside him.
Monk and Sharona continue arguing. Just as she’s telling Monk he’ll never get it, Monk tells Sharona’s son to put his bicycle away, saying, “Let’s give your mother a break.” She points out that he was showing empathy at that point. It’s a start.
Monk arranges for Sharona to confront her fear by meeting with the elephant and his master, unaware that the killer plans to use the elephant as a murder weapon to eliminate a witness. Sharona watches as this event in the A plot plays out and the elephant crushes his master’s skull, killing him.
This makes things worse and now Monk feels really bad. He pampers Sharona, tucking a blanket around her and trying to make her cocoa, but she ends up doing all the work, as usual.
In the story’s climax—the A plot—the culprit tries to escape and is stopped by the elephant. Sharona comes face to face with the creature and Monk soothes and empathizes with her. Then over-empathizes and won’t shut up with the empathizing. Sharona remarks that she’s created a monster.
Sharona feeds carrots to the elephant and tells Monk she’s over it—maybe there’s hope for him. But Monk is still Monk and we know he’ll be back next week, still victim to a thousand debilitating foibles, to solve another baffling crime. (This is the Denouement.)
Do you see how the secondary plotline plays off the main plotline, intersecting it in some spots, adding dimension to the story’s climax, and providing the perfect ending? This is what subplots do.
Including subplots will elevate the tension and create depth to your main plotline.
Do You Really Need Subplots?
You don’t need to include a secondary plotline in your novel. But if you don’t, you’re passing up a great vehicle for adding depth, interest, emotion, tension, and excitement to your story. That said, it’s essential that readers understand who the book is about.
There should be one main character—your hero—whose story carries the most weight and whose arc comprises the main plotline. Readers should not be confused about who this is, so take care not to overwhelm that main arc when developing your secondary plots.
A secondary plotline can center on just about anything, including a character, setting, theme, motif, or problem. It can enter the story at any point and leave at any point—no need for it to run through the entire story unless that’s what serves the story best.
Every subplot, however, should be tied up by story’s end. The only reason you might consider leaving a secondary plotline open at the end of the story is so that it can function as a lead-in to the sequel.
For example, in my thriller novel, Nocturne In Ashes, the main story arc about stopping a serial killer is wrapped up in the end. But one of my subplots involved a police detective’s efforts to gain entry into an elite private security organization. That story line left a dangling thread to be picked up in the sequel.
One more thing—secondary plotlines must relate somehow to the main plotline and not exist just to take up space or add complexity. They must have a valid story reason to be there.
Ultimately, the best way to structure your book is to find a process that works for you and the types of fiction you want to write. That may entail exploring and adapting, learning and growing as you move through your own writer’s journey and learn the craft of writing.
You may not want to use the same plan for every story. I still structure my short fiction differently than my full-length books and I decide project by project how I’m going to do it.
I do think it’s important to make some kind of plan before you begin writing. When all is said and done, if you produce a story with all the right elements to attract and hold readers all the way to the end, you have a well-structured story.
You can get there by making a plan to guide you—like signposts along your journey. Or you can stumble around through rewrite after rewrite until you finally arrive. Either way, structure is what you need to make it work.
Why not embrace plot and structure and make it your traveling companion on the road to success?
“How many words in a novel?” is a question many writers ask.
“My memoir is 270,000 words long.” I heard these words during a breakout session I led at a local writers’ conference.
An editor friend of mine, Shayla Eaton with Curiouser Editing, was sitting in on the breakout. We gave each other knowing glances, and because I didn’t want to break this poor memoirist’s literary heart, I nodded at Shayla to take the lead. Soon after I heard someone mention the words in a novel, I held my breathe and let the moment pass.
As nicely but as directly as she could, she explained to the memoirist that a 270,000-word memoir was excessive. Even if she self-publishes, the cost per copy would be high, and few readers would slog through such a tome — particularly for someone who’s not famous.
And no agents or publishers would even look past that number.
The prose could be as fleet-footed as Fitzgerald’s. The life story could be as compelling as Lincoln’s. The platform could be as broad as Oprah’s. But no agent would get to know that because they’d see “Memoir: 270,000 words” and hit delete before reading any further.
So, what word count should a memoir be?
For that matter, how long should any book be? How many words are in a typical novel? What’s the ideal book word count?
If you’re writing your first novel or any book, you’re probably asking these questions.
The short answer is: long enough to tell the story but short enough to consistently hold the reader’s interest.
The long answer is, well, longer.
Why does novel words count matter?
Word count matters because every book, regardless of genre, has an inherent contract with the reader. But that contract is dependent upon the book’s genre.
For instance, when a reader picks up a thriller, they have certain expectations of what they’re about to read. That includes scenes like “the hero at the mercy of the villain,” but it also includes book length. Because thrillers are about pulse-pounding action and maybe some character development (especially if it’s part of a series), the word count isn’t massive. Thrillers tend to be 70,000 to 90,000 words.
If you’re not a thriller author, I won’t keep you in suspense. At the end of this article, you’re going to find a guide to suggested word count length for most every popular genre.
My point is that your genre will likely dictate your word count. There are exceptions, like YA books that exceed 250,000 words, but those tend to be outliers, and first-time authors rarely, if ever, get to be an outlier.
Additionally, knowing your word count before you start writing can help you better plan your narrative arc as well as your writing schedule.
How many words in a novel?
And what’s the average length of other types of books?
Before diving into the specifics of genre-based word counts, let’s look at the broader picture of average book length.
For most publishers, a book is “novel-length” when it’s between 50,000 and 110,000 words.
At a writers conference I recently attended, publishing veteran Jane Friedman said 80,000 words is good for most fiction, below 60,000 isn’t novel length territory, and above 120,000 is likely too much.
Writer’s Digest recommends 80,000 to 89,999 words as a “100% safe range for literary, mainstream, women’s, romance, mystery, suspense, thriller and horror.” That’s approximately 300 pages of double-spaced type.
In “Outlining Your Book in 3 Easy Steps,” editor Shawn Coyne says, “The average novel today is about 90,000 words. Big, epic stories get anywhere from 120,000 to 200,000 words.” But, he also mentions that “The Wizard of Oz was 40,000 words. The Old Man and the Sea was about 25 to 30,000 words, tops.”
Coyne uses the Nanowrimo word-count length of 50,000 words for his examples, calling 50,000 words a good foundation to build upon.
So what does that mean for you, author?
If you’re working on a novel-length book, aim for 50,000 words at the very least — but it’s better to aim for 90,000. Editorial trimming is inevitable.
However, you’ll also want to take your genre into account.
What should my book word count be?
The following are average word-count ranges by genre.
All of these are average book word count ranges and should not be taken as the definitive word count you must reach in your book. We all know of outliers within each genre that have been published well under, or well over, these word counts.
Use these numbers as a baseline for your writing goals.
Know what readers expect in terms of your genre’s word count (even if the reader isn’t aware of their expectations when it comes to how long a book is).
The Write Life has teamed up with Self-Publishing School to create this presentation, “How to Write & Publish Your Book in 90 Days.” In it, you’ll learn how to finish your book in just 30 minutes per day. To sign up for this free training, click here.
How many words per page can you expect in a book?
This is another common question, and for most writers it should be easy to answer by using a “word count” feature in your writing tool.
If you’re writing in Microsoft Word,”word count” is an option under “Tools.” Prefer something different? Here’s how to find word count in Google Docs. You can also track word count in Scrivener.
The average single-spaced document typed in 12-point font contains about 500 words per page, but that can vary pretty drastically depending on your formatting.
So, if you have an hour to write and aim to get down 300 words, you might wonder, how many pages is 300 words — and the answer is less than one! Doable, right?
If you’re thinking bigger and wondering, for example, how many pages is 50,000 words, simply divide your target word count (50,000) by 500 (since that’s the average words per page). Your answer here is 100 pages.
Don’t let those commas instill fear. Fifty thousand words isn’t that much divided into five days a week for a year. That’s only 193 words per writing day!