Parts of a Story: A Beginners Guide to the Five Basic Elements of a Story

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School.

Here is the link to this article.

There are certain elements every good story needs.

If you skip any one of them, there’s a good chance your story will fall flat and fail to resonate with readers. They’ll struggle to lose themselves in the world you’ve created and have little concern for what happens to your characters.

No one ever sets out to write a bad story. But that’s the risk if you don’t have all the foundational pieces in place.

The good news? You can avoid writing a weak story by building a strong foundation. Learn the parts of a story, how they all fit together, and why they matter, and you’ll become a better storyteller.

Are you ready?

The 5 Basic Parts of a Story

Let’s look at the five main parts of a story in detail.

1. An Unforgettable Main Character

Characters are what stories are made of. They help us explore the human condition, even if they’re not human. (malfunctioning robots, anyone?)

And the most important character in all stories is the main character.

Chances are, an idea for your main character will have come to you as a core part of your story idea, or very soon after.

You probably know their gender, rough age, nationality and maybe a little about their personality.

For some writers, that’s enough, and the rest of the character’s personality and backstory will emerge as they write the novel.

A lot of writers, however, prefer to flesh out their main character as they are developing their plot, because the two things are so interdependent.

To help ensure your main character is someone your readers are going to want to spend a lot of time with, you need to build empathy with them (even for characters who aren’t very nice). This can be done by showing them to be kind, skilled, competent or liked by others.

Or if your character really is a nasty piece of work, then make sure you make them funny. We are liable to forgive a host of shortcomings if someone is still able to make us laugh.

Further to that, you may want to consider the following aspects of your main character:

  • Positive traits
  • Negative traits
  • Motivations (see Objective, below, for more on this)
  • Flaws
  • Quirks and mannerisms
  • Fears and Phobias
  • Most treasured possession

You don’t have to define every single aspect of your main character right at the beginning, but try to make sure they feel rounded and interesting, to get you off to a good start.

2. An Extraordinary Situation

Of course, your characters can’t walk around in a void.

In some types of stories, the setting will be a critical part of the story, almost a character in itself, such as a talking space station or a slave ship lost at sea.

But even those where the setting is more everyday, it still needs to play an important role, creating its own specific conflicts, pressures and tensions for your characters.

But why does the title say ‘situation’ rather than ‘setting’?

Setting usually refers to the time and place, such as Victorian England or Futuristic Mars.

But ‘situation’ emphasises that there is more to the setting than that.

There were many stratas of society in Victorian England. Is this story set around the poverty stricken areas or the decadent ones?

And there might be specific things about this setting in this book, such as Vampires roaming the streets, or a threat or war from abroad, or a new invention that is about to change everything.

When talking about futuristic Mars, the situation could involve a threat from an alien species, or lack of resources.

Or the situation could be related to internal politics. Or if the story is a romance, the setting / situation could involve a culture where partners are assigned at birth based on DNA, but the main character falls in love with someone else.

So explore your setting beyond geographic location and year, and see how it can be used to enhance your story, and its themes and conflicts.

3. A Compelling Objective

Everyone wants something.

And the more your character is willing to do, to get what they want, the more compelling your story is likely to be.

In the real world, people don’t always have clear objectives. They may change their minds frequently, or they may not be very serious or motivated about attaining their goals. While that’s the norm, it’s also not very exciting — so it doesn’t make for good storytelling.

So in fiction, it pays for your characters to have clearly defined wants and needs.

Your first step is to consider what your character wants from their normal life. Do they want to be rich? Catch a criminal? Find their soulmate? Save the planet or their own livelihood from ruin?

But what the character wants often turns out to be different from what they actually need. What the character needs is the heart of the story, and what makes the situations much juicer.

For example, maybe your leading man is striving for money and power (his want) because he never felt he had the approval of his domineering father (his need). But once he gains wealth and position, he finds he’s still unsatisfied, as his need is still not met. Only if he’s insightful enough, or has outside help, will he realize he’s been chasing the wrong outcomes, and with self-acceptance he can finally feel at peace.

Wants (external goals) tend to relate to money, power, possessions and possessive love. Whereas Needs (internal goals) tend to relate to courage, compassion, belonging and self-acceptance.

So consider what your main character wants, and what they really need.

4. A Challenging Opponent

Every good novel needs conflict. It’s the driving force behind a good story. It builds tension, excitement, and interest. As a matter of fact, without conflict, there is no story.

While there will be multiple conflicts of different levels throughout your novel, when it comes to the core story parts, we’re thinking about the key opponent—the nemesis.

While the opponent can be a force of nature, an organisation, or a situation, the most powerful ones to hit our human psyches are usually personified.

Voldemort is an obvious ‘Bad Guy’, who is a power-mad, intelligent lunatic.

In the Matrix, the whole world seems to be against them, but we are given a face to focus our fear and courage against, in Agent Smith.

In the Hunger Games, the opponent is the whole system, and the Gamemakers, but the general is made specific in President Snow.

Good opponents aren’t just random evil-doers, their goals directly conflict with the main character’s, and they often act as a reflection, showing what could happen to the main character if they take the wrong path, or fail to find courage or integrity.

It’s important that opponents are powerful formidable opponents. They have to seem impossible to beat, and they must have serious power or control over the main character’s chances at happiness.

5. Impending Disaster and Realistic Stakes

If you’ve hooked your reader with the gripping situation, made them care about your main character and what they desire, and had them rooting for the character against a worthy opponent, then you only have one thing left to do.

Thrill them with an exciting and satisfying ending.

Even successful discovery writers (those who write the novel without planning the plot in advance) usually say that they know roughly how their story is going to end when they start writing.

Your novel will have much better direction if you know where it’s going. And you’re going to want to end with a bang.

So the final key story element is a ‘disaster’.

This may be an actual disaster that occurs, which the main character has to face as their final challenge. Or it may be a looming catastrophe that the main character needs to avert or avoid.

While life or death situations are naturally high stakes and are therefore popular in fiction, it’s possible to grip readers with much more day to day goals and disasters, if you set it up well.

The possibility of losing $20 or $100 in a card game isn’t interesting enough to hold anyone’s attention for long.

But potentially losing the Poker World Championship, after playing for decades and overcoming incredible personal challenges along the way, including the defeat of a shady, evil, and vengeful opponent, is much more riveting.

So think about the finale of your story, and how your main character will be tested. Once you know that, you’ll be able to ensure that they spend the rest of the story gaining the skills they need in order to triumph.

These are the five basic building blocks of your story. But they’re only your starting point.

Other Story Elements to Consider

Once you’ve got the basics, you’ll start adding these additional story elements.

1. An Intriguing Theme or Central Question

Theme is interpreted in different ways, but we use it to refer to the story’s central moral question.

Your theme is the question you want to ask and answer through your story.

Maybe that question is “Do good guys always finish last?” or “Does crime ever pay?”

Theme usually involves moral explorations of a universal idea, message, or lesson that underpins your entire novel.

Your novel is your thesis, where you try to prove the truth of your theme.

Why does theme matter? Because people have a basic need to understand the human condition, and story is one of the main ways we accomplish this.

From a writer’s perspective, a central moral question helps focus your story and gives it deeper meaning. It’s what makes your book emotionally rewarding to readers.

Your theme doesn’t need to be obvious. Instead, use it as an internal guide. Keep it in the back of your mind as you write your story, rather than trying to crow bar it into every scene.

2. A Distinctive Voice

Voice is one of the hardest parts of being an author to pin down, but it might help to split it into three separate categories: The Main Character’s Voice, the Book’s Voice and the Author’s Voice.

The Main Character’s voice will get across the personality of the character. Are they serious or silly? Do they like the sound of their own voice or prefer to think everything through carefully? What sort of vocabulary do they use? What’s their sense of humour?

All of this will come across not only in the words they use in their dialogue (though that is key) but also how they describe the people and situations around them.

The Book’s voice will go beyond the main character. Some books have a whimsical, chatty style of narration. Others, the narrator is almost invisible. Some books go deeply into sensual descriptions using advanced vocabulary, others are sparse and give you only the broadest brush strokes.

The Author’s voice may vary from book to book. Authors will use different tones and styles if writing in different genres or for varying age groups. But Author’s voice is probably the one you need to worry about the least, because it will emerge naturally from your personality, experiences and influences.

The best way to learn about Voice is to see how other authors handle it. In some books the Voice will be so strong it will be unignorable. In others it might be more subtle. Think about which books appeal to you the most and study what techniques the author uses to create a unique and engaging Voice.

You could even try writing something in the style of one of your favourite authors.

3. Effective Symbolism

Symbolism is one tool authors use to convey information without spelling it out explicitly. For example, you might dress a villain in black or a hero in white, use an overcast day to imply sadness or heartbreak, or have birds swooping through the skies to represent freedom.

Good symbolism bypasses the conscious and hits us straight in the subconscious, making us feel a certain way without us being aware of what’s happened.

Like using the weather, clothing and surroundings to convey ideas and emotions, skilled writers will use similes, metaphors and vocabulary choices.

A writer wishing to convey a mood of quiet, simmering threat might describe a train station where darkness oozed, with a gloomy, deserted waiting room, blackened brick walls, a queue snaking across the hall, and the bellow of steam trains like angry beasts tethered to their task with bellies of hungry flames that hissed and crackled.

Alternatively, a writer wishing to create a lighter mood might describe the platform as being filled with bustling families, giggling children in bright colours, the gentle breeze making the sunflowers sway and bob.

The gleaming train would proudly slide into the station and sigh in satisfaction as the conductor blew his brass whistle and fluffy clouds drifted lazily by, overhead.

4. Engaging Subplots

Subplots can make or break your story.

Strong ones add depth and can help you to explore different aspects of your central question.

Subplots move the story along in the same way your main plot does, but often involve secondary characters and/or secondary conflicts.

While you won’t spend as much time developing your subplots, they can be nearly as important as your main plot—some would argue truly effective subplots exist because they must. Without them, you simply couldn’t tell your story.

For example, in the Hunger Games, the main plot involves Katniss’ fight for survival. But the subplot of her romance with Peeta, while adding backstory, insight, and a ‘will-they-won’t-they’ suspense throughout the book, plays an integral role in the end.

So be sure to examine your own subplots. Are they adding to your novel? Are they essential to it? How can you strengthen them?

Master Story Elements and Write a Better Novel

If you’re just beginning your author journey, there’s no better place to start than learning the essential parts of a story.

Now that you’ve got the basics, can you see ways to make your own novel stronger?

Have you got all five elements? Do any of them need to be developed in more depth?

Decide what you need, then check out our writer’s resources for help.

Or, why not visit our Facebook community to ask questions about the Parts of Story, and share yours with us!

Make the Audience Feel! Take them on an Emotional Journey.

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School.

Here is the link to this article.

The audience' emotional journey

Nothing should be more important to an author than how their story makes the audience feel.

As an author, consider carefully the emotional journey of the reader or viewer as they progress through your narrative.

The audience experiences a sequence of emotions when engaged in a narrative. So narrative structure is a vital aspect of storytelling. The story should be touching the audience emotionally during every scene. Furthermore, each new scene should evoke a new feeling in order to remain fresh and surprising.

The author’s job is to make the audience feel empathy with the characters quickly, so that an emotional response to the characters’ situation is possible. Only this can lead to physical reactions like accelerated heartbeat when the story gets exciting. We have to care.

This “capturing” of the audience, making the reader or viewer rapt and enthralled, requires authors to create events that will show who the characters are and how they react to the problems they must face. The audience is more likely to feel with the characters as the plot unfolds when the characters’ reactions to events reveal something about who they really are – and how they might be similar to us.

One Journey to Spellbind Them All

Here we present a loose pattern that we think probably fits for any type of story, whatever genre or medium, however “literary” or “commercial”. It’s not prescriptive, just a rough checklist of the stages in the emotional journey the audience tacitly expects when they let themselves in on a story. The emotions are in more or less the order they might be evoked by any narrative.


Actually the movie poster, ad, or the cover and blurb of the book do the main job of arousing curiosity. But once the viewer has switched on or the reader turned to page one, your opening should ideally suck this recipient into your story quickly.

At first, on page one or during the first few seconds of the moving image, the readers or viewers are unlikely be emotionally involved yet. They are trying to understand the setting, get to know the main characters, and figure out what the plot is about. The opening is like a riddle – more of an exercise for the brain than the heart. Creating a question in the mind of the viewer or reader with a striking or mysterious first image or line is never a bad idea.

It is not your aim, however, to maintain curiosity as a mental exercise. As quickly as you can, you want to capture the audience’ attention with something stronger than curiosity.


You want to arouse and heighten your readers’ curiosity to such an extent that they stay with you beyond the first couple of pages or minutes. So the first scene ought to be attention grabbing in some way, perhaps by posing more questions than answering them. It pays to start with a strong kick-off event that makes the audience want to know more – not only on the conscious intellectual level, but also on an empathic one.


You need to establish an emotional connection with the reader or viewer as quickly as possible, which may require a particular incident, event or scene designed specifically for this effect. This might be something apparently minor or trivial, but definitely something very human about your main characters’ reactions to something that occurs. The way a character reacts to a cold coffee might be enough for us to react emotionally when something shocking occurs afterwards. If the shock comes without the prior human element, without us knowing anything about who the character is, the chances are we will not care. Creating a sense of moral outrage in the audience only works if the audience knows who this person is that something unfair is happening to.

There are alternatives. A spectacular incident might be enough. Or something mysterious. But whichever event you design as the emotional hook, the important thing is: you need to make sure the audience is feeling for the main characters.


By now, the reader has a feeling for how you are presenting the story, for instance what rules you have set yourself for point of view, as well as for what genre of story this is. This creates expectations in the audience’s mind about the scenes coming up.

Pretty soon after you have established the ordinary story world and set the scene, you want the reader to understand that there is a problem, or actually there are a couple of problems. The story is probably going to show how these can (or cannot) be fixed. If, for instance, the problem is a case and the protagonist a detective, the reader will expect some sleuthing.

The external problem is the incident that begins the chain of events that causes the protagonist of a storyline to set off on their journey.

Another scene that creates a sense of anticipation is the one that shows the audience what the real need of the character is, i.e. what they must learn.


Many authors deliberately conceive a scene which strengthens the audience’ interest in the fate of the characters. Sometimes called the “lock-in”, this scene is designed as a point in the narrative after which we may assume that the audience is properly hooked.

Such a scene is not to be confused with the “inciting incident”, the scene that presents the external problem. Rather, the commitment lock-in is a moment that confirms the earlier empathy moment. It is about making the viewer or reader feel some sort of identification with the character, often through recognition of their plight.


Once the characters have started trying to solve the external problem, have fixed their objective and set out on their task or mission, met the person with whom they will begin a new relationship, etc., the “fun & games” part starts. This is where the expectations you have awakened in your audience need to be satisfied, so that they feel they are getting what they paid for. If they have bought into a crime mystery, give them crime and mystery. If they want adventure, give them action and great locations. If they expect a romance, give them a burgeoning relationship that will develop into the love story.

Structurally, within this stage of the story a pinch point event may occur that shows the audience that the journey is serious, and might make the main characters realise that they will have to face more severe obstacles and difficulties than they thought. The fun for the audience is seeing the characters out of their comfort zone.


The midpoint of a story is a pivotal moment. In the middle of the narrative, a goal may be reached, a moment of truth may occur, a revelation take place, or some great turning point transpire. While the event need not be spectacular, and may even not be recognized in its significance by the audience at the time, it is something that will stir them up eventually.

The midpoint is one of the most powerful emotional weapons in an author’s arsenal. It is not so much about eliciting one particular emotion in the audience here. The feeling the event causes could be anything from horror to awe to premonition. It could be momentous, as when the Titanic hits the iceberg in James Cameron’s Titanic, or ironic, as when Luke Skywalker finds princess Leia in Star Wars. It could be spectacular, as when Indiana Jones finds the Lost Ark. Or scary, as when the Alien breaks out of Kane’s chest. Or nail-biting, as when future Godfather Michael shoots the police chief and the rival mafia boss.

Structurally, this event marks a turning point for the characters. Emotionally, it can cause any number of feelings in the audience.


If your story ends happily, then at some point in the narrative you need to present the opposite of happy in order for the ending to work. Something should happen to make your readers or viewers sad, such as a death, possibly a metaphorical one.

And vice versa, if your story ends tragically, there must first be joy to make the tragedy all the more poignant.


To soothe the audience’ the nerves, give them a moment of calm – before the storm. A sort of communal campfire scene, in which the main characters reveal something about their pasts that sheds light on their behavior, can make your audience feel for them all the more in the later climax. A moment of calm can also heighten the sense of threat and dread when the characters head inexorably towards the approaching crisis.


Things may go terribly wrong for the protagonist, the threat to the characters looms so great that there seems to be no way out. Your audience might be wide-eyed and holding their breath, scared, and virtually clueless about how the seemingly insurmountable final obstacle might be dealt with.

The second pinch point may be the conjunction of the fear that all is lost with the revelation that there is still a way to resolve everything …


A moment of hope! Brought on by a realization or revelation, an idea, or a new plan. Your readers’ hearts should be beating faster here as they, and perhaps (but not necessarily) the characters too, gain a new awareness.

In many ways, this moment is the most important in the story. It is the scene that narratives are composed to lead to. Perhaps the effect is exemplified best in mysteries or crime stories, because in this scene the veil is lifted and the truth revealed. The mystery is finally cleared up, the identity of the criminal made known to the audience. The whole story leads up to this revelation. What is so very distinct in a whodunit counts for other forms of storytelling also.

The revelation scene works emotionally on the audience only because it has been foreshadowed. Specific earlier events “set up” the big “pay off” of this all-important point in the story. The audience experiences a powerful “aha moment” because a number of events that seemed insignificant at the time are suddenly cast in a new light.


Just because the audience or the protagonist now knows the truth doesn’t mean that the danger is over. There may be an awful moment of crisis or decision, where the audience are aquiver with anxiety while waiting to see if the hero will do the right thing.

Perhaps the hero in a romance has finally realized the truth that he or she cannot live without her lover. Now the worry is, will this character perform the action or make the choice the audience wants them to make? The tension reaches a high-point.


The decision made, the audience roots for the hero as she lives through the final confrontation. This is the climactic excitement of a great finale! Time for nail-biting.


Relief! A great exhalation of breath as the last great confrontation is dealt with. The final obstacle is surmounted, and even in case it did not end well for the main character, for the audience there is the satisfaction of seeing all the storylines come together in a well-rounded, well-deliberated ending. Even if one strand is purposefully left open (for effect or for the sequel), this story is now at an end, and the audience is left feeling satisfied as after a good meal.


A story is a journey for the audience. As an author, you are like a tour guide through your story. You control what the audience feels and when. These feelings build on one another, and the more highs and lows you build in, the better.

From their general mood the emotions should at best alternate between positive and negative from scene to scene. Emotions work best when they are contrasted and placed into juxtaposition. That is, hope must be felt that things are looking up for the characters, only to be dashed by some surprising turn of events.

The narrative is constantly manipulating the emotions of the audience, leading them to feel one way, but not long enough for them to get used to this feeling, instead forcing them to feel something new. In this way, a great range of human emotions can be packed in a very controlled manner into one story.

Focusing on what the audience should feel during each scene is, we believe, more important still than structural paradigms or organisational principles for plot. The most important person of a story is not really the hero, nor the narrator, not even the author. The most important person in a story is each member of the audience.

Image by Aristeidis Tsitiridis from Pixabay 

To read more of Beemgee’s writing craft articles click here

A Great Cup of Coffee & Creativity

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School.

Here is the link to this article.

Author: Jeff Goins

Morning, Creator.

Have you had your cup of coffee yet? I have. I’ve tasted the sweet nectar of the gods and gone back for more. How could I not? This is the stuff of which creativity is made, after all.

Have you had your cup of coffee yet? I have. I’ve tasted the sweet nectar of the gods and gone back for more. How could I not? This is the stuff of which creativity is made, after all.

It is no surprise to anyone who knows me that I love coffee, that I see the very act of coffee-making as a careful and subtle art, one worth our attention and respect. And this love for something bitter but life-giving has taught me more than a few lessons about the magic of making things.

What is it about coffee that makes life worth living? Maybe you think I am given to hyperbole, but that is only because you must still be a member of the uninitiated, so allow me the privilege of enlightening you. Of educating you.

A cup of coffee is never just a cup of coffee. It is a beautiful pause, a way to say to yourself and to the rest of the day: “Before we do anything, we will take a moment to connect to ourselves and our senses. We will stop the frenzy that is our lives and smell, sip, and sit with what it means to be here, right now, in this wonder we call life.”

Okay, maybe I am being a little dramatic here, but my coffee-making is a ritual. It is important to me, and something I do every day without thinking about it. Yes, I could pop a Keurig cup or go to a coffee shop, but I refuse to rob myself of the important act that allows my day to begin with a little art. Making coffee is a wonderful invitation that life is constantly offering us: take a moment and create something beautiful… and then enjoy your creation.

How do you make a great cup of coffee, you might be wondering? Well, I am glad you asked.

It begins with the beans, with the raw source material that comes straight from the earth. A coffee bean is, in fact, a seed—which means it contains the primary material for making other things. It is pure potential, a fruit from a bush that can grow other bushes and create other things just like it. An entire oak tree is contained in the tininess of an acorn, after all; and all of life that is worth living can be found in the miniature latency of a coffee bean.

Good beans are whole and intact—they’re not grounds. To make great coffee, you’ve got to start with the bean, with something whole and atomic that you can crush into fine powder and turn into something consumable. So your day begins with an act of alchemy, with turning one thing into another thing. And all of life, in a way, is like this. We are always taking raw stuff and turning it into something else: whether that’s a bad day into a good one, an acquaintance into a friend, or an idea into an email. It is our own version of transforming water into wine; and in this way, we can each be children of God, little creators dancing with the creation that is us.

Good beans are not too old, because life tends to grow stale when it sits on a shelf for too long. You want something fresh, not older than a couple of weeks. Most coffee follows the rule of fifteens, which is to say green beans tend to last fifteen months, whereas roasted beans only last fifteen days, and ground coffee lasts a mere fifteen minutes before it starts to lose flavor.

Coffee is a reminder that life is evanescent, as are our best ideas. We must seize the day before it’s over lest the opportunity be lost forever. You cannot hold on to a moment anymore than you can let a cup of coffee sit all day and still expect it to taste as good as it did the minute it was brewed. Enjoy what you can while it’s here is what coffee is trying to tell us. For tomorrow we die. 

Which brings us to the next step: preparation. Surprisingly, the least important part of making coffee is how you actually brew it. If you are in the mountains of Peru and use a stone to grind some freshly roasted beans that a few peasants picked only a day before (side note: you actually want beans that were roasted a few days ago for optimal flavor, because things take time to mature and there is only a small window between maturity and staleness and we are always trying to maintain that balance, aren’t we?), then pour some hot water over those grounds, and strain it in a T-shirt, well, that will likely be pretty good coffee. 

But I digress, albeit only a little.

Whether you use an espresso machine, or an Aeropress, or a Chemex, or a Kinto cup miniature pour-over, or a French press (all of which are devices in my possession), what matters most is that you make the coffee. Not that you do pretty latte art or impress your friends with a fancy machine from Switzerland you don’t know how to appreciate. What matters is you get up tomorrow and dare to taste the morning. That you endeavor to make something worth consuming, something infused with love and art. Something that just might satiate a soul.

Finally, just as important as the beans themselves, is the timing of the whole thing. You need to make your coffee quickly and enjoy it without dragging out the process. Yes, I love a good sit on a balcony with a hot cup of liquid love, but if I am drinking so slowly that I have to microwave the mug, then I am in trouble. I am not carpe-ing the diem. Life is always changing, and fortune favors the bold. So I must drink.

You must make your coffee today. You must pull from the best sources you can find, using whatever tools available. And you cannot sip slowly. Embrace what you’ve created, and let it be just as it is. Of course, you made choices that on another day would be different. Of course, you could have done it differently, and maybe next time you will. But it’s not next time; it’s now. And now, you’re here: with your cup, and your life, and all you can do is imbibe it all.

And of course, we’re not talking about coffee anymore.

P.S. Be sure to tune in to this week’s podcast where I riff on the art of coffee-making and what this has to do with creativity. Enjoy!

“When I think of life as struggle with the Daimon who would ever set us to the hardest work among those not impossible, I understand why there is a deep enmity between a man and his destiny, and why a man loves nothing but his destiny.” —W.B. Yeats

The complete guide to working with beta readers

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School.

Here is the link to this article.

Everything you need to know about working with beta readers – who they are, the benefits of using them and practical tips on how to recruit, brief and communicate with them.

It’s publishing folklore – how JK Rowling was famously rejected by multiple publishers before Bloomsbury took on Harry Potter. The series changed publishing, influenced an entire generation and created the first female author to become a billionaire. The backstory is just as compelling as the best-selling series.

Harry Potter and the magic beta reader

Nigel Newton, the founder and chief executive of Bloomsbury gave a chapter from the draft manuscript of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to his reading obsessed eight-year-old daughter Alice. Newton told a journalist, “She came down from her room an hour later glowing, saying, ‘Dad, this is so much better than anything else.’ She nagged and nagged me in the following months, wanting to see what came next.”

Many publishers were given the very same sample – all of them rejected it. Newton took a punt on this unknown first-time author based on the feedback of a beta reader, someone in the target market of the book, who just happened to be eight years old.

What are beta readers?

Beta readers are not experts. They are not editors, nor are they people who read slush pile submissions or review manuscripts, subject specialists or sensitivity readers. They are not professionals and they are not paid for it.

The ideal beta reader is someone who knows what they like to read and has opinions. They will read a work in progress and offer feedback to the author from the point of view of an average reader. They are happy to invest their valuable time and effort into reading and feeding back because they want to.

Beta readers exist across all types of writing, whether you’re writing fan fiction or an academic monograph, publishing a collection of haikus or historical essays, there will someone who wants to read your words. That’s the heart of the beta reader relationship: readers love to read and writers want feedback.

How I work with beta readers

I signed a contract for my first book How to Have a Happy Hustle in 2018. While I had excellent support from my agent and publisher I wanted to test the concept and draft chapters with real readers who would feedback as I wrote. My genre is ‘how-to’ non-fiction books so I looked for people who were interested in the subject of innovation, who struggled to make ideas happen and were keen to learn more. In short, they wanted my book to help them solve a problem they had.

>> Read more:  How to write a book in 100 days

I set up a beta reader group – a mix of my target audience and people who worked in innovation or startups. They became a sounding board, my trusted advisers and cheerleaders, and some have become firm friends. As well as helping me test my ideas (and writing style) it was a brilliant form of accountability.

As I wrote, I kept the group up to date with email updates. I ran everything past them: from the table of contents, the book title, cover design and the all-important reading of the first draft. Everyone was named in the acknowledgements and many people went on to buy the book and support the launch – though that isn’t part of the process (I’ll share advice in another piece about forming a launch ‘street team’ and the anxiety-inducing request for ‘blurbs’ which are both part of the promo work of an author).

My book was so much better for their feedback, so when my co-author Chris and I started working on our new book, The Writing Playbook, I was determined to get the support of more volunteer readers.

>> Read more: The complete guide to writing accountability – hold yourself to account and use others to help you achieve your writing goals

Why use beta readers?

Beta reading is a form of user testing. The idea behind user testing is that in order to make a product (book) that users (readers) want you need to test with them and find out what they think. I know this will make many writers feel uncomfortable! But writing needs to be read – even the most creative, experimental and esoteric of forms needs an audience.

Personally, I’d much rather someone told me the faults when I have time to fix rather than write a one star review on Amazon. Plus, they can feedback privately and spare my blushes rather than having my failings laid bare for all to see online. Finally, it’s a relationship based on communication where I can ask questions and explore what they think and why.

When product testing you need to get feedback from a range of users. Let’s imagine you are testing a can opener. In this scenario, the users are people who want the beans, that means they need to open the can. Enter the can opener, a product many of us have in our homes. But, users are not all the same – my kitchen and the way I cook will be different to yours.

If you are cooking with a child with smaller hands they will use the can opener in a different way to an adult. Likewise with someone who is left-handed or has arthritis. What about if you work in a hotel or a café and need to open multiple cans a day? What if you’re hiking and don’t have space for a full-size can opener in your backpack? They are all users with the same need but will approach the product in diverse ways.

Our current book is about writing productivity and aimed at a wide variety of writers. I needed people who have written, are currently writing, or dream of writing – and across all genres and formats. I wanted novelists and creative writers, academics, non-fiction and business writers to become beta readers – what they had in common was the desire to overcome writing blocks and build a long-term, sustainable writing practice.

How many beta readers do you need?

You need to test with a range of people and and have several involved. Good practice in user testing suggests the sweet spot is 6-8 people – enough to get diversity of opinion while also spotting patterns. I’m amazed how quickly patterns emerge – EVERYONE spots the same error – and that’s what you are looking for.

Some authors with get more people involved. I like to have at least 20 people feedback because there is no such thing as an average reader and I like the range of opinions. The biggest example I’ve seen is Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky who listed 1,700 test readers in their book Make Time. I can’t even begin to imagine the logistics of that process and how to filter feedback!

It’s really up to you many you can handle. If you’re starting out, you can try a critiquing partnership where you work with one other author and feedback on each other’s work in progress. Many university departments have reading groups where peers can read and feedback in a safe space – it helps build confidence for the often brutal submission process. For one project I joined a critiquing group with 15 members which was facilitated by a professional writer and teacher.

When is best to test?

You can test at any stage of writing – for example, pitching an idea before you write or sharing a synopsis – but for most writers it’s best to wait until you’ve completed the messy creative process and have finished revising. You need to feel confident the draft is as good as you can make it by yourself. As Stephen King famously advised in his book On Writing:

“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right — as right as you can, anyway — it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it.”

How to recruit, brief and communicate with beta readers

For my first book I used my professional network to get my target audience involved, a mix of social media, posting on a few online communities and reaching out to people I knew.

Work out who your audience is and where you might find them – for example a Facebook group, on LinkedIn, an online community or fan site. For the second book I used the Prolifiko newsletter and also asked people personally if they wanted to be part of it.

I kicked off both beta reader groups with a survey. This helped me empathise with my target readers and understand their motivation and what they struggle with. I also asked what else they liked to read and where they got information from. The survey asked them to ‘opt-in’ to being part of an email group, a necessary step in data privacy.

Also it managed their expectations. If they didn’t have time to fill in a survey they wouldn’t have time to read.

>> Read more: Keep going: 10 books to help build your writing resilience

You need to be clear what’s involved, what you expect from people and what they get in return – will they get listed in the acknowledgements, a copy of the book, a discount or a warm fuzzy feeling they’ve helped?

Ask for specific feedback, listen to it and respond – tell people what you’ve done with their comments. I love getting emails from my beta readers and often it’s the follow up conversations where the real insight happens. Just asking why they felt something can open up whole new avenues.

Support fellow writers by being a beta reader

James McConnachie, editor of The Author the magazine of the Society of Authors, said that:

“Writing can be a lonely business. Publishing can be a ruthlessly competitive one. Authorship is different: it is a fellowship and a community.” For me, being an author means helping and supporting other writers in my community. Part of that is being a beta reader for friends and people in my professional network, reading for Alison JonesNir EyalGrace Marshall and Rob Fitzpatrick amongst others.

My advice if you’d like to use beta readers the best way to learn is to be one yourself. It takes time and commitment, there is no getting away from that, so before you sign up, check what’s involved and what the expectations are.

Over the years, I’ve picked up tips on how to recruit, brief, communicate and manage readers.

Ways to gather feedback

You can gather feedback in many ways – by email, asking people to comment on an online version, to organising calls or meeting up. Grace Marshall set up small group video calls about her book Struggle, where a few of us shared feedback, sparked ideas off each other, and supported or challenged someone’s opinion. It was such a fun and lively conversation.

Cara Holland recruited people to attend workshops where she tested Draw a Better Business. She ran three sessions, each taking a couple of hours to work through exercises in the book. Cara facilitated the sessions, getting people to follow instructions, explaining the task and giving time for people to do it. She then followed up with questions, such as:

  • Did the instruction make sense?
  • Do you think that was a useful tool?
  • Did it make any difference to you as a small business owner?

All types of book benefit from structured feedback. John Lugo-Trebble was writing a story based on a character coming of age and coming out in New York in 1993. He called it a love letter to the city he grew up in. But he no longer lived there so the details were hazy and he needed help. He recruited friends who lived, or used to live, in New York and asked about how authentic his description of the city was. The feedback from people helped him finalise the details.

He told me: “I am lucky to have a diverse group of opinionated friends and colleagues in my life who without blinking an eye will tell me whether I am on the right track or if the train has derailed somewhere. The friends from New York City were transported back to their teenage years and felt a longing for that city which they missed. While the millennial reader lamented that he wished he had lived in that city at that time.”

>> Read more: How to keep writing using rewards

For my first book in 2018 I met people for a coffee or a drink (on one occasion I ended up on a night out with a beta reader I’d only just met!) For the second book that wasn’t an option and organising groups was too logistically challenging for me – especially as my readers were scattered across the globe with time zones from Australia, Asia, Europe and north, south, east and west of the Americas. I did however set up 121 calls which were a delight.

There’s one more thing that beta readers aren’t – they are not responsible for decisions made by the author based on their feedback. Which brings me to another chapter of the story of Harry Potter and the beta readers which is less well known.

Rowling gets rejected again

When I was lowly publishing intern for an educational publisher, we were sent a copy of the now published first Harry Potter book to see if we wanted to buy educational rights. The offer was that it would be a class reader, a book that would be read in an English class and set as homework. It was tested with several teachers, in a range of schools and classes – a perfect user testing project.

The feedback was unanimous – this book doesn’t work in the classroom. The publishers I worked for rejected the offer of educational rights. Rowling chalked up another rejection. But I think the right decision was made. The Harry Potter series isn’t a class reader – it’s too long, complicated, and while it is absolutely compelling for some readers, it isn’t going to work for a whole class with mixed ability and interests.

The moral of this story is that if you are up for getting feedback you need to be open to what people tell you. And if you are lucky you might find an eight-year-old like Alice who will make you the biggest author in the world.

How to get started with beta readers

Beta readers are unpaid readers of a work in progress. Here’s some tips on how to find, recruit, brief and manage them – and enjoy the process.

  1. Audience: Work out who’s your target reader and where they hang out so you can recruit the right beta readers for your work in progress.
  2. Expectations: Be clear what’s involved, what you expect from people and what they get in return. You can use perks to boost recruitment – explain if people get free books or their name in the acknowledgements. But remember beta readers do this for love not money!
  3. Feedback: You’ll only get the right feedback if you ask the right questions, so think about what’s important for you to ask, or design exercises to give you what you need.
  4. Logistics: Think about how you’ll receive feedback, whether it is face to face, online or by email or using a collaborative writing tool like Google Docs.
  5. Be open: Listen, learn and use feedback to improve what you’re writing. You don’t have to accept everything that everyone says, but pick up on patterns.
  6. Enjoy. When you get it right, people will notice. You’ve worked hard so appreciate positive feedback and learn to take a compliment – you’ve earned it.
  7. Gratitude: Thank your readers – they have given up their valuable time and attention to help you. Let them know how much you appreciate them.
  8. Give back: Support your community of writers and become a beta reader – you’ll get as much from the experience as the writer will.

How to Raise the Stakes in Your Story

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School.

Here is the link to this article.

Feel like your plot is falling flat? Learn how to raise your story's stakes today, and you'll never have to worry about whether readers find your book interesting!

Kristen Kieffer

Let’s raise the stakes! Keeping readers engaged in your story is, of course, paramount. And one of the easiest ways to ensure readers keep turning pages is to thread your novel with powerful stakes. Raising the stakes means making sure your characters always have something to lose.

For them, something important is at risk. And that risk can have a huge impact, heightening your story’s conflict, adding thrilling tension and suspense, revealing new truths about your characters, propelling their emotional journeys forward, and more!

But how do you go about building powerful stakes for your story? And how can you raise the stakes when your story seems to be running out of steam? Let’s dive in to today’s breakdown!

Begin by identifying your story’s core stakes…

Every story has core stakes, something your main character risks losing for nearly the whole of your novel. Nailing these core stakes is huge because without them you risk your plot reading like a series of unrelated events rather a cohesive and thrilling narrative. 

That’s right: in many ways, the success of your story is staked on the success of your story’s stakes. Wrap your head around that for a moment, why dontcha?

Your novel’s core stakes are inherently tied to your main character. After all, they’re the ones readers will spend the most time with, so making sure that readers can jump into their shoes — or, at the very least, find their journey intriguing — is key.

That is why it’s imperative to know your main character inside and out. Before considering your novel’s stakes, I highly recommend working through my exercise on writing strong, well-developed characters.

Already done? Great! Let’s learn how to build your novel’s core stakes. Begin by asking yourself the following questions:

1. What does my main character want (e.g. happiness, revenge, forgiveness, love, etc)?

2. How does my main character plan to achieve this? In other words, what is my character’s story goal?

3. WHY does my main character want to achieve this goal? What’s their motivation?

4. How is the path to achieving this goal out of my main character’s comfort zone? 

5. What does my main character stand to lose if they don’t achieve their goal?

6. How will my main character’s life, beliefs, etc. change for the worse if they don’t achieve their goal?

7. If my main character fails to achieve their goal, what are the consequences for those my main character loves? 

But don’t stop there. After asking these questions about your main character, repeat this exercise (using the same questions) for your story’s antagonist. Doing so will help you create a realistic and complex antagonist whom readers can sympathize with, skyrocketing your story’s tension.

(If your story has no antagonist, don’t worry. It’s perfectly alright for your main character to be their own worst enemy. Completing this exercise will still help you create powerful stakes. Just make sure to pay extra attention to the emotional stakes outlined below.)

By completing this first step, you’ll craft a basic outline of your story’s plot and character arcs, naturally constructing the core stakes that will hook readers into your story and keep them intrigued for the long haul.

Next, raise the emotional stakes…

Your story’s stakes keep readers so well engaged because they appeal to your readers’ emotions and senses. Taking extra care to amplify these items throughout your story can go a long way in continuing to engage your readers on every single page.

Remember, your story shouldn’t solely be comprised of its core stakes. There should also be smaller stakes at play during individual scenes and chapters. Using emotional stakes during these moments can help flesh out your characters and add to your story’s suspense.

To begin building emotional stakes, you’re going to need to be cruel. This means putting your main character in situations that will compromise their security, and I don’t just mean in a physical sense. To raise the emotional stakes, begin by identifying these three factors:


What is your character afraid of and why? Move beyond physical fears (e.g. spiders, heights, the dark) and think about the emotional ones. Is your character afraid of dying alone? Of commitment? Of falling in love with someone who doesn’t love them back? Of losing their best friend?

Try to think of at least three emotional fears your character faces, then identify why it is your character is so afraid of these situations. What in their past has caused them to worry over these situations so deeply?


What are your main character’s worst traits? Are they quick to anger? Prideful or arrogant? Greedy as anything? Think about negative traits that your character is aware of, as well as those they aren’t. How do these negative traits hold them back from becoming the person they’d like to be?

Also, take the time to consider any traits that aren’t necessarily flaws, but that your character doesn’t like about themselves all the same (i.e. their shyness, bad sense of humor, lack of public speaking skills, etc).


Has your character done anything they wish they hadn’t? Or perhaps they wish they had done something they didn’t? 

Try to think of at least two situations where your character felt regret or remorse, and consider how these experiences shaped them. Do they fear experiencing these situations all over again? Have these situations riddled them with guilt or shame?

Now that you have a strong understanding of who your character is at their worst, it’s time to be a little cruel. Begin brainstorming situations in which your characters will have to face these emotional hurdles, then work them into your plot.

Forcing your character far outside of their comfort zone, into situations where they must be brave and overcome or revert to the person they don’t want to be, will continue to keep your readers on the edges of their seats.

Finally, amplify your story’s tension…

One of the reasons why stakes are so important is because they create tension — a feeling of unrest that will keep your readers turning pages until the moment that unrest is resolved. Here are three easy ways to add additional unrest to your story that will heighten your stakes to a whole new level.


The most classic stake-raising trick is to add a countdown to your conflict. In other words, if your character doesn’t achieve X in a certain amount of time, then big consequences will ensue. Nothing will make readers fly through pages faster than knowing your character will lose something huge if they don’t meet a deadline.


Another trick to raise your story’s stakes is to put your character in a situation that brings out their primal instincts. 

Everyone wants to feel safe and secure, physically, financially, emotionally, and so on. By putting your main character — or those they love — in a position where they lack such safety and security, you’ll force your character into survival mode. 

The consequences if your character doesn’t succeed are high, but readers also know that people in survival mode often make rash decisions. This heightens your story’s drama and suspense, keeping readers curious about what your character will do next.

#3: R-E-S-P-E-C-T

In true Aretha Franklin fashion, respect — particularly as it concerns a person’s beliefs or reputation — means a great deal. When the very essence of your character is on the line, the stakes are high. Placing your character in a situation where they’re forced to question their beliefs or face the loss of their reputation, is an easy way to add instant tension to your story.

Remember, your story’s stakes are deeply entwined with your plot and characters, so it very well may be that you’ve already begun building your stakes without even realizing it.

That said, it’s always good to keep in mind the structure behind your story’s stakes so you can continue to intentionally heighten them as you write and edit. The hard work is always worth it when you wow your readers with a book they just can’t put down!

Ten Reasons to Write Your Novel in Scrivener

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School.

Here is the link to this article.

Traditional word processors like Microsoft Word and Google Docs are fantastic entry-level writing tools, but their limited features can prove frustrating when working on long-form projects.

That’s why I love writing my novels and non-fiction books in Scrivener, a writing app designed with the complexities of developing, drafting, and revising major projects in mind. Scrivener’s interface combines traditional word processing with advanced file-and-folder organization; easy research and reference tools; and other incredible features that simplify long-form work.

As much as I love Scrivener, I’d be lying if I said the app didn’t come with a learning curve. That’s why I intend to share a series of free Scrivener video tutorials here on the blog. But first, allow me to break down ten ways that creatives can benefit from writing their novels in Scrivener.


One of Scrivener’s best features is the Binder, an easy-to-navigate sidebar that stores the unlimited files and folders one can create within a single project.

With the Binder, writers no longer need to house an entire manuscript in one document or shuffle between dozens of files to find the right chapter or set of notes. The Binder makes project management easier than ever.



Scrivener features dozens of unique tools, such as project bookmarks, targets, collections, and keywords. The customizable Scrivener toolbar makes it easy to access your favorite features with ease.



If you’re a writer who thrives under pressure, then you’ll love using Scrivener’s project and document targets. Use these features to hold yourself accountable to your goals by setting deadlines and target word counts. You can also activate a visual progress bar and push notifications to keep yourself on track.



Using Scrivener’s Split the Editor and Copyholder features, you can easily view multiple files at once as you work, meaning you never have to switch between two or more windows to view your notes or drafts again.


Have no fear if your project demands endless research. With Scrivener, you can easily import and organize your references in forms ranging from images and text to webpages, audio and video files, multi-markdown files, and more.


All of Scrivener’s bells and whistles needn’t prove a distraction. When it comes time to get some serious words on the page, the full-screen Composition Mode can easily help you find your focus.


Never lose another important thought as you write. When working on a file, you can use Scrivener’s Inspector sidebar to give your document a synopsis, capture revision notes, leave comments on lines of text, and more.


With Scrivener, you don’t need to create a fresh document every time you start a new draft. Instead, you can use the Snapshots feature to capture a version of your work, which you can then view or revert to at any time.


Scrivener boasts several features that allow you to manage the complexities of long-form work. You can use the Corkboard and Outliner modes to visually assess and re-order your documents, tag files with helpful labels and statuses, and even create your own project keywords to easily navigate your work.



With your manuscript complete, you can easily format and export your work as a variety of file types ranging from .mobi and .epub e-book files to paperback proofs, Microsoft Word documents, and beyond.


The benefits of these core features are some of the biggest reasons why I love writing in Scrivener, though tools like Collections, Project Statistics, and easy back-up options also lend to what make this writing app so incredible. Think you might like to give it a try for yourself?

Frustrated with the limited capabilities of traditional word processors? Here are ten reasons why I love writing my novels in Scrivener instead!

Scrivener is available for Mac and Windows users for a one-time fee of $49 USD or a one-time fee of $19.99 for iOS (ex: iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch). You can also take advantage of their amazing free trial, which doesn’t expire for 30 working days.

* These are affiliate links, meaning I’ll earn commission on sales made via these links at no extra cost to you. Thank you for supporting Well-Storied!



Streamline your writing process and tell better stories by harnessing the power of this epic app for writers. Enroll in Storytelling With Scrivener today!

Have You Chosen the Right Main Character to Tell Your Story?

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School.

Here is the link to this article.

Main characters can make or break a story’s success. But how do you know if you’ve selected the perfect protagonist? The answer may be simpler than you think!

Episode #44: Have You Chosen the Right Main Character to Tell Your Story?

Kristen Kieffer | The Well-Storied Podcast

Main characters can make or break a story’s success.

Oftentimes, the doubts we face as we work to bring our main characters to life can seem endless. Are our protagonists’ well-rounded enough? Are they interesting? Will readers root for them to achieve their goal? 

Choosing the right main character to carry the weight of your story is absolutely vital, but knowing whether you’ve selected the perfect protagonist can be tricky — or is it? Truth is: knowing you’ve chosen the right main character for your story doesn’t have to be complicated. Here’s why!

Can your protagonist carry the weight of your story?

A successful main character must be able to bear the weight of your story’s plot, but what exactly does that mean? A few things, actually. Let’s break ‘em down:


As events in your story begin to unfold, is there a strong reason your protagonist gets drawn into them? Perhaps a better question would be: what’s at stake for your protagonist if they don’t get involved? How is the price of inaction worse than the potential consequences of action?

If your main character could just as easily stay out of the mire of your story’s plot — and face little consequence as a result — you likely haven’t chosen or crafted a character who can truly carry the weight of your story’s plot.


Think your story doesn’t have or need a theme? Think again, my friend! Even the most action-driven stories are built on theme, which is just another world for the main subject(s) a book discusses. Not convinced?

Just think of Indiana Jones and its themes of good vs. evil, family, forgiveness, and integrity; or Jason Bourne and identity, corruption, and injustice. Talk about two action-heavy series, right?

Themes define stories — all stories — and so strong protagonists must be able to not only interact with those themes, but interact with them in ways that other characters could not. In other words, it’s time to make things personal for your protagonist. Tell a story that only they could tell.

What makes the stakes and themes in a story so important? Simply put, it’s the stakes characters face that push them to action, while themes are discussed as a result of that action. So naturally, a character must be able to carry the weight of both of these elements if they’re to serve as a powerful protagonist.

But just because a character can carry the weight of these elements doesn’t mean they’re automatically the right character to serve as the protagonist of your story. There remains one more element we need to discuss…

Does your protagonist have the right perspective?

Your main character is the lens through which readers will see your story, so ensuring they present readers with the right lens is key. But how can you know which character will best serve this vital role? Again, we go back to theme — or, to be more specific, thematic statements.

Oftentimes, authors choose to discuss certain themes in their stories because they want to address those themes head on. What they wish to say about each theme via their story’s plot or character arcs is known as a thematic statement.

As we discussed in our article on themes, authors should not view thematic statements as an opportunity to bash readers over the head with a specific message. Rather, a good thematic statement allows readers to draw conclusions about the story’s themes as a result of the protagonist’s experiences.

(Confused? I’d recommend checking out our articles on theme and character arcs.)

Knowing your thematic statement is key to choosing the right protagonist for your story for one simple reason: there are endless statements an author can make about a single theme and only certain characters can make those statements. Let’s talk about the theme of family for example…

Through their main character’s arc, an author can make any of these statements about family:

  • Family will always have your back.
  • You should stay loyal to family, no matter what.
  • You don’t have to maintain relationships with toxic family members.
  • Your parents’ failures don’t have to define who you are.
  • Family isn’t always blood.
  • Families aren’t always perfect, but they’re still family.

So, what statement(s) do you want to make about the themes in your story? 

Once you’ve defined your answer, it’s time to consider whether the main character you’ve chosen for your book is truly the best character to relate this thematic statement. If they don’t have the right perspective, they won’t be able to serve as the proper lens and your story’s thematic statement may fall flat. Need an example?

Let’s look at The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.

One of the main themes in The Lord of the Rings is the corruption of power. The statement that Tolkien makes about this topic is that even the lowest among us have the power to fight corruption. This is why Frodo, of the lowly Hobbit race, is chosen by Tolkien to carry the Ring — the symbol of corruption — to be destroyed in the fires of Mordor.

If Tolkien had given any of his other prominent characters this role, his story wouldn’t have had the same impact. Case in point? Gandalf is a wizard and a demigod. Aragorn is a long-lost heir to a wealthy kingdom. Gimli is of a race of master craftsmen with great ambitions, and Legolas is of an ancient, powerful race of elves. 

None of these characters closely resemble the everyday reader Tolkien was trying to reach. But Frodo is of the simple Hobbit folk. He has no claim to power or fame, no incredible skill. He sets out only with a strong moral compass and a simple desire for something more than what he’s be given. 

And that’s why his perspective on the world makes him the perfect main character to carry the weight of Tolkien’s story. 

What else makes for a powerful protagonist?

If you’ve chosen a character who can carry the weight of your story — who has a stake in the story’s plot and the right perspective with which to tell the story you’d like to tell — you’ve likely chosen the right main character for your book.

Now it’s time to make sure you crafted a strong main character, one that captivates readers’ interests and drives the story’s narrative. How can you do just that? Simple:



Strong characters have depth and complexity. Take the time to create a character who is as real as the people around you. How? Get started with our article on the 33 ways you can write stronger characters or our free video on crafting well-developed characters.



Strong characters aren’t pushed around by your story’s plot; they push it. How so? By having a strong goal and the motivation to achieve it. So don’t skimp out on plotting a powerful story that only your protagonist could tell.



To read more of Beemgee’s writing craft articles click here

How to Beemgee: Features and Functions of the Character Developer

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School.

Here is the link to this article.

Developing the dramatic function of the characters determines the narrative.

When you work out what the characters do and why they do it, you are effectively working on your plot.

Find a video here.

The Beemgee character-builder asks you a series of questions about each of your main characters. Answering them will help you find their role and importance in narrative.

Always try to keep your answers as concise as possible. And above all, always remember that knowing the answers to these questions is not enough. You must show your audience what you have answered through scenes. That means there must be plot events that convey what you have answered here to your readers or viewers.

Working on Characters

Work on Character or Plot
Work on Character or Plot

Click into the CHARACTER area of Beemgee. By the way, stay in the same browser window, whether you’re working on PLOT, CHARACTER or STEP OUTLINE – having one project open in multiple windows may result in some of your input being lost.

In the CHARACTER area you’ll land in COMPARE-view, where you can add a character card for each of the major figures in your story.

Click into a character card and write the name of a character. To create a new character click one of the plus signs above an active character card. If you’ve added characters in the PLOT area, you will see that each of them has a card here.

Use the DEVELOP-COMPARE switch to get into the Beemgee character-builder itself.

The character builder is about a lot more than characterisation. The plot of a story consists of the actions of the characters. The character-builder is a sequence of questions designed to help you discover the dramatic function of each of your main characters in the story, specifically by defining their actions and the motivations behind these actions.

Individual character questions in single view.
Answer individual character questions in single view.

Answer each question carefully and succinctly, and this should help you determine the plot.

Whenever you’re ready, go back to the COMPARE-view to see all of the characters. Compare and contrast your answers for each character by activating the attribute you want to see in the sidebar.

Click the attribute in the sidebar to turn on the grid beneath the cards. To edit in the grid, click the pencil icon.

You can drag and drop your character cards into any order you want. We suggest that you keep your main characters to the left.

To delete a character card, drag it upwards. A bin will appear. Attention: Once in the bin, the card and all your inputs associated with it will be irretrievably deleted.

If the answers you typed in the DEVELOP view were too long to fit into the text fields in the COMPARE view, there is a PREMIUM function in the tool bar with which you can increase the grid size.

You may edit your input texts in the compare view per attribute by clicking the pencil icon in the active attribute button. Then click into any of the texts for this attribute. The cursor will appear at the end of the text. Use the arrow key to move the cursor and edit.

If you do not require all the attributes in the sidebar, consider hiding some of them.

Sidebar options
Sidebar options

Clicking the three dots at the bottom of the sidebar will take you to a window where you can make all available attributes visible or invisible in the sidebar (this is the case whether you are in the character or plot area). In the character-builder, that means one attribute per question.

Select Attributes
Select Attributes

Make your selection of which attributes you want to be able to activate through the sidebar, then click the x to exit this page.

For more on how to develop your plot with Beemgee, click here.

Anywhere in the Beemgee tool, consult the in-app help texts under the | ? | button in the tool bar to find out more about an active function.

Have fun developing your characters!

How To Save Your Outline

Beemgee saves your project automatically, so there is no “Save” button.

If you have signed up to an account, FREE or PREMIUM, you can log out and close the project window at the end of each session. The next time you log in, go to the global menu top left next to the logo.

In the menu you will find “All stories”. Select the project you want to work on.

If you are not a registered user, you may press the share icon in the top menu bar, above right.

Share/Save Button
Share/Save Button

Click the share button to send yourself the link to your outline. Beemgee has created a unique URL for your project. Keep this link safe – calling it up later will take you back to the state of your project as you left it.

There are three ways of keeping this link:

1) send yourself the link per e-mail using the form provided under the share icon, top right of screen
2) copy the complete link out of the URL bar at the top of your browser and save it somewhere
3) bookmark this page in your browser or using a bookmarking service.

Want to show your project to someone else? Send them the link. Anybody with the unique link to your project will be able to see and edit your work.

To read more of Beemgee’s writing craft articles click here

The Differences Between Authoring and Writing and How to Author a Story

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School.

Here is the link to this article.

Stefen Emunds portrait

Today’s guest post is by author Stefan Emunds.

Stefan’s favorite genre is visionary fiction – stories that have an enlightenment dimension. Enlightenment and storytelling have interesting parallels, which prompted Stefan to write a book about storytelling – The Eight Crafts of Writing

Get a glimpse of his approach to story craft in his article.

Art and Craft

Storytelling is both art and craft, authoring and writing, plotting and pantsing.

1.1 Art and Authoring

Art is creativity. Creativity requires receptivity to the Muse and its inspirations.

Inspirations arrive as thought-images, which writers put into words. How to turn thought-images into words and assemble those into a structured story with vivid characters and an engrossing world is a matter of craft and skill.

1.2 Craft and Writing

The literal meaning of Kung Fu is a discipline achieved through hard work and persistent practice. Writing is Kung Fu.

Craft gives form to inspirations. Forms limit. Writers love the artistic side of writing, less so crafting, in particular, Story Outline. Writers are prone to procrastinate crafting.

But no limitations, no story. No canvas, no painting. No net, no tennis.

Understanding the difference between freedom and dominion helps to appreciate the constraints of craft. Freedom is a means to an end. We want to be free to do something, for example, to write a book. That’s all there is to freedom. Dominion, on the other hand, is mastery of structure. 

1.3 The Authoring and Writing Phases

If a task is too complex, break it down into a series of small and manageable tasks. Allow me to break down storytelling into the following stages and phases: 

Overview Authoring Writing Phases

In this article, we will have a closer look at the authoring stage.

2. How to Author a Story

The authoring stage comprises three phases:

  • The conception phase
  • The contextual phase
  • The outlining phase

2.1 The Conception Phase

The Muse seduces a writer and gets him pregnant.

We conceive inspirations as fragments, or rather puzzle pieces, for example, an interesting what-if, the image of a quirky character, a cool inciting incident, a mind-blowing scene, or a riveting dialoguefragment.

Why don’t you capture those inspirations in a story overview? A story overview is a drone view of the most important story elements:

  1. Adversity
  2. Antagonist
  3. Protagonist
  4. Inciting incident
  5. Stakes
  6. Story goal
  7. Midpoint
  8. Key ability
  9. All-is-lost moment
  10. Climax
  11. Conclusion

You could summarize your story elements in a word or two and jot down additional thoughts below them.

The story elements make up your story engine. Upon completing and assembling your story engine, your story will run, meaning it will write itself.

2.2 The Contextual Phase

The purpose of the contextual phase: Finding the missing story elements.

While the first inspirations for your story came uninvited and effortless, requesting targeted inspirations from the Muse is a hard earned skill. Let’s call this skill focussed meditation. Focussed meditation synchronizes focus and receptivity, in this case the focus on a missing story element and the receptivity to the Muse.

The problem: During focussed meditation, subconsciousness will remind you of things you experienced, read in books, or watched in movies, things that aren’t original. Likely, you will have to ignore ten such memory diversions to receive original ideas. Some professional authors collect up to twenty options for each story element before choosing one.

Completing the story engine can take weeks, if not months. A notoriously difficult item to nail is the climax. Mind that many literary works that excel in prose and drama lack inspiring climaxes.

Sometimes, you won’t be able to hear the Muse. In this case, you need to fall back to your reservoir of personal experiences, books you read, or movies you watched and innovate or steal something. This is perfectly fine, and every artist does that.

Good artists copy. Great artists steal.

– Pablo Picasso

Great artists steal. They don’t do homages.

– Quentin Tarantino

2.4 The Outlining Phase

The tasks of the outlining phase are:

  1. Deciding on a genre
  2. Deciding on a narrative frame and/or POV)
  3. Accomplishing basic characterizations and world building
  4. Outlining the scenes

2.4.1 Genre

Genre manages readers’ expectations.

Stories have external and internal genres. Examples of external genres are thrillerromance, and adventure.

Examples of internal genres are redemptioneducation, and revelation.

2.4.2 Narrative

Narrative comprises three things:

  • The author’s voice
  • The narrative frame
  • The POV

A narrative frame determines the angle from which a story is told: why, to whom, and when. For example, a narrative frame could be an interview or an interrogation. Epistolary novels and fictional diaries are narrative frames.

Persons can be narrative frames too, for example, Dr. Watson in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. In such cases, the narrative frame and POV overlap.

2.4.3 Basic Characterization and World Building

Usually, the story world and characters reveal themselves while writing. But some characterizations and world building elements impact story outline, for example, the protagonist’s flaw and motivation determine the story’s midpoint. If you nail them prior to writing, it will help with the first draft and reduce the danger of rewriting.

An example of a world building element that affects story outline is the story world’s power structure that the protagonist and antagonist need to navigate.

2.4.4 Story and Scene Outline

The next step is structuring your story according to story outline principles and genre conventions.

For that, you can use the Hero’s Journey, the Virgin’s Promise, Robert McKee’s Five Commandments, or other story outline methods.

The key scenes from your story’s outline and the key scenes of the story’s genre will give you fifty to sixty scenes to write, et voilà, you got your story’s skeleton.

3. Take Your Time Authoring

In his book Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting, Robert McKee suggests that successful screenplay writers spend two-thirds of storytelling time on authoring and one-third on writing.

In the case of fiction, the ratio is probably something like 50/50. Literary fiction writers need to demonstrate exceptional prose and may end up with 30/70.

This ratio is a time ratio, not an effort ratio. Let’s assume your story takes twelve months to write. This means that you will spend six months on authoring your story. Likely, you will author just an hour or two every day, sometimes not at all for a couple of days. While it takes six months to author your story, you may have only worked on it – accumulated – forty-five days. While the time ratio of authoring/writing is 50/50, effort-wise it is something like 20/80.

What to do with all that free time? You can promote your published books. Or you can author a new story while you are still writing your current one.

The Writing Phase

Sit at your laptop and bleed your fifty to sixty scenes.

To read more of Beemgee’s writing craft articles click here

How to Hone Your Writing Process With a Step Outline

I’m currently taking a writing and blogging sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School.

Here is the link to this article.

Mel Lee-Smith

About The Author: Mel Lee-Smith is a freelance writer, editor, and word nerd with a lifelong passion for the craft. She’s been writing since she was old enough to hold a pencil and telling stories since she was old enough to talk. That passion led her to pursue a master’s degree in Creative & Critical Writing from the University of Winchester in England.

Mel now lives in Ireland with her husband and their cuddly calico. When she’s not crafting bespoke, branded content for her freelance clients, she’s retelling her family’s larger-than-life stories in her novel, Escape Artist. Connect with her on Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably spent more time daydreaming about the TV or film adaptation of your novel than you care to admit. While some might consider this procrastinating, visualizing your story this way is only natural — our brains process visual information best, after all.

Any writer will attest that translating those visions into immersive prose is one of the many challenges of the craft. Sometimes, while drafting my Southern lit novel, Escape Artist, I find myself wishing I could just enter the story world and take notes. It’s all too easy to lose track of important details when plotting a novel

Enter the step outline, a streamlined synopsis of a screenplay that breaks down each scene into individual actions. I learned how to create a step outline in my Scriptwriting class while completing my MA in Creative & Critical Writing. I quickly discovered scriptwriting isn’t my strong suit, but the step outline has been an invaluable tool in my writing arsenal ever since.

What is a step outline? How can you adapt it for your novel? What are the best methods for step outlining? Let’s dive in.

Photo by Windows on Unsplash
Photo by Windows on Unsplash

What is a step outline?

The step outline is a bare-bones outline of a screenplay, or for our purposes, a novel. Some step outline pros liken it to a full “report” of the narrative, while others insist it’s not the birthplace of the story. (I agree — developing your characters and a rough overview of your narrative should come first.)

Each scene is broken down into “steps”, or individual actions. Here’s an example from Writing for the Screen by Craig Batty:

  1. Paul finishes his novel. 
  2. Paul heads for home through the snow. 
  3. Paul crashes his car. 
  4. Paul is rescued.

The point of the step outline, according to Batty, is to clarify the purpose of each scene. Condensing each scene into a concise action establishes narrative momentum and allows you to quickly audit your plot.

Tip: When creating your step outline, omit exposition and description. That comes later. Focus on action.

Methods of Step Outlining

I recommend two methods for step outlining: a master list and scene cards (digital and analog both work just fine).


I call it a list, but it’s important to note that the step outline isn’t just a giant list of scenes. Think of it more like a chain of interlocking events. You should be able to see the narrative structure unfold as you read through your outline: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution, etc.

A master list condenses your story into one fluid document, allowing you to view your whole narrative at a glance. Scrivener’s Outline feature and custom metadata fields work really well for this.

My master list is in a Google Doc and formatted with headings so I can navigate it easily. (You’ll even get a sneak peek later in this article!)


Whether you choose to use paper index cards, Scrivener’s corkboard, or another medium, scene cards are a staple of the writing process. Physically moving (or dragging and dropping) your scene cards also adds a tactile element to plotting.

A sneak peek of my step outline for Escape Artist

Inspired by true stories and real people, Escape Artist is a fictionalized retelling of the stories my family passed down to me. It’s set in rural South Carolina and spans over 70 years, beginning in 1932. 

Full disclosure: I use both a master list and scene cards. I know, I know — sounds a little crazy, but there is a method to my madness. For starters, I work as a freelance writer and editor, so screen-time overload and burnout are real. Working with paper and colorful pens gets my creative juices flowing and prevents eye strain. 

But I also wanted the option to access my step outline at any time, since I occasionally write at coffee shops and other places. Obviously, I can’t lug around my bulletin boards and index cards everywhere I go. (Could you imagine the looks I’d get if I went full-on Charlie Day at my local café?)

Anyway, without further ado, here’s a sneak peek of the master list for “White Lightnin’”, the first chapter:

chapter 1 master list scenes.png

I chose to omit some of the less important scenes that didn’t serve the plot, like Daniel’s sister, Mabel, coming down for breakfast and Ben preaching at Daniel to ease up on drinking.

What this outline doesn’t describe are the “butter-rich scents of vegetable stew, cornbread, and wood-stove fire” warming every corner of the McCullough cabin, or Ben “flicking his newspaper open, giving Daniel a flimsy shield from his agitation.”

It also doesn’t describe the characters or how they’re related. That’s because this step outline is (technically) meant for my eyes only. I know that Ben and Estelle are Daniel’s parents, that Lena is the family dog, and that Jacob and Edna are Daniel’s children by his first wife. The step outline isn’t the place to discuss those details.

Screen Shot 2020-04-29 at 2.15.09 PM.png

I stack scene cards and clip them to a blue chapter card. I then pin them to a bulletin board, split into three columns for part one, part two, and part three. I also have two smaller bulletin boards above my desk where I pin scenes I haven’t started or finished drafting. That makes it easier for me to know what to work on when I sit down to write.


On the back of each scene card is the date. (My WIP covers 70 years, so I gotta keep the timeline straight!) I also number my scene cards in pencil in case I need to move them around later. Finally, I add notes to scene cards to indicate their status: not started, needs finishing, and drafted.

Step outlining as a writing exercise or editing aid

Maybe you’ve already created a detailed outline of your project and aren’t keen to overhaul the whole thing. Or maybe you’ve finished your first draft and are elbow-deep in revisions. No matter where you are in the process, step outlining can provide clarity and accelerate your momentum.

If you feel a scene lacks direction or you’re questioning whether a scene serves the story, try making a mini step outline. Grab a sheet of paper or open your preferred writing program and jot down the steps of the chapter or scene. Consider what absolutely must happen to advance the narrative or build character.

I’ve created my step outline. Now what?

Congrats! You’ve got a solid step outline and you’re itching to dive back into drafting or editing — but you hit a snag. Some of your steps aren’t working. Maybe you realize you can remove some links from the chain without breaking it. Or maybe your chain is broken and you need to add more links somewhere.

That’s okay. That’s what the step outline is for. Its beauty lies in its flexibility. If you find that your steps aren’t serving the story, cut them, rework them — do what you need to do. I’ve reworked a good chunk of my step outline since I began writing Escape Artist in September 2018.

Need more inspiration? The Sticking Place has a helpful list of step outlines from famous films.

One final tip for creating a strong step outline

Use strong verbs. One of the top tips for writing well also applies to outlining.

Compare these two examples from my own step outline:

  • Daniel goes to Greenville to prep for the first run, sees Ruth walking down the driveway after church, to Mr. McCullough’s annoyance.
  • Daniel drives to Greenville to prep for the first run, ogles Ruth walking down the driveway after church, to Mr. McCullough’s annoyance.

The first example, while technically accurate, lacks essential information. Remember, the step outline deals with actions. Be descriptive but concise.

Using a scriptwriting tool for plotting fiction: final thoughts

The step outline is essentially the bedrock of your plot, a foundation on which to build your best work. Even though it’s primarily used in scriptwriting, the step outline is one of my favorite fiction writing tools. It’s helped me pare down a gigantic narrative to its core. If you choose to experiment with step outlining, I hope you find it as useful as I have.

Once you’ve completed your step outline, you’re free to refine it, rework it, and flesh it out however you like. Consider adding other scriptwriting elements, like visual framing, to turn those idle daydreams into a real page-turner.