This page will present different tips on how to write strong, convincing, moving stories of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. We’ll discuss issues relating to all the major elements of fiction: setting, characterization, point of view, plot, style, symbolism, theme, and genre. Check in periodically for new writing tips.
We’ll start with a very basic issue. Punctuation. I know, you were hoping for something more glamorous. But tough. This is important. Many developing writers feel that since they’re being creative, they can be creative with their punctuation. A comma goes where it feels right, right?
But nothing turns off an editor faster than incorrect grammar or punctuation. If you really want to write well, you must learn the rules by which the English language functions. Thinking you can write well without knowing the rules of punctuation is like an architect thinking he can design a building without knowing the principles of physics and engineering. The building will not stand. And your story will not stand, either, when it is built from sentences incorrectly punctuated.
Punctuation is an important tool for a writer. Through it, the writer can tell the reader how a sentence is to be read and how different parts of a sentence relate to each other. The rules governing punctuation are not difficult to learn. Take some time to learn the rules below and practice using the various punctuation marks. Once you learn these rules, you’ll know them for life, and they will help strengthen your writing for life.
- PART 1: THE COMMA
- PART 2: THE SEMICOLON
Exercises for Part 2
- PART 3: THE COLON
Exercises for Part 3
- PART 4: THE APOSTROPHE
Exercises for Part 4
- PART 5: QUOTATION MARKS
Exercises for Part 5
- PART 6: END PUNCTUATION
Exercises for Part 6
- PART 7: OTHER PUNCTUATION (DASH, PARENTHESIS, BRACKET, ELLIPSIS, SLASH)
Exercises for Part 7
#2 Outlining Your Plot
The plot forms the underlying structure of your story, and if that structure is weak, the story will be weak as well. Many times it’s hard for the writer to see the underlying structure of his own story, and this makes it impossible for the writer to judge whether this structure is effective and whether it is the best possible structure for the story.
One powerful method of revealing the structure of a story is to outline it. The outline reveals the bones of the story like an X-ray. You may outline a story before you write it, creating the framework of bones and then building on it, or you may write a rough draft of the story first and then outline it, revealing the underlying framework and making necessary adjustments.
Here’s how to outline.
Number each scene in the story. Start with the first scene, number one, and summarize what happens in this scene. Focus on how the plot is advanced. Below your summary, answer the following questions about this scene:
- Have any conflicts been introduced?
- Have any previously existing conflicts been resolved?
- Have any conflicts grown in complexity or evolved in unexpected ways?
- What new questions have I raised in the reader’s mind?
- What previous questions have I answered?
- What is the reader thinking/feeling at this point?
- What/who does the reader care about and why?
- What is at stake here? Are the stakes higher or lower than in previous scenes?
- What is generating suspense for the reader? Is this the correct level of suspense for this scene? Is the pace what it should be?
- Have I surprised the reader in this scene, and is the surprise believable?
- What does the main character want, has it changed and has the character changed? What choices does the main character have? What choices does he make?
- What does the reader now expect will happen in the next scene?
- These questions all help to define the structure and nature of your plot and to reveal any weaknesses.
Now go to the next scene and do the same thing.
When you have outlined the entire story, look at the events described in your summaries and note where one event causes another. Connect these events with arrows. The strongest plots are created by cause/effect chains. This makes the story feel more like a row of dominoes falling over, unstoppable and inevitable, rather than a series of random occurrences arranged for the convenience of the author.
Now study the answers to the list of questions for all your scenes. Chart where conflicts are introduced and where they are resolved, where questions are raised and answered, how the reader’s feelings evolve over the course of the story, whether suspense and surprise are used appropriately and effectively, and whether the main character changes over the course of the story. Check for loose ends. See whether you’ve set up reader’s expectations so that surprises are powerful. Make sure the reader always has something to care/worry about. Draw a graph of the suspense level of the reader throughout the story. Look for any scenes or aspects of the plot that could be strengthened. Experiment with different possibilities. Decide which changes will most strengthen the story. Revise the outline to incorporate these changes.
Outlining is a very powerful tool, and the questions I’ve given you here are just a starting point. You can also create sub-outlines that deal with only a specific aspect of the plot, such as the evolution of the main character.
Now go try your hand at it!
#3 Negative Information
Writers often use negative information because it’s easier and can give the illusion of being poetic. An author gives negative information when he tells us what did not happen, rather than what did happen; or what wasn’t there, instead of what was; or what almost or nearly happened, instead of what actually happened. This is a very weak way of writing, because it offers us no concrete information or images. We can’t feel like we’re there, because we don’t vividly see what is happening. About 99% of the time, it’s better to eliminate negative information and rephrase it as positive information.
For example, instead of saying, “He nearly fell,” you could say, “He stumbled.” That is more precise and more vivid. Instead of saying, “This stranger Keller seldom lapsed from memory,” you could say, “Keller’s image lingered in her mind.”
Other examples, from manuscripts I’ve recently read:
- “I didn’t look back.”
- “I don’t know what I’m going to do with you gone,” he almost whimpered.
- But Japper was not a one-man army.
- “Funny.” Smith didn’t laugh. He didn’t even smile.
#4 Similes and Metaphors
I find that many authors write weak similes and metaphors. Part of the reason for this is that they don’t understand the purposes of figurative language. Similes and metaphors can serve several different purposes, such as creating atmosphere and introducing symbolism, but the main purpose of these techniques is to help describe something that’s difficult to describe. The author thinks, “Okay, I can’t really describe X, so instead I’ll compare it to Y, with which readers are very familiar, so they can see X more easily.” That can work very well. But many times writers compare an X to a Y that we aren’t familiar with, so X is not illuminated by the comparison. This strange Y is distracting or confusing, rather than helpful. Other problems are that Y may not be a true parallel to X, or that an author compares X to several different things, and those things create contradictory images.
For example, “Simon leapt to his feet like a man who had just emerged from a time warp.”
I have no idea how a man who has just emerged from a time warp would jump to his feet, so this doesn’t help me picture the way Dexter leapt to his feet. Instead, I’m distracted by the idea of time warps, and a man emerging from them, which has nothing to do with this story.
Another example: “‘Come in,’ I heard a voice muse through the flame, a voice that sounded like an army of ghostly voices all speaking as one from miles and miles above.”
Above, the author is comparing the voice to an army of ghostly voices miles and miles above. I have no idea what ghosts sound like, let alone ghosts miles and miles above me, so this comparison doesn’t help me hear the voice any more clearly. I end up imagining some corny, clichéd ghost voice from some bad horror movie. That’s not good.
A metaphor example: “And I drove my hand into her chest, into a warm, fleshy glove, felt the ribs scrape over my palm, felt the beating of the Heart.”
I like the fleshy glove comparison very much; I know what a glove feels like, and that allows me to feel a very gross sensation. But the scraping of the ribs contradicts the fleshy glove image. The author needs to keep the imagery consistent.
- They were spinning outward like a never-ending spiral of chaos that wrenched every single atom of John’s being away from his core and into the swirling realities.
- I felt like I was ripped into a thousand tiny pieces and thrown into a tornado.
- The truth hurts. Maybe not as much as jumping on a bicycle with the seat missing, but it hurts.
- She marched down the street like any veteran soldier rolling up the last mile between her and her bed.
Good similes and metaphors are very difficult to write. Just keep trying!
#5 Participial Phrases
Beginning a sentence with a participial phrase is usually jarring and awkward. If you don’t really know what a participial phrase is, you can often spot one by looking for an -ing verb. You won’t find -ing verbs only in participial phrases, but that will be a warning sign, and then you can investigate further. Here’s an example:
Pulling open the rusty door, Joe peered into his darkened chamber, poked the candle past the threshold.
“Pulling open the rusty door” is the participial phrase. These tend to be jarring because we read the whole opening phrase (up to the comma) without knowing who is acting. This can be confusing and misleading. We don’t know which door this is or what the circumstances are until later in the sentence. Unless you want us to feel jarred and disoriented, or unless the previous sentence sets things up very clearly, this structure is usually a bad idea.
Another issue is that when you use a sentence structure with a participial phrase either preceding or following the main clause, what you are saying is that the action of the -ing verb and the action of the main verb occur simultaneously. Let’s take a look at this sentence:
Larry parked the car, walking to sketch select sections of the property that he was particularly interested in.
“Walking to sketch . . .” is the participial phrase. “Larry parked the car” is the main clause (the section with the sentence’s subject and predicate). What this sentence means is that Larry parked and walked simultaneously. That’s not possible. He must park first, then walk.
Rising to her feet, Jane staggered toward the base of the slope.
“Rising to her feet” is the participial phrase, and “Jane staggered . . .” is the main clause. This sentence is saying that Jane rose and Jane staggered toward the base simultaneously. Again, that’s not what she’s doing. She must rise first, then stagger.
Here’s another example:
Quickly looking around the room, Sam tore down the curtains and pulled the curtain rod from the curtains.
The author here is saying that Sam looked around the room and tore down the curtains simultaneously. But that isn’t what the author means. What he means is that Sam looked around the room, saw the curtain rod, and pulled down the curtains to get to the rod (to use it as a weapon). The actions aren’t simultaneous, so the author shouldn’t use a participial phrase. Instead, one might say,
Sam quickly looked around the room, tore down the curtains, and pulled out the curtain rod.
In this case, I think a stronger separation of the looking and the tearing down would be better, to stress his moment of decision. Shorter sentences would also stress the frantic nature of his actions.
He glanced around the room. The curtain rod. He tore down the curtains, pulled out the rod.
Participial phrases can be great, on rare occasion, to jar and disorient the reader. Just make sure you use them at the right time and in the right way. Writing is all about being aware of what you’re doing and making informed decisions in your work.
#6 Sentence Unity
A sentence should express an idea. It may be a simple idea or a complex idea, but it should be only one idea. It should be unified and focused. That’s the whole reason we separate our writing into these units. Often, authors try to cram multiple ideas into one sentence in an attempt to quickly get a bunch of information across. But if you stick random elements into a sentence, you end up with a very weak sentence. For example,
The kingdom, which I built and named Gru, still knows the peace I bought with my own blood. The entire island continent, large enough that on horseback you could ride more than a week to cross it east to west, is united under my banner still.
In the first sentence, the information “and named Gru” has nothing to do with the main idea of the sentence. The sentence is conveying that he built the kingdom and made it peaceful, and those benefits are still being felt. The author is trying to jam in the name of the kingdom because he knows he needs to give it somewhere, but it doesn’t belong here. Including it knocks the whole sentence off balance and we lose the focus and the point. The second sentence is phrased as if it is two separate ideas, which makes it very difficult to follow and prevents the reader from getting the meaning the author wants. In this case, the sentence is actually trying to convey a single idea, but the author hasn’t phrased it that way. He’s phrased it as two separate ideas: (1) the continent is large, and (2) the continent is united. The real point is that despite the large size of the continent, it remains united because of the narrator’s efforts. Yet the author hasn’t connected the two parts of the idea to reveal that it is a single idea. The author needs a structure that does this, something like,
You would have to ride more than a week to cross it east to west, yet the entire island-continent remains united under my banner still.
Let’s look at another example:
Joe did not want to deal with the issue of pollution caused by the factory that now occupied the former warehouse on the Merrimack River.
Again, the author is trying to put two ideas into one sentence. One is that Joe doesn’t want to deal with the pollution. The other is that the factory is in a former warehouse. Putting these in one sentence creates an unfocused, awkward sentence. These need to be in two different sentences. The current sentence also doesn’t believably reflect what Joe would be thinking. The author is jamming in extra information that he wants us to have. Joe would probably think about the location of the factory in some later paragraph.
Here’s another example:
A slender, attractive Chinese woman about forty years of age with short, black hair, in an expensive business suit walked out, head held high, with a purposeful stride and the confident manner of someone used to being in authority.
You can see how awkward these sentences are. The author is jamming two ideas into one sentence: describing the woman’s appearance and describing her actions. This should be two separate sentences. (The sentence is also awkwardly phrased, so that it sounds like her hair is in a business suit.)
Instead, we might write,
Inside stood a slender Chinese woman about forty years of age, wearing a perfectly fitting black business suit. She strode out with head held high, short, black hair swinging against her suit collar, hands clasped with the calm, confident manner of someone used to being in authority.
This way, the description is split between one sentence of her standing still, and one sentence of her moving. That helps create focus.
Okay, one more:
A pouchy woman with a crown of frosted coppery ringlets, Sela wondered about her friend.
Can you tell what the two ideas are here? The author is telling us (1) what Sela looks like and (2) what Sela is thinking. The author seems to be combining things randomly–probably in an attempt to create variety in her sentence structure. She has a further problem in that the description of Sela is told from an external point of view, not from Sela’s POV. She wouldn’t think of herself as “A pouchy woman with a crown of frosted coppery ringlets.” Yet the thought is clearly internal, coming from within Sela’s head. To separate the two ideas, let’s first make two sentences:
Sela was a pouchy woman with a crown of frosted coppery ringlets. She wondered about her friend.
Each sentence conveys only one idea, but the POV problem still exists. To solve that, I would change the description of Sela to make it from her POV:
Sela pulled anxiously at her coppery ringlets. She wondered about her friend.
At this point, we could even combine the two ideas to make them one complex idea, meaning one sentence:
Sela pulled anxiously at her coppery ringlets, worrying about her friend.
Now the entire thing is focused on showing Sela’s concern about her friend, so it is one idea and can be one sentence.
#7 Looking/Eye Words
Many authors overuse words involving looking and eyes. They describe their characters looking, glancing, gazing, staring, studying, seeing, surveying, scanning, peeking, leering, ogling, noticing, watching, blinking, glaring, and just generally eyeballing everything. Characters’ eyes flash, burn, linger, darken or brighten, and even change color. Characters’ eyes drop to the floor (ouch!); they roam around the room (eeek!). Or characters may raise the ever-popular eyebrow.
At Bantam Doubleday Dell, I once edited a book in which the author described characters looking in almost every paragraph. The author gave his male character a line of dialogue, then said, “He looked at her.” Then the female character said a line of dialogue, and “her eyes narrowed on him.” Then the male character spoke, and “he looked away.” The female character said nothing, only “stared at him.” This went on for 600 pages.
While that is an extreme example, overuse of looking/eye words is a problem for many writers today. They visualize their stories as movies. In movies, looks exchanged between two actors can be very revealing. Their expressions reveal nuances of the characters and their relationships quite skillfully. Unfortunately, looks exchanged between two characters in a book are not revealing. An author may write, “He looked at her,” and see those expressions in his head, fascinating and filled with nuance. But the reader doesn’t see this. The reader just sees one character looking at the other.
These terms also carry other problems. If an author describes eyes as burning or flashing, these are clichés and don’t reflect reality. In reality, eyes remain relatively unchanged, except for pupil size. It’s the skin and face around the eyes that control a person’s expression.
Eyes that are “filled with conviction” or “shadowed with longing” are weak shortcuts telling us what the character is feeling. It would almost always be better to show us what the character is feeling.
So search your manuscripts and see how many eyeballs are roaming your pages. Come up with other ways of revealing the thoughts or emotions of the characters besides describing their eyes. Small actions or gestures can be extremely revealing and powerful. Most authors could strengthen their work by cutting at least 50% of these looking/eye words. Sometimes a description of a gaze or a glance can be amazingly significant. But if your characters are gazing in every paragraph, then it won’t mean much.
#8 Active Versus Reactive Characters
One problem many developing writers have is that readers don’t like their main characters and don’t care what happens to them. If you can get readers to become emotionally invested in your protagonist, then they’ll follow you almost anywhere.
Readers tend to like characters who are struggling to achieve a goal. This simple principle can be invaluable in creating sympathetic protagonists. Characters working toward a goal are active characters. Characters who aren’t working toward a goal are reactive. Reactive characters are much weaker than active characters, and we tend not to like them. Unfortunately, many writers end up unknowingly creating reactive protagonists.
Here’s a scene with one active character and one reactive character:
Joe: “What do you want to do tonight?”
Jane: “I don’t know.”
Joe: “Let’s go see Lord of the Rings.”
Jane: “I already saw it.”
Joe: “Well, let’s go bowling then.”
Jane: “I hate bowling.”
Joe: “We could rent a video and stay home.”
Jane: “We did that last night.”
Joe is the active character, Jane reactive. Joe is working toward a goal (finding something pleasant for them to do together). Jane is just reacting to what Joe says, and is seemingly not interested in achieving that goal or any other. We relate to Joe, because at least he’s trying. We dislike Jane, because she’s not trying.
Some people certainly are reactive, and it’s fine to have reactive characters in your story. Just be aware that’s what you’re doing, and don’t expect your readers to like those characters.
#9 Developing Your Skills
During the presidential campaign, Peggy Silva, a New Hampshire teacher, submitted the following question to the candidates for a debate: “What don’t you know and how are you going to learn it?” This is an excellent question for every writer to ask himself. To improve your writing, you need to know exactly which elements or skills you need to improve and have a plan for improving them. If you have received useful feedback on your work, you should have noticed a pattern of some kind. What weaknesses do your critiquers usually find? Do you tend to have unbelievable characters? Weak plots? Slow beginnings? Awkward sentences? Nonexistent description?
Whatever your biggest weakness is, make a plan to attack it. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Read books on writing that explain how to improve that element, and then try to apply those techniques to your own writing. You need to stop every few pages and try to put into practice what is being discussed. If you just speed through reading the book, then the knowledge in the book will not come out in your writing.
- Find a couple stories that do a great job with that element. Read them each ten times and study them. Authors can’t hide their secrets the way magicians can. If you study their stories closely enough, you will see exactly how they accomplished their magic. Examine the way that the author develops the particular element, sentence by sentence. Try to apply those techniques to your own work.
- Do writing exercises focused on improving that element. There are plenty of great books filled with writing exercises out there.
- Rewrite one of your stories focused solely on improving that element. Then get some fresh critiquers to take a look and see if you’ve made any progress.
If you ignore your weaknesses and continue to write the same way you have been, chances are any improvement you make will be slow. If, instead, you acknowledge your weaknesses and focus on improving them, you have a much better chance of making major improvements over a short period of time.
Roll up your sleeves and dive in!
#10 The Pleasures of Science Fiction
When you are writing within a genre, it’s important to understand that genre—its definition and boundaries, the varied works within it, and the pleasures it provides to readers. Reading a wide range of works within the genre is key, but you can also gain major insights by reading genre analyses: essays and books that study and describe the genre. “On Fairy-Stories” is J. R. R. Tolkien’s analysis of the genre of fairy-stories, or more generally, fantasy. If you haven’t read “On Fairy-Stories,” I highly recommend it. It is required reading for all Odyssey students. Tolkien explores the origins of fantasy, searches for a definition of the genre, and describes the unique pleasures that fantasy stories provide.
I was asked by the New Hampshire Humanities Council to give a lecture on the history of science fiction. While putting it together, I realized I was writing my own, much humbler, version of Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories,” for science fiction. I decided to include a discussion of the particular pleasures science fiction provides, as Tolkien does for fantasy. I was surprised to realize that the books I’d read on SF hadn’t spent much time discussing the pleasures of SF, beyond the usual mention of awe and wonder. While awe and wonder are certainly among the pleasures provided by SF, I believe there are many others.
Like Tolkien, I will start by claiming that SF provides the same pleasures that “regular” fiction provides. In addition, I believe SF provides several pleasures that Tolkien associates with fantasy: recovery and escape. “Recovery” is a term coined by Tolkien. He defines it as the “regaining of a clear view.” When we read the story, we go into that other world and spend time there. When we close the book and return to our world, we see it anew, as if we have never seen it before. We “recover” the truth of our world. If you’ve read 1984, you know that when you close the book at the end and return to the real world, you see our world a bit differently than you did before.
Escape, of course, refers to our escape from our everyday world, as we become absorbed in the world of the novel. We can forget our problems, quit worrying about paying the bills and instead worry about surviving an attack by transforming robots. While all fiction provides this to some extent, fantasy and SF provide escape at a more profound level.
SF also shares a pleasure with the mystery genre, which I call cognitive engagement: the pleasure of trying to solve the puzzle—to figure out what’s going on, what made the world this way, whether it is scientifically plausible. This intellectual engagement provides pleasure in itself, and as we figure things out, we feel more satisfaction. If you’ve watched The Matrix and tried to figure out, along with Neo, what the Matrix is, you’ve experienced this pleasure.
SF shares a pleasure with horror, which I call exposure. Exposure is a treatment used by therapists on those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Therapists gradually expose patients to the source of their fear, while keeping them in a calm, relaxed state. SF exposes us to many of our fears, such as nuclear fallout, cloning, and overpopulation, helping us to emotionally process our fears, to become habituated to them, to feel more able to cope in our brave new world.
Because SF uses extrapolation or invents future technology that seems plausible, it provides us with another pleasure: the illusion of believability. Good SF makes us believe, while we are reading, that these future worlds could be real. If the future world depicted is positive (as in Star Trek), it’s exciting for viewers to imagine this technology might someday be available. If the future world depicted is negative (as in 1984), the story carries more emotional power and draws the reader in as he tries to figure out how this future could be avoided.
Finally, SF provides the pleasure that may best characterize the genre: the pleasure of gaining new insights into the human condition. If you agree with Brian Aldiss’s definition of the genre, then SF is the product of a series of writers, reacting to new discoveries and what they reveal about us, trying to understand mankind and his place in the universe. This search for understanding provides insights of a unique nature and power when conveyed through the metaphor of a science-fictional world. At least, they do when the story is written well. If you’ve read H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, you’ve gained insight into man’s nature to develop a cultural divide between the Haves and the Have-Nots—an unfair, uncompassionate tendency. This insight could be conveyed in a non-genre story, but chances are it would have much less power, because we would experience the story through our own prejudices and preconceived notions. Traveling far into the future allows us to step out of our prejudices and our narrow perspective. We are vulnerable and open, and may realize for the first time the wrongness of the class divide. Also, this aspect of human nature can be purified and intensified in the science-fictional world, giving it more power. Wells does this by creating the Eloi and Morlocks, species that have evolved out of this divide and lost what is best in man. They show us the horrifying consequences of this class divide.
Many writers assume that if their story entertains them, it will also entertain readers. While this is sometimes true, often readers are left unsatisfied. Are you providing your readers with some or all of these pleasures? Considering your work from this perspective can provide some new insights and ideas. I hope it helps!
If you’d like to hear some other ideas from my lecture on the history of science fiction, you can find them in this interview from the New Hampshire Public Radio program FRONT PORCH. We discussed the roles played by Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells. You can listen here: http://www.nhpr.org/node/13827
#11 Creating Strong Scenes
In one of our podcasts, Nancy Kress discussed the importance of writing in scenes. She explained how breaking your story into scenes, and breaking those scenes into their various components, can help you make the most of every moment in your story. I’d like to build on that topic by discussing another important aspect of writing in scenes.
Something that I’ve found very useful when constructing a scene or editing a scene is to consider what changes in the scene. Ideally, in every scene, something of significance should change for the main character of that scene. Some significant value should change for the main character between the beginning of the scene and the end. Some reversal should take place. For example, a character might go from freedom to captivity, or from love to hate, or from distrust to trust. Robert McKee discusses this concept in his excellent book Story.
Many developing writers create scenes in which nothing much changes—a character sits and thinks about his life, or walks around and thinks about his life, or two characters exchange information, but nothing of significance changes. Often the author is preoccupied with establishing certain background information, setting up character relationships, or describing the world. While those are important tasks to accomplish, they should be accomplished while the plot is simultaneously moving ahead, not while the plot is stuck at a standstill. A scene in which nothing of significance changes is a scene that is not moving the story ahead. If at all possible, it should be cut or revised so that it does create such a change.
A story in which every scene creates a change or reversal is more likely to be dynamic, dramatic, and exciting. Give it a try.
#12 Gaining Distance To Revise
You don’t care about my protagonist? You don’t find my plot to be a page-turning masterwork of suspense? You think my sentences are awkward and my point of view inconsistent? Writers are often quite surprised by the feedback they receive on manuscripts. They are so close to the work they’ve created that they can’t experience it the way a reader experiences it. When they look at their manuscript, they don’t actually see the words on the page; they see the images in their head that inspired those words. Unfortunately, when a reader reads the work, they see only the words and are left to form their own images, which are often radically different than the author’s–or just murky or even blank. In working with many writers over the years, I’ve discovered that very few of them know how to revise, and even fewer are willing to put major time and attention into revising. Generally speaking, you should be putting at least as much time into revision as you put into the draft, probably much more.
Say you are willing to revise. How do you start? Getting feedback is usually a good first step. Learning how readers experienced your work will help to reveal how your vision of the work differs from the words you actually wrote on the page.
But to figure out exactly what changes to make, and to know whether those changes will solve the problems, you need to take the next step. You need to try to see your work with new eyes, as a reader sees it. Revision is literally re-vision: seeing your work anew. You need to see the actual words written on the page and experience them the way a reader might, rather than having them draw you back into your vision of the story, which is not what is written on the page.
To accomplish this difficult task, you need to gain distance from your manuscript. The easiest type of distance to gain is distance in time. Put the manuscript in a drawer, pull it out in a month, and you will probably notice things about it that you never noticed before.
Typeface and medium are other ways to gain distance. You’ve written the whole piece in a particular typeface, and you’ve gotten used to it. You’re comfortable seeing the words this way. They look right to you. Well, now is the time to make your words like strange and different; it’s time to be uncomfortable with them. Change the typeface on the piece and print it out. Printing out is critical. The computer screen hides a mountain of writing weaknesses. Things look neat and nice on the screen. Print it out, and now you not only have to face your work in a different typeface, but in a different medium. Paper reveals weak writing. Paper reveals story problems. If you are open to seeing what is there, if you are looking at your work anew, you will discover many areas that can be strengthened. Look for them, seek them out, don’t excuse them, and don’t get sucked back into your original vision, and you will find many ways to improve your piece. Make notes all over your paper copy.
Another invaluable way to gain distance involves switching to yet another medium. Rather than viewing your work on the screen or reading it on paper, hear your work. Read it aloud, or have someone else read it aloud to you. Listen to the words, the sentences, the rhythm. This will immediately reveal an abundance of problems: repeated words, repetitive sentence structures, inconsistencies in voice, unrealistic or inappropriate dialogue, excessive exposition, weak description, and more.
If you are successful at gaining distance, weaknesses will jump out at you. Why did I think this character was sympathetic? How did I ever believe this scene was suspenseful? This sentence is horribly awkward! Once the problems are clear, half the work is done. Now all you have to do is find solutions. Which is a topic for another day.
So gaining distance from your manuscript is a critical part of revision. One note of caution, though. If you’re not careful, distance can lead to laziness. This happens to me sometimes. I read a paragraph, or a sentence, and I don’t know why it’s there. I have gained sufficient distance that I don’t remember the impulse that made me write the passage. After some thought, I decide I must have had a good reason for putting it there; I must have understood the needs of the scene better when I wrote it than I do now. I tell myself that, and I tell myself to leave it and move on. Sometimes I actually do move on, lazy author that I am. Yet if I force myself to linger, to try to figure out the “good reason” for putting it there, I eventually realize what that reason was: I didn’t know any better. The passage was basically a placeholder, filling that spot with my best guess of what needed to go there. Yet it was only a guess, the guess of someone who hadn’t written the rest of the manuscript and didn’t know exactly what needed to be set up or what was coming. Then I realize that this passage is not the best possible thing to put in this place, that it could be better, much better, if only I am willing to realize that, and to revise.
Gaining distance from a manuscript is key to revision, but make sure you don’t use that distance as an alibi to excuse weaknesses. Instead, it should be a tool to provide new perspective and insight, and to point the way toward improvements that will strengthen the work.
To all of you out there revising, alternating between the elation of solving a problem and the despair of finding you’ve created ten new problems for yourself, keep the faith, and know that revision is the path toward improving the work. Remember that you have something worthwhile to say, and it will only get said if you finish the manuscript. You have created this story, something special and unique. It deserves to become the best you can make it, and with revision, it can reach its full potential and deliver the power and emotion that you envisioned.
#13 Writing Out Of Order
Some writers find themselves bored or lost in the middle of a story or novel. The current scene just doesn’t seem to matter, but a future scene has them very excited, and they want to jump ahead to write it. I’m often asked whether this is a good idea or not.
Every writer has to find the process that leads to the best results for him. Writers don’t come off the assembly line, so the right process for someone else is not going to be the right process for you. That said, most writers have no idea which process will generate the best from them. It is often not the process that you are most comfortable with, or the process that comes naturally. So you need to experiment with different writing processes and then look at your results, and see which process helps you achieve the best result.
Some writers work very well out of order. Most of them have a very clear idea or outline of exactly what’s going to happen in the story or novel. Without that, you can certainly still write out of order, but you’ll probably find you have to throw out a lot of what you’ve written. There’s nothing wrong with that, and often writers can’t avoid a process that requires throwing out a lot. You just have to be ready for that and accept it’s part of your process.
There are two big dangers with writing out of order. First, the story may have a weak causal chain. A strong causal chain (in which one event causes the next, or the character’s motivation and nature cause things to happen) is critical to give the reader the illusion that the story is evolving on its own and the author is not manipulating events and characters. Writing out of order can make it difficult to create a strong causal chain.
The other big danger is that you fail to push scenes to become dynamic and interesting. An author who wants to jump to the exciting part is an author who hasn’t figured out why each and every scene in the story is exciting. And every scene should be exciting. I’m not saying someone has to die or be threatened, but something needs to be at stake, characters need to be struggling, physically or mentally, and the situation needs to change in a significant way. That creates excitement. Rather than jumping to something that seems exciting, you may find it helpful to think more about the scene you are jumping over. Why does it seem unexciting to you? If it is unexciting, how can you change it to make it exciting? Chances are you need to make major changes to that scene, which will then affect what comes after, and your “exciting” scene will be vastly different than you’re currently imagining it by the time you get there (and it will be much better and even more exciting).
One advantage of writing out of order can arise when you are using multiple viewpoint characters. If, for example, you are writing a novel in third person limited omniscient with several different viewpoint characters, you may find it helpful to write the scenes from one point of view character at a time. You can write all the protagonist’s POV scenes, then write all the antagonist’s POV scenes, then write the secondary protagonist’s POV scenes, and so on.
This allows a writer to stay focused on what’s happening in a particular plotline, to keep the characters consistent, allow the characters to develop based on events, and to maintain a strong, distinctive voice for each viewpoint character.
The difficulty with this method is, of course, that events in another plotline affect the events in the plotline you’re working on, and it’s hard to know exactly what those other events will be unless you have fully imagined those unwritten scenes. Usually this method requires at least a general outline and a fair amount of revision. For example, once you finish the antagonist’s scenes, you might see that he didn’t act exactly as you’d expected, so circumstances are different for the protagonist and you have to go back and revise the protagonist’s scenes. But this can be a valuable tool for maintaining focus and creating strong characters.
So when considering writing out of order, think about why you are feeling this urge, what your particular strengths and weaknesses are as a writer, and whether writing out of order will exacerbate your weak areas or help improve them. And if you find you just can’t get through the current scene, then by all means jump ahead and deal with the problems later. Pushing ahead, however you can, is always better than giving up.
#14: Manipulating Pacing And Organization
After an all-consuming summer spent leading passionate, determined cadets through the leave-it-all-on-the-floor atmosphere of Odyssey’s boot camp, fall often brings mixed feelings. The sixteen newly minted warriors I have bonded with–sharing the pain of their struggles, the joy of their successes, their longing to do better—are gone, carried off to the four corners of the globe. For a while, the solitude is held off by the veteran warriors at The Never-Ending Odyssey (the eight-day program for Odyssey Writing Workshop graduates). Those soldiers come in from their battlefields to share war stories, reevaluate their strategies, form new plans, and head once more into the breach. Yet that passes all too quickly. And then I am alone on my own battlefield. With the 300,000-word draft of my current novel-in-progress.
The summer left me with many insights: my antagonist is weak and doesn’t make my readers as worried as they should be; some of my plot logic makes sense only to me; my writing is too thorough and explanatory at times, too obtuse and withholding at others. We all face our own battlefield, our own enemies, and as we descend into the trench looking out on that blasted no man’s land, we go alone. We may fight for a month to move our trenches five yards ahead, only to face a counterattack that has us retreating to our old lines. But once in a while, the sun emerges from the clouds and we gain a new perspective, discover a new strategy that may allow us to break through the enemy lines and make major forward progress. My insight this fall is that I need to manipulate my pacing and organization more. In the hope that it may also help you in your current campaign against stagnation and despair, I’ll share my thoughts here.
The insight was triggered by a chapter from A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin that begins, “The courtyard rang to the song of swords.” If you’d like to play along at home, this is a chapter from Jon Snow’s point of view starting on p. 176 of the mass market paperback edition. After originally reading the book some years ago, I have been re-reading it aloud to my husband as we drive to the grocery store, and when I finished this chapter, I looked at my husband and said, “Why the heck did he structure it like that?”
As you can tell from the opening sentence of the chapter, we start with action, as Jon spars with other recruits at the Wall. Jon beats his opponent, the session ends, and Jon walks by himself to the armory and changes clothes. All this has happened in about 1 1/2 pages. Now the narrative becomes interior as Jon thinks for a half page about his expectations versus the reality of being a part of the Night’s Watch. He thinks about his uncle leaving him, and we transition into a flashback as Jon remembers asking to go with his uncle on patrol. That section, a half page, is short but dramatized with an exchange of dialogue. Then Jon remembers his uncle leaving the following morning, and that section, two paragraphs, is mostly recapitulated (summarized), with just one line of dialogue provided. After that, Jon thinks about his situation for another half page. Then the recruits he had sparred with confront him, and a brief fight ensues. The armorer, Noye, breaks up the fight and sends the others away. Here we have a key section of the chapter, as Noye explains to Jon why the others hate him and how he can fix it. The confrontation and conversation fills about 3 1/2 pages. Jon goes outside and remembers, in a 1-paragraph flashback, the first time he saw the Wall (the previous chapter from Jon’s POV showed Jon on the way to the Wall but not arriving). Jon runs into Tyrion and they talk about the Wall, allowing for some necessary information to be introduced. Then Jon is summoned by Mormont, the commander, who informs him that his brother Bran will live. Jon shares the good news with Tyrion and offers to train the recruits he beat in the sparring session. This last chunk, from the time Jon runs into Tyrion until the end, takes 5 pages.
As you can see, the author is struggling to incorporate many different pieces of information, which is often the case in fairly early chapters. Here, a new setting, a new cast of characters, and new conflicts (both internal and external) are all being established. Putting the information in chronological order wouldn’t work well, because it would feel very disjointed and stringy to have a paragraph describing Jon seeing the Wall for the first time, then a half page describing Jon three days later asking to go with his uncle, then two paragraphs of Jon watching his uncle leave the next morning, and so on. A chronological structure would pretty much force the author to describe each action in more detail, so each incident would be a full scene and we could feel like we were there with the character.
Instead, this chapter jumps ahead in time to the sparring and then circles back to fill in the important moments we missed. Moving the pieces around in time allows the author to describe the scenes in the “present” of the chapter most vividly (the sparring, the confrontation in the armory, the conversations with Noye and Tyrion, and Jon’s change at the end) and to dramatize only key moments of “past” incidents, because we don’t remember entire scenes; we only remember the moments important to us. Anything else from the past can be recapitulated or skipped over. This gives the author the freedom to control his pacing, to jump over what isn’t interesting or necessary, to recapitulate what isn’t too interesting but is necessary, and to dramatize what is both interesting and necessary
This structure also helps to create some sense of unity out of these diverse incidents by highlighting the important change that Jon undergoes in the chapter. The beginning shows Jon putting his full effort into beating the recruits, not realizing that they haven’t had the benefit of training that he has, and the ending shows Jon offering to train them.
While the chapter is not entirely successful, in that it feels somewhat diffuse and lacking in momentum, and some potentially emotional moments–the first sight of the wall, Jon’s desperation to go with his uncle–are weakened by being tucked within this structure, it achieves a lot and I think follows the best structure possible.
My examination of this chapter coincided with my struggles to revise several scenes in my doorstopper novel that were–to put it kindly–not riveting. They involved the antagonist, Alex, following the protagonist, Diane. Both Alex and Diane are point of view characters, and important things happen to both of them during this time. So I had a scene showing how Diane got from A to B, then a scene showing how Alex got from A to B, then a scene showing how Diane got from B to C, and a scene showing how Alex got from B to C. Yes, it’s all quite thorough (see weaknesses listed in paragraph 1), but hardly exciting. I had tried several different revisions–attempting to insert more tension, make the scenes more vivid and intense–but they didn’t work. Once I connected the lessons of the Jon Snow chapter to these scenes, I realized the solution. Recapitulate chunks of these scenes and dramatize only the most important parts. Play with time when necessary rather than sticking with chronological order, so each scene can feel unified and highlight a strong turn. In retrospect, this solution seems ridiculously obvious. Yet it took many battles before I realized that these particular techniques were key to solving the particular problems facing me. And so one doorstopper provided help to another.
Now it’s time to stop stalling and return to my trench. Whatever battles you are fighting on your own battlefield, remember that, though you must fight your battles alone, the rest of us are out there fighting too, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding. You are not alone.
As I hunker down against the big chill, I look forward to the next time I can come in from the cold and share war stories with new recruits as well as battle-hardened comrades. Like Jon Snow is soon to discover, great rewards, strong bonds, and invaluable insights arise when warriors help each other pursue a common passion.
#15 Staying Motivated And Productive
Have you written today? Written fiction–not emails for work or Facebook status updates or blog posts. Have you written this week? Have you written this month?
As most writers know, it’s very hard to fully realize your potential unless you are writing steadily.
Observing the latest Odyssey class since the workshop ended has brought home to me the power of support, of having someone–or more than one–who cares whether you write today or not.
We had an amazing summer–students open to hearing their weaknesses, ready to try new techniques, again and again, until they made exciting improvements. One of the most wonderful aspects of the summer was how the class came together to support each other. When one student was exhausted, or discouraged, or exhausted and discouraged, others would be there to listen, offer chocolate or a beer, and provide a stress-reducing session of Disney YouTube karaoke.
The degree to which the group had bonded became fully apparent to me shortly after the workshop ended, when the class set up a system to submit manuscripts, be assigned to small critique groups, and exchange critiques every two weeks. Every two weeks. Twelve out of the fifteen members of the class have participated, and as I write this, they’ve kept it going for eight rounds. That’s a pretty impressive amount of writing, and unprecedented in the history of Odyssey. They also hold a weekly salon via Google Hangouts where they can discuss goals, struggles, karaoke, and anything else.
I’m not saying that you have to organize such a group to be a successful. Some writers don’t need group support. They are able to write steadily and purposefully in isolation. For example, I didn’t hear from Jerry White, Odyssey class of ’96, for years, and then in response to my recent email he told me that after years of struggle, he’d signed a three-book deal with HarperCollins for a middle-grade fantasy trilogy.
Other writers work alone but craft their own unique motivational tricks. Several Odfellows (Odyssey Writing Workshop graduates) use the “Seinfeld Chain,” marking a large red X on the calendar over each day they write, and then continuing to write because they don’t want to break that chain of X’s. One Odfellow has created her own variation on this by building a chain of colored paper clips. Several others pay themselves for each day they write, putting coins in a jar to be able to see their progress, or binging on shoes, or saving up for a workshop or convention.
But many writers find motivation from others. Sometimes this motivation is received in person. Both Virginia and Pennsylvania Odfellows have formed groups that meet in person to critique manuscripts and brainstorm ideas. Others have found the support of some of their fellow writers so helpful that they take a flight once or twice a year to see them. Many Odfellows participate in The Never-Ending Odyssey (TNEO), the eight-day, in-person program for Odyssey workshop graduates, not only for the motivational power of submission deadlines, but for the very positive, supportive, we’re-all-in-this-together atmosphere. Many TNEOers come every year to share struggles, failures, and successes with Odfellows who have become close friends. I know the same is true with conventions that offer workshops; often the same people attend year after year to support each other.
Increasingly, with the power of technology, motivation is received long distance. The Internet offers countless possibilities for connecting with other writers. After this year’s TNEO, two of the workshop’s critique groups decided to set up their own email discussion groups so they could stay in touch and encourage each other’s progress. Some Odfellows have paired up and email their writing output each day to their partner–not for critiquing or even reading, but just to make themselves accountable to someone else who cares whether they write or not. A group from the class of 2011 has a virtual meeting each week in which they share goals and accomplishments, issue writing challenges, and award prizes. Some of us post progress reports on the Odfellowdiscussion email group, which can help motivate us to have progress to report.
There are countless methods you can use to help yourself write more consistently. You just need to believe it is possible for you to write more consistently.
Way back in 1987, when I worked at Bantam Doubleday Dell, science-fiction editor Pat LoBrutto told me I needed to write every day. I told him (and myself) that I was too busy. Many wasted years later, I realized his wisdom. Now, even though I am far busier than I ever was in 1987, I write every day (except during Odyssey & TNEO, when my writing would be “Blah blah Elijah Wood wha?”). In part, I do it because I don’t want to have to tell people I failed. In part, I do it because age and my very slow writing speed graciously provide a sense of gut-twisting urgency to my writing sessions. In part, I do it because I imagine readers pointing to different passages in my book and laughing, and me explaining that I felt like watching TV that night instead of working on my book. In part, I do it because Stephen King is writing right now, damn it, so why aren’t I? And in part, I do it because I know how hard so many other writers are working to keep writing, despite incredible obstacles and difficulties. And if they can do it, then I should be able to do it.
Do you have a particular method to keep yourself motivated? If so, please share it on our Facebook page:. I’d love to hear about it, and you might help motivate others!
If you find you aren’t writing consistently, maybe one of these methods will help motivate you, whether it’s a chain of paper clips, a partner, or a group of writers. Writing is a difficult and solitary business, but as you go through this daily toil, remember that you are part of a wonderful community of writers. You aren’t the only one struggling to make the time for writing. And whether you know it or not, someone else does care whether you write today or not.
#16 Tracking Your Character's Emotion Arc in a Scene
Most authors try to understand what a character is feeling at a particular moment: He’s angry here; he’s happy there. Many authors also consider how the character and his emotions change over the entire story: He begins insecure; he ends confident. But few think about how the character’s emotions develop over the course of a single scene.
In my research last spring, I came across a fascinating guide called Book on Acting. The title arises from the author’s name, Stephen Book. He’s a famous acting teacher. Book directs actors to consider how their characters’ emotions develop over a scene. He calls this the emotion arc. I quickly realized this was great advice for writers, too.
A character whose emotions don’t develop or change in a scene is static and not terribly interesting. On the other hand, a character who is jumping from one emotion to another in each paragraph is unlikely to seem believable. So it’s important to create limited, focused changes.
CHANGES IN INTENSITY
The simplest type of emotion arc is a change in intensity. The basic emotion remains the same, but the intensity of it changes over the scene. For example, a character may feel happy in a scene, but the intensity of his happiness may change, starting, at its lowest intensity, as calm and then building through content, pleased, amused, glad, happy, cheerful, giddy, jubilant, elated, joyous. Generally, it’s more powerful to show the emotional intensity increasing rather than decreasing. You usually don’t want to start the scene with the emotion too high, because then there’s no room to build. When you do increase the intensity of the emotion, it usually shouldn’t happen too quickly–unless something startling drives it–so it seems believable. One common weakness in the emotion arc is plateauing, reaching a certain level of intensity and then just staying there. Every arc doesn’t need to start at the lowest level of intensity and go all the way to the highest, such as calm to joyous. You could just as well go from amused to happy. But reaching “happy” halfway through the scene and then leaving the character stuck there makes the events in the scene seem less important, since they have no emotional impact on the character.
A more complex type of emotion arc involves both changes in intensity and changes between emotion families. Changes between emotion families Book calls “emotion switches.” For example, a character might be on the happiness emotion arc. Perhaps his boss is telling him that he performed well over the past year, and as she makes several compliments, the character’s happiness increases from content, to pleased, to glad, to cheerful, to elated when his boss says he’s getting a big promotion. The boss then suggests they should go out to dinner to celebrate. This triggers an emotion switch to a new arc, which we might call fear. He might begin at a very low level of fear, feeling cautious (is this sexual harrassment or is he mireading her?), then build to nervous, anxious, apprehensive. Similar to using a single emotion arc, when you have an emotion switch you generally want to start the second emotion at a somewhat low level of intensity, so there’s room to increase it. For a character to switch from one emotion family to another, the scene generally has to show some important event to trigger the shift.
You can see a great example of an emotion switch in this scene from the movie Goodfellas. For those unfamiliar with the movie, these characters are mobsters. Tommy (Joe Pesci, the guy doing most of the talking) is in charge, and he has an explosive temper, as has been established earlier. Watch how Henry (played by Ray Liotta, the guy with the cigarette on the right) becomes more and more happy, until Tommy asks, “What do you mean I’m funny?” There you see Henry’s emotion switch to fear, and you can see it grow and grow. This is one of the strongest scenes in the movie because of the powerful emotions conveyed and the threat underlying everything.
One more important concept to keep in mind is that of the umbrella arc. An umbrella arc is “an accumulation of separate feelings from different emotion families that adds up to a singular emotional response.” Umbrella arcs describe more complex emotional states your character may be experiencing; he may be feeling several emotions at once within an overarching umbrella. These umbrella arcs may be labeled with conceptual terms, such as abandonment, betrayal, or denial, which are not emotions in themselves but can carry emotions. For example, abandonment may bring with it emotions of hurt, loss, fear, sorrow, and anger. The character may be feeling a combination of these at once. He shouldn’t be jumping back and forth between these emotions, though. That would feel too random and disjointed. Perhaps he’s feeling hurt, loss, and fear, but the fear grows stronger over the scene, or he shifts from hurt being predominant to fear being predominant, due to some turning point.
It’s important to acknowledge that people experience emotions differently, so “happiness” may not go through the same gradations for one person as for another. Similarly, people feeling an umbrella concept like “abandonment” won’t have the same exact combination of emotions. So you want to discover the emotions characteristic for each particular character.
What I see often in the work of developing writers are characters whose emotions wax and wane several times in a scene, leaving us with no clear sense of progression; or characters whose emotions move from one feeling to the next to the next with no sense of focus or causal connection; or characters who seem to feel the same emotion at the same intensity through the whole scene–or who feel nothing at all. Becoming more aware of how you want to shape your character’s emotion arc in each scene can lead to much more powerful scenes.
# 17 Tying Character Types to Plot, Suspense, and Emotion
Create a protagonist. Add an antagonist. Toss in a sidekick or minion, or if you’re writing a novel, perhaps a whole array of characters. But then what do you do with them? How do you incorporate each character into the story so he has a powerful impact on plot, raises intense suspense, and generates strong emotions?
One very useful tool to help you maximize the impact of each character on the story is to consider each character’s type. The book The Dramatic Writer’s Companion: Tools to Develop Characters, Cause Scenes, and Build Stories by Will Dunne introduces different character types, such as the close powerful ally, the close weak ally, the distant powerful ally, the distant weak ally, the close powerful adversary, the distant powerful adversary, the close weak adversary, and the distant weak adversary. While Dunne identifies other fascinating types, we’ll focus on these in this article.
At first, these categories may seem fairly obvious. But as I thought about them, I realized how much power they could bring to a story if one considers what type of character would best serve the story at a particular point. For example, if your protagonist starts out weak, like Harry Potter, then a close powerful adversary should quickly destroy him, if your story is to be believable. Instead, Harry needs a close weak adversary that he has at least a chance of beating, such as Draco Malfoy, so we feel suspense and concern. If Harry has nearby allies, then they should be close weak allies. If they are strong, they’d just end up saving him over and over, which would minimize suspense and leave Harry with nothing to do, making him a very weak protagonist we don’t care much about. Harry might also have distant powerful allies, such as Sirius Black, who’d like to help him but aren’t available to do so. Such characters can create great suspense as the protagonist struggles to reach the distant ally–can he reach help in time?–or the ally tries to reach him.
That last example reveals the power of changing one or both of the key variables we’re discussing here: distance and level of power. The powerful ally can become weak. The nearby ally can be taken to a distant place or killed. The powerful, distant adversary can approach. The weak adversary can grow stronger. In the Harry Potter books, Voldemort grows closer and more powerful over the series, increasing suspense and raising the stakes of the plot. In the Star Trek (original series) episode “The Deadly Years,” Kirk and his powerful allies Spock and McCoy all undergo premature, rapid aging, making them all grow weaker and weaker as Romulan adversaries approach, making us more and more concerned. You can even think of some objects as characters. The U.S.S. Enterprise is Kirk’s most powerful ally. In fact, it is so powerful, writers found they often had to send the ship halfway across the galaxy so Kirk, left on the planet, could be in jeopardy. In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the Enterprise is crippled by Khan, not only reducing Kirk’s chance of success as this powerful ally becomes weak, but preventing Kirk from warping away from trouble, trapping the protagonist and antagonist in close contact. All of these changes can carry great suspense and emotion.
The most powerful moments in a story can occur with changes in the third variable, when an ally becomes an adversary, or an adversary becomes an ally. A very emotional moment in Braveheart occurs when the protagonist, William Wallace, discovers the ally he believed would be the savior of Scotland, Robert the Bruce, has become an adversary and betrayed him and Scotland. In Star Wars Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader turns from adversary to ally, killing the emperor and sacrificing himself to save Luke Skywalker. The film The Imitation Game creates a great, uplifting moment when protagonist Alan Turing’s subordinates, who have all been his adversaries, turn to allies and commit to quitting their jobs if Alan is fired. When done well, such developments create exciting turning points in the plot and pack a strong emotional punch.
So if you find yourself uncertain about how to make the most of a particular character in your story, consider what type he is and whether changes in any of the three variables might help create a stronger plot, greater suspense, and more intense emotion. A dynamic, engaging story involves more than an interesting cast of characters; it involves characters who serve the needs of the story and who change in ways that significantly alter the plot’s possibilities and threats. Such changes make us thrill at Luke Skywalker’s breakthrough in power as he fires the critical shot to destroy the Death Star; they make us despair in A Game of Thrones at Ned Stark’s loss of power when he resigns his post as Hand of the King and again when the king dies. And such changes can lead us to breathlessly turn the pages as your protagonist races to reach those distant allies before the increasing threat overtakes her.