WriteTip Classic: 10 Tips For Writing Good Action Scenes

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been a fan of action. Movies like the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard series always entertained me. I like action in my reading, too. Space opera is my favorite science fiction genre and sword & sorcery tops my fantasy favorites. Is it any wonder that I find myself often writing action in my stories? But writing action can be a challenge for writers. When making movies, you have visual and other clues to use to inspire the tension and pacing in the audience, but when writing prose, this can be more difficult. So here are a few key tips I’ve learned.

1) Write in short snippets as much as possible. Action scenes are not the time for long internal dialogues by characters. Think about a time you were involved in a high adrenaline situation. You didn’t have time to take long pauses for deep thinking. You had to react and do so quickly and so must your characters. The same is true of long speeches. People tend to be interrupted in speaking by the need to act or react. So dialogue and even action should be described in short spurts. If you have more than four sentences to it, think twice about whether it should be split up.

2) Use action to break up dialogue and dialogue to break up action.Intersperse the two components in short segments to add a sense of pacing and tension. Writing long sections of dialogue and long sections of action will tend to read slow and thus stall the pacing. This is especially true of dialogue as noted above. Alternating them adds a sense of realism and keeps things moving.

3) Get to the point. Long descriptions of weapons and scenery don’t belong here. If things need to be set up, do it before the sequence occurs so you don’t have to interrupt the action to do it. You want to focus on sensory details–what the characters see, feel, touch, etc. Are they sweating? Are they hurting? Not on what the building behind them looks like or even the street itself. You don’t want to spend pages like Tom Clancy describing their weapon here. We need to know what it is and how it works and their skill level so we can not be surprised by their actions, but set that up elsewhere. During the action, we should already know.

4) Don’t make it too easy. Yes, the hero will likely win. But make it a challenge. Be sure and make the opponents threatening enough that the hero is in real jeapordy, otherwise the dramatic impact will be greatly lessened. No matter how skilled your hero is, he or she must have to face obstacles. In action sequences the odds should seem stacked against him.  Let them bleed from a wound. Let them misfire or miss with the sword. Let them sweat and even have to run, barely escaping. Sometimes it’s even good to let them lose one time only to have them win later on. Force them to stretch themselves in some way to succeed. Make them human or the reader’s will struggle to care.

5) Keep it believable.  This goes hand in hand with number 4. Real people are imperfect. They make mistakes. They fail. Make sure your action sequences are well researched and realistic. Besides humanizing the hero, don’t have vehicles or weapons performing beyond their capabilities. You may assume readers won’t know the difference but some will. And writing without limits rings hollow. Make sure you respect the limits and use them to up the tension. A man stuck with a sword fighting men with guns will face tense moments. A man against incredible odds is a man we root for.

6) Keep it tight. Anything absolutely not necessary should be cut. This includes long descriptions and dialogue as mentioned in number 1 but also the scene openings and closings. The rule I learned in film school was to get in a scene as late as possible and out as soon as possible. Nothing hurts pacing more than disobeying this rule. Be sure you start the action as fast as possible and end it the same. Don’t drag it out unnecessarily in your desire to make it more dramatic or a “cooler” sequence. Make it exactly as long as it really needs to be to serve the story and no longer.

7) Give the readers breathing space. Be careful about putting too many action sequences too close together. Movies build to a climax which may have twenty minutes of action but before that action scenes are interspersed with slower moments. Make sure you intersperse your action sequences with moments of character building and reflection, dialogue and discovery–slower sequences which allow readers to breathe a bit before the next intense action scene. In between scenes are where you make action sequences matter.  Action is not just about a character we care about surviving but about stakes he or she has in that victory. What is the character’s driving need or goal? This gets set up in other scenes and provided driving undercurrent to the action which makes us care.

8 ) Pick your moments. Action stories tend to have several sequences spread throughout. Be sure you consider in choosing which sequence to include where the overall dramatic level of them. You want the biggest action sequence in the entire piece to be either at the closing of the piece. Those in between should leave room for a build up to the major action sequence to come. Ideally, each scene builds up to those that follow but this can be accomplished in ways besides upping the stakes and tension or odds. With proper character arcs, character’s emotional stakes can be developed in such a way that each later sequence matters that much more, making the readers care more as well.

9) Make it matter. Action scenes do not exist solely to entertain readers and add tension. They have a greater purpose to serve the story. Something must happen which ups the stakes or increases the challenges with each scene in your story and action scenes are no exception. Don’t write action for the sake of action. Write action because it serves the story. Every action sequence should move the story and characters forward in their journey, if not, they don’t belong int he story.

10) Incorporate humor. Humor is a great tool for not only breaking the tension but building character during action sequences. It’s no accident characters like LEthal Weapon’s Riggs and Die Hard’s McClane engage in witty banter during such moments and your characters can as well. From funny actions to funny dialogue snippets, this makes the action both more enjoyable and less tense when done at the right moments and can add a lot to reader enjoyment. Don’t be afraid to incorporate it when you can. It doesn’t have to be cheesy catch phrases either. It’s all in the wording.

Just a few tips I hope will help you in writing action scenes for your stories and novels. I know these lessons have helped me.

As an example, here’s an excerpt from my latest novel, The Sideman:

The Sideman Teaser

For what it’s worth…

WriteTip: Self-Editing For Writers Part 1–Preparing For the Rewrite

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write a Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction Chapter 13: Editing & Rewriting.

Today we start a new multi-part series on Self-Editing for writers with a look at how to approach rewriting. I am a firm believer that rewriting is where the magic happens. It’s where you take the rough draft you fought through and hone it into a fine tuned, focused, polished piece. It’s where you get the opportunity to finally see your story all laid out and examine its flaws, strengths, and needs in full and set about the work needed to complete it and take it from good to great. To me, the rewriting, is when the fun begins, because it is here things will come together in a way that begins to match the magic vision you’ve held in your mind for so long and struggled to put into words. So rewriting is an important process, an invaluable opportunity, and I consider it something to look forward to, not something to dread.

Getting To The Rewrite

Now before you actually start rewriting, it’s important to let your manuscript breathe. How long you should do this depends upon you, your level of experience, the deadline, what else you have on your plate, etc. But generally, I agree with those who suggest it should be a minimum of six weeks—six weeks during which you work on anything but this novel, clearing your mind of what has been an obsession, focusing on something new and different, and putting this out of your thoughts in order to clear you head and regain some manner of the objectivity required to truly revise well. In On Writing, Stephen King writes: “You’re not ready to go back to the old project until you’ve gotten so involved in a new one (or re-involved in your day-to-day life) that you’ve almost forgotten the unreal estate that took up three hours of your every morning or afternoon for a period of three or five or seven months.” You’re too close to the project, too consumed with, too obsessed to ever see it clearly and objectively the way one must in order to evaluate it properly, so the time has come to take a break, shut it in a drawer, and resist the urge to return to it for a period of time while you regain perspective.

For me, I usually spend the time on short stories or planning and researching my next book. Sometimes I have some polishes to attend to or an anthology to edit. Other times I have blog posts and marketing and other details I’ve postponed and ignored for months to catch up on. Whatever it is, the key is to do something else and only something else for a time so you can free your mind to breathe and let go of the obsession. You also need to get the distance to emotionally let go enough that you can accept the need to revise and make the book better. Stop coddling your baby enough to see that there are things to be learned and taught and refined about her, and that’s okay, it’s all part of life and growth, and prepare yourself mentally to undertake the task with the enthusiasm that it is not a failure but a natural step toward success.

Once you learn to do this, you will find entering the rewrite process to be quite rewarding. You will approach it with renewed focus and energy and the sense of purpose necessary to do it well. King writes: “If you’ve never done it before, you’ll find reading your book after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience. It’s yours, you’ll recognize it as yours, even be able to remember what tune was on the stereo when you wrote certain lines, and yet it will also be like reading the work of someone else…This is the way it should be, the reason you waited.”

The first step, in fact, before the rewrite actually begins, should be sitting down with the whole manuscript and reading it line by line, pen in hand, making whatever notes occur to you as you go, but not stopping until you’ve been through it in its entirety, beginning to end. For me, I do this on paper. It’s a great way to rest my eyes, which spend way too many hours of each day staring at computer screens or TVs, and it also is a wholly different experience from reading on a machine. For one thing, the whole page unfolds before you, not just a portion, and you can see it as a whole in a fresh way that allows your eyes to take it in differently than they do when you read on a screen. For another, since you’ll undoubtedly spend hours working it over on screens as you rewrite, it gives you a chance to take it to the park, porch, etc. and just work with and read it as readers do, without the demands of the work environment encroaching. This can be important because you are seeking perspective and a fresh look, after all. However you approach it, the trick is to evaluate the whole book before you stop and do any rewrites, because often themes, tone, arcs, etc. need to be considered in their whole before you can see their weaknesses and begin to address them. Chopping it up will disconnect you from how it all flows and falls together—works or doesn’t—and prevent you from seeing the full perspective needed to improve.

Once you’ve made your notes, then is the time to go back to any other notes you might have made as you wrote later chapters or when your mind just had to make a note during the six week hiatus you were supposed to be ignoring it, consider them in light of the fresh reread, and devise an approach to begin your rewrite. Sometimes, there will be particular areas you need to address separately:  character development, particular aspects of craft, particular plots or subplots, theme, etc. and other times you will want to start at the beginning and work your way through right off the bat. Whatever the correct approach is for you to determine, but having a plan is wise, because this is the time for determined, focused effort, not the seat of your pants writing you may have done to finish your first draft. Rewriting is work. Important work. And you have to approach it as such, often inherently different from the initial drafting process.

The human mind works in funny ways. For example, when we read, our eyes skips the bulk of words, just taking in key words and phrases that allow our minds to assemble the most logical sentence. This allows us to move much more quickly over a page than if we stopped at every word. When you read aloud, however, it forces you to slow down and look at every word. This is why when rereading your work you can skip over missing words, missing conjunctions, typos, homonyms (words that sound alike but have different meanings and spellings), and more. Because we wrote the piece, we already love the characters and subconsciously know so much about them that we assume things that may not come across clearly in the text for others and fill in gaps that aren’t on the page mentally, so everything appears okay. This is why we need other eyes to help edit and proof our books. And it’s why we need to carefully approach revision with a mind toward objectivity.

The other part of preparing to rewrite is mental. And Kat Reed, in Revision, suggests a mental checklist that is useful to prepare your mind and attitude for the revision process:

  1. Your first thoughts are not necessarily your best thoughts.

Just today I picked up a project I had struggled with for months and came up with a great new idea that totally helped fix a scene and move it forward, something I had never thought of before. If I had not put it aside, who knows when or if it might have occurred to me. Distance was the perfect aid.

  1. Nothing you write is carved in stone.

Yes, we all love our work. We all are proud of our babies. But face it. No one is perfect. Robert Silverberg told me “The difference between an old pro like me and a new writer is that I still write crap but I know how to identify it.” That is so true. Even then, old pros need editors too because we can always make it better. 

  1. It takes revision to turn a loss into a win.

Rejection sucks. So does some criticism. The best way around both is to ensure the book you send out is the best it can be. Period. No other solution.

  1. Shortstop Criticism—Be your own toughest critic.

Scared of criticism? Dread the bad review? Well, shortstop it by getting there first and giving them as little to criticize as possible. Fix it in revision. Close the gaps, fix the holes, etc. That is your best defense.

  1. If it’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing right.

There’s really nothing more to say by way of explanation, except if you don’t believe this then you are being a special type of fool. 

  1. Extra effort closes the distance between you and your audience.

The extra time of revision is your shot to see what readers see and make sure you are communicating as clearly as possible what you intended. It is the chance to make sure what they receive and what you send out most closely match what you hope for in your mental vision of any book.

  1. Revision means survival. 

Pretty much without revision, few succeed, and without revision few go far. It is a necessary part of the process, and as I said, I look at it as a positive: where the magic happens. It can truly make a good book great. It is not something to dread but to embrace.

For more on self-editing, come back next Wednesday. For more WriteTips, click here.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is a national bestselling author/editor and Hugo-nominee who’s edited over a dozen anthologies and hundreds of novels, including the international phenomenon The Martian by Andy Weir and books by Alan Dean Foster, Frank Herbert, Mike Resnick, Angie Fox, and Tracy Hickman as well as official entries in The X-Files, Predator, Joe Ledger, Monster Hunter International, and Decipher’s Wars. His debut novel, The Worker Prince, earned honorable mention on Barnes and Noble’s Year’s Best Science Fiction. His adult and children’s fiction and nonfiction books have been published by publishers such as St. Martins Press, Baen Books, Titan Books, IDW, and more. Find him online at his website bryanthomasschmidt.net or Twitter and Facebook as BryanThomasS.

To download How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction free one book, click here.

To check out Bryan’s latest novels, click here.

WriteTip: Beginning Well—How To Start Your Story

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write a Novel: The Fundamentals of FictionChapter 12: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, the first of three parts in a series covering Beginnings, Middles, and Ends.

 

“A long time ago, when all the grandfathers and 
grandmothers of today were little boys and little 
girls or very small babies, or perhaps not even born, Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie left 
their little house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin.

They drove away and left it lonely and empty in the 
clearing among the big trees, and they never saw the 
little house again.” (Little House on The Prairie by 
Laura Ingalls Wilder)

As you write your novel, there are three areas you’ll need to pay particularly close attention to: the Beginning—particularly the first two scenes, the Middle—and particularly the Mid-Point, and the End—particularly the Climax. This chapter will examine them each in turn. All three will work together in a great novel.

Nancy Kress writes in Beginnings, Middles, and Ends: “By the time she’s read your opening, your reader knows what you’ve implicitly promised. A satisfying middle is one that develops that promise with specificity and interest. A satisfying ending is one that delivers on the promise, providing new insight or comfortable confirmation or vicarious happiness.” So let’s start at the beginning as you consider writing your novel. What makes a great opening?

Beginning

The cliché of “A long time ago,” actually wasn’t cliché when Laura Ingalls Wilder used it long ago in her now classic tome. For us, it’s a phrase we must mostly avoid. To open our stories, we’ll have to reach deeper, try a little harder. Some stories just lend themselves to strong, dynamic openings: the murder mystery that opens with a murder, the police procedural that opens with a chase, the science fiction or epic fantasy novel that opens with a battle, the romance that opens with the protagonist catching their lover having an affair. These are all inherently dramatic openings, with lots of built in conflict, character development, and emotional resonance as well as action. But not every story brings such an easy opening directly to mind. Sometimes, writers have to work a little harder to craft just the right opening.

There are two key points from earlier chapters we must revisit here: the idea of questions asked and answered—the answers stretched out for pacing over long or short stretches depending, and the promise inherent in the author-reader contract—the promise to deliver on a premise in a satisfying way. Both these things must be established in any good beginning. Kress writes: “In your first scene, your main goal is to keep your reader interested. You do that by focusing not on overall meaning but on the four elements that make a first scene compelling: character, conflict, specificity, and credibility.” So to start, your opening should give readers a person to focus on. Usually this is the protagonist.

In his wonderful sequel to The Notebook, titled The Wedding, Nicholas Sparks manages to open with his protagonist out front and the story questions asked in the first two sentences: 

“Is it possible, I wonder, for a man to truly change? Or do character and habit form the immovable boundar- ies of our lives?

It is mid-October 2003, and I ponder these questions 
as I watch a moth flail wildly against the porch 
light. Jane, my wife, is sleeping upstairs, and she 
didn’t stir when I slipped out of bed. It is late, 
midnight has come and gone, and there’s a crispness
in the air that holds the promise of an early winter. I’m wearing a heavy cotton robe,and though I imagined it would be thick enough to keep the chill at bay, I 
notice that my hands are trembling before I put them 
in my pockets.

Above me, the stars are specks of silver paint on a 
charcoal canvas. I see Orion and Pleiades, Ursa Major,
and Corona Borealis, and think I should be inspired
by the realization that I’m not only looking at the 
stars, but staring into the past as well. Constella-  tions shine with light that was emitted aeons ago, and
I wait for something to come to me, words that a poet might use to illuminate life’s mysteries.

But there is nothing.

With those words, he establishes the central journey of the protagonist: a search for meaning, a desire to be better man, and an uncertainty if it is possible. The stars and the cold act as physical symbols of his uncertain thoughts and emotions, reminding us as they do him of his state of mind. The mention of his wife tells us the focus of his desire to grow: his wife and marriage and also introduces another key character for the journey we are about to embark on. It may not be as action packed an opening as a space battle, police chase, or murder, but the search for meaning and hope there is more to life inherent in the questions the protagonist is asking are universal themes all readers can relate to, questions that call to mind similar journeys we’ve all made, and the setting of pondering such things while a spouse sleeps and we watch the stars is also familiar. The whole thing, simple as it is, lacking in action though it may be, nonetheless evokes familiarity that connects us with the protagonist as he seeks universal truths we seek ourselves. And that makes this a powerful opening.

Kress writes: “Most successful openings give the reader a genuine character because most stories are about human beings.” And so your opening must connect us with a character we will want to know better, want to follow through a story; one who asks the kinds of questions that peak and hold our interest and make us read on. Such questions bring with them implied conflict—potential or existing—that will need to be faced to resolve the question. Again, there’s overt dramatic conflict and there’s also conflict like we see in The Wedding, which involves a man wondering if he is the best he can be and if he can find renewed satisfaction in his marriage and life. No matter what type of conflict lies at the heart of your story, it must be hinted at in the beginning, even though it won’t be developed until later, because the hint of that conflict is a hook that catches readers and keeps them reading.

Specificity encompasses the specific details you use to set the scene and character as well as mood and tone in your opening. The right details give you credibility. They anchor your story in concrete reality, distinguish your opening from others that may be similar, and convince readers you know what you’re talking about. The wrong details may lose readers and ruin your credibility right off the bat. Again per Kress, credible details in credible prose convince readers to trust that the author has something to say and knows what they are doing. The sense of trust enables readers to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride, believing the journey will be worth their time and take them somewhere interesting.

Kress suggests several techniques important to credible prose:

  1. Diction: Know the meaning of words and use them well and correctly, avoiding clichés, and establishing the character’s voice, not the author’s clearly and commandingly. If your character would say it—even a cliché—then it belongs, but make sure it is in character and has a point. No words in credible prose are wasted.
  2. Economy: “Credible prose,” Kress writes, “uses only as many words as it needs to create its effects. It doesn’t sprawl.” Credible pose is concise, with well-chosen words and phrases. It is not verbose. Repetition is only used when it is needed to create a powerful effect—a mood, an atmosphere, or a state of mind. It is precise and to the point. Why should your reader be forced to read twice as many words as you actually needed to tell your story? Keeping credibility means not wasting words.
  3. Good Sentence Construction: Awkward sentences never appear in credible prose. Your sentences may vary from simple to compound, long to short, but every one of them is smooth, unambiguous, and purposeful, moving forward story, character, plot, or theme with every word.
  4. Variety: Good sentence construction goes hand-in-hand with sentences of varied lengths. Short sentences can add punch and drama when following longer ones. And longer sentences after short ones will garner heightened attention from readers, who trust that every word counts.
  5. Spare Adverbs and Adjectives: Credible prose is not overflowing with unnecessary words like needless adverbs and adjectives. Excess modifiers are the work of amateurs. Strong verbs and nouns are the mark of pros. 
  6. Tone: The tone of credible prose is never self-indulgent always focusing reader’s attention on the story, not the writer. It resists the temptation to over write, offer needless asides, showy vocabulary, and over punctuation. The writing is straight forward and the words shine, not the author or his devices.

So how does all this fit together? Let’s look at a couple more examples of strong openings. Here’s the opening from Dennis Lehane’s Darkness, Take My Hand:

Three days ago, on the first official night of winter 
a guy I grew up with, Eddie Brewer, was one of four 
people shot in a convenience story. Robbery was not a motive. The shooter, Jeff Fahey, had recently broken 
up with his girlfriend, Laura Stiles, who was a cash- ier on the four-to-twelve shift. At eleven fifteen, as
Eddie Brewer filled a Styrofoam cup with ice and 
Sprite, Jeff Fahey walked through the door and shot 
Laura Stiles once in the face and twice through the 
heart.

Then he shot Eddie Brewer once in the head and walked down the frozen foods aisle and found an elderly Viet-namese couple huddling in the dairy section. Two bul- lets for each of them, and James Fahey decided his 
work was complete.

Darkness, Take My Hand is a noir detective novel set in Boston. Now let’s go to Bend, Oregon and this opening from Frisky Business by Tawna Fenske:

Either Marley Cartman had stepped in dog droppings, 
or the makers of her new lotion had a weird concept ofsweet seduction.

She dragged the toe of her Jimmy Choo peep-toe across the floor of the Humane Society lobby, thinking it was
absurd she’d dressed this nicely to drop paperwork at a business with a goat pen in the foyer.

One detective noir, one romantic comedy, two very different openings, but both excellent examples of the concepts Kress suggested. Lehane starts his story with a darkness and tragedy, that has a sad, wistful tone, while Fenske’s opening is quirky and comedic, much like the novel that follows. The Lehane novel centers on violence as Boston detectives Gennaro and McKenzie try to protect a local kid from the Mafia, while Fenske’s is about romance set around a wildlife sanctuary. Both openings establish character voice, are short on adjectives and adverbs and long on sentences of varied lengths, while also establishing setting and tone with economic prose. They are memorable and powerful and draw us in immediately. This is what your novel’s opening should accomplish as well.

For readers—and this includes agents and editors—the opening scene or two are all you have to convince them your novel is for them: worth their time and competently written by an author who has something to say and the credibility to say it. If you cannot convince them in the first two scenes, most will put down your novel and walk away. Some won’t make it past the first page, to be honest. And the risk is that they may decide never to pick up another book by you again. This is the importance of strong openings. This is why beginnings matter. Find an opening scene that accomplishes all of these things and follow it with a scene that opens up the character and world a bit more, letting us in on who they are, where we are, and what the problem and central question will be, and you will have our hearts and minds for the next few days or week it takes to read your story. But, of course, then you must deliver on the promise of your strong opening. And that’s where the Middle comes in, which we’ll discuss next week.

WriteTip: Using The Five Senses

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 3:

Many of us are guilty of falling into the habit of using one or two senses and ignoring the rest. For most of us, sight is the dominant sense—the sense through which we first encounter and examine the world. So how things appear will dominate most narratives naturally, closely followed by sound. But we have five senses, and all have the power to bring useful imagery into your storytelling.

Good description employs all five senses—sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing—and employs at least one every two pages, sometimes more. A few well-placed details can totally embody a character or place and make them come alive for the reader. And nothing takes us deep inside the character’s mind and experience like sensory details. All good settings are rich with detail, so you should have plenty to choose from. From the appearance and smells of a restaurant or grocery store or market to the touch and sounds of the outdoors to the taste of food, there are numerous opportunities to add color and vividness to your prose using these kinds of details.

Here are some suggestions for aspects of each sense to consider:

Sight—Color is usually one of the first things that comes to mind, but studies actually show that spatial dimensions tend to be picked up first by the brain. How large is the area? How high is the ceiling? After dimension, the source of light tends to be noticed next. What is lighting the scene, and what is its source—artificial or natural? Is it bright or white or mixed hues? Then, color impressions form. The dominant color tends to take on significance. Next comes texture, like shadows or rough and smooth surfaces, etc. Finally, there’s contrast. Superimposition of colors and other aspects affects how much objects, people, and places draw our attention.

Sound—Sound can be described by the loudness or complexity—simple or multiple sources—tonality (soft or hard, harsh or gentle, etc.), and the location of its source and distance from the hearer. Also, is the sound unknown or familiar?

Smell—While smells can be often overlooked by both writers and in real life, smell can reveal a lot. Is the odor pleasant or unpleasant? What emotions does it evoke—fear like smoke from a fire, or is it the steady everyday scent of vehicles, animals, or insects in the environment that almost goes unnoticed because it is so common?

Touch—How do things feel—rough or smooth, hot or cold, sharp or dull, etc.?

Taste—Does the character notice sweet or bitter, salty or acidic, pleasant or unpleasant, etc.?

If you’re like me, these kinds of details may not come naturally. So, I recommend two key resources that have really helped me up my game on writing sensory content. The Emotion Thesaurus by Pugliosi and Ackerman and Setting by Jack W. Bingham. These two resources are so invaluable, I often keep them with me on trips and beside me as I write and refer to them often, because writing such visceral descriptions is not first nature to me, and it can be very easy to fall into personal clichés and patterns that repeat the same details and descriptions over and over, which quickly becomes repetitive and glaring to readers. The authors also discuss body language and internal sensations, which can be described to show, not tell, the emotions of characters, the atmosphere of rooms, etc. Additionally, author David Farland describes this as the Kentic, Audio, Visual Cycle and offers useful tips on his website at https://mystorydoctor.com/the-kav-cycle-part-1/.

Sensory experiences and emotions evidence themselves in three ways: internal sensations, external sensations, and body language, and all three are important ways to describe them and help readers experience them too. For example:

Butterflies danced in her stomach as she entered the audition, and she fought to control her face as she took in the other dancers. There were famous faces she’d seen in numerous Broadway shows and performances. What was she doing here? She swallowed and licked her lips, which had suddenly grown parched. Her arm was twitching. She had to make it stop, but it wasn’t listening to her internal commands, so she shoved it tight against her side in an attempt to control it.

I don’t have to tell you she is nervous and intimidated. The descriptions do the work. This is what you are aiming for. If you are unsure about a particular smell or taste or even sound, Googling can provide impressions others have had of familiar things that can be adapted for your prose. I also recommend practicing by going to a mall or price club or anywhere else and sitting down to take notes of all the things your senses notice as they occur to you. This will give you practice not only at writing visceral (i.e., instinctive and emotional) details but also in noting how they naturally affect you and might also affect your characters.

You’ve probably deduced by now that description is the art of picking the right details at the right time. Stories are about movement, so be wary of stories where your characters reflect and remember a lot. Instead, action and discovery go hand in hand. As your characters go and do things, they discover sensory cues that provoke memories, emotions, and reactions and inspire further action. People move through life on two levels simultaneously: physical and emotional. Physical movement follows plot and events that unfold A, B, and C, while emotional movement follows character. The physical tends to move with the emotional. So meshing plot and character is the key, and good description is key to your ability to do that well. As Monica Wood writes in Description: “A story’s pace is controlled by the physical and emotional goings-on in the story, and those goings-on are controlled by description.”

Another element where description is especially important is context. Establishing the scope of a story can be vital to making it work, giving characters a scope in which to love and hate each other, to conquer or fall to adversity, discover or lose themselves. Context uses metaphors and symbols to reinforce emerging themes and organize the movement of a story into beginning, middle, and end. Wood writes: “The breadth of the story should dictate the breadth of the context.” Contextual details, small or large, reveal character and can serve to contrast with the story itself, adding power. The order in which details are noted can tell us much about a character’s values and priorities as well as how they view themselves in relation to those around them. Are they rich or poor? Powerful or weak? Confident or insecure? These details can reveal so much about them.

So, how do you choose which details to use and when? Well, that depends upon what you need the readers to know to understand and connect with the story at any given moment. Let’s look at an example from John Connolly’s Charlie Parker book A Song of Shadows:

The woman stank of cats and cookies, of piss and mothballs, but Cambion, whose sensory abilities had long been ruined by his disease, and who had grown used to the reek of his own decay, barely noticed it.

How do you not remember that? Ask yourself what you most notice about particular people, places, and things. What do you remember? What stands out about them? What did you notice first? What sticks with you most when you have been away from them awhile and remember? These are the beginnings of finding the most definitive choices to use in describing them because they hint at what stands out when you encounter those people, places, and things. Let’s look at another example from Brazilian author Jorge Amado’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands:

Delicate, pale, with that pallor of romantic poets and gigolos, black hair slicked down with brilliantine and lots of perfume, a smile that was a combination of melancholy and allure, evoking a world of dreams, elegant in bearing and attire, with large, pleading eyes, the Prince would have to be described by very high-flown words: “marmoreal,” “wan,” “meditative,” “pulchritudinous,” “brow of alabaster and eyes of onyx.”

So much said with just a few words but very colorful, visceral, and intriguing because every word count. This is what good description is all about.

For what it’s worth…

WriteTip: What Is A Premise and What Makes It Good?

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 1:

The Premise

In his bestselling book How to Write a Damn Good Novel, James N. Frey describes a premise as “the E = mc2 of novel writing.” The premise, he contends, “is the reason you are writing what you are writing … the core, the heart, the center, the soul of your expression.” He defines it as “a statement of what happens to the characters as a result of the core conflict in a story.” Agent Donald Maass defines a premise as
any single image, moment, feeling or belief that has enough power and personal meaning for the author to set her story on fire, propel it like a rocket for hundreds of pages, or perhaps serve as a finish line: an ending so necessary that every step of the journey burns to be taken.

While you might say to yourself: What’s the big deal? A premise is an idea—a premise is so much more than that. Ideas are common. Original ideas are almost nonexistent these days. Everything’s been done. So, what makes your premise special is not the basic simple idea but the unique spin and angle you bring to it. A premise is as much in the execution and unique approach to a concept as it is the idea itself.

Again, in How to Write a Damn Good Novel, James N. Frey compares a novel to an argument and writes: “The premise of an argument is a statement of the conclusion that will be reached through the argument. Each part of the argument must contribute to the premise if the argument is a good one … the premise of a work of fiction is not provable or arguable in the real world … not a universal truth. In a novel, the premise is true only for the particular situation of that novel. But nonetheless it is proven by all that leads to it. Your novel’s premise is the conclusion everything in your story leads to.”

In his bestseller Writing the Breakout Novel, mega-agent Donald Maass writes of a premise: “Not just any idea, though, but one with soil rich enough to grow a highly memorable novel; one that will both feed the author’s imagination, and, finally, nourish millions of readers.” An idea is not enough. It must be backed up by all the details of character, setting, conflict, and theme. It’s an idea with something unique and special to say, something we haven’t seen, told in a way we haven’t encountered that pops off the page. Maass calls it “a breakout premise,” implying that truly hit, breakout novels start with something special at their core. I’m sure we’d all love to write a hit novel that breaks out. So, what is it that makes “something special”?

First, a premise should describe an experience that is unusual, one not encountered by everyone, at least not firsthand. The experience also takes place in a vivid, wholly realized world that is compelling in its details and stands apart as unique yet real and fascinating on multiple levels.
Second, a premise should involve a character or characters who are larger-than-life, who talk, think, and act in ways not everyone does or can. These types of characters have a boldness, drive, and determination to pursue journeys we only dream about and take risks and actions we only wish we had the courage to take ourselves. In the process they undergo growth and changes we admire greatly, that inspire us, embolden us, and leave us breathless with admiration.

To create such a premise takes effort. It may not arrive fully formed right off the bat. Some great premises are discovered in the course of writing and discovering a story, but all successful writers learn to identify them and cling to them with all their might when they do. The best premises have the power to illuminate and confront, challenging our most deeply held beliefs, our hopes, our fears, our faith, even our very wills and nature. They engage readers’ imaginations and emotions and raise questions, hopes, fears, and more that have them yearning to turn the pages, cheer for the heroes, boo the villains, and reach the inevitable climactic confrontation that sets everything right again and resolves the mystery and uncertainty it evoked when it began.

Such a premise is so much more than just boy meets girl and falls in love or boy sets out to save the world. There’s something unique and special about the boy and the girl, what draws them together, where and how they come together, and why they are willing to fight for their love. The boy is someone special who believes he might actually save the world, after all. No ordinary Joe would dare undertake such a noble quest. It takes a certain level of courage, even determination, a refusal to surrender to insecurity and incredible odds, and an undeterred drive to keep going no matter what. I don’t know about you, but while I have met such people, I have found them to be few and far between. And those few-and-far-between people are the heart of good, successful stories. So, your premise requires one. Character is story. Story is character. Story flows from character. There really is no chicken or the egg question here about who came first. Who always leads into What.

So, to write your novel, you first need a really good idea with premise potential. You may not devise all the pieces before you write, but you must write looking for them to fall into place, and you will certainly need a solid concept to get you started. How you come up with it is something I cannot teach. It really is between you and your muse. Singer-songwriter John Denver used to say the ideas for his songs came from the aether—just floating out there waiting to be discovered, and he was the lucky soul who connected at the right moment to find them and give them life. In some ways, this is the way stories tend to work as well. Your ideas will come from your life, people you know, places you’ve been or want to go, things you’ve done or want to do, etc., and then your imagination should take over and start working on the rest. There is a certain magic to storytelling that can be neither easily described nor taught. That’s where the talent comes in. But it will take more than talent to write your novel. It will also take determination and a drive to push through the struggles and keep going no matter what. And so, the more passionate you are about your premise, the more likely you are to succeed. If nothing else, pick a premise that fires you up, not just the first seemingly viable one that comes in your head. Find the one that hooks you and won’t let you go. That’s where your great novel will surely come from.

Let’s look at some examples Frey gives of premises from famous novels:

The Godfather by Mario Puzo (the story of the Corleone Mafia family over generations): family loyalty leads to a life of crime.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (the story of an old Cuban fisherman who struggles against a marlin far out in the Gulf Stream off the Cuban coast): courage leads to redemption.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (the story of a miserable, cheap, bitter man who is visited by ghosts of past, present, and future and learns the meaning of Christmas): forced self-examination leads to generosity.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (the story of patients oppressed at a mental hospital): even the most determined and ruthless psychiatric establishment can’t crush the human spirit.

In effect, a premise is like an argument. A story can have only one premise, because you cannot prove two arguments well at once. Your story’s conclusion will have a cause-and-effect relationship with what came before. In most cases, the argument within the premise is about a dilemma the characters confront. If you start first with characters and think about your premise, you may come up with it as you consider the characters’ flaws and the obstacles they face, as well as their goals and needs. Frey writes: “There is no formula for finding a premise. You simply start with a character or situation, give the character a dilemma, and then meditate on how it might go.” By opening your imagination and letting it run, usually the possibilities are endless, and your premise will come to light in the process. Frey quotes Egri as saying: “Every good premise should contain an element of character which through conflict leads to a conclusion.” So in essence, what are your three Cs (Character, Conflict, Conclusion)? Identify them and you have your premise.

Since the story of characters changing because of dramatic conflict makes good fiction, your premise will define such a situation. Old high school friends meet after 20 years and fall in love despite her terminal illness. The coach of a small-town basketball team with a history of losses recruits the first black player to help lead the team to a championship. A tough technophobic cop must team with an android partner to solve his partner’s murder. Can you see the three Cs at work in all these examples?

A good premise will give your novel focus and power that carries readers through to the end. It will hold their attention. Keep them turning pages. Make them long to know what happens next. And it may well do the same for you as you write. In fact, it should, even for the dedicated outliners. Everything in good fiction propels and leads you to the conclusion of the story, which is also a decisive conclusion or answer to the argument of the premise. Anything else should be cut and dropped. So a well-conceived premise is inherent to a well-written novel and key to your success. You must know where you are going to successfully complete any journey. The premise is the target on the map of your storytelling journey. Start without it at your own peril.

The concept, idea, or premise is a start. Craft and work will do the rest.

Write Tip: 5 Basic Plot Elements All Novels Must Have

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 3:

In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass identifies five basic plot elements that all plots must have. They are:

A sympathetic character
Conflict
Complication
Climax
Resolution

So, every good plot starts with character, specifically a character we can care about. Then that character encounters obstacles that create conflict. This can be another person or group of people, some natural or other issue, etc. Then the conflict is complicated by various other obstacles and barriers that stand in the way of the character resolving it. This leads to a climax wherein the character must confront the opponent—person, animal, or thing—head on and see who will win. This leads to a resolution. These five elements make up any solid, well-developed plot.
We’ve already talked about how the plot is a series of questions asked and answered, so now let’s look at a key question we must always ask to make our plots stronger: What’s the worst that can happen?

You start with conflict and then consider what the complications might be. In doing so, there may be a temptation to like the character too much and not want to make things too hard on him or her. But that is the death of good drama. Instead, you need to ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” and consider the more dire possibilities. This is what makes good drama. Maass writes: “What makes a breakout novel memorable are conflicts that are deep, credible, complex, and universal enough so a great number of readers can relate.” So, don’t go off the deepest end necessarily, choosing something so dire and outrageous that it seems too hard to believe. You want to complicate and create disasters and dangers, not create incredulity in readers.

What you do want to do is push your problem far beyond what readers might imagine. Maass suggests: “Push your characters into situations that you yourself would never go near in your own life.” Remember that the characters should speak and act in ways we only wish we had the courage to do. This is what inspires us to admire and follow them. So they will be capable of facing situations we wouldn’t dare take on ourselves. The key is to push things to utter extremes while still managing to make them feel familiar to readers. Not outlandish, then, but familiar. In other words, possible.

When we create conflict that is credible, relatable, and familiar, we create stories with tension on every page. These are the kinds of stories that keep readers turning pages and coming back time and again to the same authors for more. John Grisham, Nicholas Sparks, Michael Connelly, Jonathan Maberry, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Heather Graham, J.K. Rowling, Rachel Caine—these are examples of authors who have mastered this technique. If you want your plots to become breakout, hit stories, you must create tension on every page. Make us desperate to know what happens next. Create urgency in the questions the plot asks. This will drive the story forward, increasing the stakes and tension with each scene and page, until readers may feel they or the characters can’t possibly take anymore, but they do every time. And we are dying to know how they manage it and can possibly survive, so we stay up all night reading to find out. We’ve all read and loved books like that, right? Imagine what it would be like to write one.

One technique that aids this kind of tension is nonlinear narrative. Grisham is a master of this: constantly holding information back from his readers to surprise them with later. Nonlinear narrative is storytelling that increases tension by telling the story in a nonchronological fashion, using flashbacks and other such techniques. Basically, you start telling the story in the center of the action at the most dramatic place and then go back and fill in the backstory and details as necessary through the course of the novel.

For what it’s worth…

Write Tip: Developing A Novel’s Theme

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 1:

“If a powerful problem is a novel’s spine,” Donald Maass writes in The Breakout Novel, “then a powerful theme is its animating spirit … It starts with you having something to say.” Theme is one of those topics that makes many people’s eyes glaze over. They think of the theme papers they hated writing in school, perhaps. Or find it abstract and hard to conceive. But theme can and should form the unifying narrative structure of your well-written novel. What is theme? Theme is what a story, at its heart, at its moral core, is really trying to say, what it’s about. It’s why you are telling the story. It is what you have to say. Theme, in essence, is not the argument, but the moral derived from it. It is the lesson(s) and life truth(s) embedded and demonstrated through your story.

In Theme and Strategy, Ronald B. Tobias defines theme as “the central concern around which a story is structured.” He writes, “Theme is your inertial guidance system. It directs your decisions about which path to take, which choice is right for the story and which isn’t.” In essence, theme is what unifies the whole and informs it beyond just a story about a guy or girl who did so-and-so into something memorable with lasting impact that speaks to the human condition. Choosing the right theme will help you unify your story. It isn’t something you should just wing or make up as you go, but something you should think about early on, even as you plan your story, and keep in your mind with every scene you write.
Maass suggests three facts to keep in mind:

All stories are moral.
Readers tend to seek out stories that are in line with their beliefs.
Fiction is most compelling when it pulls readers into points of view that are compelling, detailed, and different.

Readers crave insight on the world around them. They want to be pushed to expand their minds and see things differently, through different eyes. Readers become most engaged when the characters’ beliefs capture their attention and make them think. Whether you know it or not, you have something to say, and having the courage to say it through your story and characters will imbue your novel with power that makes it memorable and lasting. Deep down, all writers believe they have something that must be said, some insight on the human condition the world cannot do without, and these demonstrate their own morality and views of right and wrong in the universe. Ask yourself what that is, and let your story speak to that. Have it in mind as you write. This will create a unified story with resonance far beyond just entertainment. As Maass writes, “stories without fire cannot fire readers.”

Because readers are moral people, they inherently look for the moral compass that drives characters in fiction. Whether they agree with it or not is not the primary concern—understanding it is. Powerful beliefs and messages imparted through characters are far more effective than writers preaching or teaching directly, because characters who have beliefs that drive them will take concrete actions that reflect those beliefs. The consequences of these actions then speak powerfully about life, people, and more in ways that direct lessons can never accomplish. The key is embedding these morals and beliefs in the characters’ actions. When characters live what they believe, readers will accept the validity of those beliefs and be impacted by the results.

Tobias suggests several major patterns, which can be summarized as follows:

Plot as Theme—Much of popular fiction is driven by this theme, in which plot is paramount over any other concerns. Escapism is the goal here, and as such, while the novels may not carry long-lasting moral messages, they earn big points with readers and generate bestseller after bestseller. They are not striving for great literature but rather great entertainment, and this has made them hugely successful. Agatha Christie, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Dan Brown, John Grisham, and many more create works that fall readily into this category.

Emotional Effect as Theme—Terror, Suspense, Romance, Comedy—in this case the emotional effect of the story is the driving theme. Works by authors such as Stephen King, Peter Straub, Gini Koch, Christopher Moore, John Grisham, Heather Graham, Nora Roberts, Nicholas Sparks, and more deal with this theme.

Style as Theme—This theme encompasses a small minority of movies and books because the theme is the artistic style and approach rather than other concerns. The art films and literary novels by auteurs such as John Hawkes, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Margaret Atwood, and more have this focus.

Character as Theme—Character studies, like style-themed art, also lend themselves to literary concerns. The focus here is the characters, their growth, and how the world and events of the story affect them. Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, Gustave Flaubert’s Madam Bovary, and films like Raging Bull, The Great Santini, Taxi Driver, and The Godfather embody this approach.

Idea as Theme—Of all the patterns, this one is most successful at creating memorable events and characters that jump off the page. Idea-themed works affect us profoundly, change the world, change lives, start wars, or at the least, make us think because the whole point of ideas is to make us ponder them, ask questions, discuss, and draw new conclusions. These are often the books whose themes are erased during conversion to movies, leaving us to complain that “the book was better.” Idea as theme is less cinematic, less exciting, but its power cannot be denied. Examples include Robinson Crusoe, Don Quixote, The Graduate, and Shane.

Moral Statement as Theme—The most dangerous of theme categories, this one is most likely to become preachy and heavy handed and turn readers off, so it must be used with great care and attempted only by skillful hands. If the characters are sincere and the plot gripping and storytelling is your focus, though, you can pull this off. According to Tobias, Fatal Attraction and Wall Street are two examples of films that fall in this category. In both cases, the moral results from the story rather than the other way around.

Human Dignity as Theme—These are the stories where the fight to hold on to dignity in spite of circumstances is the focus. Stories like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Rocky, On the Waterfront, Gladiator, and even Roots employ this type of theme.

Social Comment as Theme—Criticizing or shining a light on our culture can be accomplished with great power using fiction. The trick here is finding the right story. Great examples are The China Syndrome and The Grapes of Wrath. The key is to let the characters’ convictions argue for you.

Human Nature as Theme—“What is Man?” is a question that has been explored for centuries and still captures readers’ interest. Stories that fit here include Deliverance, Lord of the Flies, and Robinson Crusoe. (Note: Stories can combine more than one theme. More on that later.)

Human Relations as Theme—Terms of Endearment, Ordinary People, Love Story, many a Nicholas Sparks book like The Notebook or The Wedding, and more all explore this theme where the relation of humans in community, small or large, is the focus.

Coming of Age as Theme—This one I know a lot about as it has been the theme of six of my novels and several short stories to date. The exploration of finding one’s self and confidently staking one’s place or recognizing one’s role and purpose in the universe is a theme found in Star Wars, Rocky, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Ender’s Game, and many, many more.

Once you know your theme or themes, you must then decide several things:
1. Who are the characters who can best embody this theme?
2. What plot is best suited for the theme?
3. What kind of setting will best fit the characters and actions necessary to portray the theme?
4. What voice and style is best suited to the theme?

All together, structurally, Theme works with Plot and Character as shown in this diagram.
Your theme informs all these decisions, which is why knowing the theme first is so important. As the diagram demonstrates, theme is at the center of the core elements of your story’s structure. Additionally, many stories explore more than one theme. If the themes are compatible, this is a very powerful and easy thing to do.

As moral people, readers will turn to fiction for affirmation of their values or the values that underpin the world as they see it. They seek deeper understanding, answers to questions, and more in great stories, driven by the desire to know that what they believe is right. Maass suggests it matters less whether the moral is widely accepted than that it is developed in depth. “The key is your protagonist,” he writes. “If we believe in him, we will believe what he believes.”

We buy into Star Wars because Luke Skywalker believes so passionately in his cause—the Force, the right of the Rebels over the Empire, good versus evil, and what is just. The same can be said of Rocky and many other films, even The Godfather, wherein the protagonist is a criminal corrupted by his world and relationships over the course of the film. The viewer’s agreement with the decisions being made is less important than the conviction of the character. It is in the character’s anger, weeping, fear, and determination that we are inspired to believe, that readers feel it is imperative to know their stories. This is how knowing your theme and developing every scene from that perspective can transform a simple, ordinary story into a life-changing, memorable classic.

So, whether you are a planner or a pantser, outliner or discovery writer, thinking about theme and allowing it to inform your writing will make the difference between your novel being plain or something special, blending in or standing out from the pack. Theme is that vital, that key. And so, as you move forward to plan your premise and the structure that will best bring it to life, theme is an important component of your process which must be considered and carefully weighed.

For what it’s worth…See you next Wednesday.

Write Tip: How To Structure A Scene

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 3:

The scene is the basic building block of dramatic structure for any story. If written correctly, each scene leads to another scene and another. According to Jack M. Bickham, in his book Scene & Structure, all well-written scenes use the following pattern:

Statement of goal

Introduction and development of conflict

Failure of character to reach his goal or a tactical complication/disaster which creates a new goal

Notice how these parallels the three-act dramatic structure of the entire story. It is not an accident. Scenes have three acts just as the entire story will. Scenes are not static. At their heart lies conflict. One character or group has a goal and others have other goals, and these meets and create obstacles to be overcome. Hence, conflict. Most scenes start with the point-of-view (POV) character walking into a place with a clear goal in mind. (As discussed in Chapter 4 the point-of-view character is the character from whose vantage point a particular scene is told.) Success of the scene dramatically depends upon your ability to interpose obstacles between your hero/heroine and the obtainment of this goal. Sometimes the goal carries over from the previous scene. Sometimes it is the overall goal in the story. Other times, it is a sub-goal required as part of the many steps to reaching the overall story goal. In any case, usually the goal is stated early on either through internal monologue or dialogue of the character.

For example, Luke Skywalker enters the workshop and cleans the droids per Uncle Owen’s instructions (goal). In the process, he finds something jammed in a slot on R2-D2 and tries to free it, unleashing the video of Leia pleading for help. When the message is unclear, he asks R2 to play the whole message and R2 refuses by first pretending not to know what he is referring to, then saying that the restraining bolt is preventing it in order to get the bolt taken off (obstacles). The disaster comes as R2-D2 escapes, forcing Luke to chase him down.

To work well and increase dramatic tension, all scenes must end badly. Whatever the goal going in, whatever the action taken, the result must be a failure of some sort. It can be an actual failure, a twisty complication, or additional unexpected tasks, but it constitutes a delay to success regardless.

But there is another key element at play as well. When the character’s goal is stated, the reader asks a question.

Goal: To get the golden key to the temple where I can retrieve the sacred scroll.
Reader Question: Will (character) get the key?

Whatever the question, the resolution (or answer) must be a negative. Sometimes a character does the get the key, but other objects are required to find the temple or open the door, and the character must go seek them before getting the scroll. The answer to the question, the disaster, the end of the well-written scene, always creates further complication on the character’s journey through that story.

There are several key points to keep in mind when determining goal, conflict, and resolution:

1. The goal of each scene must clearly relate to the larger story question; the question evoked in readers by the stated goal of the character for the major story arc.
2. The conflict must be about the goal.
3. The conflict must be external, not within one’s self. Either with an object, animal, or person or more than one.
4. Point of view should be maintained from goal to resolution in the same scene. It is best not to break it up into different points of view to avoid confusion and loss of tension.
5. Disaster always works by pushing the character away from his or her goal.
6. Readers will tolerate much if you keep making things worse and worse in every scene. This is how you build tension and suspense and create a compelling read.
7. Since the end of each scene dictates what will happen after, scenes cannot be written in isolation from the overall arc, goals, conflict, etc. of the story itself if they are to work well.

Plots are made up of a series of interconnected scenes that create a larger story. Since a plot is the storyline arc of the overall book, and the book is a story that is like an argument with a premise, a plot consists of a series of questions asked and answered. What you ask when, and how soon you answer it, affects the tension and pacing of the overall story. Some questions get asked and answered in the same scene or chapter. Some carry over multiple scenes and chapters. Some may carry over to another book. Some carry from chapter 1 to the final chapter. The questions have various levels of stakes to them. More intense, important questions tend to take longer to answer. One great way to figure out if your story makes sense and has good pacing is to go through and identify all the questions asked and answered and when and where they are asked and answered. If you are missing any answers or questions, you have a problem that needs fixing.

Since some stories have several plots—usually an overarching main plot and subplots—and not all scenes relate to each plot, but all relate to the main arc in some way or affect it. All plots and subplots have three acts just like the overall story, so sometimes identifying which plot and subplot(s) relate to each scene is key to making them work and determining in what order the scenes need to occur to best tell the story. To be clear, a subplot is a lesser plot that is less important than the main driving plot and sometimes focuses around a specific character, location, or aspect of that larger plot and points readers back to it.

It is also important to know which characters are in a scene. Too many characters can make a scene confusing. And too few can make it ineffective. Most importantly, the person with the most to lose is usually the best POV character for that particular scene, so keep in mind whether you have multiple POV characters or not. That will determine your character use in each scene. Remember also that individual characters can have conflicting goals, and that can further complicate scenes by creating competing tensions or conflicts that add layers and depth to the scene and further obstacles to the resolution as well.

In Medias Res

The last point I’ll make is the number one rule of good dramatic writing I learned in film school: Get into a scene as late as possible in its action, and end the scene as soon as you can after that. The literary term for entering a scene when the action has already begun is in medias res.

Scenes are more dramatic when they start within tense moments of action or conflict, so skip all the slow buildup and setup like greetings and small talk, how the characters got there, etc. which would slow things down, and instead get right into it. Telephone scenes, scenes sitting around a table, on couches, or in a car, etc. have a casual, slow feel that does not lend itself well to drama, so these use sparingly. The pacing and power of your story will go up in spades, and your readers will thank you for it.

Here’s another example, one of my favorites: the opening scene from the film Lethal Weapon 2.

The film opens with Riggs yelling and pounding his palms on a dashboard as horns honk and traffic roars. Then he and Murtaugh are arguing about speed and strategy. They are in a car chase. We don’t yet know who they are chasing or why, but we are immediately thrust into the center of tense, fast-paced action, and the details will come. We soon learn there are two car chases with two teams of cops, and as they fight traffic and near misses with other vehicles and race to keep up with the fleeing criminals—Murtaugh driving his wife’s station wagon, which hardly seems up to the task—the bad guys start shooting and taking more and more chances. The goal is to catch the bad guys. The conflict comes from disagreements between cops and from all the obstacles.

When the bad guys ditch them in airport traffic, Riggs jumps out and continues the chase on foot until Murtaugh untangles the station wagon and catches up. Riggs then insists on driving, and he pushes the car even more to its limits, practically destroying it in the process. So now they are fighting each other as well (more conflict). Then the other chase ends at an intersection, where cars collide and a helicopter comes in to rescue the bad guys with automatic gunfire leading to a shootout with cops (Failure 1). Riggs and Murtaugh, meanwhile, continue their chase until their baddie flips his car over a black-and-white cop car that blocks its path and crashes into a building. By the time Riggs and Murtaugh get to the car, the bad guy is gone (Failure 2), but they find Krugerrands, the currency of South Africa, and so their quest begins.

This is a great example of getting in as late as possible and out as soon as possible (in medias res) while still including all three core building blocks of a great scene.

To download a free copy of How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, click here.

Write Tip: Three Act Structure

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 2:

A sketch that will inform your outline, the three-act structure nonetheless identifies the core dramatic points of a story. Some of you may be discovery writers like me, preferring to let the story unfold organically. But at some point, you will be required to outline as a professional writer. And when faced with a tight deadline, the more organized you are, the more efficient you can be. The first thing you need to do is understand the dramatic structure that underpins your story. So we are going to talk about a very simple, basic way to identify key points that can help you write more quickly and efficiently to meet a deadline.


While outlines are multiple pages of detail, the structural diagram will be no more than a brief paragraph or a few sentences describing each required point accompanied perhaps by a paradigm sketch. The paradigm shown is based on Screenplay by Syd Field, a classic writing teaching book employed by many film schools, but in Western literature, the principles also apply to any dramatic story, including those told in prose. The outline is for three acts. In a screenplay, those are act one, which is 30 pages, or a quarter of the text; act two, which is 60 pages, or half; and act three, which is 30 pages, or a fourth. Your page numbers will vary, but the fractions for each portion should wind up roughly the same.

The key turning points between acts are called plot point 1 and plot point 2. These are events which force the protagonist, and sometimes the antagonist too, to turn in new directions and take new action in pursuit of resolving the conflict. Plot point 1, at the end of act one, will require agency, or action, from the protagonist in pursuit of finding the solution and determining what must be done. Plot point 1 propels the protagonist into act two, which is an ascending action involving discovery and a journey to find the solution and achieve the goal without yet knowing all that is required. In the course of act two, the questions will be answered until you reach plot point 2. Plot point 2, at the end of act two, will occur when the protagonist discovers what must be done and where, and with whom, to resolve the conflict and achieve the goal. And thus, it propels him or her into act two, which is the climactic, descending action to reach that point.

When I write any story, I always start with some idea of what my plot points will be and how it will end, to give me a sense of focus and direction as I write, even when allowing it to unfold organically. Now, just as the overall story has three acts, so will each plot and subplot, and each act. As such, each has a mini turning point called the midpoint or pinch that twists the action a bit and propels us into the second half. In the first act, this is called the inciting incident. This inciting incident often provokes a change in the protagonist’s routine—something new they experience that could either challenge or encourage them. In The Silence of the Lambs (1991), FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) meets with Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). The confrontation of both parties is nerve-wracking. But it intrigues us and sucks in Clarice and leads to the rest of the story. Other examples are Indiana losing the golden idol to Belloq at the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which then sets up a rivalry that drives the later journey as Indiana Jones seeks to get the Ark before Belloq. Morpheus choosing Anderson in The Matrix sets up all that follows after. In The Sixth Sense, without the opening confrontation and gunshot, nothing else that follows could occur.

In act two, you have a pinch point for each half, and in act three, you have the climactic confrontation before the denouement. These may not be as dramatic as the inciting incident of act one, but they nonetheless inspire the protagonist or antagonist to take further action and move forward on the journey. Whereas the plot points are both major dramatic developments, the inciting incident, midpoint, and pinches can be more internal than external but of significance to the characters’ hearts and minds such that they cause them to change course and move in a new direction or with renewed vigor toward the goal. These are like lesser plot points, in a way, but nonetheless significant points in the framework of the overall dramatic arc that drives your story.

Let’s talk examples. In Star Wars: A New Hope, the inciting incident starts with Darth Vader’s ship attacking Princess Leia’s rebel ship and forcing her to load the Death Star plans into R2-D2, the droid, and send him to escape. He lands on the planet with his companion, C-3PO, and they wind up in the hands of the hero, Luke Skywalker. When Luke discovers a message from a princess that reports danger and points him to a mysterious figure named Obi-Wan Kenobi, he sets off to find out what it means, and that leads him to Old Ben Kenobi, whose shared surname is an obvious clue. Kenobi rescues Luke from Sand People at the midpoint of act one and takes him back to his own home. There, they view the message and Kenobi gives Luke a lightsaber and tells him about the murder of his father, a story Luke never knew. The Empire and a Rebellion, which until now have been mostly rumors far away, have entered Luke’s life, and when Kenobi takes him home, they find that the Jawas who sold Luke’s family the droids have been murdered and torched. Fearing the worst, they race to Luke’s home and find Luke’s aunt and uncle have been murdered and their homestead torched. Plot point 1 is when Kenobi tells Luke they must go rescue the princess together and find a way to deliver the plans hidden in R2-D2.

Act two starts with their trip to Mos Eisley spaceport where they must find passage, and they end up recruiting Han Solo, evading Stormtroopers searching for the droids, and head off for Alderaan. Then, we see Luke in training for the inevitable confrontation, while Vader and Tarkin attempt to extract information from Leia, and ultimately destroy Alderaan. Luke, Han, and Kenobi’s discovery of this is our pinch point for act one. That determines they must rescue Leia themselves and deliver the plans. Then they are caught in a tractor beam and pulled aboard the Death Star. The midpoint comes during the attempted rescue in the Detention Block when they are trapped. The pinch point for act two is when Kenobi confronts Vader to help his friends escape with the droids to the rebellion. Plot point 2 is after they fight their way clear and escape to the rebel base, where the plans reveal the Death Star’s flaw. The Rebels unveiling their attack plan propels us into act three. Act three is the Rebel attack and the Imperial counterattack, and the climax comes as Luke faces off against Vader in the trench run and ultimately destroys the Death Star with surprise help from Han.

So, now that we have seen how this plays out in a story we are all familiar with, it’s time to identify this structure for your story. Keep in mind that this is only a blueprint. Plans can change. As the story evolves, if required, your plot points, as well as pinches and midpoints, and even your climax, may change. The point of this is not to set anything in stone but to have goals to guide your work. It will help direct you as you write and set up each character and point required to reach each marker. If that ultimately requires the markers to change, it’s okay because these are tools to help you achieve a whole.

Here are the things you’ll need to know to develop this paradigm outline.
Who is your protagonist?
Who is your antagonist?
What are their goals?
What are the obstacles each faces in reaching that goal?
What growth must each undergo to make success possible?
And finally, what do you think the final confrontation needs to be?

Answering these questions is just a temporary means to an end. The answers may change, but the idea is to think through key elements of your story to allow you to write with blinders off and have some goal points along the way to work toward. That will allow you to write faster and spend less time wondering what the heck you should do next. As you actually write, these goal points may need to change, and that is okay.

To download a free copy of How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, click here.

Tomorrow: Part 2-4 Act Structure
Friday: Part 3-How To Structure Scenes

For these and other WriteTips, click here.

5 Days Of Comic Con

I took a break from blogging regularly for a few years now, but with the publication of my latest book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals Of Fiction earlier this year, I have been wanting to revive my blog. In particular, the weekly Write Tips feature that was so popular.

So to celebrate San Diego Comic Con’s 50th, which I will be attending and participating in as a panelist, I thought what better time than now to relaunch Write Tips. So each day the rest of this week, I will feature a new Write Tip, and then every Wednesday that follows, will present another one. It is my hope these will stimulate and assist you in your writing process. I know they are things that help me.

As a bonus, Wednesday through Friday, I will be giving away free downloads of How To Write  Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction in each post.  So happy 50th to San Diego Comic Con, the original Comic Con that started it all, and happy writing to all of you.

Here’s the posting schedule for this week:

Tuesday- Character Narrative as a Plot Device

Wednesday – Three Act Structure

Thursday – Four Act Structure

Friday – How To Structure A Scene

Just look for the Write Tips logo starting tomorrow. For what it’s worth…