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Monday, January 15, 2018

Can You Write to a Theme?

When it comes to talking about theme in the writing world, there is some advice that I find questionable: You should never write to a theme.

The argument is that when you write to a theme, it shows in your story. It becomes mechanical and "preachy." The story feels forced and mechanical.

But is it really true? Should you never write to a theme?

Recently I read an article where a well-known author argued that not only should you not start a story with a theme in mind, you should never ever make any attempts to put a theme in. He argued that writers should never care two cents about themes, and should just write the darn story.

Not only am I skeptical of this kind of advice, but I strongly disagree with it.

So many writers preach that writing to a theme never works and makes a story mechanical--but how can they prove this? Do they know the way every single writer has approached every single work in existence? So why would they argue this?

Because the only time they notice when a writer has written to a theme is when it's done poorly. When it draws attention to itself. When it is preachy. But if the theme is handled well in a story, people don't bother to wonder how the writer approached the theme. For all we know, they could have written the story with that theme in mind.

It can be very difficult to write to a theme--because it does run the danger of making a story feel more mechanical or preachy--but that doesn't mean it can never be done.

And it certainly doesn't mean you should never consider theme when composing your work.

My argument is that if you can truly understand writing and how the pieces fit together, you'll know how to handle theme without it being preachy. You'll know how to incorporate it without making your story feel mechanical.

When people say you can't write to a theme, what they're really saying is that it's difficult to write to a theme.

The themes in Harry Potter were guided, not random.

Also, I have a hard time agreeing with the idea that a writer should never give a thought about theme. I don't buy that. My favorite stories have powerful themes that the writer--if not from the beginning, through the process of drafts--was conscious of. After all, no one can tell me that the themes of love and death "just happened" in the Harry Potter series. They were incorporated.

Furthermore, some stories beg that a theme be taken into account simply because of the subject matter. If you are dealing with dark or graphic content, then it's almost required you have a powerful theme to justify and balance that all out--otherwise it's just gratuitous, a grotesque spectacle. If you are to write about kids killing each other in a post-apocalyptic world, than you sure as heck need to have the story be about "more" than what's on the page.

You don't have to write with a theme in mind at all, and you can ignore it through all your drafts, but if you do that, you run into other risks. Your story may have a theme that is detrimental to society. Imagine you did write The Hunger Games with no concern for theme--what would that story actually be teaching audiences? There's a real possibility it would be promoting bloodlust and violence, instead of discouraging it. See how that might be dangerous?

Some stories require you consider theme beforehand to balance out dark material

But if you want to write to a theme right out of the gate, how can you do that without it being preachy, mechanical, and formulaic? Well, as I said earlier, you need to have a firm understanding of how story parts fit together. If you can't discern what works and what doesn't, and when to press on the gas or when step on the breaks, how will you be ably to successfully write to a theme? So it starts with studying theme.

Writing with a theme is very different than reading with a theme as an audience member, which is one of the reasons it's so tricky to write one intentionally. As readers, when we think of themes, we think of the "punch line," the end result, the message, the point, the moral. But as a writer, if you come out swinging the punch line all over the plot, it becomes preachy . . . and annoying.

The point should usually be the conclusion.

The conclusion to what?

Well, as another writing tip blogger, K.M. Weiland wisely states, when it comes to writing, themes are about asking questions.



I don't know about you, but that seems to go against everything my English teachers told me. I was told that theme is a statement--the message in the story. "Love conquers all" is a theme in Harry Potter. That's a conclusion. An answer.

(Side note: There is some argument over the use of the terms "theme," "moral," "message," or what have you, and what fits where, in the writing world, but what matters is you understand the concept of what people are teaching, more so than the terminology--which can ironically be ambiguous in the writing world.)

But remember, in order to have an answer, you need to have a question. Or better, more than one question.

Of course writing a story where you come out the gates swinging around a moral isn't going to work. Who the heck cares about or appreciates the answer before they have been faced with the question? Or, maybe in better words, the answer is more powerful after you've grappled with questions.

You'll find that, apart from the climax or denouement, often the most powerful thematic moments happen in scenes where the characters or story itself poses questions. Who am I? Can you be true to yourself and still be accepted by society? Can you show mercy and still suffice justice? Do the ends justify the means? Can innocence survive a wicked world?

Les Mis is a perfect example of an intentionally crafted theme that weighs real questions

Great thematic lines in stories don't swing the answer about, they get the audience to ponder, question, and consider. The more a theme is the focus in the story, the more it needs to pose questions.

Sure, you can put in advice and morals and answers here and there--pieces along the way or pieces of a bigger picture--but the main themes and the powerful themes pose questions before giving answers. And the questions aren't black-and-white either. The best questions are complex--that's when they feel real, when you as a writer and by extension, the audience, legitimately consider multiple, possible answers.

Stories often come off as preachy when they don't fairly consider all the answers--when what the author considers to be the opposing side is oversimplified, demonized, or stereotyped. It's not required that a good theme be overly sympathetic to all answers (though it can be), but it should at least be somewhat fair when considering them.

Like the plot line, the thematic line gains full power when it reaches the climatic conclusion--the answer: You do have value. You can be accepted. Mercy is more powerful than justice. Ends don't justify the means. Innocence can conquer wickedness. (The answers may be different, depending on what kind of truths you are telling.)

But similar to the plot line, your character needs to struggle to get there. He can't win on his first try. He can't have the answer before considering the questions. With both the plot, and the theme, there should be some level of struggle. The fear, the doubt, the questions.

So can you write to a theme? I think it can be done.

Does it mean you have to?

Heavens no.

You can easily discover and mold a theme as you go. It can even be a finishing touch.

But if you have a lesson, a moral, an answer, a theme you want to intentionally share to the world, you can also do that--just remember to ask and legitimately consider the questions it takes to get there.

It is my opinion, though, that most writers fit somewhere in the middle. They may have somewhat of an idea on what the theme will involve, simply because of the content of the story, but they discover parts of it through the writing process, and refine it to fit the finished piece.

The middle, in my opinion, is often the best balance. It's hard to start a story with a highly specific theme in mind, but it's also very hard to write a good theme when you ignore that part of storytelling altogether. Sometimes it's best to have an idea, and as you write, start asking questions.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Dealing with Loneliness


One malady commonly associated with writing is loneliness. Writing is what I've heard someone call an "anti-social activity." You sit at a computer and work away, living in your own little world, alone. If you are like me and prefer to work alone, that's great. But other than having to deal with people who don't understand writing and may argue or whine against your chosen activity, if you truly pursue writing, you'll probably experience a sense of loneliness, in one form or another at some point.

Personally, it takes a lot for me to feel lonely, but even I get little bouts of it from time to time, which tells me others probably get it way worse.

What's weird, though, is that I feel like these days, people will take any problem and cite it as a reason not to pursue something--but if you waited around for the perfect something, you'd wait around forever. If you waited for the perfect job, you'd wait around forever. It's better to pick your problems--what you are willing to deal with, what cost you are willing to put up with.

Nothing is perfect, and when you make a choice, you are also picking up the cons with it. For writing, one of those cons is loneliness. No, you might not feel it right away, but should you decide to pursue it seriously, it will probably come in some degree at some point.

I took my first ever creative writing class in middle school, and I distinctly remember one day where my teacher was talking about pursuing writing as a career, and he said in a grave tone, that being a fiction writer is a great job, but it's "very, very lonely."

My best friend, who knew I wanted to be a writer, was in the class. She immediately looked over at me, raised her eyebrows and smiled in a way that seemed to say, "uh-oh, he's talking about you."

Now, I'm not exaggerating when I say that he said it in a grave tone. It was very grave and dangerous sounding--it was a warning.

So while the the class seemed to grow still and silent, want to know what my reaction was?

Meh, I can deal with that.

And I have, and so do countless other writers.

When you pick your choices, you also pick your problems. 

Frankly, we have it so much easier today than people did in the past. Everyone seems to be connected to everyone online now.

But here's the thing, while it relates and correlates, loneliness does not necessarily have to do with the amount of people you have in your life. You've probably heard some rendition of the concept that you can feel lonely in a crowd. Perhaps loneliness has more to do with feeling connected, accepted, loved, and understood by others.

This is probably particularly true of writers, who tend to want to connect with other human beings on a deep level--through their writing.

And funny enough, you could pursue something else, and feel just as lonely. Loneliness doesn't have a monopoly on writing. Everyone will feel lonely at some point in life.

For some reason in our society today, I get the sense that we have an unrest, when it comes to negative feelings in life. If we feel lonely, we must eradicate it. If we feel downhearted, we must get away from that. If we feel guilty, we must escape that. Do we have a low tolerance for negative experiences? For a lot of us, probably.

That isn't to say that we shouldn't try to make things better, or get better. But there is a balance, and negative feelings and experiences are part of our earthly life, and if we forever evade those, we are missing that part of the human experience. We're never going to find the perfect life.

Sometimes I think that because in this day and age we have so many opportunities to excel in so many areas, that we expect to find perfection--perfect circumstances, a perfect life. Worse, we try to find perfection in all areas. In fact, a study was released just this last week that found that Gen-Xers and Millennials struggle with self-crippling perfectionism--from both pressure they put on themselves and pressures they feel from others. And apparently it's getting worse and worse.

It's okay to live imperfectly. It's okay to feel guilty, downhearted, and yes, lonely. We don't necessarily need to view these things as black holes that we have to spend our lives evading. We can't evade everything.

So pick your problems. Choose what you love. And love your choice.

And there are of course, ways of dealing with or alleviating feelings of loneliness. Unlike generations of writers before us, we are more connected than ever. Often friends are just a click or text message away. Okay, okay, I get that some people see that as a negative thing and that we need more face-to-face interaction, and I agree, but for a writer in the industry, their work inherently lacks the same amount of face-to-fact interaction.

Many writers like to get involved in the writing community, either online or in their area. They like to join writing groups, go to open mic nights, attend conferences. All these things are great and can help.

But at some point you might run into another problem: They all take time. And for some, they may actually take time away from writing rather than tend to that time.

For example, in college, I was part of a writing group. It was fantastic. Now I get paid to give feedback and edits on unpublished work, so to join a writing group now and do that stuff for free, on top of already doing it all day, well, I'm not convinced that is a great idea.

Sure, I can talk about writing online with other writers--but the time I spend typing messages could have been time I had spent editing or writing.

So it depends on what direction you are going and how deep you want to get into this industry. That's all up to you. And one approach is not necessarily better than another. You can still be a writer without being in the industry up to your neck. Don't let anyone make you feel otherwise.

Alleviate feelings of loneliness where you can. Make sure it's manageable, rather than self-crippling. But also recognize that you chose to deal with it when you chose to pursue writing.

The same attribute that leads you to wanting to connect so deeply with others, is the same attribute that leads to you being a great writer, and the same attribute that makes you feel lonely. 

If you are afraid to pursue writing because of some of the negative feelings that may manifest from it, don't let that stop you.

Whenever I get a little bout of loneliness, you know what I think?

Worth it.

Related Posts
The Privilege of Picking Your Problems
Why Some People Don't Support Your Writing Goals
How to Deal With People Who Don't Support Your Writing

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

How to Stand Out in the Slush Pile 101

Submission piles in the writing industry are lovingly nicknamed "slush piles," because most of the stories are . . . more like slush than stories. Here are some tips to make sure your opening is more story and less slush.

1. Make sure you follow the proper manuscript formatting.

For some of the submission piles I've been involved with, a template of the proper format was available for download. Nonetheless, the majority of submissions didn't follow it. Some people don't indent paragraphs, don't even have paragraphs, or use weird fonts etc. Don't add pictures to your manuscript—keep it simple and professional. Save and send it in the proper electronic format, which is usually a Word document.

For some publications, if the story isn’t formatted correctly, it is immediately rejected.

If you cannot find the formatting guidelines, you are usually safe using standard manuscript format, which is the traditional way of formatting.

2. Unless you are an advanced writer, communicate character, setting, and conflict (or tension) quick.

Most submissions get rejected in a matter of paragraphs or pages. Often pieces that get rejected are missing either a sense of character, setting, or conflict (or tension) in the opening. Sure, some stories get away without having all these things, but they better be hecka good in other ways. When I say "opening"--for some, that's the beginning paragraphs. For others, it's by the end of the second page.

Setting in particular seems to get left out. I’ve read scenes where the setting is never even hinted at—I don’t know if the characters are in a hospital, a bar, or a circus.

When it comes to conflict, you don't necessarily need a bomb going off. In fact, you may not need a ton of conflict on the page itself—but you need the promise of significant conflict to come, or in other words, you need tension.

Here are two posts that may help with that:
Tension vs. Conflict
Are Your Conflict Significant?

3. Use character names. 

Too many new writers “hide” their characters’ names. A bunch of vague pronouns doesn’t help me figure out who is doing what. Ex: "He (who?) held his hand over his (his own mouth or someone else’s?) mouth. The chief (is this “he” or a different person?) couldn't believe this was happening. He (the chief?) struggled. Then the man (the “he,” “chief,” or someone else?) forced the hand away from his (whose mouth?) mouth.”—who is doing what? How many people are there?

4. Don't open your story with a dream—usually

Dreams can be such a letdown. One submission I read was really good, and I was going to set it aside, and I got to the end of the second page and the first two pages were a dream! Don't even open your story with a short dream. It's too cliché in the slush pile. If you NEED a dream in it, don't do it in the first few pages.

Of course, like all of these, there are exceptions, but whenever you break a rule it's got to be really good and you've got to have a good reason for breaking it.

5. Make sure your character is actually doing something on the first page.

Make sure there is some movement, and better yet, make sure there is tension. Too many submissions start with a character just sitting and thinking about something, usually something that happened in the past.

If possible, have at least two characters interacting in the first scene. It's way more interesting than the 50 other stories that start with one character thinking.

6. Avoid flashbacks.

Number 5 is usually paired with something like this: "It all started a month ago," or "Maybe I should start at the beginning," or "This all started last week."—and then the story goes back to the real “starting” or some sort of flashback. If that is where the story started, start there, and then you won't have to tell me “how it started.” I'll see it.

7. Don't start with a character running away from something really vague. 

There are way too many stories that start this way. It might sound like a cool opening, but after you’ve read 12 of them, you realize it’s not as cool as you first thought.

8. Don't start with a long “telling” explanation of something, like "The city was surrounded by mountains, and we were told to never leave the city. The mountains have been around since the beginning of time when the gods got angry and decided to keep us locked up in one place. Back when my grandmother was alive, she used to tell me stories about people who left the city and never returned...(on for 1 1/2 pages)" While this info might be interesting, there's no immediacy. I'm just being told information. The slush piles can sometimes be loaded with this opening. At least give me like a page of something concrete and immediate before “explaining,” or “telling” me something.

9. Don't start a story with your character waking up on an ordinary day doing ordinary stuff. 

Again, that's not really where the story starts. But too many stories start there. Give me some tension.

10. Avoid purple prose. 

First off, if you can write detail that appeals to the senses, do it, because too many submissions are missing strong imagery in the opening. If you can write striking metaphors or similes, put one in the opening also. But don’t go overboard. I read one submission that took a paragraph to describe one action about ten different ways. Only about two things actually happened on the first page.

But don't write purple prose. If you don't know what purple prose is, it might be a great idea to spend some time researching it on Google this week. Basically, it's overwrought, melodramatic description.

11. Don't submit your writing exercises as a story.

I've seen a few submissions that I think were supposed to be practice exercises--like that exercise in creative writing classes where you have to try to describe something without saying what it is, or where you use only dialogue to tell a story. Those are great exercises, but (in most cases) they shouldn't be sent in as professional pieces for publication.

12. Don't include a bunch of pointless info about your character. 

Reading two paragraphs about how your character's choice of music is different than his mom's isn't going to help me get to know your character, and it's not important unless your story involves music (in the case of this submission, it didn’t).

Some people try to “find” their character by giving them too many quirks and random details etc. But those are only the surface of the character—instead try to focus on how your character changes in your story, and what you need to establish first to show that change.

I have a bunch of posts on character that you can find in my Writing Tip Index.

13. Follow the submission guidelines.

In one submission pile I worked with, the publication was meant to showcase local writing, so if someone from Arkansas submitted, we couldn't take the submission. In another, the guidelines stated that the story should be appropriate for a general audience. That means that the story that starts with people having an affair and uses the f-word about 12 times in the first page is probably out.

14. Use correct English and spelling.

And watch for anything that sounds awkward.

15. Unless otherwise stated or inappropriate, do state your writing credentials somewhere—a cover letter, query letter, or just the body of an email (depending on submission guidelines). Even minor writing credentials put a better flavor in the editor's mouth because they imply you have some idea of what you are doing. At least that's been my experience.

With that said though, ultimately the story is what needs to be amazing.

Above all, use correct formatting, start with immediacy (not explanation), and have the setting, character, and conflict or tension established in the opening. That will put in you in the top 20% of submissions, from my experience.

Also, keep in mind that great writers have broken a lot of these rules. In fact, great writers usually do break some rules. But this is "How to Stand Out in the Slush Pile 101," and unless you are an advanced writer, you should put your best foot forward by following these guidelines

Good luck! And if you would like more advanced information on how to write the starting of your story so that it gets out of the slush pile, you can check out the book Hooked by Les Edgerton.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

5 Types of Surprises

Last time I talked about the differences between surprise and suspense, saying that we should actually try to use both in our writing. I don't see enough articles that speak to how to write surprises and how to write them well. So I've broken down the element of surprise into five categories that may help.

Out of the Blue

The out-of-the-blue surprise is what it sounds like--it comes out of the blue. It isn't foreshadowed or expected in any way. In some ways, this can be the hardest surprise to pull off. Not because it's difficult to write, but because if you do it wrong the audience will feel cheated or disappointed.

One of the most important aspects of writing surprises is that the surprise isn't a disappointment. You want to make sure it doesn't undermine or cheat the reader. You don't want that being the surprise. If the out-of-the-blue surprise isn't a disappointment, it can be a fun one to throw into the story simply because the audience won't be expecting it.

For example, it could turn out in the story that the protagonist's cousin and close friend is actually working with the antagonist. If this was not foreshadowed and the audience was not prepared for this revelation in any way, it's an out-of-the-blue surprise. However, if your audience knows the cousin character well and this revelation seems to go against all that she is and what they believe of her, you run the risk of unbelievability. It may not sit well with them. In some cases, the audience may feel that the writer threw it in there for shock or in an effort to try to make the story more interesting.

But, if the revelation comes and it fits the character in some way (though not foreshadowed), it will be a big surprise, and while shocking, will still be believable.

The out-of-the-blue surprise is probably the easiest to write but the most difficult for the audience to accept.

Foreshadowed Surprise

A foreshadowed surprise is--yup, you guessed it--a surprise that has been foreshadowed. Now in order for it to actually be a surprise, you can't be heavy-handed with the foreshadowing. When you are heavy-handed with the foreshadowing, the audience guesses the outcome before it happens, so it's not actually a surprise.

To be successful at this, the foreshadowing is there, but it's subtle. If we use the example from the last section, we might give hints earlier in the story that the cousin character is working with the antagonist character, without actually revealing that fact outright, until the proper moment.

When you subtly foreshadow, and then the surprise happens, the audience thinks back and says, "Oh yeah, that makes sense. I see that now."

A foreshadowed surprise takes a bit more skill to write, but it's easier for the audience to accept, because it makes sense with what came prior.

A good example of a foreshadowed surprise in Harry Potter is **spoiler** that Harry is a Horcrux. There is enough foreshadowing in the seven books, but it's very subtle. So when we find out, it's a big surprise, but it all fits. 

The Twist

People love a good twist. It's almost its own thing. But in order to pull off a good twist, it needs an element of surprise. It belongs in the surprise, not suspense, category.

I've talked about this in other posts, but a twist works off a shift in context. Sure, of course there is foreshadowing, but we actually move beyond subtle foreshadowing. We give the audience much more context for how to interpret the information they are receiving.

Last time I mentioned the movie the Sixth Sense, which is famous because of its twist. In the Sixth Sense, the audience is given context for everything that is happening with and to Bruce Willis's character. For example, the reason his wife won't talk to him is because they're having marriage problems.

A twist shifts the context. The content is the same it's been (i.e. Bruce Willis's wife won't talk to him), but our interpretation and understanding of it changes with new information or a new revelation about the information we already have (we find out Bruce Willis is dead).

This is what makes a twist so powerful. The content was there in front of us the whole time. We had even interpreted it. But the reality was actually different than we'd assumed.

A twist is probably the most difficult surprise to pull off, but it's the easiest for the audience to believe--they've been staring at the evidence the whole time. They just didn't see it that way. They may say things like, "I can't believe Bruce Willis was dead!" But this comes from surprise and shock, rather than them disbelieving the story to be authentic. They have a hard time taking in the new information--it's not that it ruins their suspension of disbelief, it's that they are so surprised.

Exceeding Expectations

You can surprise your audience by exceeding expectations. You may have heard the concept that if you show a gun hanging on the wall in a story that that gun needs to go off by the end of the story (Chekhov's gun). The audience expects the gun to go off. So you surprise them by not having it go off once, but three, four, five times at the end.

That's the simple way to explain it. Of course, there are other facets in play and things you can do wrong--I mean, if you are writing a cozy story, then having the gun go off and kill five people probably wouldn't fit the tone. However, having it go off five times and hit other things, maybe even humorously, might work.

But it's the idea that you surprise the audience by moving beyond what they expect. You not only give them what they expect, but you take it much further to something they didn't even imagine.

That's surprising.

The Trope Twist

If you aren't familiar with the term "trope," then I highly suggest checking out, where you can learn more than you ever wanted to about them. A trope is a storytelling technique that has been used enough for the audience to recognize (consciously, or more often, subconsciously). It's a pattern in storytelling. It can be about plot, character, story structure, and just about any number of things. For more about what at trope is, read this page.

Here are some quick examples:

Wake Up, Go to School, Save the World (Story type)

Tsundere (Character type)

Taking the Bullet (Micro-plot element)

It Sucks to be the Chosen One (Story/character element)

Be Yourself (Theme)

The Call Knows Where You Live (Plot element)

Basically, a trope is any thing that is done regularly in storytelling. Some people get a little disheartened learning and exploring tropes for the first time, because tropes may seem to oversimplify their amazing story (not to mention that uses a witty tone in most all their entries (that is admittedly very entertaining)). But tropes aren't bad, and every story has them. They're only bad when they are handled poorly. And they get annoying if the same tropes seem to keep cropping up in the same ways. For example, after Harry Potter got big, I swear, almost every book had the prophecy trope in it. It was annoying.

That's where surprises come in.

I bring up this example a lot, but one of the reasons I love Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy is because he took familiar tropes and twisted them in unexpected ways, so that even though we as the audience are familiar with the concept of "the chosen one," we couldn't guess the ways Brandon Sanderson ended up twisted them. So we were surprised.

When you twist a trope, you take something familiar to storytelling, and you do something atypical with it.

These work doubly well for writing twists in general. Because the audience knows the trope, they have an expectation (interpretation, context) already for the outcome in a story. But if you do something different, they'll be surprised. They'll say things like, "I didn't see that coming." Well, that's because that trope usually doesn't end that way. You, the writer, did something uncommon with it.

You can twist tropes in a number of ways. You can deviate from expectation. You can also move the expectation up, so that it happens and is dealt with much sooner than is typical. For example, "the chosen one" dies before Mistborn even starts. What a clever way to start a story. What happens when the supposed chosen one dies trying to defeat the ultimate villain? What's next? When you read the back cover of Mistborn, it's surprising. You can twist typical character roles. You can twist typical character tropes. You can twist typical plot outcomes.

When you mess around with tropes, you can come up with something surprising.

However, you can also, like the other surprises, end up with a worse story, if you don't do it right. Which leads me to the next important point.

Where Surprises Go Wrong

Surprises work off doing something the audience doesn't expect. But as I mentioned earlier, they can go wrong when that something is a disappointment or "lesser" than what is expected. The audience will feel cheated or shortchanged. You need to keep your promises to the audience. Whatever the surprise is, it should either be just as good as what the audience expected from the story, or better.

Surprises can alter the overall outcome of the story.

Or they add to the overall story.

But they should not takeaway from the overall story.

You don't want to "cheat" the audience by promising them vanilla ice cream and then giving them broccoli by the end. You can surprise them by promising vanilla ice cream and then giving them chocolate ice cream instead (assuming they like chocolate as much as vanilla, so the exchange is equal). And you can surprise them by promising broccoli and then giving them ice cream instead (something they like even better). And you can surprise them by promising them broccoli, delivering that dish, and also vanilla and chocolate ice cream (exceeding expectations).

But you should definitely not promise food and serve them nothing.

(I understand that people will grumble different dissents to my metaphor because they don't like ice cream or whatever the case, but it's to illustrate my point, all right?)

So, go forth and surprise me.

Related Posts

Crafting a Killer Undercurrent for Your Story 
The Mechanics of Rendering Mysteries and Undercurrents
How to Write What's Not Written (Subtext)
Vague vs. Ambiguous: Which are You Writing
Context vs. Subtext (Context Should Not Become Subtext)
Surprise vs. Suspense--Which is Better?
Validating the Reader's Concerns
Hiding What the Main Character Knows from the Reader

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Surprise vs. Suspense--Which is Better?


You've probably heard about the concepts of surprise and suspense in writing. You may have even heard them compared and contrasted. From more than one source, I've heard it illustrated with the following story, which I think might actually come from an old Hitchcock movie, but I'm not sure, so if you know where it comes from, please feel free to leave it in the comments.


Imagine watching a show where a bunch of guys are playing poker. As an audience we are watching, watching, and watching them play poker. They are talking about everyday things.

Then suddenly a bomb goes off.

That's surprise.


In the suspense version, we are watching the same story, except before the poker starts, we see a scene where someone plants the bomb, with a countdown.

The players arrive and we watch essentially the same thing--them playing, talking about everyday things. The only difference is that every once in a while, we get a glimpse of the countdown on the bomb.

That's suspense.

In one version we don't know the bomb is coming. In another we are worried about it.

Usually the follow-up question to this lecture, is, which is better? Surprise or suspense?

Well, with this example, suspense, obviously.

The "surprise" version was actually pretty boring until the bomb went off.

But here is where my opinions start to deviate from this example.


The surprise example isn't actually that great. I mean, don't get me wrong, this is a prefect, fast, and easy way to explain the difference to beginning writers, but good surprises are more than that. And in this example, we start with nothing.

A surprise is more effective when you start with at least something. I mean, to write a good surprise, the story still needs to be interesting. It should have other material. It should probably have foreshadowing of some sort.

In fact, some of the best surprises have foreshadowing, but we've misinterpreted it, were blind to it, or didn't have the full context for it.

A great example that comes to mind is The Sixth Sense. People may nitpick at the movie today, but when it came out, audiences' minds were blown. And it wasn't so much over the suspense. It was over the surprise of finding out Bruce Willis's character was actually dead. Sure, you can call those sorts of things "twists"--but I'd argue every twist has an element of surprise. That's why it's a twist.

Some of the best uses of surprise are twists.

It's where you provide the audience with something.

Sometimes the information you provide does not even have to correlate with the surprise. They can be two different things, but what matters is that the audience has something so that they aren't just sitting there getting bored watching people play poker. Usually that something does need to be resolved or play a part in the story, but my point is, the audience should still have story movement and direction.

Sometimes the best surprises happen in stories that take us in one direction, but then suddenly pop up with something unforeseen, completely unforeshadowed.

Surprises often have a place in mysteries, where you think the villain will be one person, only to discover it's someone else. In Sorcerer's Stone, the trio are convinced that Snape is the villain. Sure, there is suspense, about how to get the stone and deal with Snape. But the surprise is discovering that the villain is Professor Quirrell, not Snape like we all thought. Like the Sixth Sense, one of the things that makes this surprise great is that we can look back at the events of the book with more context and see how it all makes sense. But it was never stated on the page that Quirrell was even a suspect.

Surprise needn't lack power. 

I think the point where some people get confused about the surprise-vs.-suspense-and-which-is-better argument is that suspense is required to write a great story. Surprise isn't.


Suspense means the audience is worried about what could happen. In the example above, the audience is worried the bomb could go off and kill someone, but they are hoping it doesn't, or that it's discovered, or that the characters get away. Suspense contains an element of worrying.

A classic example is when a character is trying to sneak somewhere without someone else, perhaps someone on guard, knowing. Maybe they are carrying something that might be noisy and give them away. Maybe they have to walk across a forest floor that is littered with twigs that can snap or little rocks that clack. As they make their way to their destination, the audience is sweating it out and on the edge of their seats. Can the character be quiet? Will the guard notice him? The character accidentally snaps a twig. Did the guard hear it? Will he spot the character?

Suspense comes out of tension. It's worry that something (usually) negative may happen. That means there is a hope in the audience that somehow something may not happen. Suspense isn't created by the inevitable. It's created through possibilities. Will the bomb go off? Will the character snap a twig?

Tension is often the promise or potential of problems colliding. Suspense takes place when the audience is invested in and worried about that, and often hoping it doesn't.

Maybe it should be noted, though, that suspense can also actually come from the possibility of something positive happening. Will Suzy get the job of her dreams? Will Frodo be able to throw the Ring into Mount Doom?

So you can hold readers with the promise of something good.

However, you can argue that most suspense set-ups innately have a positive or negative possibility. The positive part of the bomb, is the possibility that the characters will notice it under the poker table and get away safely. The negative part of Suzy's is that she may not get her dream job.

But I'd probably still argue that the bomb set-up is more closely related to the potential for the negative while the Suzy set-up is more closely tied to the positive.

You can play around with this sort of thing in stories. You can give the audience the potential for a really bad and a really good outcome to hike up suspense. Either Frodo destroys the Ring and saves the world, or he doesn't and the world is destroyed. Those are high stakes. The high positive and high negative amplify suspense.

You can have two negatives. Will Prim or will Katniss have to participate in The Hunger Games? Will Katniss have to die or will she have to kill other children? Both options of each are horrible.

You can have two positives. Will Bella find love with Edward or with Jacob? Finding love with either person would be a good thing, except you can't have both. So you get the "Team Edward" and "Team Jacob," and that's where the suspense comes from.

In a double-negative set-up, what pulls the reader in is the dread that something bad probably will happen and wondering what the outcome will be or if there is some way to avoid both possibilities. In a double-positive, what pulls the reader in is the hope that the protagonist gets the same outcome the reader desires.

Epic fantasies like Lord of the Rings, tend to have high positive and high negative set-ups. Dystopians or horrors tend to have double-negatives. Romances are more likely to have double-positives. This is a generality of course, and it's entirely possible to mix-up any one of these. For example, while I feel that in many romances, the protagonist has to pick between two good things (whether they be two people, love vs. a job, love vs. travel), there are still many many set-ups within the story that have a positive and negative, or even a double-negative. So this isn't so much a rule, as it is an observation, and may give you some idea of what your audiences expects.

Which is Better?

Usually this lecture ends with the idea that suspense is a better choice than surprise. While suspense is necessary for a good story, in some story parts, you might find that surprise is actually a more desirable option. The Sixth Sense was great because the people were surprised.

But here's the thing: Why are we telling writers to pick one?

Why not both?

Surely a fantastic story has suspense and surprise.

We know the bomb is under the poker table, but what surprises us is that there is more than one--someone else had the same idea, and it goes off earlier.

We know the bomb is under the poker table, but what surprises us is that one of the players actually came to play with his buddies with a similar intention. He pulls a gun and wants to kill one of the players who previously wronged him. He's actually a cohort of the bomber's, but the bomber didn't know he'd be there.

We know the bomb is under the poker table, but we didn't see the face of who planted it. The surprise is that we later learn it's the target's soft-spoken sister.

Consider when you can choose both.

My Blog Won an Award!

Hi everyone, quick note that some of you may have already seen on social media. I found out Sunday night that my blog, this one that you are reading, won the Writer's Digest award as one of the top writing websites for 2017! I'm so surprised and excited! I had no idea anyone even nominated me or anything.

Here's what's even crazier. I apparently won it in April, and I had NO idea until two days ago! There are only 20 websites listed in my category (writing advice), and I can't believe I was listed! It's like a dream come true!

Writer's Digest is the top magazine in the writing industry, and basically everyone who does writing stuff online knows about the awards. I'm so excited, and I get to put the award up on my site (already did actually).

I have daydreamed of someday having this award on this website--I had no idea that "someday" was last April! What?!

The only way I found out, was because Writer's Digest made a list of the top 20 out of the top 101 listed sites online on Sunday, and I noticed I was getting traffic from a Writer's Digest page (which shocked the pants off me), so I followed the link and saw myself listed! I don't know who or how many people nominated me, but thank you so much for helping make one of my dreams come true!

If you would like to nominate a writing website for 2018, send an email to with "101 Websites" in the subject and which website(s) in the body. I'm not opposed to winning again ;) But I'm just floored I won and had no idea nor did I know anyone had even nominated me! Merry Christmas everyone!

P.S. The winner of my 10-page edit giveaway has been selected! I'm waiting to hear back from the winner before I announce who it is.

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Weight of Words

When you are writing fiction, words carry a kind of weight. They work a bit like a camera lens, guiding the audience what to view and what to focus on. What subject you choose to spend words on in the scene shapes the audience's perception of the story.

However, there are some subjects in your story that deserve a heavier weight of words than others. For example, if your story is about a young girl trying to become a professional soccer player, and you spend a whole chapter talking about an old willow tree that grew in her childhood home's backyard (which carries no symbolic or ulterior value other than it's just an old willow tree she likes), you've spent more words on the subject than it was worth. The reader may not always be able to pinpoint what is wrong, but they'll feel like the story got uninteresting. They don't care about the tree. It's not important.

More often though, this sort of thing happens on a much smaller scale in a scene. Let's say that you have a scene where your protagonist goes to a religious event, and the purpose of the scene is that she needs to get specific information or help from a religious leader. If the narrator spends three paragraphs describing what the bathroom in the church looks like, the pacing is going to drag. The bathroom doesn't merit having that many words describing it. The bathroom doesn't deserve that much focus. It's not important to the story.

The more important a subject or idea is to the scene, the more words it's worth. The moment where the protagonist gets the needed information from the religious leader, is the point of the scene, so that moment merits more words than the bathroom does. This concept relates to my post a few months ago about discerning what should happen on-page from what should happen off-page. Part of learning how to write professionally, is learning how to gauge what subject merits what amount of words.

If you use a lot of words on a subject that isn't actually that significant to the scene or overall story, the text becomes unbalanced. That subject carries more weight than it's worth, and the text is leaning in that direction, when it should be leaning in a different direction.

This sort of thing can apply to almost all parts of a story. It relates to setting description. If your character is traveling to Idaho to view the total solar eclipse, but during the viewing, you spend more words describing a stranger's shoes than you do the actual solar eclipse, it's probably a problem. The story should be focusing, leaning toward the solar eclipse, but instead, it's leaning toward a random person's shoes. It's unbalanced.

It can happen with characters. If Lavender Brown gets more words and characterization about her than Ron Weasley in Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince, we have a problem. Textually, Lavender Brown is getting more weight and focus. It's unbalanced. That plot line is supposed to be about Ron.

It can happen with theme. If we spent a whole chapter describing, pondering, and creating a whole history about the old willow in the protagonist's backyard, the audience will think it's going to be significant to the story, most likely in a thematic way. But if it isn't, and it has nothing to do with the story, than it has far more words than it merits. If the theme of your story is supposed to relate to love, but the text actually spends more focus and weight and pondering on the meaning of independence, your story is leaning in the wrong direction.

And of course, it can happen with plot. If you spend more weight on a tertiary plot than you do the primary plot, guess what? Either the tertiary plot became the primary--which often doesn't work, because the subject matter isn't as important--or the story is unbalanced.

Now, there is a reason I use the word "spend." It might sound weird to some of you when I say "spend weight." But spending is often exactly how it functions. Like money, you have a finite amount of words to spend writing your story. I'm not saying you can't write a big, fat, full novel. Your book is like a purchase. There are pots you need to purchase and there are houses you may need to purchase. A house needs more money to own. Some stories are like pots. Some stories are like houses. So the amount of words your story merits depends on what kind of story you want to tell. If words were like money, you wouldn't want to spend a whole chapter on an insignificant willow tree. You just way overpaid for that willow tree. The reader doesn't want all that money put into creating an amazing willow tree. They want you to spend it elsewhere. You spent too many words, too much weight, too much focus on that tree that the reader doesn't care about.

The pacing slows. The reader gets bored. You begin losing their attention.

Perhaps no words are more valuable than the words at the very beginning of the story. You have to win over the reader's care. You have to try to get them to be invested in the story. But if you spend your first chapter's words unwisely--spending two solid paragraphs describing an insignificant rock--the reader is going to be subconsciously tempted to put the book down. You. Are. Trying. To. Win. Them. Over. Don't spend the precious weight of the story describing a random rock.

In the beginning of the narrative, because the reader hasn't been won over yet, and you haven't gotten far into the story, every possible subject in the scene carries an equal weight--or perhaps it would be better to say, no weight. This means every word you start writing, begins to shape the story's, or scene's focus.

Because the reader isn't invested in the story yet, it's very important that you don't overspend your words on any subject. Create the scene, but do it on a tight budget. Spend enough words on the subjects to create them in the reader's mind, but not so much that it becomes overwrought and uninteresting.

As the reader becomes more invested as the story progresses, they will begin to care more about stuff that is more "expensive." They'll sit through longer descriptions. They'll sit through two solid paragraphs about the concept of independence. If the willow tree is thematic, and therefore significant to the story, they may even sit through a whole chapter on it.

But that's the catch. To merit a more expensive price tag, it needs to be more significant than other subjects.

With all that said, though, in some cases, it is possible to break that rule and open a story with two fat paragraphs pondering the concept of independence, but it needs to be good, clever, and either entertain the mind or the feelings. Don't spend $100 on a cliche. If you are going to open that way, you've got to bring something new to the table, and talk about the concept of independence in a way the reader hasn't seen before.

Now back to the very beginning, where the reader isn't yet invested in the story. Subconsciously, when they begin reading your book, they're trying to decide if they care about it. So what you spend your words on is important. Luckily, depending on your genre, you should know what your reader picked up the book for. If they picked up romance, they want romance. If they picked up adventure, they want adventure. If they picked up something humorous, they want to laugh. Usually the real romantic moments and real adventure happens later in the story, which is why you need to promise the reader with hooks that if they keep reading it, they'll get to it. In a romance, this might mean in the starting scene, you spend a few words on your progatonist's loneliness. In adventure, this might mean in the opening, your character mentions his desire to find aztec treasure. This is one of the reasons so many people in the writing industry say you should start your story with your character having a goal of some kind--it often makes it easier to make promises to the reader. It's only one reason, but it's a reason.

One final point I need to make so that everyone reading this doesn't go off and way overwrite the truly significant subjects of their story. There is another well-known writing rule: less is more. Often this is true with significant subjects. Promises, teases, hooks, subtext, are bigger than what's on the page, and naturally carry more weight because of that--the "rest of the words" happen in the reader. They don't need to be overwrought. Often those things are best short and powerful. This is because carefully choosing specific words--words that mean more than what's actually on the page--carry more impact than an overwrought passage. Less is more. But that's veering into a different topic too big for this post.

Suffice it to say that insignificant subjects should not unbalance your story because you've spent more words on them than they merited. And don't shortchange the more important parts that deserve more words--more weight, more focus.

Last of all, don't forget, though, that in key moments, sometimes less is more, because what's being said is bigger than what's in the text. 

Blog Birthday Giveaway

In case you missed it last week, I'm doing a giveaway to celebrate my five years of blogging! You can enter to win a 10-page edit from me, right here! You do not to be a serious writer. Hobbyist writers are welcome to submit.

For full editing needs, you can visit my editing website,!