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Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Advent Calendar for Writers! ($2300 in Prizes!)


Hi everyone! I’m so excited to share something with you … something mind-blowingly amazing: The Advent Calendar for Writers Giveaway. It’s the biggest event you’ll find for writers, offering $2300 worth of prizes. Each day between Dec 1st & Dec 14th, a new giveaway is hidden behind an Advent Calendar window. Just visit the link above, click the window, and discover what you might win! And you might especially want to visit on December 3rd (this Thursday) because there’s something you can win from yours truly 😉! The last day to enter for all the giveaways is December 19th. (And I think we could all use some cheer at the end of this year.)

Next week, I'll be back with a writing tip on convergence--a topic not talked about enough in the community (and one I wish I understood earlier, since I messed it up in an early draft of my first novel 🤦‍♀️--but that's why I'm going to share the concept with you!) I also have some other topics cooking, one on four things that need to be in your scene's opening, another on developing your anti-thematic statement, and others.

In case you missed it, last week I was on Writers Helping Writers talking about how stakes set up the audience's expectations (and what we can do with that). You can read that article here. Or if you are in the mood for a tiny tip, I put one up on my social media outlets (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr.) Thank you for following and being part of this amazing community 😍 💫


Monday, November 16, 2020

Look Forward, not Backward, to Pull the Reader In

A lot of writers have the tendency to look "backward" when writing. They might use a lot of flashbacks, they might have a character think "back" on things, or they may simply refer to events that happened in the past. Sometimes they may even backtrack and reiterate what has already played out on the page, or repeat information the audience already knows. Finally, they may backtrack every time they switch a viewpoint character and spend paragraphs talking about what that viewpoint character thinks and feels about what already happened on page.

As writers, we love looking back. Part of this is because from our perspective, when we understand a character's past we understand the character better, or alternatively, when we understand what events led to the current point of the story, we understand the story better. From a writer's perspective, we may even feel more powerful emotions by linking back to the past regularly.

Looking "backward" in a story isn't necessarily wrong. It has an important role in storytelling. Maybe we do need that flashback, for example. Looking back once in a while also adds authenticity--after all, we all look back from time to time in our personal lives, and a story should be bigger than what's on the page. Your characters should have an existence, a history, before the first chapter. Finally, looking back on occasion can help feed into the sense of cause and effect necessary in a good plot. 

However, unlike the writer, much of the time, for the reader, looking backward is not near as interesting or as effective as looking forward.

Often as writers, we think, if the audience can just see the significance of the past, they'll be drawn into the story. In reality, looking forward does this innately and more powerfully.

The past has already happened. It can't be changed. Which is why you will hear many writers speak out against flashbacks.

But the future--that hasn't happened yet. It can change. So when we look forward to it, the audience automatically gets drawn into and invested into the story.

This creates anticipation and tension. Two elements (that to some extent overlap) that will get the audience to turn page after page.

This is essentially why hooks are so important. Most of the time, hooks get the audience to look forward to, or in other words, anticipate something

Stakes work similarly. When there are significant risks, the audience needs to keep reading to see the outcome.

Thankfully, looking "forward" in a story can sometimes be easier than looking backward (remember how I said it's innately equipped to draw in the audience?). One way to do it is by simply having a line where the viewpoint character thinks about what could happen. It might be something as direct as this:

I was afraid that if I told him the truth tomorrow, he wouldn't like me.

See how that automatically has us anticipating that something bad might happen? Now we need to turn the page!

Other times the line might be more indirect, building off the context of the story, but whatever the case, the viewpoint character is anticipating what might happen, so we are too.

An alternative approach is to give a summary line about what does happen, which begs for more information. (I've heard some say this is "cheating," but I personally don't have a problem with it, if it's not overused.) For example:

To her dread, their alliance only made things worse.

Wait, what? This alliance we just read about makes the situation worse? Now as a reader, I'm looking forward to learning how and why--to getting more information--and I'm wondering, what will the consequences be if things are worse?

In my mind, there are two main, important categories that really draw the audience in:

1- We get the audience to dread (or fear) something might happen.
2- We get the audience to hope something might happen.

Both of these categories are very effective. One is negative and one is positive. But both cause the audience to look forward and therefore anticipate and therefore read more. Readers may worry something bad is going to happen to the character or in a story. Or they may pray something good will happen.

In the writing world, we indirectly talk about the first category a lot. It can bring in a lot of tension. Think about it. This is usually where all the advice about "risks" and "stakes" comes in. What does the character or world have to lose? In a good horror film, we are drawn in by the fear that a character might die, or worse.

We don't talk as much about the second option, which can still be very effective. Hope is a powerful thing. This is where all the advice about giving your character a goal or something he cares about comes in. It works because it gets us to hope for an outcome. In a good romance, we hope that the characters fall in love, or better.

And sometimes, you may be appealing to both of these simultaneously.

In most stories, category one is probably most effective, but don't ignore category two, which is often underestimated.

Utilizing both regularly in your storytelling will get the audience to turn page after page--by getting the audience to look forward.

And I will add that there is a third category, in my opinion:

3- We get the audience to feel curious about something. 


That functions a little differently, but you can read about it here.

So next time you feel tempted to look backward in your story to try to make it more effective, stop and consider if what you really need is to look forward.  


Related Articles:

Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Don't Use Flashbacks"

How to Write Stakes in Storytelling

Reeling Readers in via Curiosity

How to Write Excellent Introspection

Monday, November 9, 2020

7 Point Story Structure Explained in 5 Minutes

Hi there! Today we are doing a basic introduction to and breakdown of 7 Point Story Structure--all in ~5 minutes.

This is a great story structure to learn when you already know the basic, basic story structure:

And are ready to go a little deeper, without doing a deep dive into more complex approaches like The Hero's Journey or Save the Cat! (Or other, more complicated renditions of 7 Point Story Structure.)

And a lot of best-selling writers stick to this structure alone.

It doesn't seem like anyone knows definitively where this structure originated. Some say here. Some say there. Dan Wells, a best-selling writer, is sort of famous for (and sometimes misattributed for having come up with) it, but he says he learned it from a role-playing guide book, but I've also seen it in other places. It's used a lot in screenwriting.

It's also worth noting that both Larry Brooks and K. M. Weiland use a rendition of this structure as well. 

While some, like Wells, use the term "Plot Turn," others, like Brooks and Weiland, use the term "Plot Point." (You know how writing terms are--not regulated 🙄) So please note that they mean the same thing, should you listen to people talk about this structure.

So let's get to it. 

Monday, November 2, 2020

Using Character Arc to Create a Story

Lately I've been writing down and pulling together different approaches to brainstorming and creating stories. Some are more basic and some are more advanced, and some will work better for certain people than others. Today I want to introduce an approach to brainstorming a story that works off character. Well, the character arc (or lack thereof, I guess), specifically. 

So if you are one of those writers who tends to favor character over plot (🙋‍♀️ #GuiltyToAFault #WhatIsPlot), this might be preferable to you. If not, it's still useful to have at your disposal. Every story needs to address character arc (or the lack thereof, obviously). 

Okay, so if you are new to the writing world, you might want to know what I mean by "character arc." "Character arc" is just a fancy term for how a character grows or changes through because of the story. Most of the time, we are talking about the protagonist, since that is the most important character. (But technically any character can have a character arc.)

And that's who we are referring to in this post, the protagonist. 

First off, not all protagonists arc. Some protagonists remain the same. To be honest, this can get pretty tricky, as like most things in writing, terms aren't always black and white.

For the sake of this post, I'm going to break down the protagonist options into two categories: "change" vs. "steadfast." (Because I've used this elsewhere and seen it used elsewhere.) 

Monday, October 26, 2020

Surprising Your Readers in Every Scene

Often we think of surprising audiences with large twists and turns, with thrilling midpoints or shocking losses, but bringing surprise into smaller story pieces, like interactions and beats, can sometimes be equally satisfying in their own way.

They also hook and reel in readers, which is always a plus.

In Story by Robert McKee, McKee talks about the importance of "the gap." The gap is that space between what the character expects to happen and what actually does happen. Sounds simple and obvious, right?

But many writers don't consider how to fully utilize this on the small scale. Every character wants something pretty much all of the time. They may be hungry, so they go to a drive-through, expecting to order. She may be going to a friend's house to tell them she just got engaged, expecting to share that excitement. He might be wanting to ace a test for college.

So everyone wants something, and most people will be taking some form of action to get it. As your character takes that action, think about what they expect, then consider how the result could be different. Maybe your character is trying to order at the drive-through, but no one is responding (a result different than expected), so then what do they do? They take an escalating action. Maybe they raise their voice at the microphone, once, then twice. Suddenly, someone comes on . . . who sounds like they are dying. Now the character needs to think about and take another action, which has another expectation, which could offer another gap.

But not all gaps need to be that drastic. Maybe your character shows up at her friend's house and rings the doorbell, expecting to be let in, like usual. But when her friend opens the door, she blocks the way, and it looks like she's been crying. Unexpected result. Or maybe your character shows up to the testing center, but as he sits down, realizes it's actually an open book test . . . and he didn't bring his.

For the last year or so, I've been revisiting Disney movies, including Frozen. Guess what? This sort of thing happens all the time.

Take a look at this scene alone:


Anna: This way to the North Mountain?

Kristoff: [laughs] More like this way [makes her point higher] <--unexpected

[Characters walking through snowy setting]

Anna: I never knew winter could be so beautiful. <--unexpected

Unknown voice: Yeah, it really is beautiful, isn't it? <--unexpected

[Anna and Kristoff look around mildly confused]

[Unknown voice keeps talking and then walks behind Anna and Kristoff as a living snowman, Olaf] <--unexpected

[Anna sees him and kicks him. His head comes off and he's still talking happily.] <--unexpected

Kristoff: You're creepy.

[After tossing the head back and forth, Anna throws it at the snowman, who falls and then gets back up . . . with his head upside down] <--unexpected

Olaf: Wait, what am I looking at right now? Why are you hanging off the earth like a bat? <--unexpected, for Olaf

[After some talking, Anna gives Olaf a carrot nose . . . which she accidentally pushes in too far so it's out the back of his head] <--unexpected

Anna: Are you okay?

Olaf: Are you kidding me? I . . . am wonderful! I've always wanted a nose! It's so cute. It's like a little baby unicorn. <--unexpected

[Anna smashes the back of the carrot in, so his nose is way bigger] <--unexpected, for Olaf

Olaf: Oh. I love it even more! <--unexpected

Olaf: Alright, so let's start this thing over. Hi, everyone. I'm Olaf, and I like warm hugs! <--unexpected

Anna: [in recognition] Olaf? That's right! Olaf. <--unexpected, for Olaf

Olaf: And you are . . . ?

Anna: I'm Anna.

Olaf: And who's the funky looking donkey over there? <--unexpected

Anna: That's Sven.

Olaf: Uh-huh, and who's the reindeer? <--unexpected

Anna: . . . Sven. <--unexpected, for Olaf

Olaf: Oh, okay, make things easier for me. <--unexpected (in subtext)

[Sven tries to eat Olaf's carrot nose] <--unexpected, for Olaf

Olaf: Ah, look at him trying to kiss my nose! I like you too! <--unexpected

Anna: Olaf, did Elsa build you?

Olaf: Yeah, why?

[Kistoff takes off Olaf's arm and begins inspecting it] <--unexpected

Anna: Do you know where she is?

Olaf: Yeah, why? <--note that the repeating why here sort of plays with expectation in a way

Anna: Do you think you could show us the way?

Olaf: Yeah, why?

[Kristoff playing with Olaf's removed stick arm]

Kristoff: How does this work?

[Arm slaps him] <--unexpected

Olaf: Stop it, Sven! <--unexpected

Olaf: Trying to focus here. Yeah why? <--unexpected (the repeat, "yeah why," needs focus?)

Kristoff: I'll tell you why. We need Elsa to bring back summer. <--unexpected, for Olaf

Olaf: Summer? Oh, I don't know why, but I've always loved the idea of summer, and sun, and all things hot! <--unexpected

Kristoff: Really? I'm guessing you don't have much experience with heat. <--unexpected, for Olaf

Olaf: (cheerfully) Nope!


You'll notice in this scene that the gap isn't just about the viewpoint character. Every character wants something, even Sven, who wants a carrot (and he doesn't get the result he wants when Olaf reacts). There can also be a gap with the audience and what they expect. Often this is the same as the viewpoint character, but those two things can deviate.

Sure, sometimes the characters do get what they want or expect, and sometimes that's necessary for progression, but you'll notice scenes and interactions are much more interesting, even entertaining, if reality doesn't meet expectation most of the time. If you can turn and twist even beats, the audience will be surprised and thrilled on the small scale over and over again.

To do this, it's important to remember a few things:

- The unexpected result should usually be more powerful or different than expected.

- If it's less powerful than what is expected, it should quickly be followed up by something new and surprising.

- Often the unexpected leads to a form of escalation. Notice how even Olaf wanting introductions creates a sort of rising action, up until he confuses both of the guys as "Sven" and the real Sven tries to bite his nose. In other situations, a sense of risk might escalate, as the character takes more and more actions to try to get what she wants.

- If it doesn't lead to escalation, it should probably lead to the character having to take a different action.

When starting a scene, consider these questions to help you play with the gap:

- What do each of my characters want?

- What does my audience expect?

- What would surprise them?

- How could their reaction open another gap?



- Am I meeting expectations too much?

- If I am meeting expectations, do any of those instances need to be cut? Are they necessary information for the audience? For example, if my character knocks on the door of her friend's house expecting to be let in, and she is, right away, is that interaction meaningful? Or can I start the scene already in the house?

Like every rule, these guidelines can be dangerous if taken to an extreme or misunderstood, but used appropriately, and they can really bring more power, surprise, and entertainment to your scenes.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Burritos vs. Sandwiches--er, PLOT vs. STRUCTURE!

Often in the writing world, we lump together plot and structure (#guilty), which makes sense, because they're so intertwined. They're sort of like two peas in a pod. But they are actually two different things, which can be difficult to discern at first when you are learning the craft. 

So what is the difference? And why does it matter?

Self, I'm glad you asked that 😉 because that's what I'm going to talk about today.

And I'll be using two of my favorite foods, Mexican food and sandwiches 😋 🤤, to illustrate.

Hopefully you aren't on a diet that restricts those things, if so . . . 😅

At first I was going to refer to Cafe Rio 😍 as an example, but since that is more of a regional thing (proud to say the original started in my hometown ✌️), I decided to go with Chipotle, which is at least across the U.S. . . . I think. 

Anyway, plot vs. structure, Chipotle food. Let's do this.

When you go to Chipotle, you mostly have four options: burrito, taco, salad, or what they call, a burrito bowl (basically the burrito without the tortilla). 

But what some of my family members occasionally laugh about is that it's all the same food. You're just picking how you want to deliver that food to your mouth.

Meaning, whether you get a salad, burrito, taco, or a bowl, you have the same food options. 

I could choose chicken and black beans and then choose whether I want it in a salad, burrito, taco, or bowl. What goes in each is all the same. 

This is a good example of taking a plot and structuring it.

Plot = the actual content of the story. Plot is the events, usually brought on by cause and effect, that make up the narrative. It's what happens. It's the chicken, beans, rice, and lettuce (and salsa and sour cream and . . . you get the idea).

Structure = how it is delivered to the audience. Structure is which content goes where and in what order. If I'm getting a salad, the lettuce is put in the bowl first. If I'm getting a burrito bowl, the meat and beans and rice are put in first. 

In most stories, plot and structure will fit together in rather straightforward ways. For example, the majority of stories are told in a linear timeline. 

But not all stories. 

Some stories take place in multiple timelines, some jump all over in time (The Prestige & The Time Traveler's Wife), and some even play with the passage and delivery of time to the audience (Arrival). 

In this sense, the plot is structured in a way that is not the linear order. The delivery to the audience is different than the basic cause and effect the characters are experiencing.

But September! (you lament.) What about all those story structures we've been learning about?

Well, yes, don't worry, we are going to touch on those too. It's sort of like learning about light. You can view it as a wavelength, or you can view it as a particle. They are both correct. (And it's helpful to have both.)

But the Mexican food point is, the plot is the ingredients and the structure is the delivery method. You can fit the ingredients into a structure.

K, I'll come back to that in a second. Let's talk about sandwiches.

How do we define a sandwich? Okay, well, let's not get crazy, because if we get out into the weeds, it can actually be difficult to define (I do often prefer open-faced sandwiches for one), but for the sake of this post, let's just say it's two sides of something (usually bread), and a middle or filling. 

Monday, October 12, 2020

Picking the Right Pain for Your Protagonist

Let's be honest, pain is a key component of storytelling. If you want to tell a good story, at one point or another, a character will be in pain, and often the most important character to experience pain is the protagonist. But not all pain is the same. You have, what I like to think of, as "passive pain" and "cost pain."

Passive pain is hurt or hardship that just happens to the character. It might be having their parents die in a car crash or a bully who just hates them or a physical ailment they were born with. Passive pain is usually introduced at the starting of the story, during the setup. This also makes the character more sympathetic. We feel for them because of the situation they are in, and hey, life isn't fair for anyone.

But beyond the setup, passive pain needs to take somewhat of a backseat. It's only interesting for so long, and then it can become boring or even annoying. We all have random crap we have to deal with; it's part of life. And if the story just focuses and reiterates what pains happen to the protagonist, it's usually not very engaging for very long.

It's much more interesting, and more intense, when the pain becomes a cost for the protagonist on his or her journey. Having loved ones die randomly is one thing. Having them die as a cost to reaching a goal is way different. This is because it has a sense of cause and effect, which is what storytelling is all about.

If the protagonist doesn't struggle for success, the problem isn't actually that difficult, and the victory doesn't feel "earned." And in a way, it doesn't feel worthy of being a story. Most stories are about overcoming--whether that's overcoming something inside or externally or both (or overcoming a type of death).

Once the setup is done, there should be more "cost pain" than "passive pain," generally speaking. Sometimes, this may be obvious cause and effect--in a rush to win a significant cooking contest, your protagonist burns her hand. She wouldn't have burned her hand if she hadn't needed to plate her food before the timer ran out, which would disqualify her from the contest. Other times, there is a connection, but it's more indirect. Since she wins the cash prize of the cooking contest, her neighbor (who was also competing) now can't afford to take his young daughter on a trip this summer. The neighbor, who was always friendly, may now be rude to her, maybe even badmouthing her to other neighbors, which then affects how her neighborhood sees her, which makes her dog walks more difficult . . .

Passive pain is just stuff that happens. We feel sorry, but it's out of our control, and we bear no responsibility. Cost pain is much more significant--it's in our control or at least within our influence--if only we just made different decisions! Took X, Y, or Z action instead! This means it's also more likely to haunt our hero, which will make them more sympathetic to the audience.

Every goal has a cost. Usually the bigger the goal, the greater the cost. The bigger the cost, the greater the victory. It's the contrast that creates great power. An easy victory isn't that satisfying.

This isn't to say you can never have passive pains beyond the setup, or that you can never have cost pains in the opening--it's just to say that the cost pain is more effective and therefore should be more present and utilized through the story. Try to avoid writing stories where all the pain the protagonist experiences is from stuff that just "happens" to him or her--passive pain.

Even the story of Job is actually about cost pain. Sure, on the surface, it may seem like a passive pain story--because all these terrible things are happening to him. But in reality, all of those things are the cost for remaining faithful to God (even if you are angry or unhappy about it like he was at times). It's the cost of trying to retain one's beliefs.

Cost Pain > Passive Pain

Now go forth and consider what pain this journey costs your protagonist. 


I've recently added another editing service to my offerings: manuscript evaluation. This is similar to my content editing, but lighter. Basically, I read right through the manuscript and write up an editorial letter where I talk about how the manuscript can be taken to the next level or how the writer can improve, in general. I've done this as a "slimmer" version of my content editing in the past, but haven't advertised this approach lately because I personally think most manuscripts deserve a deeper edit. However, I understand that many people (especially now thanks to covid) are on a tighter budget. This approach is faster and therefore cheaper (but again, not as detailed). For now, I intend to have it listed only temporarily. For everything about my editing services, visit

Monday, October 5, 2020

2 Tricks for Scene Transitions

As novelists and short story writers, we probably don't think about scene transitions too much. Don't get me wrong, we may take a long time seeking out the perfect hook or the most-intriguing opening, and we may write and rewrite the end of the scene to get it just right. But when it comes to moving from one scene to another . . . it's probably something we feel more rather than really think about. 

And that's okay, and you can be totally successful that way. 

But last year I learned about two scene transition techniques that have stuck with me. Unsurprisingly, they come from film, a medium where scene transitions are more obvious and more touchy. 

Lately I've been more and more mindful of them in my writing and have found they can be quite helpful when trying to get the flow between passages just right.

They come from the book Story by Robert McKee.

In it, McKee explains that when it comes to successful scene transitions, you really have two options: