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Monday, September 16, 2019

Mastering Midpoints (The Saviors of Saggy Story Middles)

I've been pulling my hair out lately trying to fix the middle part of one of my novels, and one of the main problems with it, relates to the midpoint. You see, I plotted and largely wrote this manuscript years ago, before I had an in-depth understanding of story structure--like a lot of us have probably done. Heck, a lot of us don't even like thinking about story structure because it feels too restrictive and formulaic, and that's fine. But whether you plot your stories' structures by the books or just do what you want as you go, understanding story structure can be hecka important. And even if you hate it, at least knowing how it functions can be super useful, especially if you are trying to troubleshoot what is wrong with a manuscript, like I was weeks (months?) ago.

Once I realized that my problem related to the midpoint, I was able to begin brainstorming (and praying) how I might fix it. And a lot of times, the midpoint is key in doctoring a problematic middle. I kind of like to think of it as the savior.

The midpoint typically happens in the middle of the plot (no surprise there). It is the moment when new, significant information--or at least a shift in context--enters and turns the story in a different direction.

(Wow, is that definition vague enough?)

Now, the direction of the story can change completely, like a 180, or it may be very slight and subtle, more like 10 degrees, but it changes in a significant way.

Most often, in a typical story structure, the change is this:

The protagonist moves from being primarily responsive to being more (pro)active, in regards to the main plot.

So, it's usually like:

Character responding to problems --> Midpoint (new information or context) --> Character being proactive toward main problems.

The "new information" is just something that allows the character (or audience) to have a greater understanding of what's going on, so that they can now be more active in attacking the problem.

There are literally so many ways this can play out, which is why the midpoint can seem difficult to grasp, so I'm going to grab some popular examples:

In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the midpoint happens when Harry overhears the professors in the Three Broomsticks and learns Sirius Black is the reason his parents are dead.

Why? Because prior to this, he is responding or reacting to the fact Sirius is after him. But after this, he wants to seek revenge on Sirius, in other words, mentally, he becomes active in "attack mode."

In Legally Blonde, the midpoint happens when Elle realizes that she will never be good enough for Warner.

Why? Because prior to this, she is just responding to Warner's breakup. But after this she is actively trying to succeed at Harvard, with an intensity she hasn't had prior--she buys all new materials, studies hard, answers questions in classes.

In Interstellar, the midpoint happens when Cooper, Murph, and by extension, the audience, realize that there is no real "Plan A"--everyone on Earth is going to die.

Why? Because prior to this, Cooper is responding to the destiny of humankind, but after this, he goes into an active "attack mode" by planning to do whatever it takes to return to Murph and Earth right away.

In Ralph Breaks the Internet, the midpoint is when Ralph realizes he can get the money they need from making viral videos.

Why? Because prior to this, he is unsuccessfully responding to the broken steering situation and the internet itself, and after this, he hatches a solid plan to get the cash, with a better understanding of how the internet works.

But a midpoint can be rather loose, which is why it's hard to define and wrap our minds around. For example, I may use terms like "respond" and "reaction" paired with "attack" and "pro-action," but you could argue from another perspective, some protagonists are doing all of them all the time. For example, from the inciting incident, Ralph is trying to actively solve a problem, and same goes for Cooper. But here's the thing. At the midpoint, new information or a new understanding allows them to "attack," better or more accurately, the focal conflict.

Think of it as a moment that jump-starts the protagonist into a different direction.

In some cases, this may be a rather unexpected direction. 

In Lion King, Simba spends the first part of the story reacting to the fact he will someday be king, but then the midpoint hits--Mufasa dies and Scar tells Simba no one will ever love or forgive him--Simba goes into an "attack" mode of sorts, except his is that rather than just responding to being king someday, he proactively chooses to never be king, and takes action by running away and starting a new life. It relates to the main conflict of the story, but his "attack mode" is to actively, intentionally, run away. After all, he thinks he is the problem, so in a sense, he is "attacking" himself.

The content of a midpoint can be very flexible, as you can see from these examples. If you want to get a better discerning eye for what a midpoint is and how many different forms it can take, start pausing movies smack dab in the middle--there should be something around there that enters the story and pushes it in a new direction. You can also try opening books to the middle and searching around there. Harry discovering Sirius is responsible for his parents' deaths is near the middle. In Stranger Things season one, Will's body is found smack dab in the middle, which is new information that changes context, and therefore the direction of the story. And after that point, the characters have to all decide how to act next.

So now that we have some idea of what a midpoint is (significant information that changes the direction of the story, usually by changing the protagonist), let's talk about how it actually works.

Step One: New Significant Information Enters . . .

In order for a story or protagonist to start going a new direction, there has to be something that causes that. Information. Or an event that is new information.

Or at least a shift in our understanding of the information we already have (context shift), which in a sense, is its own kind of "new" information.

But let's not confuse ourselves quite yet.

In order for the information to significantly change the direction of the story, the information itself needs to be significant.

Remember how I broke down what constitutes "significant" a few weeks ago?

Something is significant when it either:

1) Has important personal consequences, or
2) Has far-reaching, broad consequences
So, new information enters the story that has personal or far-reaching consequences. This means that the midpoint itself is either going to "broaden" or "deepen" the story, or do both. And it's going to do this in a powerful way.

Elle realizing that she will never be good enough for Warner has deep (a.k.a. personal) consequences. Harry realizing that Sirius is responsible for his parents' death has deep consequences.

Cooper learning everyone on Earth is going to die has broad consequences--all of humankind.

Simba believing he killed his father has both personal and broad consequences, as it affects himself and his whole kingdom.

Sometimes the new information is big and mind-blowing, maybe even a juicy twist, like in Incredibles 2 when Elastigirl realizes that Evelyn is the real Screenslaver, and she's in deep trouble. Or it can be subtle, like a character making an important connection between information he already had.

Like I touched on earlier. The new information can come as:


- Ralph learning he can make money by making viral videos is straight up information.

- Harry learning Sirius is responsible for his parents' deaths is straight up information.

An Event

- Scar killing Mufasa and telling Simba it's his fault is an event. Mufasa being dead and Simba believing he is responsible is the "new information" (along with the fact Scar actually killed Mufasa).

- In Stranger Things season one, Will's body being recovered is an event that brings in new information. The characters either have to accept he's actually dead or prove to others he is not.

Or a Context Shift

- Dr. Brand reciting a poem he's recited through the whole movie isn't really anything new. But him reciting it on his death bed in that tone shifts the context and gives it a whole new meaning, which leads to characters' new realizations.

Whatever the case, something significant arrives in the middle that changes how the story has been going. And this something needs to have greater potential consequences than probably anything that has happened since the inciting incident.

Step Two: . . . Which Leads to a New Direction or Understanding

Now that new, significant information has entered the story, it means the protagonist or the audience (or both) will change their approach to the problems, because their understanding has changed.

In some stories, the change may be aggressive. For example, in Incredibles 2, I would consider the results of the midpoint to be more aggressive and drastic. Elasticgirl falls under Evelyn's control, and later, so do other superheroes. The midpoint means that this problem is going to be much more difficult to solve than we first thought. (Note though, how all the of protagonists (the family) change more drastically after that moment.)

In other stories, the change may be softer. Sure, Harry now wants revenge on Sirius, but content-speaking, this doesn't drastically change what happens in the plot, until the climax, when he meets Sirius. The midpoint is still critical, for Harry, and for our understanding of the story, but Harry's "attack" mode is not super aggressive. The midpoint largely changes the story's context. We all now see everything with Sirius in a different light, and we also now have more things to worry about.

In either method, the midpoint kicks up the tension, like a catalyst.


Like everything in writing, you can break rules and play with variations. Once you understand what a basic midpoint is, you can mess around with it, to an extent.

Often a midpoint is, well, a point, a moment, an instant, or a single scene. But sometimes, like plot points, it might be more of a sequences of scenes. It might be a sequence of information. For example, in Into the Spider-verse, the midpoint is when the heroes successfully get the computer from Alchemax and realize where they can get another goober. Prior to this, Miles and Peter are largely responding and reacting to their situations. During the course of the Alchemax scene, they learn to work together, and Miles learns to use his abilities. They also learn some new information about Kingpin, Doc Oc, and the collider. But in the next scene, it's Gwen who says she knows how to fix their problems. There isn't really a strong, critical, earth-moving moment, but rather a sequence of new things that bring them into "attack mode."

At some midpoints, the protagonist doesn't learn new information, but only the audience does. The protagonist can still get more desperate in solving the problems, but it's the audience alone that has the greater context. Because it still changes the direction--our understanding--of the story, has significant consequences, and kicks up tension, it can still work as a midpoint, if an unusual one.

On the flip side, it may be that the midpoint brings in information that is new to the protagonist, but that the audience already knew or surmised earlier, but the fact the protagonist now knows changes the direction and meaning of the story in significant ways, jump-starting the next part of the plot.

Some stories may place the midpoint a little earlier or a little later than the middle, and if that doesn't mess up the pacing or make the stakes drag, why not?

Some stories may even have multiple midpoints. In Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, he talks about this in regards to The Da Vinci Code. One moment is when Langdon and Sophie decide to meet Professor Teabing, who is "The Teacher," and another moment is when they learn what the Holy Grail actually is. Each moment changes the direction and meaning of the story.

In particular, you may have multiple midpoints when you have multiple plot lines. For example, in Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry learning that information about Sirius is a midpoint, but a lot of the other plot lines hit a midpoint near there as well. Harry hasn't been able to get to Hogsmeade, but in that same chapter, Fred and George give him the Marauader's Map--new information that drastically changes his ability to travel. There is also a plot line about winning the Quidditch cup, and near the middle, Harry's broom gets busted and someone sends him a Fireblot, drastically changing things.

For the werewolf/Lupin plot line, near the middle, Snape substitutes D.A.D.A. and teaches about werewolves, particularly how to recognize one. With the Hagrid and Buckbeak plot line, in the middle, the trio learns that Buckbeak has to go to trial, and they promise to help with it. With the Dementor plot line, around the middle, Harry falls off his broom and then Lupin offers to teach Harry the Patronus charm.

In short, every plot line hits something new and significant that changes the direction of it. It is almost always something greater than anything that has happened since that plot line's inciting incident.

If you find your story middle isn't coming together, check the midpoint(s). Think of the midpoint as the nail you hang your story's whole middle on. It transitions from the first half of the middle to the second half of the middle. It's the story's middle middle. 

Related Posts:
Story Structure Explained: Pinch Points, Midpoints, Plot Points, and Middles
How to Write Stakes in Storytelling
What to Outline When Starting a Story

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Writing Food Scenes

At first the topic of this article may seem weirdly specific . . . well . . . because it is. But guys. As human beings, we eat. A lot. And I've read a lot of scenes that involve food (probably more of them than I should have). If you are writing a novel, food is naturally going to come up, as it should. But there are dos and don'ts about how it is handled.

So yes, this is a post dedicated solely to food scenes.

(You might want to have a meal already planned that you can eat once you finish reading this.)

Let's talk about food in fiction.

Be Specific

Meals are often (too often, in fact) used as backdrops for character conversations. This makes perfect sense. Cause that's what people do. They eat. And they talk. (Hopefully not at the exact same time.) And it's better than having people talk with nothing to do.

But sometimes what happens, when the food is really the backdrop for a dialogue scene, is the writer forgets to mention what the food is. The characters are just "eating dinner" or what have you.

When working with food in a scene, be specific. Often the more specific, the better (well, okay, to a degree--use common sense).

If they are eating breakfast, what are they eating for breakfast? Cereal? Oats? a protein shake? Muffins? Fruit and yogurt? That's more specific than "breakfast." But, you can get more specific still. What kind of cereal? Or oats? Or shake? Or muffin? Or fruit and yogurt? Maple and brown sugar oats? A chocolate protein shake? Strawberries and raspberries? You can be specific in only a few words, so for most scenes, that shouldn't ruin the pacing.

If the food is more than just a backdrop, you can get more specific, which leads me to the next point.

How Much Description You Include is Proportional to How Important the Food is in the Scene (Or How Unfamiliar it is to the Audience)

If the meal is literally a backdrop to a dialogue scene, you don't need to get too carried away describing the food. Be specific. But probably be brief. If this is an intense or heated conversation, you probably shouldn't spend several paragraphs describing in detail what the chicken cordon bleu is like.

On the other hand, if the food itself is part of the experience and point of the scene, it should get more detail. If this is the first time Katniss Everdeen has tasted Capitol food, then we should have that food and experience described more fully. If this is Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, I need to taste every flavor of the gobstopper. If this is a novel about a chef trying to succeed, the reader should visualize and touch and taste every key meal.

The more important the food, the more description it merits.

But whatever the case, taste is one of our five senses, which we should be appealing to regularly in our stories. Since we literally can't appeal to taste in every scene, we should take advantage of moments when we can. (Also, don't forget to describe food's smells, textures, or temperatures.)

Readers love experiencing delicious food.

But it's okay to describe the gross food when it's necessary.

Also, how familiar the food is to the audience also plays a part in how much description it deserves. We've probably all had potato chips, so it's going to take less words to create that experience for the audience. But a lot of us haven't had octopus salad, so that may require more description to capture the experience.

When Appropriate, Mention Your Character's Likes and Dislikes

We all have preferences when it comes to food--even me who is known to like literally almost everything. Mentioning your character's likes or dislikes or preferences can add an element of authenticity to the story. Katniss loves the Capitol's hot chocolate. Violet Beauregarde loves chewing gum. Ron Weasley hates corned beef sandwiches. Buddy the elf loves maple syrup. On everything.

And part of what we do, is compare what we are eating to other things we have eaten. I can tell you right now, that the Cafe Rio in my hometown (*cough, cough* the original *cough*) has the best taco salad I've ever tasted, and I compare it to every other taco salad. Heck, when I order, I even compare it to past orders of the same dish (sadly, as Cafe Rio expands over the U.S., I have noticed the quality in my hometown start to diminish). If we are eating something new, we'll compare it to other foods, tastes, or textures. Have you ever noticed how shrimp kind of pops in your mouth when you bite into it? If you've never been around cooked liver, I can tell you the smell reminds me of something like gym socks.

Don't Make Food Your Only Backdrop

Food as a backdrop to a scene gets overused. A lot. It's sorta how writers start stories with characters waking up in the morning. It just feels like a natural concept to grab when you haven't given the scene much thought. It takes less effort than brainstorming a different backdrop. But the reader doesn't want to read about meals every time there is a conversation (well, most readers don't). Give us some variety. What else do people do while they talk? Can they be playing a game? Working on a hobby? Cleaning? Exercising? Shopping? Doing homework? Playing with the dog? Take a few minutes and consider what else could be used as a backdrop. Everyone eats. But what your character does besides that can tell us more about him or her.

Sure, there should probably be some meals present in the story. But make sure you aren't using every meal as part of the story.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Lessons on Failure: Kingdom of the Sun

Before Disney's Emperor's New Groove existed, there was a previous movie titled Kingdom of the Sun with a fleshed out story line . . . that got canned. Manco was the emperor. Pacha was eighteen. There were two other female characters and yes, someone still got turned into a llama, but it was a completely different film. You may have seen my social media post about it a few weeks ago, and you'd think that would have been enough for me, but around that time period I unintentionally went down a bizarre rabbit hole--Disney's and Pixar's failures.

It started with me looking up stuff about Lion King (my fave 😍), with the remake (not my fave). The remake took a direction I strongly disagree with--they didn't make their characters emote (fancy term for showing emotions in body language and facial expressions). This is one of the most basics rules of visual storytelling, particularly with comics and animation. Scott McCloud does a great job explaining this in his (comic)book, Understanding Comics (worth reading if you are in the storytelling industry even if you don't write or really read comics, like me). To me, this was a bad decision, for storytelling. Which led me to wonder about the other bad decisions Disney has made.

I was taking a staycation during this time and started learning about their poor choices when relaxing (I'm weird). In fact, there is a whole Youtube channel called Defunctland that specializes in failed (or stolen) theme park ideas. I also took the time to finally study up on the whole "Lion King is stolen from Kimba" controversy (spoiler: the art concepts are totally stolen. WAY too many similarities to be coincidental). To be honest, I haven't kept up with Disney over the last several years, but this journey I took was fascinating.

You see, as consumers, we mostly just see Disney's successes in their finished projects. Even their poor movies are still pretty decent. We almost never see the major failures, the sweat, the tears, the arguments. But I was learning all about these things, and Disney has had a lot of them.

One of the most fascinating was Kingdom of the Sun. There is a whole documentary on creating it, which Disney has banned, but you can still watch it on Youtube if you search "The Sweatbox." It's an hour and half, but since I was on staycation, I watched all of it.

Part 1: Kingdom of the Sun

Like I mentioned in my Facebook post, Kingdom of the Sun was meant to be a musical movie in the same vein as Aladdin, Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Mulan, and pretty much all the other Disney Renaissance movies, but set in South America. The entire story was written out, storyboarded, cast, even actors had recorded their lines. All musical numbers had been written (there were six), and 20% of the animation was completed.

The original story starred Pacha (who looked like Kuzco), voiced by Owen Wilson, who meets Emperor Manco and switches places with him (think The Prince and the Pauper, loosely) while an evil sorceress, Yzma, plans to block out the sun forever with her minions (a talking talisman and three mummies). It included a romantic line, where Pacha fell in love with Manco’s fiancé (Nina) while he was in disguise, and Yzma does turn Manco into a llama, and he works with a female llama herder, Mata, to get home. It was based on Inca culture and magic. And Yzma summons Supai (the Incan god of death) to engulf the kingdom. At the climax, Pacha and Manco work together to stop her, Pacha ultimately saving the kingdom by lassoing the sun (which was apparently supposed to have consequences, or rather, give an explanation on how the sun functions in today's society).

Oh yeah, and also, the movie opened with an Incan inspired creation story with the gods (probably similar to Hercules).

The creators literally spent years working on this thing (I thought they said three in the documentary, but now I'm questioning if I heard right). In the documentary, you can hear and see how excited they all are and how hard they are working. One character designer talks about how he wanted to animate for Disney most his life and even immigrated to America to have that chance; he is thrilled to work on a female villain for the first time. Others rejoice over actors saying lines in just the right way. Sting sweats over creating six songs that encapsulate the story and embody his own standards of quality. People are traveling to Peru and doing research. Others are going through Disney's animation vaults to get inspiration. Everyone is putting in their blood, sweat, and tears.

And then Disney canned it.

Which must have really sucked. Bad.

One of the Disney critics said the pacing was weird and off. They couldn't quite tell if the movie was trying to be a drama, or a comedy, or a romance, or an epic story . . . and there was a lot going on. I'm not sure exactly the ultimate reason it got canned, but . . . it did.

Needless to say, the creators were heartbroken.

We've probably all been there. 

I mean, maybe we've never worked on a movie for Disney that got trashed, but I think we've probably all had similar moments. I know I've thrown out whole scenes I've spent weeks on. Heck, I've also thrown out a whole novel manuscript and started over. A lot of us have whole books that have never been published. You see, in our creative journeys, we all have our "Dark Night of the Soul" scenes; we all have our "All is Lost" moments.

And maybe like Kingdom of the Sun, it even is "all lost."

But never forget, it is the successes that are usually remembered, far more often than the failures. And in fact, the successes almost always matter more than the failures.

Because you always do more good in the world by sharing your talents.

And none of us can succeed without failing.

That's just the way this life works.

So what did the studio do after Kingdom of the Sun got canned? Well, a whole new story.

Part 2: The Emperor's New Groove

After their massive failure, a lot of the creators were in pain. They essentially had to throw away the entire thing. The director even got kicked off. He talked about how much it hurt, like losing his baby. He'd put his whole heart and passion into it.

But Disney still had to put out a movie. So the entire story was stripped down. Way down. In fact, I don't know that you can even call it stripping because so much of it was different and totally new. At one point, there were actually six different scripts being worked on--SIX. (And one even took place in Jamaica). Almost all the characters got thrown out, and all the original music was thrown out

In the documentary, Sting voices how disappointed he is that his songs for an epic musical were trashed, and how he now has to come back, years later, to write a new song that's a totally different tone. Those behind Yzma's character grieved over how she went from an evil sorceress summoning the god of death to destroy the kingdom and sun, to a woman who simply wants to become emperor.

And guess what? Other than being sad about letting things go, those behind the creative process still found this movie very difficult. As I was watching this documentary, I couldn't help but be somewhat baffled that all these Disney professionals are struggling with some of the same things I struggle with. Storytelling is STILL hard, even for the professionals. They're trying to get the pacing just right. They are trying to get the lines just right. Every beat counts. The timing needs to be perfect for the humor. Does Pacha need a family? Does he not need a family? He needs a family to drive home the theme at the end, but the family is boring. It's Kuzco's birthday. It's not  Kuzco's birthday--that takes too much explaining. The real story is about Pacha and Kuzco. The ending this way is undermining the theme. Can we make the opening great with such an unlikeable person as the main character? Disney's story critics worried they wouldn't be able to maintain such extreme comedy for a whole film. Every line, every frame, every character design needed to be exact.

It seemed they were trying and failing a hundred different ways.

But somewhat surprisingly, some creators remarked, that's just how the process goes. You try and fail and try and fail and shape and fail and fix and fail.

It reminded me of something I've said before: Your story is broken from conception to publication, and sometimes, even then its still broken.

So why do we get so frustrated about it? Isn't that just the process?

Anyway they built up a completely different story (Hey, and we even got Kronk out of it!). And we got an entirely different tone. Everything seemed to be finally coming together. . . .

Until the music score. 🤦‍♀️

They hired someone talented to do that. But when they did the screen testing itself, it was terrible. It wasn't that the music was bad. Or that the show was bad. It was that they were bad, together. The music emphasized the animation too much, to the point that the jokes weren't funny, because the music over delivered them.

So again they started over (but just on the music this time), hiring someone completely new.  (You'll notice that the music score for Emperor's New Groove is rather mellow--that's because the film literally couldn't handle something more dramatic and still remain effective.)

As a writer, I have to say I've had similar experiences. I might have two great ideas, but they don't work together. Sometimes, it's just too much, and I need to make one aspect less dramatic. It kind of sucks, but it happens.

Once the score was handled, at long last the film was completed.

And you know what?

The Emperor's New Groove was a success! I've never met someone who's watched that movie and hated it! Hands down it's in my top ten Disney movies.

But look how much they failed in the process. They threw out an entire movie script (and several others). And they scrapped about a million and a half things! But they kept going.

Success isn't about getting it right the first time. It's about getting it right, period.

And even the best of us have to trash our material from time to time.

Creating anything truly worthwhile is hard and it sucks sometimes. But perseverance matters more than raw talent. And even if you have to throw something away, it doesn't mean it was a complete waste. Pull out the llama, or rework the plot, completely change the tone, put in your shoulder angel (or devil). If they can do it, so can you.

Maybe Kingdom of the Sun could have been great. Or maybe they were right in shutting it down. We'll never know.

But someone, somewhere is going to create something great—why not you?


If you are interested in learning more about Kingdom of the Sun, you can watch the documentary here.

The Emperor's New Groove album actually has some the Kingdom of the Sun songs on it, despite them getting scrapped from the film. (Have you ever noticed how the ending credits sound like something that could have come from The Lion King?) They even kept the original recording of Yzma singing about her evil plans.

The songs are: "Snuff out the Light," "One Day She'll Love Me," "My Funny Friend and Me," and "Walk the Llama Llama"

If you want to get an idea of what "Snuff out the Light" would have looked like, watch part of this video (I think it looks cool with the Incan style shots):

Interestingly, Emperor's New Groove marked the end of the Disney Renaissance--a time period when Disney made animated films that followed the same structure as musicals, with wide sweeping shots of huge settings, epic story lines, and dramatic crescendos. Eventually they would go back to that approach with Tangled and Frozen, and again prove it to be highly successful.


I realize this is a different sort of post than what I usually do and probably a little rambly, but I really wanted to share. Hopefully you found it as fascinating as I did. I may or may not share some of Disney's other interesting failures in future posts.

Also, this week I will be a panelist at FanX. If you are going, feel free to say hi!

Here are my panels:

 20 Years of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Friday September 6, 2019 6:00 pm to 7:00 pm

By Grabthar's Hammer, What A Panel: GALAXY QUEST 20 Years Later
Saturday September 7, 2019 10:00 am to 11:00 am 

Why We Love Neville Longbottom
Saturday September 7, 2019 3:00 pm to 4:00 pm

I'm also helping out with a little panel in the kids section at twelve on Friday.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Crafting a "Body Language Voice"

You've probably heard about "voice"--that elusive quality that so many editors, agents, and readers are drawn to. Years ago, I did a couple of posts about character voice, arguing that it's made up of what the character says and how she says it. Each character should have a unique voice. Sure, their voice can have similarities with other voices, but when it gets down to it, they are somewhat different. But you know what else is somewhat unique to individual? Body language.

So today I'm going to talk about what I refer to sometimes as "body language voice." The reason this can be tricky is because many writers learning the craft are completely unaware of it. Instead, they simply focus on the emotion they are trying to portray to the audience--which is great, because that means they are trying to "show" how someone feels instead of simply "tell," but one of the problems that can arise is that all the characters use the same emotional indicators. Whenever a character is annoyed, he or she rolls her eyes. It doesn't matter who the character is, it's the same response. Every character shrugs. Every woman puts her hands on her hips.

To take this to the next level, you should develop a body language voice. Most people I know don't actually roll their eyes. Some do, but most don't. It's a specific type of person who uses this body language. I know lots of people who never shrug or put their hands on their hips. Like with typical character voices, there may be aspects that overlap with others. For example, two different people might still say "That's lit," but it's unlikely that everyone says that. Then there are more common and universal words and phrases that almost everyone says, like "How are you?" and "Cool." This applies to body language. Most everyone smiles, nods, and shakes hands. Those are more universal. But beyond things like that, your character's should have their own body language to communicate.

This means moving beyond your go-to emotional indicators, and if you need help brainstorming new ones, I highly recommend Ackerman and Puglisi's book The Emotion Thesaurus as it surely has basically all you could need in it. In fact, if you write, I almost consider this book a must.

Instead of making all your characters roll their eyes when they are annoyed, try to mostly limit that to one character. It's "her" thing. What character does that body language most suit? I pretty much never roll my eyes (unless I'm being sarcastic) because I think it's rude, and even if I feel annoyed, I don't necessarily want the other people present to know I feel that way. So for someone like me, I'd almost never do that. However, I know a few people who do that precisely because they want the other person to notice, or simply because that is the way they release annoyance. So looking at who your character is can help you determine what sort of reactions most suit him or her.

I know people who shake their leg when they are nervous, others who literally put their tongue in their cheek to keep from laughing, some who quirk an eyebrow, and some who can rarely maintain eye contact.

There are also internal emotional responses. More of these are universal, but some may be unique. Whenever Ron Weasley gets uncomfortable or embarrassed, his ears go hot (I know they are hot, because they go red). Sometimes when I'm super excited about something I feel like I'm going to throw up--weird right? (It's weird to me as that's something I would relate more toward nerves not excitement.) I have a friend who only really cries when she's mad. So even how our bodies respond to certain emotions may be somewhat unique.

I could go on with examples, but I think you get the idea.

Your characters should have their own body language voice.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Reeling Readers in via Curiosity

A few weeks ago, I did a post on stakes, which also related to hooks. And this year, I've been talking on and off again about pulling the reader into the story by getting them to look forward to what could happen, which is often done by getting the reader to fear or to hope something may happen (and then they have to turn pages to find out if it does). But there is a third way to do this. You make the reader curious.

You make the reader feel like they need more information. You make them want more information.

But this can easily go wrong if you handle it wrong. For example, a lot of beginning writers try to shock their audience, subconsciously thinking that it will be so shocking, the readers have to keep reading. It's like when there is a car accident on the side of the road, and you don't want to see it, but you can't take your eyes off it--that mentality. So you can find a lot of unpublished stories with openings that are unnecessarily graphic, overly sexual, or over-the-top vulgar. These beginning writers are trying to reel the audience in by making them feel like they need more information or they need to see if this continues to be shocking.

It almost never works. And it can even make readers want to stop reading.

That's not to say there are never reasons to open a story with such content, but more often than not, the writer is opening that way without legitimate reasons.

Hooks are so tricky to master largely because most people don't actually understand them, therefore they don't know how to do them consciously and intentionally. And most of the advice on them is seriously lacking (in my opinion). Often when I search for advice on hooks, all I get is something like, "Come up with a line that makes the reader want to read more." Well, I know that already, that's why I know to google hooks in the first place. I want some specific ideas of how to do that, exactly. Hopefully dissecting how hope and fear over what could happen has been as helpful to you as it has been to me.

So today, I want to talk about how to actually do the third one: spark curiosity.

Because sometimes we are reeled in because we are intrigued, and we are looking forward to reading more to get more information.

So how do we create that effect exactly?

Well, here are some specifics.

Pair Contradictions

I talk a lot about utilizing contrasts and contradictions on my blog, so hopefully you guys aren't sick of it, but it's so dang effective and almost no one ever talks about it! But this is exactly one of the ways to get the audience to want to know more. It might even be the most effective.

In my story structure series, I talked about how Into the Spider-verse largely uses contrasts and contradictions as hooks in the opening of the story.

When two opposing things are smashed together, we naturally thirst for more information, an explanation.

Here is an example I made up for another post:

Mom handed me my birthday present, and my stomach dropped.

Birthdays and birthday presents are usually something to be happy and excited about. So, when the protagonist feels negatively about one, we want to know why. It seems like a contradiction.

For years, I've loved this line Dashiell Hammet wrote in The Maltese Falcon.

[Samuel Spade] looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

"Pleasant" and "Satan" seem to contradict each other. And the "blond" is just specific enough to make me more curious. So now I want to read to learn how someone can look "pleasantly" like "a blond satan." And I want to learn more about this Samuel Spade.

Contradictions and contrasts are important because they help create specificity (sometimes even in a more literal, philosophical sense than I want to get into for this blog post), and as I've talked about before, the audience needs enough specificity to become invested in the story--to want to read more. Therefore, enough specificity is important for hooks and for reeling the audience in. Contradictions and contrasts create specificity by creating a boundary. For example, Samuel Spade fits somewhere between pleasant and Satan.

The line wouldn't be half as interesting if it was less specific.

Samuel Spade looked like a satan.

Sure, that can still be interesting. And it can still work effectively if the context of how we understand him seems to already contrast that line. But the line and concept in and of itself isn't as interesting anymore.

A lot of times we think we reel the audience in by being vague, but that can actually do the opposite. We need to be specific enough. Writers sometimes try to spark a reader's curiosity by not really saying anything, hoping it will make them want to learn more so they understand. Yes, if done right, this can work well in certain places, like teasers, but being more specific with contrasts is often more effective.

Look at this approach:

Samuel Spade looked pleasant yet unusual, in a strange way. 

Even though it technically still has some contrast (pleasant vs. unusual), it's quite vague. Honestly, it doesn't really hook me. I don't feel the need to learn more.

How about this?

Samuel Spade was blond and looked pleasant. 

This has no contrast and is therefore not as interesting. I mean, you will of course write sentences like this, but when you want to hook a reader and get them invested this doesn't work.

When you pair contrasts and contradictions, the audience will want to know how and why those things go together. Just make sure to deliver on that to some extent so the reader doesn't feel like this is a cheap trick.

Stretch Just Beyond What is Known

A year ago I did a post on how to create a sense of wonder in the modern audience, which I argue is quite different than it was even one hundred years ago. Audiences today often feel wonder most powerfully when they are exposed to something just beyond their understanding, that builds off something they already understand somewhat, as opposed to something that doesn't connect to anything. So you can have whole movies that spend a ton of money on making the film and setting feel magical when the audience is yawning. Or you can have hits like The Martian or Interstellar that stretches us just beyond what we know.

A sense of wonder makes us curious. I mean, that's why it's wonder.

But this can work on a smaller scale to draw audiences in too. You just want to touch beyond what is already known. Naturally, the audience will be curious to want to know more. This can work with speculative fiction, or really, just about any kind of fiction.

In His Dark Materials, everyone has a daemon of the opposite sex. So the protagonist, a girl named Lyra, has a male daemon named Pantalaimon. Daemons are part of a person's soul that lives on the outside of their body and assumes the shape of an animal. So everyone has their daemon from birth. But at one point, we get this line:

Bernie was a kindly, solitary man, one of those rare people whose daemon was the same sex as himself.

Okay, well, that's something just beyond our established understanding of daemons. So now I'm curious to learn more about Bernie. Why is his daemon the same sex as himself? And what does that mean?

But this can happen with a more realistic story as well. You just need to brush beyond what is already known or established as normal. It can happen with setting, character, or even plot.

Peach Days happened every year faithfully, except in 1998.

Okay, well, guess what I'm wondering now? Why not in 1998? I need to read on.

Here is another.

The Big Bang theory has long been accepted by scientists, but today a star was discovered to be older than the Big Bang itself.

This was a real discovery in the news recently. So what did you think I did? I read the article.

In some ways, you could argue this is just another form of contrasting, since we are contrasting something normal or known with something unknown, but I feel that the approach here is a little different, so I think it helps to have the different categories.

Share Something Surprising

When something surprising happens, we want more information. Even if it's a surprise birthday party, after the "Surprise!" everyone wants to talk about how they got to that point. There is the person that talks about almost accidentally giving the surprise away. Or the person that talks about trying to get the birthday person out of the house. Or the birthday person recounting their suspicions. After a surprise, we want a second to take it in and understand it.

In writing, sometimes the surprise is an unexpected response, something unusual that happens, or it may even be an interesting fact or statistic.

It might be Hagrid revealing to Harry that he's a wizard and that his parents didn't die in a car crash (how can you not want more information?). It might be the old guy, the Duke of Weselton, who wants to dance with Elsa in Frozen. It might be a nice meet cute in a romance.

Sometimes it's an interesting statement.

Squirrels are behind most power outages in the U.S.

Well . . . tell me more. I'm curious.

I've never read Gone Girl, but I love its opening line:

When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.

Um . . . what? Not only is that surprising, but it implies something pretty sinister.

Like all hooks, just make sure you don't use the surprise approach as a cheap trick. If anyone is interested, I have a post on surprises in general, here.

Use "Negative Description"

"Negative description" in my terms means when you describe what something is not. When someone tells us what something is not, we almost always want to know soon after what that something is. In other words, it makes us curious. It makes us want to keeping reading or listening for more information.

Tolkien does this in The Hobbit:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat.

Okay, well, now I'm wondering what kind of hole it is.

Sometimes this is something simple:

Jessica wasn't like other girls her age.

Why not? And how not?

Just make sure you almost always follow up with what that something is, and it almost always needs to be interesting.

Jessica wasn't like other girls her age. The only craft she liked doing was taxidermy.

 Tell me more.

Make a Bold Statement

Bold statements sort of relate to surprises. When someone says something bold, we need more information.

Every man in Toonesbrook was a liar.

Or what about from The Raven Boys:

If Blue was to kiss her true love, he would die. 

That one also plays off the idea of fear.


I've never liked chocolate. 

Now that is bold. ;)

To be bold, often the statement is unusual or broad-sweeping. "I never liked chocolate," that's unusual. "Every man in Toonesbrook was a liar," that's far reaching. Something that goes against a generally accepted belief or experience is bold.

Employ Non-linear Timelines

Some people may consider this a no-no. After all, we are taught so much to stay in the present. But sometimes jumping around in time briefly, makes us want to know more. We want to know more about how one point in time connected to another. Or we want to know what happened in between.

When I met Sam Bywater, I was unimpressed, but that encounter would go on to haunt me for ten years. 


Peach Days happened faithfully every year, except last, but this year they had better security.


I wasn't excited about another boring dentist appointment, but looking back, I'd rather I'd gone and gotten my teeth cleaned--at least then I would have been safe.

Subtext can also be key to writing great hooks and/or reeling audiences in. The second example in this sections suggests something bad happened last year that led to needing more security. "When I think of my wife, I always think of her head" suggests the possibility of murder. So lines like that can make us want to learn more.

In some ways, you can argue that sparking curiosity is just another way we are getting the audience to hope for something. We are getting them to hope for more information. But still, I think it's a little different. When I talked about hope and fear before, I mainly talked about it in relation to the actual story. In these kinds of lines, that may not be the case. Your book may have almost nothing to do with Peach Days, for example. But the line still reels readers in.

Keep in mind that with all hooks, you don't want to throw them everywhere as a cheap trick. You still need to deliver on them most of the time (some would say you need to do it all the time, but I'd argue that point. That's another subject though.). And curiosity hooks alone will only keep an audience for so long, sort of like how a teaser can only sustain an audience for a few pages tops. There needs to be more. Nonetheless, they are an excellent way to draw your readers in.

Monday, August 12, 2019


Hey everyone! Today we are going to talk about a writing mistake that I see from time to time that I don't believe has an official name, but best-selling author David Farland calls it "fluttering." That sounds about right to me. So I was going to write a whole blog post on this, and then remembered that Dave already did, so I asked permission to share it here, so really, he's the one who's going to talk to us about it today:

Have you ever watched a butterfly in flight and tried to figure out where it will go next? The butterfly will soar three feet in the air, veer left, drop, veer right. It will look as if it’s heading for a flower, then land on a rock.

Of course, it is biologically programmed to do that. It makes it hard for a predator to catch the butterfly when the predator can’t figure out where it is going.

However, some writers “flutter,” too, moving so fast from topic to topic that the reader can’t quite follow the tale. For example, I may find a story where the author says, “It was windy outside. Lola sat down in a chair. At the bar, a customer staggered up from his stool. A rocket blasted off from the spaceport.”

Do you see the problem? Nothing has been created, and the reader’s attention is directed from place to place seemingly at random. What’s even worse is I know that usually such an author will continue to flit about, never describing anything in full.

So when I start a story, I immediately choose to focus. Let’s say that you are trying to create a setting. “It was windy outside” might be a fine way to start, but outside of where? Readers don’t know. We seem to be in a bar a moment later, but the author hasn’t created a bar. How many people are in it? What’s the décor? What does it smell like? What time of day is it? How do we know that it’s windy outside—by the sound of howling wind, by wind blasting through an opened door? There are a dozen questions that need to be answered here before we can go on.

Then “Lola sat down in a chair.” Who is Lola? What does she look, smell, and sound like? What’s her demeanor? How is she dressed? A dozen questions arise before I can really imagined her as a character.

What does the patron getting up from the bar have to do with anything? Is he important to the tale, or just window-dressing?

“A rocket blasted off from the spaceport.” Again, how does the viewpoint character know? Does he feel the ground shaking? Does he see a bright light through the window? Does the roof of the bar rumble as the rocket shoots overhead? We really don’t know because the author here has just narrated the tale, not really used the senses in order to “create” the setting.

So when you begin to describe something, realize that you need to go all in. You need to slow down and focus.

For example, if you’re going to describe a setting, perhaps you could start by letting us see what is in the “near ground”—what’s near at hand for your point of view character. For example, “Nila grasped her knife firmly and sliced some venison from the spit above the campfire, squinting against the bitter smoke.”

You might want to add more details about Nila or what is close at hand, but you could also move to the mid-ground. “The shadows were dark beneath the pines that crowded at the edge of the wood, and in the distance a chorus of wolves began to howl.”

Now, you could spend more time on the woods, describing its scent or the temperature, or you might go into the deep background: “Overhead, a silver crescent moon shimmered among blowing clouds.”

That is the way that I do it, typically. I try to give a setting in a few broad strokes, knowing that I need to fill in details in a page or two, but I get the basics down.

Only when you’ve created a bit of a setting might you start now describing Nila—her clothing, voice, physical description, history, hopes, fears, and so on. But with her, too, I might create her in bits and pieces, giving a general sense at first, then adding details as the story grows.

The important point here is that as an author, you need to think of yourself as something of a movie director. You need to figure out where you are going to point the camera, bring in the sound, and have your characters act. Do it in stages. In other words, you direct the reader’s attention.

Monday, July 29, 2019

How to Use a Dash—in Fiction Writing

I've been getting more requests to do posts on proper punctuation, and one that a few people have mentioned is the em dash. I actually think this one is a little trickier to use than the semicolon (which I argue is actually one of the easiest), just because the rules surrounding it are more lax. However, like the semicolon, you can pretty much get away with almost never using it.

But a great em dash can be really effective, and sometimes it's just the punctuation mark you're looking for. It's worth noting that em dashes feel more informal. They make the text more casual, which may or may not be what you are looking for.

With that said, let's get started.

For Interruptions

As an editor, one of the most common (but understandable) problems I see with dashes is that the writer uses an ellipsis (. . .) to indicate an interruption instead of a dash. An ellipsis in dialogue means that the speaker sort of just trailed off:

"I don't know. Maybe it's something . . ." she trailed off.

But an em dash means they are cut off.

"I don't know. Maybe it's something--"
"Like an animal? Maybe a bear?" Callie interrupted. 

Interruptions may not always be from another speaker. They can be a sound in the environment:

"If only--"
A police siren suddenly went off. We looked at each other, and then ran pell-mell down the alley.

They can be an action in the environment:

"Now I just need peaches, grapes, apples and--"
A shopping cart crashed into mine.

Sometimes you can even get away with the character's own thoughts interrupting their dialogue if they have a sudden realization.

"I don't know! Maybe it's something like--"
A jaguar, she suddenly realized. Yes, that fit perfectly!

Basically when a character is cut off in dialogue (or in some cases, even thoughts), you should indicate that with an em dash. 

If action interrupts a complete sentence of dialogue, you set it off by em dashes:

"You said"--she wrenched open the car door--"that she would be safe!"

"You said that she would be safe" is a complete sentence, but "she wrenched open the car door" is an action, not a dialogue tag, so technically it should be set off like that example.

For a Sudden Change of Thought

Similarly, your character may sort of "interrupt" themselves in that they may have a sudden change of thought. In that case, use an em dash.

"If only--hey, want to go to dinner?" I asked.

This can sometimes happen out of dialogue if you are in deep viewpoint.

I slowly put down my bag. If only--maybe she'd want to go to dinner.

As a Counterpoint to Parentheses

Em dashes can also function like parentheses . . . but different.

Parentheses imply a sort of aside. I personally think of parentheses as the "whisper" equivalent of writing. It's additional information that is read "quieter," like having a friend whisper something to you when you are at a lecture.

Dashes can set information aside too, but rather than "whisper" it, it's being highlighted. It carries a little more intensity and tends to be read at a faster pace than parentheses. (Even though it may be additional, side information.)

He grabbed every kind of soda he could see--root beer, cream, orange, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, Sprite, even grape Fanta--and piled them into his shopping basket.

Notice how this has a slightly slower, less intense feel when in parentheses:

He grabbed every kind of soda he could see (root beer, cream, orange, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, Sprite, even grape Fanta) and piled them into his shopping basket.

Dashes are also a little different in that if you use a dash to set off the beginning or end part of a sentence, you don't need a second one. You only need two when you're setting off something in the middle of a sentence.

He grabbed every kind of soda he could see--root beer, cream, orange, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, Sprite, even grape Fanta. He piled them into his shopping basket.


Root beer, cream, orange, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, Sprite, even grape Fanta--he grabbed every kind of soda he could see. He piled them into his shopping basket.

With parentheses, you always need to close them.

He grabbed every kind of soda he could see (root beer, cream, orange, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, Sprite, even grape Fanta). He piled them into his shopping basket.

And you typically don't start a sentence with parentheses, unless the entire sentence is in parentheses.

For Quick Emphasis

Similar to the last section, you can also use em dashes for quick impact.

You can use a dash to highlight or emphasize a single word.

There was only one place he dreamed of being--Hawaii

This can also work in places where parentheses typically won't (which is why I'm putting this in its own section).

Hawaii--it was the only place he dreamed of being.

Of course, you can do this with more than one word.

Joshua had two loves in life--Lucy and tater tots. 

To Help Readability

Dashes can also be used to help make a sentence easier to read. This is usually done when a phrase set off by commas has a lot of its own commas within it.

When the medicine arrived, about two months, three stomach aches, five headaches, and six sleepless nights later, she felt so sick, she didn't know if she could keep the pills down, so she begged to be taken back to the hospital. 


When the medicine arrived--about two months, three stomach aches, five headaches, and six sleepless nights later--she felt so sick, she didn't know if she could keep the pills down, so she begged to be taken back to the hospital.

Like a lot of things in writing, you can argue that some of these sections overlap (because can't this dashed part just be put in parentheses? Or be considered an interruption?).

For Missing Text

This is sort of outdated and not something I recommend using except in special circumstances.

Sometimes the em dash is used to show that certain text has been left out. If you read some older books, like some of the classics, you may notice em dashes are used to avoid giving specific dates or names.

For example, in Jane Eyre, you will find text like this:

Mrs. Fairfax, Thornfield, near Millcote, ----shire.

Which is meant to say the place is called something shire.

Or you may find dates like this:


So the story avoids giving a specific year.

Fiction today doesn't usually do that.

The em dash can also be used this way when the text is unknown. The only way I can see this working in fiction today, is if your character found a paper or something that was damaged so they could not make out the words properly. You might would write the note like this:

My dear ------,
Please come to m---- at t---- and bring ------

When used this way, two em dashes denote part of a missing word and three em dashes denote a whole word is missing.

It's completely possible to go through your whole writing career and never need to use em dashes this way.

Hyphens vs. En Dashes vs. Em Dashes

When people talk about "dashes," they are almost always talking about the em dash, which is what this whole article has been about, but there is also the en dash and the hyphen. En dashes are shorter than em dashes and hyphens are shorter than en dashes.

Hyphen (-), en dash (–), and em dash (—)

An en dash is about as long as the letter "n" and an em dash is about as long as the letter "m" (which is where they get their names).

The differences between the hyphen and the en dash can get a little fuzzy in the industry, so I'm going to pull from the The Chicago Manual of Style (which is what fiction uses) website and let them explain it.

The hyphen connects two things that are intimately related, usually words that function together as a single concept or work together as a joint modifier (e.g., tie-in, toll-free call, two-thirds).

The en dash connects things that are related to each other by distance, as in the May–September issue of a magazine; it’s not a May-September issue, because June, July, and August are also ostensibly included in this range. And in fact en dashes specify any kind of range, which is why they properly appear in indexes when a range of pages is cited (e.g., 147–48). En dashes are also used to connect a prefix to a proper open compound: for example, pre–World War II.

You probably don't need to worry too much about the differences between a hyphen and an en dash, so I don't recommend stressing about it. Just know they are different, and you can look them up if you really need to. And definitely don't go walking around like you are smarter than everyone because you can tell the difference between hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes.

How to Properly Write an Em Dash

You may notice now that you don't actually have an em dash key on your keyboard. You have a hyphen. This often gets used as both a hyphen and an en dash. To denote an em dash, you hit that key twice (--); today, most word processors will automatically turn that into an em dash (—).

In the traditional, standard manuscript format, em dashes are written as --. This is in part because SMF uses a Courier font, where every character is the same width, so technically a hyphen is going to look the same as an em dash, so you need to use two hyphens to indicate an em dash. You can also use two hyphens to indicate an em dash when automatic reformatting is unavailable. You've probably noticed on my blog that I usually use -- for my em dashes. My blogging platform does not reformat them to em dashes, and I have much better things to do than copy and paste them all in. Besides, there is nothing "wrong" with using --, technically speaking. It's just if something is going to be professionally printed, you should use —.

In fiction, there should be no spaces before or after the em dash.


He grabbed every kind of soda he could see — root beer, cream, orange, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, Sprite, even grape Fanta — and piled them into his shopping basket.


He grabbed every kind of soda he could see—root beer, cream, orange, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, Sprite, even grape Fanta—and piled them into his shopping basket.

Also Fine:

He grabbed every kind of soda he could see--root beer, cream, orange, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, Sprite, even grape Fanta--and piled them into his shopping basket.

(But reformat for professional printing)

And that's about all you need to know about em dashes for fiction writing.