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Monday, March 18, 2019

How to Punctuate Dialogue

I usually don't do posts on punctuation, because I figure it's something that anyone can simply look up, but lately I've been running into quite a bit of dialogue that has been punctuated improperly, which is really no surprise, because when you are learning to write dialogue, punctuating is super confusing.

Let's start with the most basic and then move on to the most complicated.

Dialogue is usually made of two parts: the dialogue, and the dialogue tag.

"I'm hungry," (<-- dialogue) Micki said. (<-- dialogue tag)

The dialogue tag tells us who said it and (sometimes) how.

Sometimes dialogue will have no tags because who is saying it is implied. This is the easiest type to punctuate.

Dialogue with No Tags

- Simply put whatever is said in quotations.


"Please pass the water."
"Go to your room!"
"Are you staying for dinner?"
"First I want to go biking. After that, let's go fishing. If we have time still, let's go hiking."

*Note: Inside the quotations, always treat capitalization like you would normally.

Dialogue with Tags Coming After a Complete Sentence (Or Intentional Fragment)

When dialogue would ordinarily end in a period:

This is the next simplest.

- If you end the dialogue with a complete sentence that would ordinarily end in a period, put a comma instead, then the dialogue tag, then the period.


"I'm setting up an aquarium," Jen said.
"Can you pick up some eggs? I have to bake cookies for the fundraiser," Pat said.
"Shut up! I can't listen to you for another second," Steve yelled.

*Note: If you are ending the dialogue on an intentional sentence fragment, you would do the same thing.

"There were bears. Huge bears," Tanner explained.
"No one can stand her. Ugly. Mean. A monster," he said.
"Bears. Beets. Battlestar Galactica," he said.

*Note: If you are not ending on a proper name, lower case who is saying it (he said, she said, they said, the man said, etc.) 

When the dialogue ends in a question mark:

- Put the question mark inside the quotation, then the dialogue tag.


"Did he love you?" her father asked.
"Would Wednesday work for the meeting?" she asked.
"It's my sister's birthday this Saturday. Do you want to come to the party?" Emma said.

When the dialogue ends in an exclamation point: 

- Put the exclamation point inside the quotation, then the dialogue tag.


"I hate you!" Carry said.
"Shut up! Shut up!" Sean yelled.
"Someone's hurt. Hurry!" she said.

Dialogue with Tags Coming First

This is done more rarely, but here is how you would punctuate it.

- Use a comma between the tag and the dialogue. End the dialogue punctuating how you would normally.


Timmy asked, "Will it hurt?"
Mom said, "I've already cleaned the entire house."
Dad said, "Don't back talk me!"
She said, "I don't have a lot of time. Could we reschedule?"

*Note the slight difference in "sound" and beat when the dialogue tag comes first.

*Note that since the dialogue tag starts the sentence, the first letter will always be capitalized  (She said, He said, Her mom said, Timmy said, The man said).

Dialogue with Tags in the Middle

With tags after a complete sentence or intentional sentence fragment

- Punctuate it according to the second section, then start the next line of dialogue, punctuating it like the first section.


"I'm so cold," Rupert complained. "I can't wait for summer."
"What's your favorite color?" her sister asked. "I like blue."
"I love him!" she said. "You can't change my mind!"
"Bears. Beets," Jim said. "Battlestar Galactica."

With tags technically coming before the next sentence

- Alternatively, the middle tag can be attached to the next sentence.


"I'm so cold." Rupert said, "I can't wait for summer."
"What's your favorite color?" Her sister said, "I like blue."
"I love him!" She said, "You can't change my mind!"

*Again, note there is technically a slight variation in sound and beat:

"I'm so cold." / Rupert said, "I can't wait for summer."
"I'm so cold," Rupert said. / "I can't wait for summer."

*Watch out for attaching the tag to the wrong sentence.

Wrong: "What's your favorite color?" Her sister asked, "I like blue."

"I like blue" can't be "asked." It's not a question.

Correct:  "What's your favorite color?" Her sister said, "I like blue."

(This is why I changed it in the example.)

With tags interrupting a sentence

Maybe you want the tag coming in the middle of a dialogue sentence.

- Use commas to separate the tag from the spoken dialogue.


"All I was wondering," she said, "was if you were going to the party."
"He always lies, cheats," Tiff said, "and steals!"
"After practice," her dad said, "let's get ice cream."

*Notice that having the tag split a sentence alters the beat with an extra pause. This can sometimes be used to convey hesitancy (perhaps in the first example) or emphasis (in the second example).

Keep in mind that all the lines of dialogue here are complete sentences:

"All I was wondering was if you were going to the party."
"He always lies, cheats, and steals."
"After practice, let's get ice cream."

So you should not tag them as if they are complete sentences.

"All I was wondering," she said. "Was if you were going to the party."
"He always lies, cheats." Tiff said, "And steals!"
"After practice," her dad said. "Let's get ice cream."

Always look at the sentence(s) in the dialogue and where you are placing the tag to determine how to punctuate them.

Dialogue with Action Implying the Speaker

You can often imply the speaker with action. Keep in mind that this is implying NOT tagging.

- The action and the dialogue are two separate things, so they should be punctuated as two separate things. Punctuate the dialogue as if there is no tag. Write the character's action as you normally would.


"Do you need help?" David smiled. [dialogue. action.]
"Hurry!" Nick opened the car door. [dialogue. action.]
She closed the envelope. "It's the only letter he wrote me." [action. dialogue.]
"I'm exhausted." She put on her pajamas. "I want to sleep a full week." [dialogue. action. dialogue.]

"Do you need help?" he smiled.
"Hurry up," Nick opened the door.
She closed the envelope, "It's the only letter he wrote me."
"I'm exhausted," she put on her pajamas, "I want to sleep a full week."

These aren't tags because they do not "speak." You cannot "smile" a spoken sentence. You can smile while speaking a sentence, but you cannot smile a spoken sentence.

Attaching the action to a tag

Alternatively, you can attach the action to a tag, using both a tag and an action.


"Do you need help?" David asked, smiling. [dialogue, tag with action]
"Hurry!" Nick yelled and opened the door. [dialogue, tag with action]
She said while very slowly closing the envelope, "It's the only letter he wrote me." [tag with action, dialogue]
"I'm exhausted," she said and put on her pajamas. "I want to sleep a full week." [dialogue, tag with action. dialogue.]

For more advanced tips on this, you can see my post "5 Most Common Mistakes with Dialogue."

Action Interrupting a Dialogue Sentence

Sometimes you may want action to come in the middle of a dialogue sentence. But here's the problem. It's not a dialogue tag.

- Use em dashes to set off the action outside of the quotes. Don't use commas within the quotes near the interruption.


"You said"--she wrenched open the car door--"that she would be safe!"
"Next time you go blabbing about our secrets"--he kicked a rock--"you'll be put in isolation."

Dialogue and Paragraphs

- Every time there is a new speaker, start a new paragraph.


"You said they would be safe," Lance said. "You said you could defend them!"
"I thought I could! But I didn't know they could wield magic," Ellie said.
"They were our last hope."
"At least I tried to help. Some people around here have done nothing," she said pointedly.
Lance glared.

- If one speaker is speaking for multiple paragraphs, delete the closing quote of their previous paragraph and start the next with another quotation mark. It feels counterintuitive, but that's the rule.


"You said they would be safe," Lance said. "You said you could defend them!"
"I thought I could! But I didn't know they could wield magic," Ellie said.
"They were our last hope."
"At least I tried to help. Some people around here have done nothing," she said pointedly.
Lance glared."Nothing?" he asked. "You think I've done nothing? I guess I haven't then.
"I guess getting intel from the enemies was nothing.
"I guess locating the chosen ones was nothing.
"I guess sacrificing time that could be spent with my own children is nothing.
"You had one job to do.
"But maybe to you, it was nothing."
Ellie was speechless. 
Typically writers reserve this sort of thing for long paragraphs but my example still proves the point.

Internal Dialogue/Thoughts

At some point you'll probably have internal dialogue (or maybe better put . . . monologue), or in other words, your character's direct thoughts.

- Never put these in quotes. Not double quotes. Not single quotes. Since they aren't being spoken, they should be in italics (in some styles, this is underlined, but you can almost never go wrong with italics). However, handle tags the same way you would in spoken dialogue.


I can't believe she did that to me, George thought.
I can't do this anymore! Monica thought.
Please, please let this work, Jasper silently prayed. I can't mess this up again.
If I see him at school tomorrow, she thought, then I will confront him.

In some speculative fiction, you may have characters who can communicate via thoughts. These should also be in italics, not quotes.


There is danger out there, Saphira thought to him.
Don't worry. I'll be careful. Eragon strapped on his boots.

If you have any dialogue questions, feel free to ask.

* This is based on U.S. English

Monday, March 11, 2019

How to Write Excellent Introspection

Nothing can quite kill a story's pacing like a big hunk of introspection, except, of course, its cousin, the info-dump. The reason for this is that the more time we spend reading a character's thoughts, the less immediacy the story has, which means the less the audience cares about it. Often beginning writers put in whole paragraphs or even pages of introspection in addition to info-dumps--killing the pacing and readers' interests even more. Some writing instructors will tell you that you shouldn't spend more than 20% of the novel in a character's thoughts. But yet in some successful stories, this rule is completely disregarded.

I admit I can be a sucker for a good chunk of introspection. I just love character depth. So how do you master introspection so that it makes your writing stronger, not weaker? Well, here are some tips.

Less is More

Because beginning writers usually also love character depth and are trying hard to get the audience to feel close with their characters, they will often write huge chunks of introspection, especially in the opening. It's a great way to annoy or bore your audience. What usually happens, is that the writer--because she or he is the writer--already feels a strong connection to her characters, and in an effort to get the audience to feel and see what she does with her characters, she thinks that writing more is the answer.

In reality, writing less is more. If you truly want your audience to love your character as much as you do, you need to let them discover the character for themselves--you don't need to spoon-feed them with chunks of introspection. You need to let them come to their own conclusions about your character.

Have you ever sat next to someone at a social gathering, maybe a wedding, who will not stop talking about himself, even when you've said multiple times you are trying to leave? That happened to me a few months ago. I literally said I needed to leave, but he just kept going on and on.

You think I'm looking forward to talking to that person ever again?

No way! I'm going to try to avoid him.

To get your audience interested in your character's interior, you need to show them just enough. Keep it short enough to stay interesting, but long enough to cover the character's point. A glimpse of an interesting interior will make us want to come back, without slowing the pacing in your story so much we want to get away.

You can sneak in bigger chunks after we already know and care about the person. But almost never put big chunks in the story's opening. (Rare types of stories can break this rule though.)

Look Forward, not Back

A mistake that is easy to make is to only include introspection that looks back at something--something that happened earlier in the story, or, that really naughty thing, a flashback, and have the character relive it in his or her thoughts.

It can be very important to have a character think back on something. But since introspection naturally takes away immediacy, it's often better to have your character think forward on something. What could happen. (Yes, you've heard me talk about this before.) The past can't change (unless you shift context). But the future is something we can only guess at. And having your character think forward on something can create anticipation, tension, hooks, fear, dread, or hope, and then makes the audience want to read more to see what happens.

It's not necessarily bad to look back, but it's problematic if you only or almost only ever look back, and not forward. Ideally, if your character is going to look backward, see if you can connect it to something that is forward--how a past experience is going to effect an upcoming one, how a past experience makes the character fearful or hopeful of a future one.

Make it Intriguing

A chunk of introspection can hold the audience's attention if it's intriguing in some way. This means that the character's thought can't simply be a recap of something the audience already knows or read. Introspection needs to have a reason to be in the story, which usually means it needs to bring something new to the table.

While it's common for introspection to take away from tension, because it takes away immediacy, when used well, it can actually add tension, through your character's interpretation, perspective, and predictions. If your character is dreading something that could happen, and how it will completely unravel her world if it does--that can kick up tension.

At the beginning I talked about how introspection can come from the writer trying to create character depth. Character depth can be intriguing--but only if it's something new or unusual. Rehashing what a character thinks for a full paragraph is boring if we already know what the character is naturally thinking. Rehashing isn't depth. It's repetition. To achieve more depth, you need to peel back your character's layers to reach something deeper--an inner motive, thought, or feeling. And it should be interesting. If your character appears happy that her best friend threw a birthday party for her, but when we go into her mind, she's fuming--that's interesting. To add depth, we want to peel to answer why she's fuming and then why she's pretending to happy even though she is fuming.

Introspection can be very intriguing when it asks thematic questions. Remember the key here is the questioning. If your character is musing about the theme's final answers without having considered the questions, it's more likely to be boring. But if they are legitimately questioning something moral, ethical, thematic, or intellectual, that can stir the reader's own mind, which makes it interesting.

Introspection can be intriguing when the character brings a new interpretation, or new context, to the story. For example, having the protagonist think back to some small talk he had with an unassuming taxi driver can be really boring. But reading about Sherlock's interpretations of that exchange can be mega interesting. Why? Because he brings so much new context to the table. His introspection appeals to our intellect.

If you need to have your character think back for a bit, one way to keep it interesting is to have them change the context and interpretation of what they are thinking back on. That gives us an interesting way to interpret the past event and it gives us more character.


You can get away with a bit of introspection if it's entertaining. If your character has an interesting voice or worldview, audiences won't have a problem sitting through her introspection. Lemony Snicket is a great example of this. He can write a whole paragraph about his thoughts an driver licenses, and it's so entertaining that we love it. We like to hear the way he thinks and his voice.

In closing, when working with passages of introspection, make sure it adds value to the story, instead of taking value away.

 Write Your Book in a Flash by Dan Janal

Hey everyone, I was recently given a copy of Write Your Book in a Flash by Dan Janal from the publisher (thank you so much, Maria!)

If you've followed my blog over the years, you probably know I'm a very slow writer. 😅 But I love to include others' writing approaches on here, such as when I had my friend Paul do this post on how to publish yearly.

Write Your Book in a Flash is a little different in that it's intended to help you create a non-fiction business book. Heck, I've had a few people suggest I turn some of my blog posts into non-fiction books over the years. . . . maybe this book will help me decide. 🙃

Written by an award-winning journalist and ghostwriter, this book shows business executives, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders how to get focused fast, so you can write your book without tearing your hair out.

If this sounds interesting to you, check out the book here.  Or visit the TCK Publishing's website.

See you guys next week!

Monday, March 4, 2019

How I Write an Editorial Letter or Critique Letter

Hey friends!

As a lot of you know, I work as an editor and part of the job is writing editorial letters or critique letters. This may not be included in all types of editing (such as copyediting), but it plays an important role with content or developmental or substantive edits or manuscript evaluations (depending on the definition of each of those, because you will find variations within the writing industry). If you don't know what any of those edits are, relax. The letter is essentially what it sounds like, a document full of feedback from the editor.

There are a lot of editors in the world and each one likely has his or her own approach to editing. Today I want to share mine.

I always do an editorial letter for a content edit (which is about what the story is) and I often do one for a line edit (which is how the story is told). So let's get started.

First, when reading through the manuscript, I keep another document open to take notes on anything that I suspect might need to be in the editorial letter. Depending on how deep of an edit and what kind of edit the author wants, I may also be putting in comments on the actual manuscript for specific parts of the story. I watch for repeating problems (and repeating strengths).

My advice: If you're an editor, make sure you are paying attention to the writer's strengths in addition to weaknesses.

Some people have the school of thought that the only helpful feedback is negative feedback. But I strongly, strongly believe in also giving positive feedback. Only giving negative feedback gives the writer a skewed perspective of their work.

With that said, there are a few occasions where I might give only negative feedback--such as a piece that has already been edited multiple times and is already at a professional level and just needs some tightening up.

For more on my take on positive feedback, you can see my post, "The Real Reason You Need to Give Positive Feedback."

Once I've finished reading through the manuscript and taken notes, I usually go back and look at the (email) conversation I had with the writer about what they wanted. For example, if one writer told me they were worried they had problems with info-dumps, I would double check to make sure I took notes on that. At this point, I may email the writer and ask any follow-up questions I have.

Now it's time for the letter.

Some editors believe in being brutal in their honesty.

I don't.

It's not that I'm sugar-coating, it's that I don't believe being "brutally honest" is the most accurate or helpful form of communication. True, refined communication comes from being honest and clear without becoming antagonistic. After all, as the editor, I'm on the writer's side. I'm helping them.

So I like to address the positives and negatives as clearly as possible.

Depending on how long and comprehensive the letter is, it can be rather overwhelming to the writer initially. This is because I'm speaking to an entire manuscript in one document. Some writers may want to read through it bits at a time.

The shortest critique letter I've done for a novel was 4.2k words. Most I've done are between 9k and 11k.

Every letter I write is written to that specific writer. I don't use generic paragraphs that I copy and paste into the document. I might have similar sentences or similar greeting passages that I've tweaked, but overall, I'm writing fresh.

Now, it's important to know that this doesn't mean that editors who copy and paste certain paragraphs in are bad. They might be explaining the exact same thing to multiple writers. The reason I don't need to do this, is because if I need to explain something generally, I usually have an article on my site I can send them to. This means I can use those for reference and then in the letter talk about how that article applies specifically to their story.

In the letter, I almost always make sure I address these elements: setting, character, plot, and theme. I usually add "treatment" as well (how the story is told on the page); even if it's a straight up content edit, I still like to address things generally, like chosen viewpoint, under that category.

I also usually include these other things: arcs, pacing, conflict, audience appeal, and emotional appeals.

For more of what I may include in each edit, you can simply look at my editing site.

In the letter, I typically like to separate the "strengths" from the "concerns"--mainly because this was how I was taught, and I think it's easier on the writer, because they know what to expect.

Worth noting is that the "concerns" almost always take up more space than the "strengths" because they naturally require more explaining.

Now, here is a short sample letter (remember how I said these can go up to 11k words or more? Yeah, I'm not going to post a full sample in here because of that). It's a conglomerate of actual paragraphs I've written that I tweaked or repurposed into a sample letter.

Sample Editorial Letter or Critique Letter


Thanks for choosing me to do a content and line edit on your manuscript! Through all of my notes and comments, please remember that this is your story, not mine, so ultimately your choices should be yours, and the story should reflect your vision. I also try to watch for ways the author can take their writing to the next level in general. These are things that you may want to work on in this particular story, or they may be things you decide to work on in future projects. The feedback is rather comprehensive, which can sometimes be overwhelming to people. Remember, it’s impossible to fix everything at once. That's why we call them “drafts.” 


Setting and Worldbuilding

This was great overall. One of the things I noticed in particular is that you did a really good job of balancing the feelings of wonder and wish-fulfillment (which are important in most fantasy stories), with the feelings of horror and darkness, which makes each one feel more powerful because of the contrast. Like probably most people, I’ve heard of amulets before, but this was hands down the best I’ve ever seen anyone do with the concept. During the trip to the enchanted forest, you really captured the wonder and awe of that landscape. 

You brought a sense of history and culture to both our world and the fantasy world, and you did all this while keeping the pacing perfect. 

I also really appreciated that you found ways in the plot to allow the protagonist to experience different “set pieces” and worldbuilding elements, like having him go to the satyrs' temple, so that as a reader, I could know and experience what that was like. . . .  


Throughout the novel, I got a good sense of the characters, even the side characters. The details and the information you told about them were choice and specific. You took time to individualize them and really consider how they would view the world.

You also did a good job of considering the sorts of relationships these characters would have, and then conveyed that well. 

[Usually I'll go through and talk specifically abut which characters I thought were strongest]


I really feel like the strongest part of the plot of this book, is the beginning. Everything in the beginning felt so on point, which I was impressed with because for most writers the beginning is usually the most difficult part to write. I liked how I was introduced to all the characters and I cared about them. I got a good sense of Joseph’s typical day-to-day life, the difficulties he was dealing with, which prepared me for the big change that came with the first plot point.

How the romance between Joseph and Olivia developed was just about perfect. Once I got further into the story, I had some problems, mainly with the middle, which I'll talk about more below, but I loved how Joseph was slowly turning into a werewolf but was forbidden from telling her. . . .


You have a gift (whether natural or obtained) for writing conversations. I felt like almost every conversation I read had what I call “dialogue circuitry”—where the characters’ lines are building off each other’s, instead of simply responding and reacting to each other. I marked some of these, but there were so many great instances that I stopped. There was some really clever dialogue.



Even though I enjoyed aspects of the characters and appreciated how you took time to individualize them, I had a problem with a few.

Joseph – While I thought some of the aspects of Joseph were cool and interesting, other parts were lacking. Even though he was technically the main character, he didn’t really seem to function as a main character, more of just a viewpoint character. It felt like Marcus was really the main character to me. So Joseph is going to need some work to take this book to the next level. 

I also felt like he acted younger than his age throughout the novel. I know it would require some reworking, but I’m actually wondering if he should be aged down. . . .

Melanie – Melanie felt like a caricature to me rather than a character. Caricatures are actually okay if you are writing a sort of “unreality” story, where the story has its own boundaries and realms of what is acceptable reality (think Series of Unfortunate Events or Matilda). But the thing is, Melanie was too exaggerated in comparison to the rest of the cast, and it didn't fit the tone of the story. Maybe look at making her feel a bit more human—in fact, playing with that contrast might actually make her more interesting to work with.


Denouement - The denouement felt too quick. The battle felt like it suddenly ended, and then we were suddenly repairing things. As a reader, I felt like I needed a smoother transition. Even though I talked a lot about cutting elsewhere, the denouement is where I think you could add more words.

Usually the denouement takes time to validate changes that happened over the course of the story. The love interests get married. We see proof the world is better now that the villain has been vanquished. The hero gets to live in peace. That sort of thing.

I also felt like the epilogue didn’t contribute much to the story. . . .

Context and Subtext

Once Joseph was beginning his transformation, I was feeling more and more of a need for more context and that need continued out through the rest of the book. This is a fairly common problem and can stem from a few different things, such as trying to follow the “show, don’t tell” rule too religiously, trying to create tension, or trying to turn context into subtext. 

Context is different than subtext. Context is the information the audience needs in order to follow and understand the story. For example, I didn’t know enough about Clans Werewolves to understand why it was a bad thing if Joseph turned into that kind. I marked spots that I didn’t have enough info or understanding. A lack of context leads to the story and its elements feeling vague. Vagueness is a problem because when the story is vague, the audience doesn’t feel tension. It might sound like it should be the opposite—by withholding information, we make the audience want to keep reading it to get it (which relates more to subtext)—but if the audience doesn’t have enough context, they can’t follow and understand the dynamics of the story well enough to feel any tension, because they don’t have a firm enough grasp on it to anticipate what’s going to happen. 

Rather than rewriting and re-explaining everything I mean, I have some articles that will explain this all in more depth that would probably be worth studying to get what I’m saying:


This is a common problem. Info-dumps are paragraphs of information dumped into the story to help the audience understand what is going on. They can be about anything—characters, items, but most commonly in speculative fiction, they are about something magical or otherworldly. It’s better to only tell the audience what they absolutely need to know about the subject and to hand out the information a bit at a time so they aren’t getting a huge chunk of exposition. The information should be weaved into the story. The story shouldn’t come to a halt to deliver the information to the audience. 

I hope you now have a lot of ideas of how to take this story and your writing to the next level. If I missed anything you would like me to address or if you have questions, please feel free to email me.



I have not always categorized my feedback with headings, but it's something I've started doing more often because it's easier for the writer to navigate. It's not unusual for me to use bullet points in feedback, especially when I have multiple "little" things.

But I love editing writers' novels! 

Hope this post has been helpful to you in some way.

You can also learn more about my editing approaches at

Monday, February 25, 2019

Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Only One Impossibility"

You may have heard of the "one impossibility rule," the idea that the audience's suspension of disbelief can only handle one impossible thing. In this article, I'm going to talk about what the rule is, why it's a rule, and when and how to break it.

What's the Rule?

When we write, we invite the audience into our fictive universe. In order to take part, the audience must have what's called a "willing suspension of disbelief," meaning that they are willing to enjoy the story even though it's not real.

For example, maybe your story has fairies in it. But fairies aren't real. However, the audience is willing to accept that for the story.

The Rule:

In a story, only one impossibility can exist.

Why It's a Rule

Most audiences can only take in so much impossibility before their suspension of disbelief is no longer . . . suspended.

They might accept with the premise of the story that there are fairies. But if your story has not only fairies but also aliens invading the planet, there is going to be a problem.

That's two different impossibilities.

And they don't go together.

Take that a step further and add the fact that in your fictive universe, dogs have overcome humans in the species hierarchy, so they are the ones running society--and now we have three impossibilities.

It's too much. Every time you add an impossibility, you narrow your audience. With these three, I've really narrowed audience. 

My examples are a bit exaggerated, but these are the sorts of things that the one impossibility rule is referring to.

However, it can sometimes be used in other situations.

One thing the audience has very little tolerance for is when human behavior doesn't make sense. Maybe your protagonist's mom dies, and he doesn't even grieve. That seems impossible. And the more you stack on unlikely human behavior, the more the audience's suspension of disbelief wanes.

For more on problems with unbelievability, see "Inconceivable! Dealing with Problems of Unbelievability."

How to Break It

By now you may have thought of one or more stories that clearly have more than "one impossibility." In a high fantasy, you may have fairies and dragons and dwarves and elves and centaurs . . . the list goes on.

Or maybe you thought of a rarer rule break, like a story that deals with both an alien invasion and restoring faith in God. Putting a belief of God in can be considered a big no-no in the industry when writing science fiction. From one perspective, you are dealing with two impossibilities. (I'm not saying I feel this way, I'm just talking about the industry.)

Or maybe you thought of something stranger still, a story where part of your soul lives outside your body in the form of an animal, where one of the intelligent species are (randomly) bears, where there is a clan witches, and some of the main characters are quite literally at war with God.

Clearly this rule can and has been broken. So let's talk about how to do that.

1. Use an Umbrella

The reason high fantasy gets away with so many impossibilities is because everything actually fits under one big impossibility: an imaginary world.

Sure, in our reality dragons and elves and dwarves don't exist.

But in a completely fictional world, like Middle-earth, all of them do, and more.

Tolkien, like basically all high fantasy writers, gets away with so much impossibility by lumping them together under one big one. Other examples include Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, and even Star Wars (in a galaxy far, far away).

Even though Harry Potter includes the real world, it does this same thing--everything impossible comes from a magic society within our world, that's the umbrella.

The umbrella does not even necessarily need to be a world or society. Those are just the obvious examples. It could be an origin, history, or something else. The idea is that the one impossibility encompasses and explains all others.

2. Make Connections

Similarly, the audience is more likely to take in more than one impossibility if they connect in some way. Maybe you are reading a novel that has vampires in the real world. Then the second book in the series deals with werewolves. What?

But it's okay, because Stephenie Meyer made them connect by explaining that werewolves exist because of the vampires--they are the natural predators of vampires (yes, I just used Twilight as an example) (yes, I know other stories put vampires and werewolves together as enemies).

When you use this method, you usually want to build off what the audience already knows. They already know about the vampires, great. So when you explain the werewolves, make sure to relate it to the vampires. This will make it easier for the audience to swallow.

Of course, there are some stories that don't do that. Usually in those cases, the writer may introduce them as two separate things and explain the connection later. If you chose to do this, you should know that it's more difficult to pull off, and it will likely narrow your audience, because people might be rolling their eyes and stop reading before they get to the connection. However it has and can be done.

In rare occasions, the connections may not be concretely obvious, but instead thematic. What do invading aliens have to do with regaining faith in God? Well, nothing, directly. Except that it works together thematically in a beautiful way in Signs. Keep in mind, though, that this is one of the reasons some people hate that movie. So for some people, it did not work--in other words, it narrowed the audience. That's fine, if you are willing to pay that cost and take that risk.

3. Shift Context

Sometimes you can get away with multiple impossibilities if you don't present them as all impossibilities to begin with. In Interstellar, we are dealing with some pretty heavy science fiction, but then on the other hand, one of the main characters believes there is a ghost in her room.

I would hazard a guess though, that most of the audience didn't believe there was a real ghost in the room. Instead we can accept that the character believes that. As we get more information and the context shifts, we realize the "ghost" really was a person.

Though worth noting is that it is still ultimately explained by science, so the movie also connects it the other impossibilities.

But my point is, you may be able to do something similar. Maybe we think the second impossibility is something other than it actually is, and it's truly explained later.

4. Foreshadow

 Sometimes you can get away with more than one impossibility if you foreshadow it right.

I know a writer who saw Arrival and loved it up until the ending, where the entire story was "ruined" because it "broke the one impossibility rule."

I'm going to have to agree to disagree with that. All of the impossibilities, especially the last, were foreshadowed from the beginning, so when I encountered them, as an audience member, I was prepared.

Also notice how that movie also incorporates context shifts and connections.

The story essential has three impossibilities in it, but in my opinion, they pulled them off stunningly.

However, it didn't work for that one writer, so, like I said above, you are always taking that risk.

But then there are people like me and my family, who loved the story even more and were brought to tears because of how it incorporated three impossibilities.

Basically if you are breaking the one impossibility rule, you are probably polarizing your audience, which is sometimes a good thing, if you want word-of-mouth advertising.

5. Utilize Tone

Tone can go a long way in letting you get away with the impossible. This is especially the case with what are called "unreality" stories.

Unreality stories take place in what's recognized as the real world . . . but it isn't. It's an unreality. It's best explained through examples. Here are some unreality stories:

A Series of Unfortunate Events
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Edward Scissorhands 
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Like I talked about in the last section, you may realize that unreality stories can be very polarizing: You either love it, or you hate it.

Notice how all of the examples I gave have more than one impossibility (sometimes completely unconnected), but for audiences okay with the unreality genre, that's not a problem. (Which reminds me, it's also worth noting genre does play a role in what you can get away with).

If you establish the right tone, you can get away with almost anything.

6. Acknowledge the Impossibility

In some cases, you can get away with multiple impossibilities if you validate to the audience how impossible, unlikely, or strange it is, on the page. Since I have two posts that go into this, I'm not going to reiterate everything, but you can read more here and here.

7. Keep the Reader Hooked and Invested

Sometimes you can get away with more than one impossibility if the reader is already deeply invested in the story. They may be so hooked, so pulled in, that adding a second impossibility isn't going to ruin it--as long as you don't do anything too crazy.

Ask yourself (and maybe your beta-readers), is adding this one impossibility really going to stop the reader from reading and enjoying the story? It might give them pause, but you might be able to get away with it. After all, it is a story.

8.  Start with the Most Familiar Impossibility

Everyone knows what a dragon is, even if they aren't real. So it's easier for the audience to accept that.

In Spider-verse we are dealing with two impossibilities that don't . . . really even connect . . . or fit under an umbrella. 1 - that radioactive spiders can bite people and turn them superhuman. 2 - that there are parallel realities. Those are both impossibilities, and they don't actually go together.

But the audience is willing to accept it, because they are so familiar with Spider-man and superhero movies. Adding parallel universes to it isn't a big deal. (Not to mention that parallel universes have been long established as part of the comic book world.)

The more familiar something is, the easier it is for the audience to accept and digest it.

Kitchen Sink Stories

There is a term in the industry called "kitchen sink." It's the basic idea that a writer has a lot of ideas, but they are throwing them all into one story. It's like a kitchen sink. It has a bit of this and a bit of that. A scrap of old pizza, an onion peel, a soggy fry. Sometimes when writers are trying to include a lot of impossibilities, it turns into a kitchen sink story. In some cases, you may definitely need to divvy out ideas into different stories. But in other cases, it's amazing which seemingly unrelated ideas you can make work, especially using these methods I outlined.

It's hard for me to tell everyone that their "kitchen sink story" isn't going to work. Because it might.

I feel like the best example of this is His Dark Materials. It has everything, and the kitchen sink. But in England, it became a hugely successful series. Yet so many of the concepts don't seem to belong in one story.

- Parts of people's souls live outside their bodies in animal forms.
- There is an intelligent species of bears (bears?? Why? That's so random!)
- Oh yeah, and there are also witches. (oookay . . .)
- And angels
- By the way, there is also a religion reminiscent of Christianity, but it's antagonistic
- Also, God is in it
- And there is this device that allows the user to know all truth
- It takes place in England . . . but it's sort of . . . somewhat . . . steam-punky
- Oh yeah, also, not only is this fantasy, but it's also science fiction. We will definitely be talking about dark matter and running experiments with computers
- Also, surprise, I know you didn't know this from the first book, but our world, the real world, is actually part of this same universe
- Aaaand there are spectors
- We'll also be following people into the afterlife. . . .

Okay, seriously, that whole series is a kitchen sink story!

. . . which is also why it was so revolutionary. It was unprecedented.

So . . . while it's very difficult to pull off . . . it's not impossible.

You might be thinking, "but everything fits under the umbrella of a parallel world." Dude, it doesn't. We don't even know parallel worlds exist until the second book.

It's a kitchen sink.

You Can Break the One Impossibility Rule . . . with These Risks and Consequences

Depending on what impossibilities you decide to use and how you implement them, you run these risks:

- Ruining the suspension of disbelief 

Your audience may still not be able to accept your impossibilities. In truth, some readers are unwilling to even accept one. So they may stop reading.

- Narrowing your audience

This may lead to a narrower audience. Maybe most people don't like M. Night Shyamalan's movies (he breaks a lot of writing and film rules). That's okay. Enough people like him, and he obviously isn't trying to appeal to the masses.

- Polarizing your audience

Some people will absolutely hate stories that use multiple impossibilities. But other people love them. Polarizing your audience isn't actually necessarily a bad or good thing in and of itself--it depends on your goals.

These are risks and consequences, but they do not necessarily influence success. Some people cannot read any fantasy, yet it's one of the most popular genres. Not everyone likes Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but it's now a children's classic. Even a kitchen sink story has been highly successful.

Can you break the one impossibility rule? Yes! But like breaking any rule, it can be tricky.

Next week I'll be talking about critique letters and editorial letters, and how I write one. See you then!

Monday, February 18, 2019

Look Forward, Not Backward, to Pull the Reader In

Hi everyone! For this week's writing tip, I'm over at Writers Helping Writers as one of their residency writing coaches. This is a subject I've been thinking about a lot lately, leaning forward in your story.


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.

As writers, we love looking backward. 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 better understand the story. 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.

However, unlike the writer, most of the time, for the reader, looking backward is not nearly 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.

. . . in the rest of the article, I talk about how to best get the audience to look forward, with two types of draws that will pull them in and keep them turning the pages.

Show Writers Helping Writers some love and visit their site.

Next week I'll be back here talking about how to break the "One Impossibility" rule.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Discovery Writing and Outline Writing—Kinda the Same Thing Actually

I've talked about before on here and you can find it talked about throughout the industry, that there are really two approaches to writing: discovery writing (sometimes (controversially) called pantsing) and outline writing (aka plotting). Discovery writing is where you go directly to the manuscript and start discovering the story as you go. Outlining is what it sounds like, you outline before writing the manuscript. Most people fit somewhere in the middle. Me? I'm more of an outliner.

These approaches can seem like total opposites. And you can read and research all about them online. In fact, on here I have an article on outlining and another on discovery writing.

But for the last several months, I've been thinking about how they are actually kind of the same thing.

That might sound contradictory to some people, but just hear me out.

Months ago, I did this post on what to do when you write yourself into a corner. When I shared this on Facebook, one of my Facebook friends said he never writes himself into a corner because he outlines. I mentioned that I outline a lot and still manage to write myself into corners. For me, this is because it's impossible for me to brainstorm a perfect outline. There are usually side effects, complexities, and complications I run into that I didn't foresee. Not everyone has that, but I do. I also think it depends on the kind of story you are writing and how interconnected it is--if you are dealing with undercurrents, mysteries, hard magic systems, for example, I think you are more likely to run into issues you didn't foresee. If you are writing something like a slice-of-life story or a romance, I think it's less likely. Not one type is "better" than another, they are just different.

But as I was thinking about it, and I realized that while that post was titled "What to Do When You Write Yourself Into a Corner," it could have just as easily been titled "What to Do When You Outline Yourself Into a Corner."

At the end of the day, whether you go straight to the manuscript or you outline, you are still figuring out the story. Yes, it's true that the different approaches can produce different kinds of stories, but whether you outline or write a first draft, they are approaches to the same thing: figuring out the story.

True discovery writers may make statements like this: "It's like the story is telling me what it is, and I just write it down."

But I'm a big outliner, and I still have moments like that. In fact, not too long ago when outlining, I had a whole sequence of scenes and a character arc seem to simply manifest themselves to me, and it all felt so perfect (as "perfect" as the process can be anyway). Other times when I'm working on an outline, I feel utterly stuck on what should happen next, or how to get from point A to point B--things that discovery writers run up against when writing the story. There are times, I think, where discovery writers have to sit back and think how to do X or what's going to happen next. Some would call it writer's block.

I have heard some discovery writers say that their first draft is their outline. You get the story down and then you shape it into the true narrative.

Then recently, when I was perusing Writing Excuses to get some writing insight and inspiration, I happened to run into Brandon Sanderson talking about this same idea. That discovering and plotting are actually kind of the same thing. In outlining you front-load a lot of the work and in discovering you back load it, because you usually need to do more revisions.

My opinion has been that my writing tips and editing services and others' writing tips are helpful to discovery writers and to plotters, my take being that for discovery writers, the more you understand writing, the more you can "discover." (Not to mention, if something is "broken," getting tips can help you revise and fix it.)

Discovery writing can feel a little mystical.

Outlining feels more intentional and planned.

But in each approach you are simply figuring out the story.

And in reality, at times the opposite will feel mystical and the other requires some planning.

As I have been brainstorming and outlining a new book, I have sometimes felt anxious or rushed because I haven't started writing anything for the actual manuscript yet, and therefore feel as if I haven't "really" started it--as if the preliminary work I'm doing isn't really work and doesn't count, because I haven't started the word count. But here is the thing, I'm front-loading a lot of the work (as most people, I am not one extreme or the other, so I will undoubtedly still "discover" some things when I actually start the writing process). So of course it's going to be longer before I actually put words to the story document. But that also means I will have to do less work during and after the story-writing.

For discovery writers it may be the opposite. You can start on the word count right away, but you may be doing a lot of work during and after the draft.

Neither way is wrong and both ways are right.

Personally, I do way better work when I largely front-load it. I think I would cry if someone told me I had to "discover" a novel. Uugh, it would be the worst (as you can see, I'm not a pantser). Discovery writers may feel the opposite--they may feel that outlining takes away their desire to write because in a sense, the story is already "written"--it's already figured out.

In either case, we all have the same goals: to write a solid story. And frankly, nearly all the writing resources should benefit both types. In fact, the other day I listened to a podcast about discovery writing, because I thought the techniques would help me "discover" my concepts and outline. For me, in that instance, I was right. It helped quite a bit actually.

So do you agree or disagree? Are pantsing and plotting sorta the same thing in some ways? Which works for you?

Monday, February 4, 2019

How Often Should I "Refresh" a Pronoun?

A follower recently asked if I had any tips on how often to "refresh" a pronoun, meaning, after you use a name once, how many times can you use "he," "she," or "they" before needing to use their name again.

Since I haven't done any tips on it, I decided to do a short post.

Admittedly, there is something about using pronouns that makes the writing process feel more personal and intimate, as opposed to using the names. I'm not exactly sure why this is this way, but I know and see writers who sense it. My best explanation is that using the proper name feels slightly more distancing than using the pronoun. As a result, when we write certain scenes, using more pronouns just feels right. And we might be sad to have to get rid of them, even if it is for clarity.

In reality, for the reader, it rarely makes much difference. The reader's and writer's experiences may overlap in places, but they aren't the same. Usually for the reader, the character's name is what people might call an "invisible" word. Like the word "said" is considered invisible. It gets the job done and doesn't draw attention to itself. Most names function the same way, which is why you can repeat names multiple times without them (usually) sticking out. Most of the time, for the reader, the proper name doesn't feel much different than the pronoun, so for them, what matters is more of the actual function: who is doing what.

And that's the most important element, because as a writer, you are communicating to the reader. They need to know who is doing what to follow the story, and if you use too many pronouns, it won't be clear. They might not be able to keep track of the characters, or they might forget who the pronoun is referring to.

There isn't a magical number for how often you need to refresh the pronoun, but there are some guidelines.

- In a scene with multiple characters (especially of the same gender), you are going to need to use proper names more often, just so the audience can keep it straight.

- In a scene with two characters of different genders, you don't usually need to refresh as much. There is only one "he" and one "she" (or "they" if you prefer).

- And of course, a scene with a character alone will need to be refreshed even less often, but if you only use pronouns, that could potentially be annoying, in some cases. 

Just don't forget the most important rule: You are communicating to the reader.

Problems come up when it's not clear who the pronoun is referring to. For example:

George called Bart to help sell his car.

"His" can refer to either George or Bart (not to mention the sentence is a bit vague in other ways as well).

If you want to get technical and dust off your grammar book from English class, it's usually best if the pronoun is placed as close to its antecedent (the noun it's referring to) as possible.

I will say that if you have a scene with dialogue, this may often not be the case.

"How's it going?" Cheryl asked.

"Fine, I guess," April said. "Pamela is mad at me." She tucked her hair behind her ear.

Pamela is not actually in the conversation, so we can all assumed the "she" is referring to April.

At the beginning of a story, I think it is helpful to use the character's name a few times so the reader can get familiar with it. If you have new characters coming on page that are important to remember, you might want to weave in their names a few times also, so it sticks with the reader. After all, the name is what we literally see on the page when reading, and it's what we have to best identify the character.

And of course, you also don't want to go to the other extreme, where you are using the proper name all the time or overusing it (this is especially true in dialogue).

With all these things in mind, you'll have to use your best judgment.

Sometimes it's helpful to read the passage aloud. Reading aloud actually uses a different part of your brain than reading silently, and it can help you catch things that sound off. You might notice you've gone on too long without refreshing the pronoun.