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Monday, January 13, 2020

Context, Text, Subtext: Understand How Each Works in Storytelling

Hi everyone! Today I'm returning to some topics I've visited off and on during the last few years, mainly because I wanted one place that compares and contrasts all of them quickly, with links to the other articles for those ready to go more in depth.

Guys. We do not talk about context vs. text vs. subtext enough in the industry!

And this creates some problems! (which I'll touch on).

So here is a "quick sheet" on these three things.

In writing tips, we talk about text a lot. But I feel like we don't talk enough about context and subtext in this industry. Both are vital to good storytelling and often misunderstood or even mixed up. So today I wanted to go over and define the differences between context, text, and subtext, and explain when and how to use them.


Often when we think of context, we think of things like the date a work was published, who it was written by, or the climate of the time. But context is very important within your fictive universe as well. Context in this sense is all of the grounding and guiding information that the audience needs, such as who the characters are, where they are, what time of day it is, etc. Context can also be any other additional information the audience needs to interpret and accurately understand what is happening in the story.

Here is an example of a passage without context.

Mack shut the Hummer's hood. "Should be fine now," he said to John.

"Great. Thanks, Karl." John got in the driver's seat and stuck his key in the ignition. The Hummer roared to life.

John headed for the main road.

Why did John call Mack, Karl? We have no idea. There is nothing in the text to help us interpret and accurately understand what his motives are. Is it an accident? Intentional? A nickname? Is this meant to show us that John is terrible with names? Is this a typo or mistake the author made?

We don't know.

This passage lacks context, meaning we cannot access clear, accurate meaning from it.

This can happen when the writer is trying to make their story mysterious, exciting, or engaging by leaving room for readers to come to their own conclusions and interpretations (which is what subtext is for). Sometimes it can happen from trying to follow the "Show, don't Tell" rule too religiously.

When the audience lacks context, the story becomes very vague, which is a problem for several reasons. (See my post on vague vs. ambiguous for further reading.) If there is no context, there is almost no investment in the story, because the audience doesn't have access to the meaning of any of it. If they don't have access to any clear meaning, they are unable to care about what happens. Perhaps the only time where a lack of context works well is when writing teasers (which must always be short strictly because they lack context). An audience will not sit through a lack of context for very long.

Here is the earlier example with context:

Mack shut the Hummer's hood. "Should be fine now," he said to John.

"Great. Thanks, Karl." John got in the driver's seat. He loved calling people the wrong name, just to get under their skin. It afforded him a power over others that was subtle enough to get away with.

John stuck his key in the ignition. The Hummer roared to life, and he headed for the main road.

In this example, the context is brought in through telling, but in general context can be conveyed in several other ways, through dialogue, through character reactions, through description, or validating the reader. How it should be conveyed depends on what it is and what the scene calls for.

Context almost always connects to the viewpoint character. The viewpoint character provides insight on how to accurately interpret what is going on. He or she gives us a sense of boundaries and helps assign value and meaning to the narrative.

For a more in depth look at context, see my post on it here:


Text is the easiest one of the three to understand, because it is what we often focus on the most. The text is the written part of the story, what happens and what is stated on the page. It is everything you see that is not implied.

Now, you could look at my example above and say that I added text--because I did. But in storytelling, I would argue that context is within the text, just as subtext is--after all, we need to have text in order to have context or subtext. But they are slightly different things. They may overlap and relate to each other, but they aren't the exact same.

Almost everything you read about writing is talking about text.


Subtext is what we mean when we talk about "reading between the lines." The "sub" refers to underlying. It is underneath the text.

It is different than context, in that context helps us interpret and understand the story, and subtext happens when the story is bigger than what is on the page.

Once the reader has some stability, some grounding with context, you can make them a participator in the story through subtext. But you must have context first, before you can have subtext.

Context (allows accurate interpretation and understanding of)  --> Text (what is actually written) --> Subtext (what else the text implies)

Here is an example of subtext:

Robert, not bothering to raise his hand, spouted out an inappropriate joke.

"Robert, I don't want to hear that kind of language in my class," Mr. Henderson said, but the ends of his lips twitched up. "That's very offensive." He failed to suppress a full-blown grin. 

Notice we understand what is happening in the story. The subtext is that although Mr. Henderson acts like he disproves of Robert's joke, his body language actually tells us he thought it was funny. That's the subtext.

Subtext happens through implications. It also almost always uses contradictions of one sort or another. Notice in the example that what Mr. Henderson says it at odds with what his body does.

Subtext happens when the audience comes to a conclusion that explains those contradictions.

Like context (and text), subtext is critical for good storytelling. Subtext is used to create unreliable narrators, blind characters, ulterior motives, powerful revelations, successful mysteries, even humor, and more. While a story without context is inaccessible, a story with no subtext is flat.

A danger can arrive when the writer misunderstands these terms and tries to make context into subtext.  That doesn't work.

Subtext can seem complicated and difficult to master, but if you are interested in learning in depth about it, you can see my post on how to write (not write?) it here:

Monday, January 6, 2020

Visions and Impressions

The last few months I've had a couple of writing related concepts bouncing around in my head that can be super important for writers to understand but that are also rather brief and kind of miscellaneous topics. So I decided to combine these into this post: "Visions and Impressions." They are certainly things many writers past, present, and future have stumbled over, so they certainly deserve to be addressed.

Usually the idea for a story or scene comes in a sort of flash of inspiration. Or at least, that's how it often is for me, and I've heard other writers describe the same thing. You might have a flash of a powerful idea, a sort of aesthetic, with images, emotions, and/or words. As you work on it, you might get more flashes of such things, and a vision for the piece begins to coalesce in your mind and emerge onto your scrap paper or phone's notes or document, or wherever you keep such things. It's often a great feeling when this happens, like an epiphany or frisson.

This is the "vision" for your story.

It's important to remember this is not actually the complete, finished project. So let me say that again. This is the VISION for your story.

Because often what happens in the writing process is that you realize through drafts that certain ideas aren't coming together, something is broken, or another thing doesn't fit.

It's like reality meets your inspiration, and you realize that parts of the piece kind of . . . well . . . suck, maybe.

It can be kind of depressing.

And since those flashes of ideas were so inspiring, so powerful, it can be painful or sometimes feel wrong to rework and let them go. In some situations, that may be the case. Maybe you will fight to keep them.

But a lot of times, you have to tweak and change things to get them to fit, realistically.

I hate when that happens.

It sometimes feels like part of me is dying.

But remember, the vision was really mostly flashes of an aesthetic--general ideas and feelings that hadn't yet been crafted into your fictional reality. It's possible to stay true to the vision, the aesthetic, but not the specific concepts or details of that vision. After all, it was just a vision, not a fully realized, fleshed out story.

If we get too stuck on the details and exactness of all the flashes of inspiration, we probably aren't going to have working stories.

Stay true to the general vision, but not the details.

And now for the other abstract concept I've learned about.

Sometimes in the process of getting these inspiring flashes, we feel a strong, profound sense of emotion.

. . . which can lead to us overwriting that emotion or idea or whatever on the page. Because we felt it so profoundly and powerfully, we sometimes think it must be big and extravagant on the page to capture that.

This can happen with all sorts of things.

A scene.

Banter between characters.

A significant choice a character has to make and the internal conflict over that.

But a lot of times, the reader doesn't actually want that exact, drawn-out experience on the page.

Instead, they want the exact impression of it.

They don't want to read five pages of banter between the love interests--they may think they do--but in reality, they want to read the impression of that.

But sometimes as writers, because we are so wrapped up in it, we want to get deep and broad, and go and write five pages of banter, because we really want to create and experience that in the relationship powerfully.

Yet as the writing advice goes, sometimes "less is more."

I can't tell you how many times as an audience member that I got a powerful impression of an idea or relationship or experience, from a story, and then gone back and rewatched/reread it, only to realize that the actual moment is quite brief.

I might even scratch my head over it.

That moment actually only took up half a page? I might wonder.

But it was so powerful, it felt like it took up way more.

It's because the creator accurately gave me the impression to the point that I filled in and experienced everything else on my own.

Working with writers, I sometimes see them trip over this idea. They may love or feel something so powerfully, that they fill up pages and pages of it. They fill in everything about it.

Almost always, it takes power out of the reading experience.

Because the reader wants to (if only subconsciously) fill in the blanks on their own as a participator. They want to imagine for themselves that the banter continues off page in other places.

. . . unless of course, you are writing fanfiction, in which case often the point is filling in such blanks, but the desire to write that fanfiction would not have occurred if the original writer had not left enough room for the audience to imagine other scenarios and details in the first place.

Sure, you can fill in these blanks yourself as the writer, but it doesn't need to all be in the actual finished book. Just the impressions.

So, in closing, don't be afraid to be flexible while honoring your vision, and don't underestimate the power of giving the audience impressions.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Dramatica's Character Archetypes

Some of you may have heard of Dramatica, but for those unfamiliar with it, Dramatica is a (rather comprehensive) theory about storytelling--what a story needs, to be most successful. One of the things that sets Dramatica apart from other approaches, is that Dramatica looks at the story as a representation of an argument within the human mind. The story itself represents how our minds solve problems.

Might sound a little strange when you first hear the concept, but it's rather impressive. In order for a story to feel satisfyingly "complete," it must include all points and parts that we would naturally consider when trying to solve a problem.

When it comes to characters, these parts are divided into several archetypes.

Archetypes (in this context) are recurring characters that you can trace way back into myths, and many of them are instantly recognizable to audiences (such as, say, the wise, old mentor figure). Dramatica has its own categories, but each perspective needs to be included for the story's argument to feel complete. If one of these character functions is missing from your story, the book may feel . . . unfulfilling.

So with that said, I'd like to share these with you today, along with some methods to help take them to the next level in your story.

The first two listed are the most recognizable. The others you've probably seen many times, even if you didn't realize it.


The protagonist is the primary driver of the story, the person who is putting in the most effort to reach the story's goal or reconcile the story problem.

Action Characteristic: Pursues the goal. The traditional Protagonist is the driver of the story: the one who forces the action.

Decision Characteristic: Urges the other characters to consider the necessity of achieving the goal.


The antagonist is directly opposed to the protagonist's efforts. It may be that the protagonist has a goal and plan, and the antagonist comes along and tries to thwart it, but it can also work the other way, and start with the antagonist. The antagonist has a goal and plan, and the protagonist comes along and tries to thwart it. Whatever the case, their goals are direct opposites, so they are in a sort of tug-of-war.

Action Characteristic: The Antagonist physically tries to prevent or avoid the successful achievement of the goal by the Protagonist.

Decision Characteristic: The Antagonist urges the other characters to reconsider the attempt to achieve the goal.


The reason character is "calm, collected, and cool, perhaps even cold." In the overall story argument, this character makes decisions based only on logic. They are very organized and calculated. In fact, maybe so much so that they seem to lack humanity. As a result, they may hurt others unknowingly and have difficulty finding support for their well-thought plans. This leads to their logic sometimes being wasted.

Action Characteristic: This character is very calm or controlled in its actions.

Decision Characteristic: It makes its decisions on the basis of logic, never letting emotion get in the way of a rational course.


Just as the protagonist and antagonist counterbalance each other, the emotion character counterbalances the reason character. They aren't enemies necessarily, or good vs. evil necessarily, but just opposites, with neither actually being "better" than the other (though they will likely be in conflict). In real life, we need both reason and emotion to make smart decisions, which is why we need both in the story--it mimics what happens in our own minds.

The emotion character is quick to show and act on emotion. They may get angry or sad easily, but they are also empathetic. They make choices based on the heart. Typically, they will be frenetic and disorganized, and sometimes lash out. Because of this, they may waste their energy by going in "so many directions that [they end] up running in circles and getting nowhere."

Action Characteristic: The Emotional character is frenzied or uncontrolled in its actions.

Decision Characteristic: It responds with its feelings with disregard for practicality.


The sidekick character represents confidence. They are very loyal and supportive, usually to the protagonist, but they may be paired with someone else, like the antagonist, or even just be attached to an idea. The point is that they represent those qualities in the story argument or in our own minds. They are completely faithful to who or what they believe in.

Action Characteristic: The Sidekick supports, playing a kind of cheering section.

Decision Characteristic: It is almost gullible in the extent of its faith—in the goal, in the Protagonist, in success, etc.


Opposing that, we have the skeptic, who is just what it sounds. The skeptic's job is to question and cast doubt. "Where the Sidekick has faith, the Skeptic disbelieves; where the Sidekick supports, the Skeptic opposes." Whatever is presented in the story, they will probably be against it. In our own minds, skepticism helps us foresee potential failures, while in contrast, confidence helps us see potential successes.

Action Characteristic: The Skeptic opposes—everything.

Decision Characteristic: It disbelieves everything, doubting courses of action, sincerity, truth—whatever.


This is a very familiar archetype. The guardian character is the mentor character. This character offers wisdom and direction. They help the protagonist overcome the obstacles in their path and guide them towards the proper way to success (the moral way). In our story arguments and in our own minds, the guardian represents the conscience.

Action Characteristic: The Guardian is a helper who aids the efforts to achieve the story goal.

Decision Characteristic: It represents conscience in the mind, based upon the Author’s view of morality.


This is a term coined by Dramatica for the character opposite of the guardian. Where the guardian seeks to morally guide the protagonist toward success, the contagonist seeks to tempt them by luring them away from it. The guardian speeds up the journey to success, but the contagonist slows it. This might be done by placing obstacles in the protagonist's way and/or heckling them. Or it might be done by enticing them toward a different path.

The contagonist functions a little differently than the antagonist though. The antagonist seeks to completely defeat the protagonist in the overall problem, but the contagonist intends to delay or divert the protagonist.

Contagonists are usually attached to the antagonist, but they can also be attached to other people or ideas. Together, the guardian and the contagonist represent the conflict in our own minds between our conscience for doing what is right and our temptations for instant gratification.

Action Characteristic: The Contagonist hinders the efforts to achieve the story goal.

Decision Characteristic: It represents temptation to take the wrong course or approach.


Including each of these archetypes means fully representing the arguments in our own minds; it means having a "complete" argument in the story. We have all aspects of that human experience and their oppositions.

Protagonist vs. Antagonist
Reason vs. Emotion
Sidekick vs. Skeptic
Guardian vs. Contagonist

Keep in mind that you can mix and match who these characters are connected to. Typically we think of a sidekick being connected to the protagonist, but you can attach them to someone else. The contagonist is usually the antagonist's second-in-command, but you can attach them to the protagonist--maybe as a younger sibling or a lover.

Creating Complex Characters

With all that said, if you have a cast of characters who match all the archetypes exactly, you can run into simplistic or flat characters. Dramatica explains that one way to make characters complex is to mix and match their functions. The point of the archetypal characters isn't that you need a separate character for each function, but rather, you want to make sure each function is manifested in the cast.

Complex characters often come from contradictions and inconsistencies (thank you for validating my opinions on that Dramatica). A character who is a skeptic sidekick is complex--how can someone be both faithful and faithless? Well, exploring that gap is where complexity resides. Maybe they have always been the sidekick, but are now becoming skeptical of their friend's plans. Smashing together opposite functions also increases conflict within the character. A character who is functioning as both a sidekick and skeptic is going to be having some inner turmoil. Likewise, a guardian who is a skeptic is interesting. Or a protagonist who is driven primarily by emotion, and therefore makes rash decisions or illogical ones (something they may need to work on in their character arc) is interesting. Or maybe a guardian turns out to be the antagonist.

You can also play around with the action and decision elements to an extent. You can have a character who makes decisions based on feelings but is still very calm and controlled, for example.

When you understand the archetypal functions, you can make meaningful decisions on how to distribute them into your cast of characters, while also making sure every aspect of the argument is met.

Drivers and Passengers

To take this a step further, Dramatica explains that some archetypes are drivers of the story and others are passengers, or rather, like back-seat drivers, influencing and telling the drivers what to do.


Protagonist vs. Antagonist
Guardian vs. Contagonist

The drivers' interactions thrust the plot directly forward, in major ways. "Whatever the object of their efforts, Protagonist will be trying to achieve it, Antagonist will be trying to prevent its achievement, Guardian will act to aid the achievement, and Contagonist will act to hinder (although Guardian and Contagonist may not be directly concerned with the goal itself or even each other)."

Remember, this is not based on how these characters see themselves and the story, but rather how the audience sees them affecting the story.


Reason vs. Emotion
Sidekick vs. Skeptic

The passengers influence their drivers. This is Hermione and Ron influencing Harry. Peeta and Gale influencing Katniss. They aren't the main drivers, but they are the back-seat drivers shouting directions. "If not for the Drivers, the Passengers would not even be involved with the problem."

The Four Dimensions 

Above, you'll notice I included the "actions" and "decisions" each archetype has. This makes up their motivations.

But this is only one character dimension. Dramatica breaks each archetype into four dimensions:

- Motivation
- Purpose
- Evaluation
- Methodology

You can also create complex characters by mixing and matching these dimensions. For example, you may have a guardian who is motivated to help, but his methodology is inaction. How do you help by being inactive? You might wonder. But perhaps it's helpful because the guardian was being an enabler, and by being inactive, he ensures he is not. Or perhaps by getting involved, he will create more problems--draw in more opposing forces. Therefore not acting is actually helping.

The protagonist is usually proactive, but perhaps instead her methodology is protection. Maybe she doesn't necessarily want to overthrow the antagonist, she just wants to survive and protect her loved ones. This is exactly Katniss Everdeen. Sure, she changes as the story progresses, but that is part of her character arc. For most of the series, her method is survival.

This can all get more complex, and surprisingly, you can actually read the entire Dramatica book online for free.

Here is the chapter on characters, if you want to study these concepts in more depth. Otherwise, just remember this: Include all the archetypal functions to create a balanced cast and story.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Obligatory Scenes and Conventions

Today I want to talk about Obligatory Scenes and Conventions™️ 😱 These are things that often writers, particularly new writers, don't like . . . all that much.


Because they are . . .

Obligatory Scenes and Conventions™️ 😱

Okay, they aren't all that bad for all of us . . . but some of us go out of our way to avoid them because they feel so contrived, and it ends up just hurting our book 🙄 (#guilty).

So what are obligatory scenes and conventions?

They are the stuff, the elements, that are "obligatory" for your genre.

Meaning, if I'm writing a romance, I need to write a first kiss scene. If I'm writing a murder mystery, I need to write about the discovered body at the beginning. If I'm writing a superhero origin story, I need to show how the superhero got his or her powers. And if I'm retelling Sherlock Holmes, I better have his deductive reasoning in it.

In some genres, the conventions are really obvious:

Others are a lot less noticeable.

But every genre has them.

Shawn Coyne, an editor with over 25 years of experience, has noted that many writers he works with try to avoid writing obligatory scenes. They feel they are stupid or even "cheesy." Writers may try to leave them out in order to write something "fresh" and "original."

But this is sort of like saying you are going to be "fresh" and "original" by ignoring the "Show, don't Tell" rule, and instead "tell" your whole novel. In fact, it's like saying you will be "fresh" and "original" by disregarding any writing rule.

In reality, it isn't ignoring the rules that makes you great, it's understanding and respecting them, and then knowing when to break them. Ignorance rarely, rarely, rarely (I used it three times, so I hope I get the point across) leads to "fresh" and "original" content. In fact, ignorance most often leads to poor content.

And yet writers often want to try to leave out the "rules" of their genre. Sometimes it's not because they want to be original, but because they want to be surprising. But this doesn't work.

Why? Because the most surprising things are surprising because of conventions.

What's more "surprising," a story where you don't have any grasp or idea of where it is going, or a story where you think you know where it is going before it twists a different way?

The most satisfying surprises come not from disregarding conventions, but from flipping, twisting, or inverting them. From breaking them.

In order to create true surprises, the audience must have some kind of expectation. We need to understand and respect the conventions, first.

It's like that with every rule in the arts.

You have to know the rule inside and out before you can break it.

One of the most important aspects of writing surprises is that the surprise isn't a disappointment. If you ignore the obligatory conventions instead of respect them, you are more likely to disappoint. After all, the reason your audience is drawn to your genre in the first place is because of the conventions. Surprises usually work better when they are more than what the audience expects, and they almost never work if they are less than what the audience expects. But I don't want to spend too much time on surprises--if you want to know more about them, check out my post "5 Types of Surprises."

For some of us writers, obligatory scenes and conventions can be a little annoying. A few months ago, I saw a romance writer lament on social media something along the lines of, "Just HOW many ways can you write a first kiss?!" After writing several romance books, it can be hard to think of new ways to portray it.

But while originality doesn't usually come from ignoring the conventions, it can come from respecting them.

HOW many ways can you write a first kiss?

As you struggle to write it a brand new way, you may well breathe some originality into the story. Because again, what makes something feel satisfyingly original often isn't something that has no relation to any conventions, but rather something that bends, twists, and properly breaks conventions.

In order for something to feel "fresh" and "original," the audience has to have some kind of expectation--formed from what they've seen before.

As you respect and bend obligatory scenes and conventions in satisfying ways, your target audience, immersed in their chosen genre and surprised over a sense of originality, may not even notice them for what they are.

For example, in a typical fantasy story, at some point, the protagonist must face some sort of hellish creature or entity. In old stories, this is your traditional dragon. Usually this creature is in the earth or underground, or at least comes from somewhere deep and remote or secluded. In old stories, this is related to tunnels or caves, a sort of symbol of hell, which is "beneath" or "downward"--the underworld.

If you look at some of the most famous fantasy stories, you'll see this convention respected in some way.

In Harry Potter

Book 1: Harry and Ron defeat a troll that came from deep under the castle, Harry faces Voldemort (who is more of a spiritual entity at this point) deep in the forest, and then again deep down, through the trapdoor (not to mention facing the Devil's Snare and Fluffy on the way).

Book 2: Harry defeats a giant serpent in the Chamber of Secrets, which is located under the lake, deep under the school, and the snake has been getting around using the plumbing as tunnels. (Not to mention all the spiders in the forest.)

Book 3: Harry goes through a tunnel to the Shrieking Shack, a "haunted" place, where he encounters a werewolf, and then later is deep in the Forbidden Forest trying to fight off Dementors.

Book 4: In a secluded graveyard, he faces Voldemort, who appears almost more of a hellish creature with red eyes and slits for a nose, than a human.

Book 5: Deep down, in the lowest level of the Ministry of Magic, Harry faces the "fringes" of magic--floating brains, a death chamber, time itself, and then Voldemort's possession. Sure, Death Eaters are human, but even a name like that suggests something hellish.

Book 6: Harry and Dumbledore go deep into a cave where inferi from deep under the water attack them.

Book 7: Harry goes deep into Gringotts--one of the deepest chambers--to retrieve a Horcrux, but must watch for (and then rides) a literal dragon.

Have you ever noticed how often he goes into the "underworld" and faces a hellish entity? I hadn't really put it together until preparing this post. The only one I think might be a little iffy is book five, as much of the elements of the Department of Mysteries aren't living things, and those that are, are human. But the department is full of things that seem hellish--the Death Chamber with the mysterious veil, the brains that attack Ron, the time room with the bell-jar that changes a person slowly into a baby, over and over again.

In J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, we have Smaug, a literal dragon, literally deep in a mountain.

In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo must traverse through tunnels, where he encounters Shelob, a giant spider.

Right now I'm rewatching FMA:Brotherhood, and even in that story, the heroes face animal/human chimeras and artificially-made humans in tunnels under cities or in abandoned laboratories near a prison. Hellish creatures linked to a kind of underworld.

Look at all the different ways this convention is met in all these stories.

I once had a person say to me--why do all fantasy stories have to have a real or figurative "dragon" in them?

Well, because that's a convention of the typical fantasy story. It's like asking why every romance has to have a first kiss scene.

Sure, you can probably find some that don't have these things, but usually the best stories of the genre include some kind of rendition of it, even if it's so twisted or subtle that no one realizes it until they are analyzing.

Do you always need to meet the exact expectations? Of course not. Remember, we work with the understanding of conventions to create satisfying surprises and original ideas. Maybe the dragon turns out to be an ally. Heck, maybe he turns out to be a human (Voyage of the Dawn Treader). The underworld doesn't have to be a recess in the earth. It can be a forest, a graveyard, a secret government laboratory.

Even if we aren't fully aware of all the conventions of our genres, often we will intuitively know that such an element needs to be added--simply because we have consumed so many stories of the genre. In one of the earliest drafts of my fantasy book, I felt that I needed to add some kind of monster; it just felt "right" and like it would make the story more . . . "complete." Did I know that such a thing was a convention of fantasy at the time? Sorta, but not really. I just knew it would be a more satisfying story.

See, but what we don't want to do when this arises is go, "Uugh, but no, I can't do that--so many fantasy stories already have monsters! I don't want to be the same as them; I want to be original (wink wink), so I'll make sure to avoid putting in anything that could be interpreted as a monster at all."

This is ignorance, not invention.

(And trust me, in my early days, I did this a lot! (and have paid for it.))

Which is one of the reasons I'm doing this post.

If you respond that way to obligatory scenes and conventions, you will probably pay for it. The story might not feel "right" or "complete," regardless of how much work you put into everything else.

HOW many ways can you write a first kiss?

Now that's invention.

And you need to be inventive about it. Otherwise the story will feel just like "so many fantasy stories." Otherwise it will feel cliche. How do you make the scenes and conventions unique in your story? Well, look at how even each of the Harry Potter books does it differently.

How do you make that dead body scene in the opening different than any other?

How do you make that saloon scene in a Western different than any other?

How do you make the hero-at-the-mercy-of-the-villain scene in your thriller different than any other?

You have to respect the convention as you twist it into something new.

Obligatory scenes and conventions aren't our enemies; they're our friends.

We all know the buddy stories where two characters start out hating each other and realize they needed each other all along.

For some of us, that's how our relationship with conventions go.

And often the key element to making a relationship work, is respect.

Note: Don't forget to enter the advent calendar for writers--all of the prizes have been revealed, and you can now go on the website and enter all of them, including mine, which is a first chapter edit. 😊  They will be open until the 19th!

Monday, December 9, 2019

The Struggle is Real: Make Your Protagonist Suffer for Success!

Lately I've been thinking about stories where the protagonist doesn't really struggle. You don't see this in published works very much, but it crops up in unpublished fiction from time to time.

Sure, these stories may have conflict, maybe even tension. And so the writer might even think that the story does have struggle in it. But it doesn't have real struggle. Instead, conflicts are resolved with little to no suffering or sacrifice from the protagonist.

Heck, maybe even the conflict isn't resolved the first or second time, and yet, the story still lacks the struggle. That can happen.

Say you have a conflict that your character is trying to resolve, and he tries to resolve it three different ways, and the third way works--that doesn't necessarily mean he really struggled. It might only mean he only tried three different things.

But struggle is real.

Even people who are good people, with good successful lives, have struggles. Earlier this year, we had to put down our beloved family dog. She was sixteen. Maggie was one of the best, kindest dogs I ever met. She didn't do anything wrong. We gave her a good life. But guess what? She still struggled.

Rich people struggle. Famous people struggle. Loved people struggle. We sometimes perceive that if we just obtain X, we won't have to suffer and sacrifice and struggle, but the reality is, even good things can have their own negative problems attached to them. For example, I once heard a child of a rich and famous celebrity say he struggled making friends, because a lot of people wanted to pretend to be his friend to get to his dad. I'm not saying that some people don't suffer worse, they do; but everyone suffers.

Mozart struggled composing his next great symphony, despite being a master. Jesus Christ struggled at the end of his mortal ministry, despite being perfect (whether or not you believe it was true, it's still part of the story told). Lin-Manuel Miranda struggled to be taken seriously when working on Hamilton. Even if we become successful business owners, we have to deal with pressure and make continued sacrifices.

Sorry to tell you that even highly successful people like Mozart struggle.

So when I read a story where a protagonist doesn't struggle, I can't help but think, life just isn't like that. It's not realistic. Now, I'm not saying everything is doom and gloom all the time. But guys, even when I'm pursuing something I love more than anything (writing), it's still hard! There are negative consequences to positive actions. It's just the way life works. Everything, and I mean everything, is a give and take. Problems and obstacles never go away.

And having a good life and being a good person does take work and effort. It doesn't just happen. You have to make it happen. And that requires sacrifice.

And yet, even with all this stated, there will be some writers who don't want to make their characters struggle. They enjoy the characters and just want to write a nice story.

Look, I'm not saying you need to smother them by overwhelming them. But in order for them to learn and grow, or to illustrate the theme, you need to have them struggle in something.

Don't forget the power of contrasting in storytelling.

The greater the struggle.

The more powerful the reward.

It's often the contrast that makes stories meaningful, whether that's a Christmas Hallmark movie where the protagonist is struggling with a choice between a big city job and small town love, or Frodo Baggins near Mount Doom struggling with the weight of the entire world on his shoulders (and darkness within). If your character isn't struggling with something, then overcoming problems won't feel as earned. The story's climax and falling action will never be fully satisfying.

Sometimes writers are afraid to give their protagonists hard things. They just don't want to take the character there. Or they just want to show how wonderful and amazing this character is. That this character is just that good.

But it's not the innocent, inexperienced person that is most beautiful and amazing. It's the person who can still be good despite life's hardships, or, perhaps, because of them. Those are the kind of people we want to root for (generally speaking of course).

Not people who have it so easy, that they never suffer--that's not real life. The real world is unfair.

Sometimes we don't layer on the struggle because we are afraid of rendering it--maybe we are afraid we can't render it. Or maybe we just don't want to.

With writing, if that is our reason for not doing something, then we are going to have problems. You need to learn to render it.

Even if your character is a good person doing good things with good outcomes, ask yourself: What are some of the negative consequences they will have to face for doing X?  What personal sacrifices do they have to make to accomplish whatever good thing they want to do?

If you look at famous story structures, they almost always speak to the protagonist's struggle. And in many stories, this struggle will reach its most intense moment at plot point two, when it seems everything is lost . . . until the protagonist makes the biggest sacrifice yet. From there, the protagonist will be tested yet again during the climax, to prove they have fully overcome the difficulty.

Everything costs something.

For an effective story, make sure your protagonist is struggling for success.


Last week I mentioned an advent calendar for writers that I'm participating in. (We are giving away $2,600 in prizes). And today is my day! 😍 Click the little window on the webpage to see what you can win from me 🥰

Monday, December 2, 2019

Advent Calendar for Writers! (Over $2600 in Prizes!)

This time of year, it’s always wonderful to look back and feel good about the progress we’ve made. Whether we took small steps forward or big ones, each one steers us toward our writing goals. So, celebrate your hard work and feel good about what you’ve accomplished! 

And guess what? We want to help you celebrate! 

Have you heard of the Advent Calendar for Writers? It’s a show-stopper event put on by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi at Writers Helping Writers, and just like those chocolate-filled calendars, you open a “window” each day and find an incredible prize to be won. 

This is no small giveaway, either: this Advent Calendar has over $2600 in prizes (including something from me!)

Visit Writers Helping Writers between December 1st and December 14th and open the Advent Calendar window to reveal that day’s giveaway. Enter and while you’re at it, why not be a good writing buddy and let some writer friends know so they can enter too!

Once a giveaway is live, you can enter right up until December 19th so make sure to hit all 14 giveaways. We would love to see one of you win something special for yourself—good luck! 

Monday, November 25, 2019

Scene vs. Sequence vs. Act

If you are like me, you've probably heard the terms "scene," and "act," and maybe even "sequence" at least a dozen (if not a hundred) times without anyone explaining what they actually are. For most of my writerly life, I've heard about the 3-Act Structure, without anyone explaining to me what an act actually is. Sure, they may tell me what story parts go in which one, what happens, but they don't tell me what it actually is. Like, why is that stuff an act? What makes this a scene? And what is a sequence? 🤦‍♀️

So with this post, I'm hoping to help others with that, explaining what these things are, structurally, after all, they are structural terms.

(Though, as I've acknowledge before, much of story structure can get down to how you decide to slice and dice it, and people use different terminology, making writing terms a bit slippery, naturally.)


If you don't have an exact understanding of what a scene is, you probably at least have a vague one, thanks to the scene selection menu on movies or the high school play you saw being rehearsed in the auditorium as a teenager.

A scene is a unit of action that takes place in a single location and continuous time. When the location changes, or the time jumps, or in some cases (particularly in plays) when a new set of characters enter the location, it's a new scene.

In Guardians of the Galaxy, the opening scene is when Peter is a kid and his mom is lying in a hospital bed dying from cancer, and it ends as he runs outside and is abducted.

Then we jump to 26 years later on a different planet--a new scene.

Seems simple enough, right?

But here's the thing, for a scene to work structurally, it actually needs to do more than that. The scene is a structural unit, perhaps even more so than a setting unit (time or place), but often, people only define it using setting terms, like we have so far.

In reality, a scene follows the same basic structure of the overall story.

And it typically breaks down in similar ways (or usually should).

Open with a hook
Establish the setup (where and when we are and what characters are in the scene)
Have a rising action with complications
Hit a climax
Have a falling action or denouement

You can even break this down further (remember how I said it depends on how you want to slice and dice it?)

Inciting Incident (or what you may think of as "plot point 1")
Rising action with progressive complications
Crisis moment (or what you may think of as "plot point 2")
Falling action

You could even add a midpoint in there.

About a year ago, I broke down how I thought about scene structure.

Now, some people like to think of the climax as a "turning point."  In this sense, "climax" and "turning point" are simply different perspectives to view the same thing.

There are also other ways you can slice and dice it that I haven't yet added on my blog. A very popular one is often referred to as "scene and sequel" which goes like this:

Part 1 (Action):
- Goal
- Conflict
- Outcome

Part 2 (Reaction):
- Reaction
- Dilemma
- Decision

Some writers argue these are two different scenes, and others say they are two parts of one scene. Once again, it comes down to how you want to slice and dice it and how you define scene. Certainly these parts could be written to obtain the same shape, either together, or individually, which bring me to a point I talked about earlier this year: this story shape permeates everything.

Find which slicing and dicing method works best for you. Some click with me and others don't so much.

Just remember that a scene typically takes place in a single location and a continuous time and structurally has that shape.

If it does not have that shape in some way, it probably falls flat.

(For a full breakdown of how that shape works in a scene, go here.)

If you watch the opening scene of Guardians carefully, you will see it follows that shape.

However, keep in mind that like everything in writing, rules can be broken. This is generally how scenes work and how you get them to work consistently, but there are occasions where you can bend the rules.


A sequence is a step up from a scene but smaller than an act.

A sequence is made up of scenes that are building up to a somewhat larger climactic moment or "turning point."

Because a sequence includes multiple scenes, it is not bound by a single location or time frame.

Let's say you are writing a story where at some point, the viewpoint character is kidnapped.

You might start with a scene where the kid is playing at the park and is approached by a predator who wrangles her into a moving van and ties her up. (Notice how that completes that story shape.)

The next scene jumps to the moving van slowing down, with the girl still tied up in the back. She's afraid of where she is going to go next, but as she listens, she realizes that her predator has actually been pulled over by police for speeding. She tries to bang around and cry for help, but she has a gag and isn't aided.

Next, we cut to her in the predator's dingy basement where two other girls are, every victim untied and ungagged. She talks and cries to them and tries to get out, but they are completely locked in. There is no way out.

Those three scenes make up a sequence, a "kidnapping" sequence. Notice how the sequence escalates, the viewpoint character going from being safe at a park to being kidnapped and locked in a basement.

It follows this same shape.

If you slice and dice it, it will have these same elements:

Rising Action
Falling Action

You can have more than three scenes in a sequence and you can have two.

Since I used Guardians of the Galaxy as an example earlier, let's grab a sequence from that as an example. At one point in the movie, Peter, Gamora, Rocket, and Groot are thrown into prison, where we will have multiple scenes. We have a scene about them getting "checked in," a scene about them interacting with the other inhabitants, and a scene where Peter wakes up in the night and saves Gamora (meeting Drax). You could call this the prison-initiation sequence.

Notice that it too follows that shape. Hook, setup, rising action, climax, falling action.


An act is bigger than a sequence but smaller than the whole plot.

An act is made up of sequences that are building up to a larger climactic moment or "turning point."

It follows the same shape on a bigger scale.

Maybe in our story about the kidnapper, the kidnapping is plot point one of the whole story. So previous to that were sequences about the characters' ordinary lives and their smaller problems within that. That means from the beginning to the end of the kidnapping sequence is the first act.

If you slice and dice it, it will have these same elements:

Rising Action
Falling Action

You can have more than three sequences in an act and you can have two.

In Guardians of the Galaxy, I would say the first act ends just after the prison-initiation sequence. We've been introduced to the main characters and now have a new goal, which will start the next rising action.

Even though I think scenes are talked about ambiguously, I have to say that acts are talked about even more ambiguously. Most people just follow the 3-Act structure, with beginning, middle, and end. Sure, you can slice any story that way, I guess, but for me, that often doesn't tell me enough about what an act actually is. What it means, is that there should be a climactic moment near the end of the beginning, near the end of the middle, and near the end of the end.

If the midpoint is a big climactic moment in its own right (or at least, if not the midpoint, leading up to the midpoint), I would personally view it as having four acts.

(By the way, I'm aware my images aren't necessarily in the right proportions 😅)

And you can actually have even five or six or possibly seven acts--if you are hyper-focused on a main plot with little or no subplots and lots of twists, turns, and climactic reveals. But that's a bit more intensive than I want to get into today.

I would recommend taking this concept of an act and using it to benefit your perspective of your story. If you want to stick to the 3-Act Structure, because viewing it that way works best for you, great. Just remember that you need this same shape for the beginning, middle, and end. If you have a big climactic moment that is or near the midpoint, you might want to view your story as having four acts, each with this structure.

The point is that each unit is rising, climaxing, and falling within bigger rising, climaxing, and falling units, as the story escalates overall.

If you have a part of your story that doesn't seem to be working, or seems to be flat, or bottoming out wrong, use this to troubleshoot the problem. Check that your scene follows this shape. Check that your sequence follows this shape. Check that you have multiple acts that follow this shape. These shapes need to be inside the overall plot shape.

Overall, each act should be more intense than the previous act.

Overall, each sequence should be more intense than the previous sequence.

Overall, within a sequence, each scene should be more intense than the previous scene.

Generally speaking.

Of course, if you have subplots or secondary plots (as most do), you may think of having multiple plot lines that do this. So if you have a scene introducing a subplot, it may not necessarily feel more intense than the scene literally before it, but rather, within each plot line, the intensity increases.

Confused? Hopefully not. Just remember the shapes and the units--the rest is all in how you want to slice and dice.  

NOTE: Black Friday is this week, and if you are looking for some writerly gifts, I have a list of recommended books here. As you may have noticed, I don't use ads on my blog, and I put my own money into it every year, but, I use affiliate links, which means anything you buy off Amazon through the link, I get a very small cut of 💖 In any case, have a great week, and Happy Thanksgiving to those in the U.S.