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Monday, June 10, 2019

How to Write Stakes in Storytelling

Hey friends, lately I've been wanting to revisit the concept of stakes, as I've been trying to think of new ways to explain it to writers (and to understand it better myself). I'll be honest, back in the beginning, it was kind of hard for me to wrap my head around "stakes." Something about the term itself felt elusive, then when I started to get it, it felt too restrictive creatively.

What do I mean by stakes? And why are they important?

Stakes are essentially what is at risk in the story.

But still, for newer writers, I think that definition leaves them wanting.

Because the concept of "risk" can seem vague as well. Or the risk seems so obvious, that the writer never states it in the text.

Writer: Well, obviously the protagonist's life is at risk! THAT'S THE RISK!! Why do you keep asking me for the stakes???

Lately I've found it more helpful to think of stakes like this.

Stakes = Potential Consequences
Consequences. That's a word that is creeping into my mind more and more as an editor and a writer.

State potential consequences in the text.

Remember how I have been talking on and off for months about how audiences want to look forward in the story? And that tension and hooks work by getting the audience to look forward? Readers keep turning pages, because we've gotten them consider what could happen. Now they need to find out if it does happen.

It's not just about the consequences.

It's about the potential consequences.

Often in the industry you'll hear people say "Raise the stakes!"

But what does that mean?

It means raising/growing/increasing/amplifying what is at risk.

It means strengthening, deepening, broadening potential consequences.

And the audience wants and needs those potential consequences in the text, either stated directly or implied powerfully.

If you took English classes in college, you may have had your professor talk about the "So what?" question when it came to writing essays. Maybe you were writing an essay about animal rights in factory farming. Well, so what? Why do we care about that? Or maybe you were writing an essay about how eating dinner as a family has a positive impact on children. Well, so what? Maybe you were writing an essay that compared Dr. Faustus to Dr. Jekyll. Well, so what? Why do we care?

Stories where the stakes (aka, potential consequences) don't make it onto the page may result in similar responses from others.

So what?

Why do we care?

Why do I care what happens to this character?

Make me care!

How do we fix that?

I've been thinking about how one of the keys to fixing this is making sure the potential consequences, the stakes, are on the page.

You can take this back to my essay examples. When we include the potential consequences in our essays, we answer the "So what?" question. What are the consequences of factory farming on animals and humans? What are the potential consequences of eating dinner as a family? What are the consequences of Dr. Faustus and Dr. Jekyll and what conclusions can we draw from their stories?

When we talk about potential consequences, we talk about what is at risk and why we should care.

Say in the beginning of your story, your protagonist is given the task of delivering an invitation for a royal wedding to her Aunt Sadie.

Well, so what?

Why do we care?

It's your job as a writer to convey the potential consequences that will satisfy those reactions.

Consider this.

If Aunt Sadie doesn't receive the royal invitation, then a rift will come between the royal family and the protagonist's, resulting in financial and familial devastation (let's say the set up explains why this is so).

Okay, so now I'm starting to care about the wedding invitation--and whether or not Aunt Sadie gets it.

We now have financial and familial wellbeing at risk, or in other words, at stake.

But this also works in the opposite direction, which it seems like everyone in the industry forgets to talk about.

Consider the positive potential consequences as well.

If Aunt Sadie gets the invitation, then she can go to the wedding, where she hopes to network with someone of high prestige in order to start her new business, a bakery chain, that our protagonist is dreaming and dying to work in--baking is her passion.

Okay, now I'm caring about the invitation even more. Because whatever happens to it will either bring really good consequences or really bad consequences. Not only are family and finances at risk, but the protagonist's dream is affected as well.

To take it even a step further, you can sometimes add potential consequences to potential consequences.

If our protagonist isn't able to help her aunt get the bakery going within the year, then she'll be doomed to work for her father as a stenographer, which she'd hate.


Already I'm caring about whether or not this invitation gets delivered, and I just made this all up in a few minutes.

I care because of what's at risk, what's at stake, what could happen.

Now as we get the story going, we throw in some obstacles that get in the way of our protagonist delivering the invitation. What if someone recognizes what it is and tries to steal it so they can get into the wedding?  What if our protagonist accidentally loses it on the way to her aunt's house? What if a downpour of rain ruins it?

Suddenly something as simplistic as a piece of paper is riveting.

But imagine that same scenario, without getting the potential consequences. Who cares about delivering a wedding invitation, really? How much does it matter for the aunt to get it? Or for the protagonist to deliver it? So what? We don't care.

We need the potential consequences in order to get invested in the story.

But it's important to know that not all consequences are equal. Sometimes writers include potential consequences, but they fall flat. This is because the consequences aren't significant.

Another elusive term that I'm working to nail down and explain.

What makes something "significant"?

1 - It has important personal consequences, or
2 - It has far-reaching, broad consequences

You could start a story about your heroine delivering a royal wedding invitation to her aunt, and you could mention the fact it's a downpour outside, and if she's not careful, the rain will ruin the invitation (a potential consequence).

But if that's the only potential consequence you give us, guess what? Who cares? It's not personal. And it's not far-reaching.

Therefore, it is not, significant.

Why should we care if the invitation gets wet and ruined?

But if we put in the story significant potential consequences, it has a different effect. If the invitation doesn't get properly delivered, then

1 - the protagonist may not be able to live her dream helping her aunt in a bakery and will instead be stuck with a job she hates (personal), and
2 - it will cause financial and familial devastation (far-reaching and broad).

The potential consequences need to be significant.

If you look closely at all my consequence sentences, you'll notice they follow a pattern.

The "if . . . then . . ." sentences structure:

If Aunt Sadie doesn't receive the royal invitation, then a rift will come . . .
If Aunt Sadie gets the invitation, then our protagonist can pursue her dream.
If our protagonist isn't able to help her aunt, then she'll be doomed to work as a stenographer.

You can just as easily slip in "if . . . then . . ." sentence structures into your story to guarantee that the potential consequences, the stakes, are present in the text.

Unless you overdo it, most readers aren't even going to be consciously aware of them; they'll just feel the effects. 

But sometimes that idea can feel mechanical and creatively restrictive . . . and even annoying.

So it doesn't need to be so blatant. Just make sure you are conveying the IF and the THEN in the text. If you are in deep viewpoint, you can convey those concepts without having to use that sentence structure every time. You just need to convey fears and hopes your character has about what could happen.

Next time you watch a movie, or read a book, watch for IF and THEN lines. Here are some I've picked up on:

"If I don't destroy the collider, then all of Brooklyn will be gone!"
"If Rodrick knows I ratted him out, then he'll never forgive me!"
"If you become a vampire, there is one thing you'll want more than love. Blood."
"If one could locate and destroy all the horcruxes, then on can destroy Voldemort."
"If we don't fight back, then he'll take all our land, our homes, our lives we built."
"If we don't keep moving, this place will be swarming with aliens in a matter of hours."

Get the stakes, the potential consequences in the text.

Sometimes writers fail to do this because they think the stakes are obvious.

But the audience wants them in the text.

It's only annoying to them if you keep repeating the same potential consequences over and over and over and over again.

Reader: I get it!

This can also be missing from the text if the writer is trying too hard to follow the "Show, don't tell" rule religiously. Since stakes are potential consequences, you can't really show them, can you? You have to convey them through telling.

If you don't have any telling in your story, you aren't conveying potential consequences. And you aren't answering the "So what?" question.

Put the potential consequences in the text.

And as a bonus, look for opportunities to address both positive and negative consequences, perhaps even for the same story element.

IF you don't include potential consequences, THEN you will be rejected.

Related Articles:
Look Forward, Not Back, to Pull the Reader In
Tension vs. Conflict
5 Tricks that Help with Hooks
Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Show, don't Tell"

Monday, June 3, 2019

How to Write Your Story's Theme

Theme is one of those elusive words that people often use but don't fully understand in storytelling. Worse yet, there are actually a lot of misunderstandings in the writing industry and community about it.

Here's the deal: Whatever we write communicates or teaches something to the audience, whether or not we intend it to.

During His ministry, Jesus Christ used parables (aka, stories) to teach people lessons, morals, new ideas, and change culture and ideology. Whether or not you are Christian, you've likely heard of the parable of the Good Samaritan. What is the point of that story? What is it teaching? It's teaching that we should love, be kind to, and serve everyone--regardless of nationality, religious background, culture, or whatever. Everyone is our "neighbor."

A thematic statement is essentially the teaching of a story. So for the Good Samaritan, the thematic statement is, "We should love, be kind to, and serve everyone."

Let's look at some other famous stories and their thematic statements (teachings).

The Little Red Hen: If you don't contribute or work, you don't get the rewards of those efforts.

The Ant and the Grasshopper: If all we do is have fun and entertain ourselves, we won't be prepared for difficult times.

The Tortoise and the Hare: It's better to move forward at a steady pace than go so fast we burn ourselves out.

These are old, famous fables with seemingly obvious thematic statements. Often in children stories, the theme is stated more directly. For adult fiction, it may be much more subtle.

Here are some more modern examples.

The Greatest Showman: You don't need to be accepted and loved by the world, only by a few people who become your family

Spider-verse: If you get up every time you get knocked down, you'll accomplish more than you thought possible

Harry Potter: Love is the most powerful force in the world

Zootopia: To change biases in society, you first must evaluate and work on your own biases.

Les Miserables: Mercy is more powerful than justice

Legally Blonde: Someone who is beautiful, blond, and ultra-feminine can be smart and taken seriously.

Hamilton: We have no control over our legacy.

(By the way, I realize a reuse a lot of the same examples on my blog, but it's just faster and easier than grabbing something new. What matters is that you understand the concept, regardless of example.)

Thematic statement: You don't need to be accepted and loved by the world, only by a few people who become your family

Okay, so when we take English, language arts, and literature classes, we are usually just taught about thematic statements.

Which makes it difficult when you are trying to create stories, because if that's the only thing we understand about theme, and we try to write with that in mind, we often come off as sounding "preachy." As a result, many seasoned writers have actually told themselves and others not to write with any theme in mind (which has its own potential problems that I'll talk about later).

A good portion of this next section is information that comes from Amanda Rawson Hill and K. M. Weiland, because they are the two people who got me to have a clearer, conscious understanding of theme.

Okay, so we have the thematic statement, but on a broader scope, we have a theme topic. The subject or topic about which something is taught. It's the concept, without the teaching attached. It's what the theme or story is "about," in an abstract sense.

Here are the theme topics of those stories:

The Little Red Hen: Contribution and work

The Ant and the Grasshopper: Preparation

The Tortoise and the Hare: Pacing

The Greatest Showman: Acceptance

Spider-verse: Perseverance

Harry Potter: Love

Zootopia: Bias

Les Miserables: Mercy (and justice)

Legally Blonde: Being respected/taken seriously

Hamilton: Legacy

The theme topic is broader than the statement. The thematic statement is the specific teaching about that topic.

Note: People often use the word "theme" to mean either "thematic statement" OR "theme topic," which is why it can be confusing. I've done this multiple times myself, but am trying to stop. (Plus the fact my ideas on storytelling are regularly evolving, probably doesn't always help with ambiguity on my blog either)

Theme topic: Perseverance

In a strong story, the theme topic will be explored during the narrative, through plot or character or both. The story will ask (directly or indirectly) questions about the theme topic. This can happen through main characters and main plots, or side characters and subplots, or all of the above.

Let's look at some examples to illustrate what I mean.

In The Little Red Hen the theme topics of contribution and work are explored by having the red hen ask multiple characters for help (or, in other words, for contribution and work) and by having the red hen work alone. She herself is asking questions related to the topic.

In The Tortoise and the Hare, the theme topic of pacing is explored and questioned by comparing a slow character to a fast character, and as the plot unfolds, we see the choices each one makes.

In Zootopia, the theme topic of bias is explored, as a prey animal cop (the rabbit) has to interact and team up with a predator criminal (the fox), and each have biases against the other. But the theme topic is also explored in the society as a whole. Officer Hopps is told by society that she can never be a cop. Nick is told by society that because he's a fox, he must be untrustworthy. In one scenario, Hopps is trying to overcome her society's bias. In the other, Nick has given into society's bias--he will only ever be seen as a fox. Side characters and subplots explore the topic of bias as well, whether it's pitting crime on predators or dealing with nudist communities. Everywhere, the theme topic of bias is being touched on. By exploring the topic from all these different sources and perspectives, the audience is naturally confronted with questions (whether or not they are consciously aware of this). Can you succeed in a biased society, or will a biased society keep you from ever becoming what you want? In our efforts to create an unbiased society, do we criticize others' biases while remaining blind to our own? How can we create a safe, unbiased community? Are we prejudice ourselves?

Pretty deep stuff to be asking in a kid show, right? Disney is a pro at handling theme in their animated movies, so they are definitely one I'd recommend for people who want to study well done examples.

In The Greatest Showman, the theme topic of acceptance via love is explored in a similar way. As a child, P. T. Barnum is never accepted or loved by his society. His goal in life is to give the girl he loves an extravagant lifestyle, to prove to her parents, nay, to the whole world that he's worth something. Through the course of the story, he tries to do this in multiple ways: at his job, he approaches his boss with a new idea; he tries to start a museum; he starts a circus; he wants to present an opera singer to the world so that he can gain notoriety. Everywhere, the protagonist is asking for love and acceptance, and it's never enough.

But side characters and subplots explore this topic as well. Charles doesn't want to be laughed at for being small, Lettie doesn't want to be a freak for having a beard, Anne doesn't like being treated differently for being black, Phillip wants to leave high society but will be shunned, Jenny Lind never feels good enough because she comes from a low class. As we see these characters collide with other characters, and society, we are confronted with questions. Can these people ever find love and acceptance? Will they ever feel fulfilled? How can they overcome society's hate and prejudices? Are they willing to sacrifice family, income, security, personal weaknesses to get there? And furthermore, it seems that as you are finally accepted by one group of people, your are only rejected by another--can you be accepted by all circles? And does it matter if you aren't?

Often when writers fail at theme it is because they are only focused on the thematic statement. And they are therefore not fairly exploring and questioning the theme topic.

But the theme statement is the answer to the exploration and questioning, and should not be fully realized until the end. 

The theme topic of pacing is explored by comparing two characters

Let's take this a step further. We have the thematic statement. We have the theme topic. But in most stories, the beginning will have or illustrate a false thematic statement. (Alternatively, K. M. Weiland calls this "The Lie Your Character Believes.") This is almost always manifested through the protagonist in some way.

The false thematic statement is typically opposite of the thematic statement.

The Ant and the Grasshopper: The grasshopper believes that all he needs to do is have fun and entertain himself, and he doesn't need to work or prepare--that's a waste of time. OR "Having fun is more important than preparing."

The Tortoise and the Hare: The hare believes if he runs as fast as he can, he will easily win the tortoise.  OR "If I go as fast as I can, I'll be most successful."

The Greatest Showman: P. T. Barnum believes if he shows the world how amazing and successful he can be, he'll be loved and accepted by all society. OR "Once you prove you are amazing, all of society will love and accept you."

Spider-verse: Miles Morales believes that by quitting everything, he won't have to deal with any expectations. OR "If I don't persevere, I don't have to worry about expectations."

Harry Potter: Because his parents are dead, Harry Potter begins as an unloved and powerless person living in a closet. OR "Death and oppression are the most powerful forces in the world."

Zootopia: Judy Hopps believes she will fight society's biases by proving to everyone else that a bunny can be a cop. OR "To change biases in society, you must start by criticizing everyone else's."

Les Miserables: Jean Valjean was thrown in prison for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread and when released continues to deal with extreme justice, which leads him to stealing from the church. OR "Justice is more powerful than mercy."

Hamilton: Hamilton believes he will create and build and control his legacy by never throwing away his shot. OR "If I seize every opportunity to be great, then I will leave a powerful legacy after I'm gone."

You'll notice I left out the Little Red Hen. Her story is different. From the beginning, the little red hen believes in the thematic statement--that's why she is working so hard, but the theme topic is still explored and questioned (and tested) through her interactions with the other characters. This can be done in modern stories too, but it's rarer and harder to pull off. Remember, I said writers often fail at theme when they only focus on the thematic statement, without fairly exploring or questioning the topic. In The Little Red Hen, it's all the other characters that embody the false thematic statement. They think they can enjoy the rewards without having done any work. Take note that the red hen herself isn't preachy or snooty. She adheres to her beliefs, even though it requires more of her (because no one will help, she has to do more work).

In order for stories like this to be successful, we need to see the protagonist have to struggle through more adversity to adhere to the true thematic statement. Remember how the maxim goes, "No good deed goes unpunished." These stories are more difficult to write, so I probably wouldn't recommend them to beginners, but I'm not going to say no definitively. If your protagonist starts with the true thematic statement, she still needs to struggle, if not struggle more.

Legally Blonde is similar. Elle Woods fully believes she can get into law school and get her boyfriend Warner back, despite everyone around her saying Harvard won't take someone like her seriously. Throughout the movie, Elle is constantly told she just isn't "serious" enough. However, her story varies from the red hen's, because as the theme gets questioned and explored she eventually reaches a point (at Plot Point 2), where she succumbs to the idea that no one will truly respect her, when she says something along the lines of, "All people will ever see of me is a blonde with big boobs. No one will ever take me seriously. Not even my parents." But once she receives her "final piece to the puzzle," she returns to and proves the thematic statement that someone can be beautiful, ultra-feminine and smart, respected, and taken seriously.

So the Little Red Hen and Legally Blonde are rarer variations, but keep in mind that they still legitimately question, explore, and test the theme topic (this is key).

False theme statement: To change biases in society, you must start by criticizing everyone else's

In most stories, the protagonist starts with the false theme statement and ends with the (true) theme statement, a process that typically comes about through the main character arc. (You can read more about this specifically here).

So here is how the theme may fit in, in story structure.

Protagonist believes or illustrates the false thematic statement.

The theme topic is explored through plot and characters having different experiences and providing different outlooks.

This will lead to questioning: It leads to the audience questioning. In most stories, it leads to the protagonist questioning. After all, he believes in the false thematic statement, and maybe after these encounters, he's unsure how true it is.

(Also worth noting, the middle may test and disprove wrong thematic statements other characters have.)

The middle is the "struggle" part of the theme, and on Freytag's Pyramid, the rising action. We are struggling to come to a better understanding of the theme topic.

At the second plot point, the protagonist may have an epiphany (the true thematic statement) or at least a turning point, where they now take on, embody, or demonstrate the true thematic statement.

Note: In some rare stories, the protagonist may not embody the true thematic statement, which will result in a tragic end for them. If the thematic statement is true, then they can't "survive" (literally or figuratively) if they don't learn to adhere to it. (If they "survive," that means that what you thought the true thematic statement was, was probably just another false thematic statement, and you got them mixed up somewhere.)

Note: Also, the true thematic statement may be stated prior to the ending, but the protagonist will not fully realize or embody it until the end.


The climax of the story is the ultimate test of the final, true thematic statement--does it hold up to the test? Is it proven to be true? If it's the true thematic statement, it must.

In the denouement, the true thematic statement is further validated. We proved it true in the climax, now we must validate and show its effects. This can be very brief--one example--or it can be validated again and again through multiple examples.

It's worth mentioning, too, that in a lot of highly successful stories, the antagonist embodies THE false theme statement or A false theme statement (which is one of the reasons why they fail). So Voldemort can never understand that love is more powerful than death and oppression (notice that Voldemort and Harry have similar beginnings in life). In Les Mis, Javert ultimately can't live with the fact that mercy is proven to be more powerful than justice (which is why he takes his own life). However, this tactic is not a necessity by any means, just something worth considering.

As the antagonist, Javert can't survive the true thematic statement

Now does everyone who writes successful stories consciously know and adhere to all the things I've talked about so far in this article?

Heck. No.

Remember the first of this, where I said even seasoned writers may believe you should write with no theme in mind?

Lots of people write successful stories without even thinking about a theme.


If you are aware of how theme functions, you can use that to an advantage and write even more powerful stories (and it will help you stand out from those that don't).

There are lots of stories that are good that don't follow through on this element of story structure--but I sometimes wonder: How much better and stronger could they have been if they did?

Theme is what makes a story "timeless." This is exactly why Christ's parables and Aesop's fables have withstood the test of time. Why audiences trust Disney movies for a worthwhile emotional and intellectual experience every new movie. Why classics like Les Mis or Shakespeare are still taught and studied today. Because they aren't just stories. They are perspectives on the human experience and teachings that influence lifestyle and culture. They can touch hearts and minds and shift ideology.

And even if you write a story without caring two cents about theme, it will still have a thematic statement. Because every story is teaching something--if only through action and character. But there are dangers and problems that can happen (especially in today's world), if you don't pay attention to theme at all. Take the famous children's story, The Rainbow Fish. I loved that book as a kid (and if you aren't familiar with the story, you can listen to it here), but it has problematic, unintentional teachings. It teaches that in order to have friends, you must give away personal boundaries; that you can "buy" friends; that if you want to be liked by others, you need to give them things they ask you for. Sure, it conveys that sharing makes you happier, but it has those problematic parts as well.

Did the writer intend to teach those negative things? Probably not. But in the story, they are "proven" as true thematic statements simply because of the outcome of the plot and characters.

Typically the protagonist moves from a false thematic statement to the true thematic statement

This could get all into some really deep stuff, like minority representation, biases, culture control, and censorship, but for today, let's leave that for the university classrooms. (Not to mention, for someone learning the craft of writing, it can sometimes feel super paralyzing.)

I will say that even in stories where the writer doesn't completely care for or understand theme, even if the thematic statement is good, I sometimes find myself wondering if the theme is "underdeveloped." But that doesn't mean I still can't enjoy and support the story.

For most writers, theme isn't going to make or break your ability to get published. It's not something I would tell beginning writers to stress out about straight out of the gate. But it is something that can move you from great to phenomenal.

You don't need to know your theme topic or thematic statement to start writing. I would wager, that the majority of writers don't. Often what happens is that a theme topic or thematic statement will start to naturally emerge. Then in the revision process, you can use this article to check, develop, and strengthen the theme.

You can have more than one theme. As you are writing, you may realize that there is more than one theme topic and thematic statement. Lots of stories have more than one. Like I talked about in my story structure series, Spider-verse also has themes about choice and expectations. Harry Potter is chock-full of themes. Legally Blonde includes thematic statements about having faith in people. In some cases, one theme will relate and play into another or help refine it. With all that said, there is usually one theme that emerge as the main theme.

 And that's pretty much what's worth knowing about writing your story's theme. 

"First impressions aren't always correct. You must always have faith in people. And you must have faith in yourself."

Monday, May 20, 2019

Making Your Manuscript Reader-friendly

Have you ever used a computer program that wasn't user-friendly? It's kind of the worst. I remember a particular one that me and my sibling spent over an hour trying to figure out how to use. It was not user-friendly. At all.

Unfortunately, the same thing can happen when writing a novel.

I've heard these wise words in the industry, but I'm not sure on their source.

Writing is telling yourself the story. Editing is telling the reader the story.

While I think there are some exceptions (like with all maxims) (sometimes I'm still telling myself the story when editing), I think this thought process holds a lot of truth.

As writers, for the first part of the process, we are trying to figure out the story, and we are telling it to ourselves. We want to put down what's in our heads.

But literature is a collaboration. It's not just about what the writer writes. It's also about the meanings, experiences, and conclusions the reader has. Together, through the text, we create the story.

(Okay, maybe some writers, who only write for themselves, don't need to worry about that. But most of us do.)

Just as programs largely need to be user-friendly to be successful, so do stories.

If the reader can't understand, appreciate, or enjoy the story, the collaboration part of the narrative is failing.

But this is easier said than done, and sometimes tricky to spot and fix.

So here are some things to consider.

(Also, I typically wouldn't recommend you stress about this too early in the book-writing process. If you are still "telling the story to yourself" and this stresses you out, leave it for a later edit.)

The Reader Doesn't Need to Know as Much as the Writer

During the writing process, we have to brainstorm and figure out a lot of things that the reader neither needs to know nor cares about.

We may come up with elaborate, important backstories for characters that may never be published, in order to understand the person, their motives, and what kind of subtext they bring to their scenes. We may spend hours researching information to find out if a certain situation and outcome is plausible, and we might write why in the draft. We might throw up an info-dump right in the middle of a chapter when we are explaining the story to ourselves. We might include flashbacks that feel vital, but in the grand scheme of things, can actually be axed.

Almost always, we probably love our characters, world, and plot more than the readers do. (I said "almost.") And often if we include everything we know about them and the world and the story, it'll be boring. Have you guys read Lord of the Rings? Wonderful story. How many of you read the entire prologue the first time? Probably almost no one. Why? Because it's a 15-page info-dump explaining Hobbits to the audience. The average reader doesn't care about all that. They might care about it after they are familiar with the story, but that's not the first thing they want to read.

When inviting the audience into our fictive world to meet our characters, often less is more. We want them to want more information--which means not flooding them with unnecessary details. So cut what they don't need to know.

The Reader Needs to Know More than The Writer

On the flip side, in a strange way, the reader needs to know more than the writer. Maybe I write a scene where the characters' motivations are clear as day to me, the writer, because of all of the foreshadowing and subtext I've put in, so I feel like I don't need to explain it in the text itself. I don't need to "know" that information by writing it down.

But it's not clear to the reader. Why did so-and-so do such and such? How did Jane know that Matthew was the killer?

To be honest, most people who haven't studied literature at a college level haven't been taught how to read carefully, and how to accurately read into a text. That's fine. But that means that you might need to provide more information and guidance than you thought you needed when telling the story to yourself.

Other times, the readers may have different, inaccurate (but merited) interpretations of what's happening, so they need more information to come to the right conclusion. For example, I once worked on a story where I was convinced that one of the antagonistic characters was a werewolf. Baffled, the writer asked me why. After pointing out all the evidence, he realized he needed to change some of the story so that it wasn't misleading. (In some stories, it would have been fine to be ambiguous, but not in this one.) This is often where beta-readers are helpful.

Reader: But why is the Dark Lord doing that?
Reader: ????

So add more information when the reader needs it. What's obvious to you, is not always obvious to them.

FOCUS the Story

I'm going to be a bad person and tell you guys right now that I hate the movie Secret Life of Pets. Why? Because there is no focus! Or at least, very little. It's just things happening, that sort of follow the Freytag Pyramid, but nothing is fully weaved in or connected or truly realized. Unlike most blockbuster children movies, it lacks focus. (BTW, just because it lacks focus doesn't mean you aren't allowed to like it. I don't like it, because of that, but Heaven knows I love and forgive a lot of other stories that are lacking).

During the writing process, you were probably figuring out the story. You may not quite know how to focus the story--or what the focus even is. Maybe you had a bunch of good ideas and cool subplots and even character arcs and fun scenes . . . but there is just too much or it doesn't seem to fit together cohesively.

Readers prefer focus and cohesion. Sure, there are some rare stories that can break this, but very few. If the story lacks focus, the audience may be wondering: What the heck is this book about? Which parts are important? What do I need to remember for later? Where is this going?

There are two (as far as I know) ways to better focus the story.

1. Focus on the main plot lines

In most successful stories, there is an inner journey and an outer journey for the protagonist. Those are the most important story lines. Other than that, there may be a tertiary plot line--maybe a romance, or lifestyle goal. In some cases, you may even have another plot line. But rarely do you have more than 2 - 4 significant plot lines. If something doesn't fit into one of those, like say that whole chapter sequence you have about your protagonist hanging out at Uncle Mike's for the summer, then it may need to be cut.

2. Focus on the theme topic

A lot of stories that seem to have a lot of characters, events happening, and sometimes seemingly unrelated events, actually have focus because they focus on the theme topic. In Hamilton, almost every "character story" explored relates back to the theme topic of legacy: Hamilton, Burr, Eliza, Angelica, Washington, Lafayette, Hercules--and provides different manifestations and views of it. (Les Mis does the exact same thing, with the theme topics of mercy and justice.)

The theme statement is the takeaway value, the point of the story. The theme topic is the subject we are exploring. So, for Les Mis, the theme statement is that "mercy is more powerful than justice." But the topics are mercy and justice themselves.

(Secret Life of Pets has no clear theme, which is why I didn't like it. Compare it to Finding Dory, Wreck-it Ralph, Frozen, or Moana, and it's clear that Disney understands how theme focuses story.)

Which parts of your manuscript connect to the theme topic? The theme topic should be explored, tested, questioned through the course of the story. You may need to cut or repurpose parts that don't relate to the theme.

Bring clarity to the story by strengthening focus.

The Reader has Less Patience than the Author

For the reader, an ideal story keeps them looking forward; it keeps them wanting to turn pages. As writers, like I said before, we tend to already be more interested in the world and characters than the audience is. We might have fun ways we want to introduce each character, great dialogue exchanges, interesting facts about the setting, and yet including all that might kill the pacing.

Remember, as writers, we are already way invested and interested in the story--we've spent so much time working on it! But the reader isn't. He or she needs to get invested quick. And when reading, they don't want to feel like they have to be patient. They just want to read and enjoy the story. The words "be patient" shouldn't even have to enter their thought process.

There is a reason they picked up your book. What did they come for? Make sure you are delivering on that. If you can't deliver on it right away, you may need to add a prologue to promise it will be there soon.

Work toward main points and significant parts (or in some cases, the most entertaining parts) and don't dilly-dally too much. (Focusing the story will help with this).

It's worth remembering that sometimes the point of the writing isn't to give an exact rendition of what is happening and what the characters are experiencing, but rather to give the notion or impression of it. If your protagonist is bored for a full week, the audience only wants a quick impression of the boredom--enough to get the point--not an accurate, full rendition of it.

Connect and Simplify Complicated Concepts

By the time you've finished telling the story to yourself, you probably have a lot of concepts going on. (Or if you are like me, may be bordering on a "kitchen sink" story.) Remember, it's easier for the audience to learn something new and/or recall what they've already learned when it's connected to something.

If you've introduced too many new ideas and concepts, you may need to connect them. It's hard to remember a bunch of random numbers. But it's easier to remember them if they connect in some way (2, 4, 8, 16).

Brandon Sanderson touches on this idea when talking about magic systems. He says instead of adding and adding and adding new things, it's usually more effective to connect, deepen, and build on what's already there. If you can connect complicated concepts, the story will be more reader-friendly.

Likewise, you may need to simplify some concepts . . . or at least the delivery of them. (Remember, the audience doesn't need to know as much as the writer.) Make it look easier than it is. I mean, it's really easy to use Netflix, but I'm sure the backend is not that simple! It's easy for me to use my computer, but if I tried to build one, I'd be clueless.

Remember what da Vinci said: "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."

Just because something comes across as simple doesn't necessarily mean it's not deep or complex--it's just not confusing.

And when it comes to making a manuscript reader-friendly, we usually don't want to be confusing.

Monday, May 6, 2019

How to Use an Ellipsis Properly in Fiction

Ever wonder why some ellipses seem to have three dots and others have four? Some have spaces between each dot and some don't? Why sometimes you capitalize after an ellipsis and other times you lowercase?

To be honest, I don't think most of us were taught properly how to use an ellipsis. I know I wasn't. I remember being in college and getting my paper corrected for that reason, but not getting a full explanation for what I did wrong.

I see a lot of writers who don't understand all the rules of ellipses either (and they may not even be aware that they don't fully understand them). So although I typically don't do posts on punctuation and grammar, I thought it might be helpful to do a quick one on ellipses.

Some of you may be wondering what an "ellipsis" is. It's a fancy name for the three dots or "periods" you see in writing ( . . . ). The word "ellipsis" is Greek for "omission," which is what it does. It shows that something has been omitted or left out.

Now with research papers, this might be obvious. Maybe you are quoting a source and don't want to quote every single word of it, so you use an ellipsis to show that you left some stuff out. Like this:

Full quote:

“You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.” - Dr. Suess

Quote with omission:

“You know you’re in love when . . . reality is finally better than your dreams.” - Dr. Suess

In fiction, we usually aren't quoting sources. But the ellipsis works in similar ways, it conveys that something is omitted. This might be something directly omitted. Mamma Mia uses this method well:

July seventeenth, what a night. Sam rowed me over to the little island. We danced on the beach, and we kissed on the beach, and . . .

The ellipsis is used to imply they got intimate, but that part is "omitted."

Other times things are omitted because they are incomplete--maybe an incomplete line of dialogue such as when a character trails off.

"I started to go to the school, but . . ." she trailed off.

Or an incomplete thought.

Would she actually want . . . ? she wondered. 

Or maybe something is "omitted" for the sake of something else, like a character trying to censor or tone down his word choice.

"Sarah is really very . . . fanciful, isn't she?" David said. 

In pauses like this, the ellipsis may convey thinking. It's completely fine to use them that way.

In rare occasions, an ellipsis might be used to indirectly convey the passing of time.

She ate . . . she drank . . . and she went shopping.

And you may occasionally see them used other ways stylistically, but these are the main situations. 

In a sense, though, in all these examples, something is omitted, whether it's directly, or indirectly, like an incomplete or changing thought, or actions in between.

When used smartly, ellipses can be powerful in fiction because they convey more than what is on the page, and that is vital to good storytelling.

Too often, however, newer writers just throw them in because they like the feel and sound of them or the long pause, or even in some cases . . . because they are lazy. Make sure if you use them, they have a point.

Now let's get to the technicalities. Years ago, I used to be confused that sometimes ellipses seemed to be three dots and other times four, and I didn't know when to use which. Ellipses are three dots. However, if it comes after a complete sentence, you still use a period.

I was so hungry. . . . chicken, cereal, tofu, pasta--all of it sounded good.

 If it follows an incomplete sentence, you don't use a period.

“You know you’re in love when . . . reality is finally better than your dreams.” - Dr. Suess

If the words after the ellipsis are the start of a new sentence, you capitalize them. 

 "They treated me like . . . Want to go to dinner?" she asked suddenly.

 If not, you don't.

When it comes to spacing before and after an ellipsis, handle it how you would a regular word.

Sarah was really very[space]. . .[space]fanciful

"I started to go to the school, but[space] . . .[no space]" she trailed off.

One exception to this is if there is a question mark following.

Would she actually want[space]. . .[space]? she wondered.

According to The Chicago Manual of Style, ellipses should have a space between each dot.

Would she actually want[space].[space].[space].[space]? she wondered.

 However, in APA style, there are no spaces between dots.

Would she actually want ... ? she wondered.

Fiction typically follows The Chicago Manual of Style, but you may still see the ellipsis with no spaces, especially since word processors sometimes reformat ellipses automatically. So while technically they should have spaces between each dot, you probably aren't going to get reprimanded if you don't. Even The Chicago Manual of Style notes that some places will be fine with the no-space ellipsis. I use spaces because that's how I was corrected by a mentor once.

One more thing: Ellipses do not signify an interruption. 


"I wish . . ."
"Shut up!" Mike interrupted.
 Use em dashes for that.


"I wish--"
"Shut up!" Mike interrupted.

Dashes are another subject.

But hopefully now you know how to handle ellipses!

Monday, April 29, 2019

When and How to Weaken a Passage

You might think this a tongue-in-cheek post, a joke, but you may be surprised to know it's the real thing. Yes, although uncommon, there are times where you may need to actually weaken a scene.

Sounds crazy, right?

Not for the first time, it recently happened to me.

I like to write scene by scene. But one of the biggest, if not the biggest, cons to that is having to fix cohesion in the novel as a whole afterward. And as I've been trying to do that in my own WIP, I've had to weaken multiple passages.

But it's not just me.

I've worked with authors that I've had to ask to do the same thing.

It's like when you order a fancy dessert at a nice restaurant. You know, the kind where you take three bites and can't finish it because it's so sweet, so much, so rich? The same thing can happen in creative works. You may be thinking that this triple chocolate fudge cake topped with ganache is some of your best work--and that may be absolutely true--but the client can't eat more than a quarter of it.

Fortunately, and unfortunately, writing is a collaboration between the creator and the reader. And even if your triple chocolate fudge cake is amazing it may be that the reader really needs some vanilla with it, not more chocolate.

For the creator, it's the worst sometimes. Especially when you already made the triple chocolate fudge cake topped with ganache--and it's perfect.

When to Weaken a Passage

At the root, you really need to weaken a passage simply when it comes off as too strong. The strength can be manifested in different ways:

1. You're reiterating, amplifying, or building on something that has already been conveyed to the audience well. 

Some might be reading that and thinking, well, yeah, that's obvious--you need to cut it because it's repetitive. But it may not actually be that obvious, especially if it's something you are building on. It may not be repetitive, directly.

This was my most recent problem. I had a powerful scene (I still love that triple chocolate) that was amplifying an important character trait of my protagonist. But because of previous subtext, even if this particular facet hadn't made it onto the page, the audience had already gleaned enough of it to satisfy the point. Building and amplifying on that trait, even when rendered well, was annoying. It was too much. It came off too strong. And it actually made the character kind of obnoxious. It put too much power and emphasis on his dominating traits.

The scene on its own worked very well.

But when put into the context of the whole novel, it was too much. Too rich.

2. You have too many powerful emotions close together

We are often trying to create a powerful, emotional experience for the reader. But it's entirely possible to make it too powerful.

Now, I'm not talking about melodrama, which is a different thing.

I'm talking about a lot of genuine, raw, emotional moments.

Sure, at the climax, you usually really want to stack all this on, but even there you can overdo it.

Do you remember learning about pacing as a writer?

When it comes to pacing, it's entirely possible to not only go too slow, but to go too fast. If you never let the reader catch a breath, they won't like the book. They'll feel exhausted. Even get a little annoyed. Finally, having so much of the same pacing actually makes the reader have a less powerful reading experience, since it's so much the same. It loses its effect.

The same thing can happen with powerful emotions. If every single emotion is maxed out and super powerful and rendered powerfully on the page near each other, it's too much!

It's not "over-dramatic" necessarily, but it's just "a-lot-a-dramatic."

3. The writing itself is too beautiful, too powerful, too dramatic, or too rich for too long.

While most of us are usually trying to render things on the page more beautifully or powerfully, other writers' words may have too much of that.

It's the triple chocolate analogy again.

It may be the best triple chocolate ever created.

But most mortals can't keep eating it. It'll make them sick.

This kind of writing is not to be confused with purple prose, which is a specific style of writing that happens when a writer is trying to write beautifully, powerfully, or dramatically, but hasn't learned the techniques yet of how to actually do that.

No, this situation happens to writers who actually know how to render things that way on the page, but they just render it too strong for too long, to the point that it's difficult for the reader to keep taking it in, cognitively.

When that happens, it's time to tone it down.

 4. You have too many excellent ideas too close together. 

As writers, we may feel like we get a million ideas, sometimes even for a single scene (other times we pray to the heavens that the muse will just please give us at least one to get us started).

Here's the thing.

All the ideas we choose to put on the page may actually be really great, really amazing, really excellent ideas.

But it's possible that keeping all of them is just too much awesome for the reader to ingest at once. We've added more and more chocolate. It's amazing.

But they can't eat it.

In some cases, having too many good ideas too close together can actually muddy the story and make it confusing. It's hard for the audience to know which component is meant to have their focus. And there is so much, the audience can't appreciate each individual piece.

Now, you can get away with a lot of excellent ideas.

But like the other three, it is possible to go overboard in some situations.

Unless you read a lot of unpublished fiction, chances are you probably haven't actually encountered what it's like to try to read passages that are literally simply too strong to ingest. Even with 7+ years of editing, I still have only seen it, at most, a dozen times. But it's a real thing, and I want my followers to know it can happen.

Maybe you have struggled to become a great writer for years. Well, the strengths you have worked so hard to nail can actually become weaknesses if you aren't willing to back away from the ganache. Congratulations, you have succeeded in learning how to render power on the page.

But the story still needs to be digestible.

It sucks, right? But there may be times where, for the sake of the reader, you may need to actually weaken your passages so they can enjoy them.

How to Weaken a Passage

If you've made it to the point where your passages are too strong, there may be a good chance that you'll have a mini panic attack with what I'm about to say. After all, most of these are no-no's--because they can weaken writing. You've probably sworn a lot of them off so you could write powerfully (which is maybe part of the problem).

1. Tell, Don't Show

One of the first, most basic rules we learn as writers is to "show, don't tell." This is because telling is weak, nonspecific, and can keep the reader from being fully immersed in the story.

All horrible qualities that might be perfect for weakening a passage.

Just so there is no confusing, telling absolutely has a place in storytelling and should be present in 99.9% of novels. But showing should be used more.

If your passage is too strong, you might want to swap out some of the showing for telling, which will make it easier on the reader.

I recently did this. Instead of showing that my character was mad, I simply stated it on the page: "He felt mad."--definitely weaker and (unfortunately) just what the scene needed. In some cases, you may need to just label the emotion rather than fully render it.

2. Deviate the Reader's Experience

This relates to my second method, which is deviating the reader's experience from the character's. When we tell, the reader is naturally less immersed in the real events in the story, which means there is a slight (however small in some cases) deviation.

Our characters are experiencing powerful things. Sometimes that power accumulates and becomes too much if we don't deviate enough in the manuscript. You can weaken a passage with this method by using the right subtext, tone, or by telling.

For more on this technique and when and how to use it, see "Deviating the Reader's Experience from the Character's."

3. Use To-Be Verbs

To-be verbs (am, is, are, was, were, been, being) are naturally weak because they don't actually convey anything except "existence." This is one of several reasons why new writers are told not to use them.

But when a passage is too strong, it's definitely an option to consider.

If the passage is written too beautifully and dramatically, to-be verbs will help tone that down.

If the passage has too many excellent ideas to take in, to-be verbs can naturally make it easier for the audience to take in, cognitively (precisely because they don't actually tell us anything but "existence.")

They can also tone down just about any strong passage, but those are two instances where they may be particularly helpful.

4. Cut Word Count

This might seem like stating the obvious. The smaller your triple chocolate dessert is, the more likely the consumer can actually eat the whole thing. Shorten the powerful passage to make it easier on the reader. Cut words or cut concepts in the passage itself. Save the power and length for what matters most, what is most significant. This article relates.

(Note: However, weirdly, in other situations, you may actually need to add more length--add more vanilla writing to spread out the bites of pure chocolate.)

5. Use Vanilla Words

Some words are naturally simplistic. The to-be verbs are an example. The word "guess" is simpler than "hypothesize." Look for opportunities to use simpler words to add the vanilla.

Look for words that have these qualities:

Short Syllables - Use words that have few syllables. Choose the word "dance" over "promenade," for example.

Familiar > Unusual - Choose words and concepts that are more familiar or common to the audience. For example, choose "guess" instead of "hypothesize."

Simple > Complex - Similarly, choose words and concepts that are simpler. The more technical you get, the more the audience needs to slow down and digest.

By following these techniques, you should be able to weaken your Hulk-smash-power passage, and the hardest part should be a broken writer heart at having to.

Monday, April 22, 2019

How to Convey an Established Relationship Quickly

I was once reading two story openings that were frankly amazing at conveying an established relationship in a matter of pages or even paragraphs. Many stories revolve around the protagonist meeting new people, such as in a typical Hero’s Journey plot. But perhaps even more stories (and often including even the Hero’s Journey to some extent) revolve around relationships that are established before the novel begins.

Many new writers have a difficult time conveying such relationships quickly, and to be honest, it can even be tricky for more experienced writers to figure out sometimes, especially if the relationship is very significant.

Whether you are working with best friends, significant others, parents and children, schoolmates, rivals, or downright enemies, here are several methods to help with that.

1. Communicate What’s Normal. 

Every established relationship has been . . . well . . . established, meaning it has behaviors and attitudes that are typical in it. In one of the story openings I read, the protagonist had to deal with two, mean, cruel older sisters. First the meanness was rendered, and then validated through narration. In the second one, what was normal of two brothers was simply conveyed through the way they talked to one another. In both cases, I immediately had context for what was typical.

2. Refer to or Imply an Off-Page History. 

Every established relationship has a history: how the characters met, what events have taken place between them, and how they got to where they are now. In some cases, they may have a “reoccurring history.” For example, every Saturday they happened to both be at the dog park, and that’s how they became friends (or enemies).

3. Have a Character Predict How the Other Will Behave or React. 

This immediately conveys that these two people know each other very well. Again, it can be more reoccurring: “Samantha always got cranky when she ran out of chocolate.” Or a specific moment: “I could already picture Monica’s eye roll before I delivered the news.”

4. If the Relationship is Long-Term, Give Us a Sense of How it has Changed. 

A lot can change between first falling in love and being married for ten years. Whether it’s a friendship, partnership, or even an enemy, naturally there will be some degree of growth or at least change. Give us a glimpse of how the relationship we see on the page now is different than it was before.

5. Round out Likeness with Foiling, or Opposition with Likeness. 

One of the mistakes that is easy to make is to have participants in a positive relationship exactly the same, or participants in a negative relationship exactly opposites. But almost nothing can make a relationship feel more authentic and well-rounded quicker than having some of both. This means that even two best friends should disagree with or dislike each other to some extent, in some aspect. It’s better if you can even make them opposites in some way. On the other hand, with an enemy, there should be some similarity and likeness between the characters, maybe even admiration (even if the viewpoint character doesn’t want to admit it). This will immediately make the relationship feel more complex.

For a more in-depth look at these some of these points and at creating powerful positive relationships between characters, check out my article "Creating Relationships Readers Can't Resist."

Monday, April 15, 2019

Story Structure Explained: Climax, Denouement, Epilogues, and Endings

Endings tend to be a bit easier to write, because you've already set everything up and now you're resolving conflict after conflict, but the story can still blow up in your face if you don't handle it right. Or maybe you are one of the more uncommon writers that really struggles with endings. In either case, this article will help you structure the last portion of your story right.

Here is the (hybrid) structure I'm following, with the pieces we've talked about over the last few weeks now filled in:

Beginning ("Orphan" State)
(Prologue)--primary function is to make promises to the reader
Hook--draws the audience in by getting them to look forward (in openings, contrasts work well in particular)
Setup--establishes the current sense of "normal" while introducing key story elements
Plot Point 1 (or "Inciting Incident")--disrupts the normal and sends protagonist in a new direction.

Character arc and theme are introduced. Usually at this state, the protagonist believes in (or illustrates) a "false" thematic statement.

Middle ("Wanderer" State)
After Plot Point 1--the protagonist is reacting and responding to what's happening, while perhaps accumulating friends, mentors, love interests, etc.
Pinch Point--The antagonist applies pressure to the protagonist and is shown to be a formidable foe
Midpoint--Something new enters the story or the context shifts and the protagonist moves from reacting to acting. She becomes more proactive.

The theme is questioned, explored, and tested, usually through multiple characters. The character is confronted with and illustrates his weakness.

Costs and stakes escalate by either getting bigger or more personal or both.

Middle ("Warrior" State)
After the Midpoint--Now empowered, the character is more proactive in trying to defeat the antagonist
Pinch Point 2--The antagonist applies pressure to the protagonist and is shown to be an even stronger, formidable foe
Plot Point 2--Made up of two parts: "The Darkest Hour" and "The Final Puzzle Piece." Protagonist moves into a "martyr" state.

The characters struggle with their inner demons, testing the thematic statement.

Costs and stakes continue to escalate.

Ending ("Martyr" State)

These parts belong in the ending, which is what I'm talking about today. 


We've grabbed the audience and setup the story in the beginning; disrupted the protagonist's sense of normal with the inciting incident; hiked up stakes and costs; questioned, explored, and tested the thematic threads; applied pressure through pinch points; and moved our hero from a warrior to a martyr as they experienced the "Darkest Hour" and put together the "Final Puzzle Piece."

To be fair, that last bit sometimes happens during the climax. During the final battle, the protagonist may experience the darkest hour and put together the final puzzle piece, completing their character arc, and finally reaching the "martyr" state.

Nothing in writing is purely black and white. And there are always variations and exceptions. And when it comes to story structure, some of it depends on how and where you decide to slice and dice it.


In the climax, the protagonist faces the antagonistic forces head-on, ready for the final battle that determines who (or what) wins the established conflicts.

Remember all those conflicts, stakes, costs, arcs, and themes you setup?

Now it's time to test, prove, and resolve them in the showdown.

It's hard to be exact on what needs to happen in the climax, because a lot of it will depend on what came before.

There might be a twist, surprise, or devastating cost.

But to be most effective and most successful, whatever is in there, needs to have been at least foreshadowed prior to this moment in some degree. It can be twisted. It can be shifted. It can be bigger or worse than expected. But it usually needs to be at least alluded to prior. If not, the audience may feel cheated; if it's something that helps the hero win, it's likely a deus ex machina.

Promises made (almost always) need to be kept. So if you promised a battle with a dragon, it better be there.

If promises aren't kept, whatever happens needs to be just as significant or more significant than what was promised. For example, maybe the monster is actually something worse, more terrifying, more formidable than the promised dragon.

In great climaxes, the story exceeds the expectations.

Stakes and costs will be escalated yet again. This is it. Everything is on the line.

Additionally, the climax is a great place to cross opposites--cross the broadest conflicts with the most personal conflicts for maximum impact. Character arcs are usually finished by the end of the climax, proving the thematic statement.

Often during the climax the protagonist will ultimately have to face the antagonistic force alone. The hero should ultimately be the savior, or in rare cases, if she can't literally, makes a final sacrifice that allows the others to deal the death blow.

For a more in depth look at some of these mentioned elements, see my article "How to Write Exceptional Endings."

In Spider-verse

The climax begins when the heroes confront the villains at the collider in the final fight. The heroes hope to return to their dimensions and Miles hopes to save Brooklyn. The antagonist, Kingpin, is set on seizing his wife and son from another dimension no matter the cost. He's willing to kill heroes, civilians, and destroy his own dimension. Those conflicts must now be resolved.

Stakes and costs are escalated. This is the moment where the protagonist could die, something he is reminded of when Kingpin taunts, "Not even the real Spider-man could defeat me. Why do you think you'd be any different?" The cost is the real deal.

The stakes are escalated in that multiple dimensions are coming into Miles's dimension.

Character arcs. Usually by the end of the climax, character arcs have been completed. The most personal, internal conflicts cross paths with the broadest conflicts. And the ugly inner demons may raise their heads one last time in the final fight. Peter B. Parker reveals he wants to stay in this dimension and die so that he doesn't have to go home to face his failures with Mary Jane. When attacking Kingpin alone, Miles gets brutally beaten and struggles to get up. Gwen comes to terms with making friends again.

Themes. After having been explored and questioned through the middle, the themes are finally tested and proven. Miles does get back up after getting knocked down. Peter B. Parker does return to his dimension to face his personal problems. Gwen Stacy does make friends with each of them. But the theme is also refined. Is there really any garantee that if you always want to get back up that everything will work out? Not necessarily. After all, the Peter Parker from the beginning, who was the epitome of the thematic statement, died despite having it all. Prowler, who at one point says, "You know me, sir. I never quit," didn't follow through when he realized the person he was trying to kill was his nephew, and Prowler died from that choice. Even Peter B. Parker remarks at one point, "Not everything works out." Which is why the sub themes of choice and faith come in.

Peter: How do I know I won't mess it up again?

Miles: You won't.

Peter: . . . It's a leap of faith.

So Peter chooses to go back and take that leap of faith.

However, as the ending continues it's shown that not quitting will get you further than you ever thought possible, as is exemplified when Miles says, "I'm doing all sorts of things I never thought I'd be able to. Anyone can wear the mask. You can wear the mask," which finally extends the theme to the audience. YOU can do all sorts of things you never thought you could do, as long as you always get back up.

Everything in the final showdown is foreshadowed in some way prior. 

Promises are kept. Miles and the other Spider people face off Kingpin and the villains in a battle over the collider that could destroy Brooklyn.

Expectations are Exceeded. In this story, other, seemingly insignificant elements are brought back in during the final battle to help exceed our expectations. That ridiculous shoulder touch thing Aaron teaches Miles? Miles uses it defeat Kingpin. The stupid cartoony stuff about the pig? He's literally using cartoon elements to fight, dropping anvils and pulling out items that are way to big to fit in his pockets. Everywhere during this fight scene, elements that have been present elsewhere are coming back into play for a stronger impact. Remember that, find ways to resonate with what happened earlier in the story.

Protagonist faces antagonist alone. After sending everyone to their proper dimensions, Miles faces Kingpin alone for one final fight, where his character arc and newfound abilities are proven. Some of the best elements of this moment come from the writers playing the concept of the "orphan" state. Remember how most heroes start in a literal or figurative orphan state? This whole time, Kingpin has been trying to get his family back--he's in an "orphan" state too! What does he say in the final fight to Miles? "I'm going to make sure you never see your family again!" What does Miles say? "I'll always have my family." And to top it off, the person Miles was most "orphaned" from, his father, is there watching and now supporting him ("Get up Spider-man! Get up!"). Miles is no longer alone. He has friends and family. And he gets back up and defeats Kingpin.

Martyr State 

During the ending of the story, the protagonist is in a "martyr" state, which I talked about last time.  Like all the other states, it can be literal or figurative. But at this point in the story, the heroine has sacrificed or is willing to sacrifice her "life." In some cases, this is literal. Frodo in Lord of the Rings and Harry in Harry Potter, are literally willing to sacrifice their lives in order to defeat the antagonist. In many cases, it is figurative. Christopher Robin in Christopher Robin is willing to sacrifice his lifestyle. Hamilton is willing to sacrifice his most extreme characteristic: his resolve to never throw away his shot.

In the ending, we must see that the protagonist is truly ready to sacrifice or give up whatever has been holding him back from success.

This change will then be validated in the denouement.

In Spider-verse

Miles enters the marytr state when he truly commits to give up giving up. It turns out that's what has been holding him back this entire time, even in his personal life, and in school. He doesn't want to work hard. He doesn't want to be amazing. He doesn't want to deal with expectations. He wants to quit. Quitting is easy. Getting up over and over and over again is hard. But when he truly sacrifices his natural tendency, he starts being successful. And the ending proves that it works.


The antagonist has been defeated, so now that means we need to hurry and end the story right? Wrong. Partially. Denouements are another element in storytelling that I feel are often misunderstood. It's not just about ending the story quickly. It about validating everything that has changed.

Remember all the crazy things we've just dragged the audience through? Well, we need to validate that all those things actually happened and that the sacrifices paid off (in some rare endings, you may be validating that those sacrifices didn't pay off, but let's stick with the general for today). In a romance, you need to validate that the couple are actually together and in a great relationship--this might be done with a marriage or marriage proposal. If anyone died, we need that validated--we may need to see the protagonist attend a funeral. If the antagonist has really been defeated, we need to see that their power is gone from this world.

What we do not want to do is end the story by undercutting the entire experience we just created. This is just another reason why a story that ends with "it was all a dream" is so horrific. It undermines everything. Another example of this is Lost, where audiences found out at the end that the characters had just been dead the entire time. This doesn't mean you can't ever have loose ends, but you should not undermine everything you just slaved so hard to make.

The denouement also complements and foils the setup. While the setup works to establish a current normal, the denouement works to establish a new normal. So often in a lot of stories (and this relates to the Hero's Journey story structure), you'll see direct similarities between the setup and the denouement. At the beginning and end of (almost) every Harry Potter book, Harry starts at his aunt and uncle's and ends there, and yet things have changed.

If there are any loose ends or unresolved conflicts, they will typically be addressed and handled in the denouement. 

In a series, the denouement may function a little differently. You will be validating the major changes of the story, but may leave or suggest loose threads that will play a part in the next story.

Never forget Mickey Spillane's sound advice: "The first chapter sells the book; the last chapter sells the next book."

This is true for any book, series or not. If it's a series, it sells the next installment. If it's not, it leaves people wanting to buy the next book you write.

In some stories, the denouement may actually be one of the most powerful parts, because you are validating one change after another after another in a short amount of space, so it has a profound emotional impact. (Almost) Never skimp out on it.

However, like the setup, you don't want it to be too long either. Remember, they complement each other. Just like you don't want to give a play by play of "normal" in the setup (super boring), you don't want to give a play by play of the new normal in the denouement. Validate and convey what you need to and then move on. Keep it short enough to stay interesting but long enough to cover the important parts. 

In Spider-verse

The denouement succeeds in all these ways. It validates all the changes. Kingpin is officially caught (Miles shows him stuck in a web). The relationship between Miles's dad and himself (even as Spider-man) is repaired and at least tolerated. This is further validated by Miles saying, "I love you," when in the setup he refused to say it unless he had no choice. Now he means it and wants to say it.

Peni is shown safe in her own dimension repairing her robot. Spider-man noir is shown safe solving the Rubik's cube (one of his struggles). The pig is back in his dimension. Gwen Stacy is staring at a picture of her new friend. And Peter B. Parker, despite the fact he at one point would literally rather die, brings flowers to Mary Jane, in an attempt to repair their relationship.

Then we have the protagonist, Miles. What is he doing? He's attending school and applying himself. He's putting up his art with his dad. (See how these things directly complement the setup?) Which, in the process, validates the death of his uncle. He's being Spider-man. And he's no longer an orphan. "Whenever I feel alone, I remember my friends out there who get it." And best of all, he's overcome his internal weaknesses and embodied the true thematic statement: "I'm doing all sorts of things I never thought I'd be able to. Anyone can wear the mask. YOU can wear the mask."

All of us can do things we never thought we could do, as long as we get back up.

Do you see how powerful a properly crafted denouement can drive home the point?

Then at the very last second, we see that somehow Gwen Stacy is talking to Miles from her dimension. This creates a thread of a loose end. In other words, Spider-verse is one of those magic things that agents love to hear: a standalone story with series potential.

From another perspective, this moment simply shows the audience that all these characters may somehow be able to communicate with each other despite being in different dimensions. They aren't alone.


Like a prologue, your story may or may not need an epilogue, and some stories can work in either case. Epilogues function mainly in two different ways.

1. They offer additional needed closure. In some stories you may not be able to tie everything up in the denouement. You may need an epilogue to finish it out. This can be especially true if it seems "too soon" to close some unresolved components in the denouement. 

2. They start more loose threads. If you have another installment planned after this one, an epilogue can promise that there is more to the story. This works well when you want a lot of closure for the current installment, but want to signal to the audience that there is more. You tie up everything in the denouement, but then start some new threads in an epilogue.

In a lot of ways, the epilogue complements the prologue in type and structure. It may be a bit theatrical. It may be a short teaser. It may close out the story in two different ways (one component is dealt with in the denouement and another is dealt with in the epilogue). It may provide an alternate viewpoint that didn't belong in the main story. It may be displaced in time. Or it may give additional information. Check out my article on the different types of prologues, and you'll see that it is so. 

In Spider-verse

Whether or not the after credits scene functions as a true epilogue is debatable. In some ways it does, and in some ways it's just a fun after credit scene to make people laugh. I'm leaning more toward the latter. But let's talk about it.

Of the two purposes above, it mostly fits into the second. It starts something new. We're introduced to another spider character who now has the ability to intentionally travel to other dimensions, successfully. What does that mean? Perhaps it's similar to Gwen talking to Miles at the end. These spider characters will interact with each other again. There is more to the story.

But as the scene plays out, it ends more as another opportunity to get one last laugh out of the audience. That's fine, for a superhero movie.

Or maybe that ending is intentionally ambiguous. One interpretation works better for a series, and the other works better for a standalone. Maybe the writers intentionally wanted to have it fit for either, as they wait and see if they can get funding and support for another film to happen.

Whatever the case, you can watch or read other epilogues and see how they either add more closure or add more loose threads.

And that's story structure explained.

Now what? Do you need to follow all these components to write a good story? Not necessarily. Heaven knows there are plenty of writers who are successful without knowing about these things at all. However, I will argue that whether it's intentional or not, most writers who write successful stories will hit the majority of these components in some way, even if it's completely done subconsciously. We've seen and been fed this story structure so much, from such young ages, that if we don't follow it to some degree, something will feel off or wrong, even if we can't pinpoint or communicate what it is exactly. In fact, we may even misdiagnose the problem. But if this has been helpful to you, go ahead and use it. If you feel like it's paralyzing you, don't worry about it so much. This is meant to help, not hinder. Do what works for you. And there are other sliced and diced forms of story structure you can look into.

In the future I want to grab some other stories and break down how they fit these elements, briefly, so you guys have examples of how it works for vastly different narratives.


This article series was influenced by Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, the Seven Point Story Structure, Million Dollar Outlines by David Farland, The Hero's Journey, and even the basics of Freytag's Pyramid.