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Thursday, December 2, 2021

The Annual Advent Calendar for Writers Starts Now! 14+ Giveaways

What's better than holidays?
What's better than presents?
What's better than writing?

Holidays, presents, AND writing.

The Advent Calendar for Writers Giveaway is back at Writers Helping Writers, meaning there’s over $2000 worth of writerly prizes up for grabs.

Angela and Becca hold this Advent event every year so you may have checked it out before. If you’re new to it, how it basically works is this: 

Visit this post each day between Dec. 1st & Dec. 14th.

Look for the Advent Window graphic & click it.

Discover an amazing prize that you can enter to win!

A new giveaway will be unlocked until all the giveaways are opened, and then you have until December 19th to enter. So head over and try to win yourself something amazing!

Spoiler alert:

Make sure to visit on Dec. 5th (this Sunday) because I’ve got something in the giveaway, too ... and you are going to want to win it!

P. S. Next time I'll be sharing a writing tip on working with protagonists who already have what they want or who don't have a clear goal (contrary to popular opinion, you can get pretty far into the story with a protagonist who doesn't have a strong, driving want, so I'm excited to talk about that). 

Monday, November 29, 2021

A New World: Tips on Building a Dystopian Setting

Hi, everyone! It's no secret that I am a fan of the dystopia genre. I still remember my first three dystopia reads: Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix, and later, The Giver by Lois Lowry and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. This week, writer Kelsie Haynes is here to share some of her tips on building a dystopian setting. 


Dystopian fiction is a kind of speculative fiction that deals with a world or society that is built on deprivation or oppression. These kinds of stories aren’t new, with the oldest one, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, dating back to 1921. However, Facts and Stories discusses that dystopian fiction continues to be appealing to people of all ages. This is because these works tend to contain commentary regarding how authorities abuse their power by imposing an authoritarian and collectivist society under the guise of protecting the people. Readers enjoy following characters who have the courage and wit to rebel against authority.

Despite this commonality, these novels still vary greatly, from themes to settings. To help you get started building your own dystopian world, below are a few tips to keep in mind.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Writers → Black Friday just landed early . . .

Story time! Earlier this year I was invited to participate in this amazing writing craft bundle from Infostack! I was super excited . . . and then? Life happened. Or rather, sickness happened. Nothing dreadfully serious, but it knocked me off my feet for a few weeks, and unfortunately? I had to pull out of the project ๐Ÿ˜•. (To be honest, I'm still a little sad about it.๐Ÿ’”๐ŸŽป) Luckily, I'm not the type to stay sad for long. Especially when the bundle still exists! And it's awesome! 

It even has one of my favorite writing resources from last year, The Structure of Story by Ross Hartmann (if you remember, I posted some praise on the book a year ago . . . and even more on social media) ๐Ÿ˜‰. But that's only the tip of the iceberg; there are 60+ other amazing resources--writing software, organizers, ebooks, ecourses, masterclasses, workbooks, planners, character guides, and . . . basically more than I can list ๐Ÿ˜…. Since it has about $6100+ worth of resources from contributors "handpicked" by Infostack for $49--it's basically the Black Friday deal of the year for authors (aspiring and otherwise).

Other than Ross Hartmann's book, the bundle also has several online classes from New York Times best-selling author David Farland, who has also taught successful writers such as Brandon Sanderson (Wheel of Time & The Way of Kings) and Brandon Mull (Fablehaven & Dragonwatch) . . . and if you've been following me long enough, you might remember I used to work for him ๐Ÿ˜‰, and I even helped put some of the classes together back then (Dave should have told me he was gonna be in the bundle too ๐Ÿ˜œ jk). 

It also has a resource from Lewis at The Novel Smithy (I've referred to some of his articles in some of my articles), software from Plottr (I was looking into that one . . . ๐Ÿค” ), and a product from Well-Storied (I've also referred to some of their articles)--in short, I think you can see why I was bummed about missing out ๐Ÿ™ˆ! But none of us need to miss out on all the great content. 

There's just one catch: The bundle won't be here for long. 

Click here to grab The Black Friday deal of the year for writers: The Writer's Craft 3.0 Bundle.

Keep in mind that Infostack includes a FULL 60 days to check out all the products included at zero risk. (Translation: You have until early next year to decide for yourself if this is the greatest deal of the year. If you aren’t satisfied, you get your money back. Period.)

If you are still on the fence, here are some other resources included:

The Bestselling Blurb Formula by Rebecca Hamilton
Book Series for Authors by Ray Brehm
Write & Publish a Book on the Side by Hassan Osman
How To Write Awesome Dialogue! For Fiction, Film, and Theatre with Bonus Material! by Tom Leveen
Three Story Method: Foundations of Fiction by J. Thorn
A Fantasy Writers’ Handbook by Richie Billing
The Pre-Write Project by Kristen Kieffer
The 6 Foundational Elements of Romance Fiction by Jessica Snyder

You can of course view all the resources on the Writer's Craft 3.0 product page.

This deal only lasts for . . . 


[this post contains affiliate links]

Monday, November 15, 2021

How "In Medias Res" Actually Works (& When to Use It)

I haven't ever done an article on in medias res in part because it's been covered so much in the writing world already, what could I really add to it that you probably haven't heard? Well, after looking around online . . . it turns out, quite a few things. I sometimes feel that in medias res gets misunderstood, and overused.

As most people who teach about in medias res will tell you within four seconds, "in medias res" is Latin that translates to "in the midst of things." In some ways, this is pretty straightforward: Instead of starting a story with exposition or setup, you start with the action or conflict. Most people will cite that this will grab the reader and draw them into the story.

As someone who has read thousands of unpublished manuscript openings though, I'll tell you that a lot of times, it doesn't. But I'm getting ahead of myself, let me backtrack a bit (speaking of starting something in the "middle of things" ๐Ÿ˜‰)

Back when I was a "young" writer, when the topic came up of how to start a story, it was often, if not almost immediately, followed up by talking about in medias res. "If you don't know how to start the story, start in medias res"--I was told time and again. 

So like many people, I thought that if I had bombs going off or someone dying in the first paragraph, that it would for sure hook the audience and get them to keep reading--and it'd be a great opening too! 

Years later, when navigating submission piles, it soon became apparent to me that this often wasn't the best way to start. I could only handle so many "bombs going off" (metaphorically or literally) and "war battles" (metaphorically or literally), and I could only handle them for so long . . . before they got boring. (And to add to it, often newer writers, in their efforts to make it "exciting," make it unnecessarily graphic to the point of being grotesque.)

In contrast to what many people teach, in medias res can actually get rather boring within paragraphs or pages if it isn't done well. Because in medias res means cutting off the exposition and setup, it also means cutting off the context. If I have no clue who to care about, how we got here, and why what is happening matters, it can be really difficult to get invested in the story. After reading several paragraphs of people being run through with swords, I start wondering, Why does this matter? And why do I care?

And immediately teaching about in medias res when someone asks how to start a story often isn't a great way to teach how to start a story. After all--you're actually cutting off the starting of the story.

Of course, like anything, beginning in medias res can be great when done well and for the right effect. But in order to do that, you need to understand how it actually works and what that effect is. 

For starters, it's helpful to not think of in medias res as only being used for story openings. You can use in medias res for any scene at any point in the story. So let's talk about how this works on the scene level, and then talk about it on the narrative level.

In Medias Res in Scenes

Typically, a scene is defined as a unit of action that takes place in a single location and continuous time. But this definition is certainly not perfect and the boundaries can get blurry fast with the right examples. However, I think most can agree that a scene is one of the smallest recognized structural units in a story.

And all structural units--whether they're a scene, sequence, act, or whole story--fit into this shape:

A scene will usually start with a hook and setup, followed by rising action (conflict), a climax, and a falling action. In some cases, some of these may be left out, but scenes almost always contain these things.

You can find slightly different approaches to scene structure from different sources. 

For example, recently, I talked about scene structure according to Dwight V. Swain, who is famous for his approach. (In fact, his approach may arguably be the most famous.)

He recognizes two types of the smallest structural unit: scene and sequel (you can learn about them in more detail in "Scene Structure According to Swain" and "Sequel Structure According to Swain.")

The scene is made up of three parts: goal, conflict, and disaster. And the sequel is also made up of three parts: reaction, dilemma, decision. But regardless, both still fit into the structure above.

In medias res means "in the midst of things," so instead of starting with the hook and setup, you drop the audience right into the rising action, or in some cases, even climax. (And the conflict or climax often becomes the hook.)

The setup portion is used to ground the audience in the scene--it conveys when and where the scene takes place, who is in the scene, the character's goal, may lay out the stakes, and if there are multiple viewpoint characters, will clue the audience into whose viewpoint they are in. (For more on all this and scene openings, see "4 Key Elements of Scene Openings.") This orients the reader and gives context for what is about to happen. It gives meaning to the rising action.

When you start in medias res, the audience lacks this context.

In this way, beginning in medias res is a lot like writing a teaser, which also works off a lack of context. In a teaser, the whole point is to tease the audience through a lack of context. The teaser promises that if the audience keeps reading, they will get more context to understand what just happened. This is often a great way to use in medias res.

But just like a teaser, the audience won't stick around if context is withheld from them for too long. Like me going through submission piles, they start wondering, Why does this matter? And why should I care? Teasers only work well when they are short. 

So, when you start in medias res, the audience can only handle so much of being "in the midst of things" before getting antsy for information. Contrary to what many writing instructors might advise, I would argue that starting in medias res is often harder, because the writer must fill the audience in on everything they are missing--and they must do it sooner rather than later. And often for newer writers, this leads to big dumps of information, setting, worldbuilding, characterization, stakes, goals--and whatever else--in the middle of conflict and action. Or, it might lead to the dreaded flashback. This is a tough situation to be in, even for the best of us, because one small reason that stuff is in the setup is so it doesn't clutter and kill the pacing of the conflict. It's so we can focus on the conflict.

Sure, some context will be easy to squeeze into the rising action. For example, you can convey the viewpoint character rather quickly. In fact, you can slip in most information in a line or two if you are well-practiced. But the problem is, it's often a line or two per thing: goal, character, stakes, setting, motive, and any other background info. That's a tall order.

Now, with all that said, you may think I'm against starting in medias res. I'm not. I'm just pointing out how difficult it can be, especially for newer writers, and yet we are often telling them to do it. I mean, no wonder beginning writers have so many flashbacks and info-dumps in their openings--they're being (indirectly) led to do that.

In medias res can work great in a few situations:

As a teaser: As stated above, starting in medias res is a lot like writing a teaser. The audience doesn't know the full context, and that's the point. The promise is that they will get more information if they keep reading, so instead of being drawn into the story because of the goals, stakes, and conflict, they are drawn into the story because of mystery, intrigue, and curiosity. The tone of the story is often conveyed, cluing the audience into what sort of emotions they can expect if they stick around. The audience won't stick around for long without important context, so the scene either needs to be brief, or the text needs to start filling the audience in after teasing them.

The setup information doesn't really matter: Sometimes how the character got to the rising action of the scene isn't really important to the story. For example, a story may open with a sword fight in medias res, but the fight doesn't really matter that much to the actual plot. It might instead be used to showcase the protagonist. Reading about a sword fight with no context can get boring. Reading about a sword fight told through a strong viewpoint character can be fascinating. And if he does a lot of sword fighting and is skilled in it, this might be an excellent way to illustrate that. You will of course still need to fill in some setup. But because the conflict itself isn't vital, you won't need to struggle explaining everything that led to this moment. 

Other times the conflict does matter because the result kicks the plot in a new trajectory by affecting what happens next, but the setup isn't important because it's simple, mundane, obvious, or easily implied. It doesn't really need to take up that space to set the stage. For example, say we have a scene where some kids are playing hide-and-seek in the woods and one finds a treasure chest. The setup (which would involve starting the game) may not be very important. So instead, we might start with the "seeker" already finding one or two kids. Finding the treasure will be the scene's turning point, and change the direction of the plot as the kids decide what to do with the coins and jewels.

The audience already knows the setup: If you are writing about a famous event, such as 9/11 or Lincoln's assassination, you may not need to include the setup--the audience already knows what led to the conflict or climactic moment. 

Other than that, if the in medias res scene isn't the opening scene, then it's possible a prior scene already established enough of the setup. The audience knows the goal and stakes, the time and place, because it was stated or implied. So instead, we can cut right to the action.

With all this said, almost no scene requires you start in medias res. So rather than stress if a scene should start in medias res, ask yourself if starting in medias res is more effective for the story you want tell.

In Medias Res in Narrative Arcs

Because all structural units follow the same shape . . . 

. . . you can essentially do this to the story as a whole.

The setup of a whole story covers about everything prior to the inciting incident. The inciting incident is a disruption that kicks off the plot of the story and is either a problem or an opportunity for the protagonist. The setup introduces us to the characters, setting, and establishes a sense of what's normal. 

While uncommon, it's not impossible to start the story with the inciting incident. It's even technically possible to start a story after the inciting incident. However, I hesitate to go too deep into that, because I think the terminology and definition can get blurry and gray pretty fast. Nonetheless, it wasn't uncommon in literature of the past to cut the beginnings and endings off short stories, with the idea that a strong middle will imply both the beginning and the ending. 

If your opening scene includes the inciting incident or takes place after the inciting incident, you'll likely need to introduce the characters, setting, goals, motives, and stakes afterward as the story progresses--unless most of that prior to the inciting incident isn't really important to the story (which rarely is the case). This information can be filled in through flashbacks, dialogue, and narration. Like with scenes, this can be a tall order, because we don't want to lose the sense of immediacy or slow down the story with info-dumps. With that said, you often have to fill in some backstory regardless of where the story opens in the narrative arc. It's just that in medias res, you'll likely need to fill in more and be more careful and clever about it.

A more common approach is to take a scene from the rising action or climax of the story and insert it at the beginning. This works as a sort of teaser for the audience. An obvious example of this happens in Twilight, where Stephenie Meyer takes a passage from the climax and puts it at the beginning of the story as a short preface. The story will then go back and start the setup. The teaser draws the audience in, and as they get to the setup, they wonder how the character ends up in the later situation.

Sometimes the scene is strictly plot driven, such as someone finding a dead body, a victim who was clearly murdered. When the story goes back to the setup, the audience wonders what led to that moment. Who killed that person? And why? They'll now be watching for "clues" as the story goes back to the beginning.

In order to pull this off well, the teaserly scene should not spoil the actual story. I've heard of a t.v. show that did just that--actually spoiled the whole build up in the first episode. Of course, you didn't realize that until you got closer to the climax--and by then, what's the point if you already know the answer to the questions being posed?

In any case, just as with the other section, starting a story with any narrative in medias res can create a sense of mystery and intrigue, by stirring up curiosity. This is because the audience lacks full context. Like with teasers, they'll now be watching and waiting for the context.

However, unlike with in medias res scenes, in narrative in medias res, the audience is willing to wait longer for the context of the story as a whole. They understand the moment comes from later in the narrative. As long as they have scene-level context quickly--so they can actually enjoy and follow the story--they'll be willing to take the journey to get narrative-level answers.

To be honest, I don't see many novels or short stories that open in narrative in medias res. It's something I feel is more common to film. And in a way, the second type, where you take a scene and plug it in at the beginning, can sorta feel like cheating, but it can work well in stories that have a calm setup and slower rising action. By teasing what comes later, you get the audience to stick around. And the contrast between high stakes or tension and then a calm beginning can often be intriguing. It certainly can be done well.

And of course, if you want the audience to be on the lookout for "clues," then it might be a great way to start too.

Just like scene-level in medias res, narrative in medias res is rarely required. Ask yourself if starting in medias res is more effective for your story.

Check out this great in medias res diagram from TV Tropes

Opening in Medias Res (Among Other Things)

As stated above, when people talk about in medias res, it's usually in reference to the opening of a story. This is done either on the scene level or on the narrative level. 

Your opening scene may skip its setup and start right with the conflict.

Or, the opening scene may come directly from the rising action or climax of the whole story.

Arguably, you can look at in medias res in other ways as well--just as there are scene level and narrative level ways to execute it, there are arguably sequence levels and act levels. One may argue that an important backstory (such as the protagonist's "ghost" or "wound") also has its own narrative arc, and a story may open with a prologue "in medias res" of that narrative arc. But that's all more intense (and confusing) than what I want to go into for now. 

Also, like with many writing terms, not everyone views in medias res the exact same way. There are slightly different definitions and interpretations of it floating around. But hopefully this article gave you a more defined understanding of how it actually works and when to use it.

Monday, November 8, 2021

Making Characters Stuck in the Background Pop Out

Maybe you have had some of the experiences I've had when working on a project, one of which is finding yourself with a character--could be a side character, a secondary character, or even a viewpoint character--who seems to be sort of stuck in the background of the story when he's not really supposed to be. In your head, he's a great character, and maybe you even want to showcase him, but for some reason, on the page, he just doesn't shine. Sometimes this sort of thing even happens with the protagonist. Here are four tips to help make characters stuck in the background pop out.

Give Your Character Defined Attributes

You may be familiar with the idea of "tagging" your character--giving your character attributes or key words that are regularly referenced. For example, Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is regularly described with the color pink, wearing a bow, "like a toad," and very short and stumpy. The Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, always has a bowler hat, and he usually takes it off and runs the brim of it through his hands.

If your character is stuck in the background, she may need some tags to help her pop out. Make sure you don't pick tags or details that are so generic, they are forgettable. Instead, be specific and telling.

Round out Your Character

Some characters get stuck in the background because they aren't rounded out as real individuals. I've seen this happen when editing manuscripts that have a heroine who is a borderline Mary Sue. Because she isn't rounded out as a real person, she sort of blends into the background. If this is the case, you'll need to flesh her out and give her some legitimate weaknesses that affect the story, instead of just flaws that are endearing side notes. A quick way to make a character feel rounder, is to make them embody a seeming contradiction--that will definitely help a character stand out. For other approaches on rounding out a character, see my article "Flat Characters vs. Round Characters," and find the subtitle "How to Make a Character Round."

Put Your Character in Situations that Show off His Traits and Abilities

There may be a good chance that the setups and situations you are putting your character in don't show off the defining traits you've given her. In the television show Sherlock, Sherlock Holmes is a self-proclaimed high-functioning sociopath, which means he doesn't relate well to people. That's a character trait that makes him interesting. But if we never put him in significant social situations and only put him in scenes where he solves cases, we never get to the depth or complexity of that character trait. It's never illustrated in a way that fully realizes it.

Other times, it's not so much a trait that isn't illustrated as it is a talent or ability. In Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, one of the main characters, Violet, is an inventor. But if the plot never needed an invention to solve a problem, we'd never see how good Violet is at inventing something. 

If you don't put your character in situations that showcase her defining traits or talents and abilities, she can fade into the background.

Separate Her from "Loud" Characters

Some of your other characters may not necessarily be loud mouths (though they can be), but they are "loud" in that they beg for attention. Jack Sparrow in The Pirates of the Caribbean is a good example of this. He's perhaps the most entertaining and likeable character in the franchise, and when he's on the screen, people watch him. It's like you can't look away. You have to see what he will do or say or even what his mannerisms are. Sometimes we cannot fully appreciate Will or Elizabeth or Barbossa because we are so focused on Jack. If Jack were in every scene, we may not appreciate many of the other characters at all.

Luckily, the writers made sure to separate Jack regularly from many of the others. To make your background character pop out, you may need to do the same thing. And it doesn't need to be elaborate. Separate your "quieter" character from the "loud" ones, so that they can get some of the spotlight, even if it's just temporary. 

If none of these methods seem to work or relate to your story, you may want to consider revamping your character so that she is more relevant, or, if you need to, cut him altogether.

Monday, October 25, 2021

The 5 Types of Lines We Use to Craft Stories (and How to Use Them to Reveal Character)

Recently I was listening to a lecture from #1 New York Times best-selling author Brandon Sanderson where he listed four different kinds of lines we use to write stories--and while I knew each type existed, I had never really thought of listing them out and talking about them, and as I considered that, I also thought of another type he didn't mention. 

When it comes to actually writing a story (on a line-by-line level), you really only have five elements to do that with. And one of the differences between a beginning writer and a professional-level writer, is that a professional-level writer will convey more than what the lines are saying on the page--they'll convey more than the text itself. In contrast, a beginning writer often uses more words than necessary to convey concepts that the audience already understands. So while a professional writer tends to write text jam-packed with meaning, a beginning writer tends to write long-winded text with little meaning.

As an example of how to bring more meaning to text, I'm going to cover how each type of line can be used to reveal character (in part because this is what Sanderson does in his lecture). Beginning writers tend to write whole passages of introspection in the opening where nothing really happens--usually in an effort to convey character. But in reality, every kind of line can be used to reveal character nearly all the time. You don't have to bring the story to a grinding halt to do it--as long as you know how to do it. 

So let's go through the five types of lines we have in our arsenal. 

Monday, October 11, 2021

Eastern and Western Storytelling: The Origins, Development and Differences of Narratives at the Ends of the Earth

Hi everyone! For a while, I've been interested in exploring the differences between traditional Eastern and traditional Western storytelling. However, it's not something I feel qualified to write an article on. Luckily our guest today, Neil Wright, does, and I thought it might be something some of you would be interested in too. So here he is this week to tell us about the origins, development, and differences of Eastern and Western storytelling:


Eastern and Western Storytelling: The Origins, Development and Differences of Narratives at the Ends of the Earth

What does the world look like to you? The answer is subjective and depends a lot on your upbringing. Morals, desires, and even the idea of fun itself — seep into our consciousnesses via cultural osmosis from whichever part of the world we happened to grow up in. Cultures play a part in both orientating and distorting the human experience, and even command the power to manipulate our thoughts on life. 

Here are a few quick examples of how extremely different cultures can be: in the West few things are as reprehensible as cannibalism. Yet in Papua New Guinea eating the dead is an integral funeral rite and part of the celebrations. In Hindu India cows are sacred. In pretty much the rest of the world they are delicious to eat on a hamburger. 

What I’m trying to say is that, when you consider just how vastly different people behave around the world, and how those behaviours are manipulated by their upbringing and host cultures, it shouldn’t really be surprising to learn that how stories are told in other cultures can also be vastly different. 

Monday, October 4, 2021

Sequel Structure According to Swain

Last time, I started breaking down scene structure according to Dwight V. Swain, as found in his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. In my previous article, I talked about the components of scene: goal, conflict, and disaster. Today, I’ll explain what Swain calls "sequel." A sequel is what connects scenes. It also has three components: reaction, dilemma, and decision. 

But first, let’s review Swain’s components of scene, because they directly affect sequels.

Goal—the focal character of the scene should have a measurable, scene-level goal, and this should (usually) be clear to the audience at the beginning of the scene. The audience needs to know what the goal is, so they can measure progress and setbacks—otherwise, they are just watching (or reading) stuff happening. It also helps them get invested in the story.

Conflict—the focal character runs into opposition on their way to the goal. This opposition can be obvious and direct, or it can be less obvious and more indirect. Whatever it is, it needs to pose opposition to achieving the goal. This creates conflict. Conflict is the rising action of a scene, and should develop and escalate to a climactic moment or turning point.

Disaster—the conflict leads to an outcome. Either the character reaches the goal or she doesn’t. Whatever the case, something unanticipated—a “disaster”—enters the story and gives the character a new problem. (This is essentially the “No, and . . .” and “Yes, but . . .” technique.) Not all disasters need to be earth-shattering; they just need to be significant (have ramifications). But nearly all scenes should end on a "disaster," though Swain acknowledges that some scenes don’t.

Now we get to sequels.

Part Two: Sequel

"A sequel is a unit of transition that links two scenes. . . . It sets forth your focal character's reaction to the scene just completed, and provides him with motivation for the scene next to come." - Dwight V. Swain

The sequel will transition from the disaster to a new goalIn sequel, we follow a natural chain of logic. 


Our character just encountered a disaster. Naturally, the first thing he’s going to do is react to it. This is another great opportunity to reveal character. Is he angry? Crying? Self-defeating? Getting drunk? How does he cope with the situation? As the focal character tries to make sense and deal with what happened, we convey to the audience his state of mind. This is a moment to focus on the character's emotions. 

In the story's timeline, this reaction may be brief--especially if the character doesn't have much time to react. Or, it may take place over days, months, or even years--maybe he just can't move on after the disaster. 

Sequels are often where summary comes in handy. If a character is reacting to a disaster for weeks, the reader doesn't really want a play-by-play of that, and getting a play-by-play of that probably isn't important to the story (because there are no legit goals or conflicts during the reaction phase usually). And sometimes what the character does physically doesn't actually really matter, what matters is his reaction. So maybe the text summarizes him going to the bar every night to drink away his pain, but the summary is more focused on conveying his state of mind than anything that happens at the bar.

It's also worth mentioning that the focal character may not be the only person reacting to what happened. Swain says that not only is the reaction about the state of the mind, but about the state of affairs. For example, if a love interest died at the disaster, then the reaction segment may also lay out how that affects other characters, society, or the setting. Maybe now her child is going to have to move to another city with his other parent, and the focal character is never going to see him again--maybe they were developing a strong bond. Maybe the love interest's will needs to be dealt with. Or maybe with her dead, no one knows how to defeat the antagonist, since she was a key player on their journey. Maybe it looks like they've already lost to the antagonist. 

What is the character going to do now? This leads us into "dilemma."


The character needs to consider what to do next. Often none of his choices sound promising. And as the character goes through different options, the reader also gets to consider which road she'd probably take if she were in that situation.

While the reaction phase is more focused on emotion, the dilemma is more focused on logic. The character tries to work out logically what the best course is forward. It's usually a good idea if there is a stake in play that prevents him from quitting the situation altogether--I mean, we still want to have a plot for the story. 

Basically, the character is considering different paths to take and their potential outcomes, so this is a place for him to recall or recognize different stakes. What does he have to lose, and what does he have to gain? And which path is most feasible and likely to best balance that? Depending on the character, the situation, and the length of the sequel, he may turn to other sources to help him make up his mind. For example, he might get advice from friends or do some research online. 


Eventually, the character comes to a decision. Sometimes he logically or rationally works his way to a new path--maybe by himself, or maybe with advice from others. Other times he has a revelation that makes the decision clearer. This might come as an epiphany, or it might be that his research uncovers something. Anyhow, new information enters, and he now knows what to do. 

His decision, of course, needs to be somewhat believable. This is why we spent time with reaction and dilemma. Even if he chooses something ridiculous, the audience needs to believe--given his emotions and thought process--that he'd make that decision. 

This decision gives him a new goal, which takes us into the next scene.

Example: Chihiro passes to the spirit world in Spirited Away

Reaction: Terrified that she's turning transparent and spirits are appearing, Chihiro runs away to a dark, lonely area, and begins rocking back and forth in shock, crying.

Dilemma: Haku arrives and offers some options of action. He says she needs to eat this berry, so she doesn't disappear. She resists at first, unsure if she wants to go that route, but it's either that or disappear. She wonders about her parents and what to do about them. We get a glimpse of an antagonistic force, and Haku explains that the antagonist is looking for her, and she can't stay here (stakes). 

Decision: Chihiro eats the berry and returns to normal. She stands to follow Haku to the bath (admittedly, he sorta pulls her along, but she does choose to stand). Haku explains Chihiro must get a job at the bathhouse (new goal), and lays out more stakes. 

Some Points to Keep in Mind with Sequels

- Sequels help control pacing. In a fast-paced sequence or story, the sequels will typically be shorter. To slow down the overall pacing of a story, make the sequels longer.

- Swain points out that sequels help reinforce plausability. I think this is in part because you are taking time to render the emotions and logic that lead to the next goal (motivation). Stronger or longer sequels generally lead to more plausibility (within reason).

- In many stories, the longest sequel happens at the "Dark Night of the Soul" beat. 

- A sequel may be extremely brief, as a character may be forced to make a quick decision. She might not even have time to fully react to what just happened or really think out her choices. Her emotional reactions may be addressed more later, and she might think back on the decision she made and wonder if it was the best choice. This will happen when she has the chance to "catch her breath."

- I've regularly seen beginning writers try to start a story with sequel. While it can be done, this is rather tricky. Since the sequel is about reaction, this means the story starts with the character reacting to something that happened in the past, off page, which is rarely as interesting as following a character about to hit conflict. 

- Passages of introspection, characters recalling past incidences, and (mild ๐Ÿ˜‰) dumps of info usually fit best in sequels rather than scenes. In scenes they risk slowing pacing too much. In sequels, the audience doesn't mind a slower pace--they are still recovering from the scene.

Scenes & Sequels and Basic Structure

Some in the industry feel that scenes and sequels are actually two types of scenes. I know, it sounds confusing. But basically the SCENE as a structural unit can be either Swain's "scene" or Swain's "sequel." Swain doesn't actually say this in his book. However, I don't think that the claim is wrong. Like many things in structure, it depends on how you slice and dice it and what angle you look at it. I also think it depends on the story itself. 

A sequel can be very brief, or it can be rather long. If it's brief, it might be tagged on to the end of the "scene." If it's long, it may seem to make up its own SCENE. 

Most people define SCENE as a unit of action that takes place in a single location and continuous time. With this definition, a sequel could follow a scene without a break in time or a change in location, and thus it could be argued that together the parts make up one SCENE.

Alternatively, the sequel could happen in a different time and place, and by that definition, would be its own SCENE.

This is one of the reasons why learning about Swain's approach can be confusing to so many people. The sequel may or may not be a continuation of time and place, and it may be extremely brief or it may be rather long. It may be mostly summary, or it may be rendered in real time.

How you slice and dice and categorize it isn't super important though--what matters is that you understand each and their (usual) order: goal, conflict, disaster; reaction, dilemma, decision. 

We started this discussion with basic structure, so let's end this article by looking at that again. 

One might say that the sequel is really the falling action of the structure--especially if it is tagged on to the scene. In Techniques of the Selling Writer, Swain speaks as if sequel is the "valley" and scene is the "peak," but yet doesn't actually say that.

Alternatively, if the sequel seems to be its own SCENE, one may view it as having its own basic structure, with the climactic moment being the decision; the sequel is building up to that moment, and that moment turns the story. 

And of course, if this is all confusing to you, feel free to throw it out the window and just focus on the parts themselves and their order. I'm just explaining some things I wish someone would have explained to me when I was trying to learn this (and I still have more to learn).

Like any writing advice, don't get married to this. It's possible to take it to an extreme. Some pieces can get skipped or rearranged or may even overlap, depending on the needs of the story. (And I mean, to some degree, the character is constantly "reacting" to what's happening as it happens, and making small "decisions" along the way to the disaster). Swain says that as you learn the order and gain experience, you'll be able to "break the rules" to the right effect. Nonetheless, his approach can certainly come in handy when working on a scene . . . or SCENE--it all depends on how you look at it.

Read more articles on Swain's scene and sequel:

Writing Patterns Into Fiction: Scene and Sequel

How To Write A Gripping Scene

The Basics of Scene Structure: Action and Reaction

How to Structure Scenes in Your Story

Monday, September 27, 2021

Scene Structure According to Swain

While I've talked about scene structure on here before, I haven't covered one of the most famous approaches to scene structure, which comes from Dwight V. Swain, who categorizes the unit into "scenes" and "sequels." I've been introduced to this approach from various resources, but I wanted to wait until I read it straight out of Swain's book, Techniques of the Selling Writer, before covering it on here.

In the past, I've talked about how all structural segments really fit into this basic shape:

Whether it's a scene, sequence, act, or whole story. Nearly every scene should have a climactic moment, which is also called a "turning point." The bigger the structural segment, the bigger the turning point--meaning an act's turning point is going to have more ramifications than a scene-level turning point.

This is a great place to start understanding scene structure. 

But I've found that sometimes it doesn't feel specific enough to meet my needs. That's when I turn to Swain's approach.

The term "scene" can be a bit ambiguous in the writing world--people define it in slightly different ways (something worth keeping in mind whenever someone talks about scene structure). Typically, a scene is defined as a unit of action that takes place in a single location and continuous time. But this definition is certainly not perfect and the boundaries can get blurry fast with the right examples. However, I think most can agree that a scene is one of the smallest recognized structural units in a story. 

In his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer, Swain recognizes two types of the smallest structural unit. The first he calls "scene" and the second he calls "sequel."

"Scene" is where action takes place.

And "sequel" is where reaction takes place. 

And if you are already confused, don't fret. I'm going to break down each part. And if you don't get everything the first time, you're probably normal. I had to revisit this approach several times before it finally clicked. 

Let's talk about Swain's "scene."

Part One: Scene

"A scene is a unit of conflict lived through by the character and reader" - Dwight V. Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer

Earlier I talked about how a scene changes the direction of the story with a turning point. Swain echoes this assertion by saying the purpose of a scene is to move the story forward. 

He then breaks scene down into three pieces: goal, conflict, and disaster


Everyone pretty much wants something all of the time, and so does your character. We usually think of our character's goal as being overarching and taking the whole story to achieve--and while that's often certainly the case, the character should also have scene-level goals. Often the scene-level goal fits into the overarching plot goal. 

For example, in Spirited Away, Chihiro has the plot goal of saving her parents and returning to the human world. But within that goal, there are smaller goals along the way. In order to succeed in doing that, she has to get a job at the bathhouse first. After she gets hired, she has to prove herself worthy to stay. And to do that, she must succeed in cleaning a bath and serving a client. In order to clean the bath, she has to get an herbal soak token.

Sometimes the scene goal isn't obviously linked to the overarching goal, and a character may want multiple things. For example, in a later scene, Chihiro has the goal of remembering Haku's real name. While that's important to the relationship and thematic plotlines, it doesn't really affect her main goal of saving her parents and getting home, but it is another want she has.

In any case, I'll say that the goal should have significant stakes. This means that obtaining or not obtaining the scene goal affects the direction of the story--it has ramifications. It shouldn't be a goal whose outcome doesn't really change anything (generally speaking, as all rules have exceptions). Because Chihiro is able to remember Haku's name, Haku is able to leave the bathhouse himself. So meeting that goal still has significant consequences. However, if remembering his name didn't help him or change any outcomes, then it wouldn't be important and would probably be cut from the story.

Goals are important because they give the audience context for the plot. If there isn't a goal, then the audience can't measure whether what happens is progress or a setback. They are just watching things happen. Or, perhaps as the Cheshire Cat says, if you don't know where you want to go, then which way you go doesn't really matter. 

Because of this, almost always the audience should have a sense of the character's goal in the beginning of the scene. In some cases, the goal may be implied, because of what happened in previous scenes. Of course, there are situations where you may want to break this rule, such as when you want to write a teaser or create a sense of mystery, but let's keep this simple today.

Goals should almost always be concrete and specific. For example, cleaning a bath and getting an herbal soak token are things the audience can "see," and therefore measure the success of. If the goal is abstract, it should (usually) have concrete manifestations. For example, if a character wants to prove he loves someone (abstract), he may decide to send flowers and write a love letter (concrete). Successfully doing this is a smaller goal within a larger goal.


Now that the character has a goal, he'll run into some form of opposition, which creates conflict. This makes up the middle or rising action of the scene. I emphasize "opposition" because the conflict isn't just any problem, it's something in the way of the goal.

The opposition may be obvious and direct. For example, Wonder Woman may be confronting Ares, who is fighting directly against her goal of saving humans. Or perhaps, Frodo may be trying to escape the Ringwraiths, who want to take the Ring.

Other times it may be unobvious and somewhat indirect. It might be that a character wants to confess his love, but keeps getting interrupted by phone calls, his dog, or a wild wind that seems to steal his words. The opposition isn't necessarily trying to make him fail; it's just something in the way. But notice that it's still something that impedes his goal.

There are eight types of conflict, and any of them can be used to create opposition: person vs. self, person vs. person, person vs. society, person vs. nature, person vs. god, person vs. fate, person vs. the supernatural, person vs. technology. (Though of course, you need to use good judgment and pick what best suits your scene.) 

Because this makes up the rising action of basic structure, it's usually best if the conflict escalates. There needs to be complications and developments. Have the opposition get bigger and stronger as the scene progresses. Rehashing or lengthening the exact same thing isn't interesting. In our example of a character trying to confess his love, having his phone disrupt him the exact same way over and over gets boring (and annoying). Instead, it's more interesting if his phone disrupts him, then his dog jumps up and starts kissing his love interest, and then when he finally starts breaching the confession, a wild wind blows away his words, so he has to bring himself to say them again. Escalation.

Swain points out that conflict is important because it tests the character's dedication to the goal. It shows the audience how bad the character wants the goal. If the character gave up right away, he obviously doesn't want it very badly. But if he's willing to fight and struggle for it--that's much more interesting. And whatever is that important to him, is usually important to the story--it helps make up the plot. 


Eventually, the conflict comes to a close (if only on the scene level), and disaster strikes. 

While it's called "disaster," it need not always be earth-shattering. It just needs to be significant (i.e. the potential to change important future outcomes, meaning it has stakes). This is (almost) always something unanticipated. 

I admit that the way Swain himself describes "disaster" sounds a little vague. While his book is amazing and I recommend it, he has the tendency to explain concepts primarily through examples rather than by giving actual explanations. In any case, the disaster part is essentially what others refer to as "No, and . . . " and "Yes, but . . ." If you've never heard those terms, let me explain.

The character has a goal.

He faces conflict.

Does he get the goal?

If the answer is "no," then we add to the problem.

If the answer is "yes," then we add a new problem.

For example, say our character tries to confess his love. The wind steals his words, and in fact, it gets so wild that it completely ruins the moment, and they have to seek shelter. The character doesn't get the goal, and now he has another problem--a "disaster"--which is he needs to find shelter for himself and his love interest. 

Alternatively, say the wind steals his words, but he succeeds in his next attempt, confessing his love and winning the person of his dreams. Suddenly, the love interest's ex pulls up, gets out of his car, and aims a gun at him. New problem. Disaster. 

These might not sound like the most amazing examples, but they prove the point. A disaster throws the character toward a loss. The audience wonders, What will the character do now? Translation: The audience will want to keep reading. 

The disaster is essentially the outcome. But whatever the disaster is should (once again) have stakes/ramifications. In my "success" example, a wild wind may not be the greatest choice unless the wind actually threatens a serious outcome. Maybe it threatens to ruin something valuable that the love interest needs to deliver. Now getting out of the wind becomes more important. Obviously, an ex pointing a gun at the character has big stakes.

Swain acknowledges that not every scene needs to end in disaster. Sometimes the potential or promise for a disaster to come, is enough. He also says it's possible for the character to end the scene on a positive note . . . to set her up for a disappointment that's coming next. However, the tricky thing with doing that, is that the audience is now waiting for the antagonistic force to makes its move, rather than anticipating what the focal character is going to do next. And waiting for something to happen isn't as interesting as having to deal with a new problem.

The main idea is that you want the conflict to end with a hook--something that makes the reader look forward to a near-future point in the story (probably the next scene) and keep reading.  

Example: Chihiro passes to the spirit world in Spirited Away

Goal: Chihiro must get across the river before nightfall (or she'll be stuck in the spirit world). 

Conflict: Chihiro runs back to her parents, but only finds pigs. Confused, she begins running around trying to find them, but the spirits are starting to come out. She tries to go back toward her car as the sun is setting, but the river has seemingly flooded.

Disaster: With the river flooded, she has no way to get across, and night falls ("No . . . ); she looks at her hands and realizes she's turning transparent ("and . . .")

Next we will talk about the second part of this, what Swain calls the "sequel." It also has three pieces: reaction, dilemma, and decision. Read about it here.

Read more articles on Swain's scene and sequel

Writing Patterns Into Fiction: Scene and Sequel

How To Write A Gripping Scene

The Basics of Scene Structure: Action and Reaction

How to Structure Scenes in Your Story