My writing tips organized by topic.
Read about me
My Freelance Editing Services
Read what others have said about me and my blog.
Connect with me on social media.

Monday, June 24, 2019

The Easiest Explanation of Semicolons ;)

Semicolons are probably the most misused and misunderstood form of punctuation. Which is ironic. Because they are actually one of the easiest.

Easier than dashes, easier than commas, easier than ellipses, quotation marks, colons, and even the interrobang (?!)

Here is all you really need to know:

Semicolons replace a period between complete sentences.

That's it.

If you know how to use a period, you know how to use a semicolon.

They make the complete sentences into one sentence. 

The problem isn't that they are actually that difficult. The problem is most of us weren't taught about them consistently in school and therefore they seem like this rare, elusive, convoluted punctuation symbol.

So when you are wondering if you can use a semicolon, do this simple test:

Can you put a period there?

If no, then you shouldn't use a semicolon.

If yes, then you can use a semicolon.

Got it?

Let's do a simple quiz. Below, some of the sentences use a semicolon properly and others improperly. Can you tell which are right and which are wrong?

1. I went to the store; she went to bed.
2. He hated turtle soup; because he found it barbaric.
3. Lucy closed her eyes; crying until she had no tears left.
4. Although Bart didn't usually like action movies, this one was great; he could have watched it all night, eyes glued to the screen, popcorn halfway to his mouth.
5. The last thing she wanted to do; was go for a job interview.
6. Spring was almost here; the buds of blossoms were beginning to unfurl.

Now do the test by replacing the semicolons with periods.

1. I went to the store. She went to bed. (correct)
2. He hated turtle soup. Because he found it barbaric. (incorrect)
3. Lucy closed her eyes. Crying until she had no tears left. (incorrect)
4. Although Bart didn't usually like action movies, this one was great. He could have watched it all night, eyes glued to the screen, popcorn halfway to his mouth. (correct)
5. The last thing she wanted to do. Was go for a job interview. (incorrect)
6. Spring was almost here. The buds of blossoms were beginning to unfurl. (correct)

You might be wondering, then what's the point? Why not just use a period?

Valid question.

Two reasons:

1. A semicolon conveys that the content of these two sentences are related and connected in some way. Sure, you can convey that without a semicolon, but for that extra bit of visual emphasis, a semicolon can be nice to use. (Just don't over use them. That's annoying.)

"I went to the store; she went to bed" conveys that these two things are related in some way. We'd need the context of what came before, but perhaps these two characters got in an argument, and this sentence is conveying they each went their separate ways after. The two actions are related.

2. Semicolons have quicker pauses than periods. In the writing industry, we often don't talk enough about beat and rhythm in sentences. Periods have longer pauses. Semicolons are shorter. When you are focused on beat, rhythm, or even pacing, a semicolon may be just what you need.

You can break this all down and get more technical, talking about independent clauses, but remember, the headline of this article is the easiest explanation. And the easiest explanation is that each side of the semicolon needs to be able to stand as a complete sentence. A semicolon implies they relate. That's it.

. . . Okay, there actually is one other way you can use a semicolon in punctuation, but it's less exciting and less used, so if you want to stop reading this article at this point, you probably can. There are also some opinions on whether or not a semicolon should be used in fiction at all, which I'm going to address after.

Still with me?


So the other time you can use a semicolon is when you are writing out lists in a sentence and one or more of the items in the list already includes a comma.

For example:

It's my dream to go to Paris, France; Rome, Italy; Athens, Greece; and Tokyo, Japan.


During the summer, they hiked down canyons, over fields, and up mountains; fished in lakes, ponds, and even the sea; and shared secrets.


We were going to go swimming; watch the sunset, which was beautiful this time of year; and roast marshmallows.

This can help with clarity.

Should Semicolons be Axed from Fiction Completely?

Some people in the industry argue that you should never use semicolons in fiction because they draw attention to themselves and therefore pull the reader a little out of the story (as a distraction). Semicolons signal to the audience they are reading a story, not experiencing it. 

However, I argue that the only reason semicolons do this is because we as a society don't teach and use them correctly or regularly. If we did, they wouldn't attract attention. I think it's silly to completely ax a punctuation mark because other people are failing at it. Wouldn't it be better to instead educate people? Because semicolons do have a function and purpose in writing. Obviously, it's possible to overuse them, but ax them completely? Come on.

I'm already sad that the interrobang (?!) gets the red pen.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Undercurrent vs. Subtext vs. Theme

A while ago, I had a follower ask me to do a post about undercurrents, subtext, and themes, and how they are different, which is also one of the reasons I did that whole article about how to write theme the other week.

So basically:

I have an article about undercurrents.

I have an article about subtext.

And I now have an article about theme.

Worth noting is that "undercurrent" is a term I made up. I don't know if other people use another word for it. So if you have no clue what I mean by "undercurrent," it's probably only because you haven't read my article on it, which is fine. Whatever you want to call it, it's helpful you understand the concept.

But here's the thing, as I've thought about this post, some could easily argue that "undercurrent" and "subtext" are the same thing (and maybe that's why a term for "undercurrent" doesn't exist), but to me, they are somewhat different concepts, even if they overlap. Sorta like nectar vs. honey.

Also, I think it's important to keep in mind that I'm probably regularly evolving my ideas about writing, to some extent. And since this is a blog, you guys get to follow my process with that, so my ideas and term choices might shift a little bit, which can be confusing. (Like in my recent theme article, I had to admit to using the term "theme" to mean both "thematic statement" and "theme topic" in prior posts.)

But, I still think it's helpful to think of subtext and undercurrent as two different concepts, if two sides of the same coin.


Undercurrent to me is the "under" side of the story. I think of this more as . . . well . . . real (. . . in an imaginary/fiction sort of way.) It is the story (or stories) under the one we as an audience are following.

For example, mystery plots have an "under story." The audience follows the person who is investigating, that's the "surface" story. But the "under story" is the murderer's story (assuming this is a murder mystery) of how and why he killed the victim. We won't get a clear idea of the murderer's story until the end of the book, but we see parts of it hit the surface story (like clues and hints).

J. K. Rowling does this very well, which is why I always refer to her when talking about the concept of undercurrents. Every wizarding world story (except the last one, which is why I think it sorta failed and I wrote an article on that) has both a surface story and an undercurrent story.

Like this:

Sorcerer's Stone

Surface story: A boy finds out he's a wizard and goes to a school to learn how to wield magic.
Undercurrent story: Voldemort is trying to get the Sorcerer's Stone to return to power

Chamber of Secrets

Surface story: Harry returns to Hogwarts and tries to learn who is opening the Chamber of Secrets
Undercurrent story: Voldemort is using Ginny Weasley to try to come back through a Horcrux

Prisoner of Azkaban

Surface story: While at school this year, Harry has to worry about being attacked by Sirius Black
Undercurrent story: Sirius escaped from prison to kill Peter Pettigrew as punishment for what happened with Lily and James.

Goblet of Fire

Surface story: Harry has to compete in a dangerous tournament
Undercurrent story: Barty Crouch Jr. is working to resurrect Voldemort

Order of the Phoenix

Surface story: Harry is pitted against Umbridge, who works for the ministry, and is wrecking havoc on the school.
Undercurrent story: Voldemort is trying to use Harry to get the prophecy from the Department of Mysteries

Half-blood Prince

Surface story: Harry is obsessed with finding out what Malfoy is doing and is sure he is a Death Eater.
Undercurrent story: Voldemort created at least seven Horcruxes and Dumbledore is hunting them.

Deathly Hallows

Surface story: Harry is hunting and destroying Horcruxes.
Undercurrent story: The Deathly Hallows themselves, particularly the fact Voldemort wants the Elder Wand.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Surface story: Newt needs to recapture all the beasts that escaped into New York.
Undercurrent story: Grindelwald is trying to get his hands on an obscurus as a weapon.

Fantastic Beasts: Crimes of Grindelwald

Surface story: ????? (<-- missing!)
Undercurrent story: The identity (and significance) of Credence

Often by the end of the story, the undercurrent, or at least parts of it, come to the surface. Harry stops Quirrell from getting the stone, he defeats the Horcrux in the chamber, he frees Sirius Black, learns that Moody is actually Barty Crouch Jr. etc.

But often an undercurrent story will hit the surface story in some degree in some places prior.

Yes, I made this in Paint :)

The undercurrent story is still just as "real" as the surface story. We just don't see all of it (otherwise it would be another surface story), but in your fictive world, it's an additional set of events that played out.

In some rare stories, such as "Hills like White Elephants" by Earnest Hemingway, almost nothing connects the undercurrent story to the surface story, so unless someone tells you or you've studied literature, you may read the story and finish it scratching your head. You didn't know or have access to the undercurrent story, only the surface one (which was rather uneventful).

The undercurrent isn't really hitting the surface story

I like to take this a step further, and say there are even levels within the undercurrent--how "deep" it goes.

For example, we may have an undercurrent story for one Harry Potter volume, but there is also a deeper undercurrent through the whole series.

I'm not going to review all the level concepts, but if anyone wants to learn more, they're in my undercurrent article.

The undercurrent is content that is happening in the fictive world that the audience doesn't directly see fully play out.

It makes the story feel bigger than what's on the page and also draws the audience in, because it invites them to participate instead of just spectate.

But maybe the reason "undercurrent" doesn't have its own term is because a lot of people just lump it in with "subtext." After all, isn't "subtext" everything that isn't directly on the page?

At the same time, I know I'm not the only person in this industry that criticizes the ambiguity of writing terms (like "theme" and "hook" and "plot point two" and "beat" and even "ambiguity" itself). No one polices the terms, which I think makes it more difficult to teach and learn about writing. And personally, I sometimes think we lump too many concepts to the same term, so we miss out on specifics and details. It would be like calling every type of dog a "dog," and not noticing the differences between the pug and the St. Bernard. I sometimes feel we are missing the "breed" equivalent in writing terminology. We call all dogs, "dogs." This makes it more difficult to discern and harness each breed's specialties.


For undercurrents, I think of more of the larger fictive world, but for subtext, I think more of the actual book and getting it on the page (or rather, with subtext, implying it enough without putting it on the page directly). In that sense, in the book, the undercurrent usually manifests as subtext in some way.

Subtext is what is implied, but not stated directly on the page.

Since the undercurrent story/stories is not the surface story, then naturally, any sense of it that doesn't fully surface is going to show up as subtext.

But as I said above, an undercurrent story may come to the surface story, often at the end (though technically, it can surface elsewhere, I guess).

Which at that point, the undercurrent story is no longer using subtext, but now stated directly in the text. (This would be the point in all the Harry Potter books where Harry discovers the undercurrent story). It touched and went into the surface story. It is at the surface in that moment.

I guess, technically, you could have an undercurrent story that never appears as subtext in the book, and then suddenly comes to the surface at a point in the text. Like . . . surprise! Guess what else has been going on all along that we had no clue about? I'm trying to think of a specific example . . . It's like when a character suddenly reveals they have been taking dance lessons all year, but there were zero hints or subtext about it. A lot of times, this might manifest as a deus ex machina. However, if it's not vital to solving a plot problem, then it might not be one, just a bit of undercurrent that has surfaced.

Whew! This is getting technical. :)

I guess I think of subtext as more of the highway the undercurrent may take. But maybe the term "subtext" is still too ambiguous in the writing industry. Maybe like the word "theme" it actually has two or more components. The technique of subtext. And the content of subtext. But like "theme," we all point at it and just say, "nice subtext" (guilty).

In my article on subtext, I titled it "How to Write What's not Written," and it's largely about the technique of subtext. The actually process of getting it on the page indirectly.

You could say that the concept of undercurrent and the concept of subtext content largely overlap. Which is probably why me talking about each of them can be confusing. Like a lot of writing topics, it kind of gets down to how you want to categorize them (unfortunately). For example, in my series on story structure, I talked about how a lot of "story structures" are similar, but have different names and terms for the same concepts and different approaches to how to slice and dice the story. In a Hero's Journey, the "Call to Action" is essentially the "inciting incident."

The subtext content, I guess, in a sense, is in the undercurrent, because it's not stated plainly on the page. But I'm not sure that all subtext content is attached to an undercurrent story.

If one character hates broccoli, but that's never stated directly on the page, just implied, and it's never really connected to anything else in the book, then I'd probably just call it subtext content, not an undercurrent story. Maybe the fact she hates broccoli has no story behind it; it's just the way she was born.

However, in a scene, it may be subtext content and manifest on the page through subtext technique.

Let's try thinking of this and breaking this down a different way.

Subtext content is still "under" the surface, but it may not be connected to anything really. It may not have a cause and effect or tell a story or have any significance.

But an undercurrent story, which is also "under" the surface, does.

So maybe, from this perspective, I'm using "undercurrent" too ambiguously. Because subtext content is still in the "undercurrent" floating around, but may not always be connected to anything significant overall. It's in the current of the river, but not necessarily following the currents.

Still, subtext content and undercurrent story can overlap and be the same element in some scenes, but since I don't think all subtext content is part of an undercurrent story, to me, they are two different things.

(Anyone confused yet? 😆😅)

If you are confused, no worries, you do not need to see stories the same way I do to be successful! But, for me, seeing these as different concepts, helps me be able to use them better (and helps me know what I am doing).

It's also possible to have lots of subtext content in the under part of storytelling, without having an actual undercurrent story. It is just subtext content manifested through subtext technique, that doesn't connect to an "under" plot.

Every successful story needs subtext content. Similar to what I said in the section above, subtext content also invites the reader to be a participator instead of just a spectator. And it also gives the impression that there is more to the story than what is on the page.

But I would argue that many of the most satisfying stories, and certainly the stories with some of the greatest re-read value, don't just have subtext content, but undercurrent stories--subtext content that connects to something bigger and greater (and more rewarding).

Note: Looking back, I've realized that in other places I've referred to "subtext content" as "subtext subject"--great, now I'm being ambiguous with my own terms ðŸĪŠ I might have to go through later and try to make that more cohesive.


Okay, so how does theme fit into this crazy?

Well, theme is kind of its own thing, but in storytelling, everything is interconnected, so in a lot of ways, basically nothing is its own thing. 😅

But lets not confuse ourselves more than we already have today.

The main two flaws with theme you want to watch out for, are:

1. you don't want to swing the thematic statement at everything from beginning, through middle, and to the end, and
2. you don't want to over-simplify opposing views and alternate experiences with the theme topic.

The thematic statement is meant to be the answer, the resolution, to the characters' struggles concerning the theme topic. If you are throwing the thematic statement (the "answer") all around throughout the story, it will probably be heavy-handed and preachy. Over-simplifying other perspectives and experiences only makes this worse, and actually weakens, not strengthens, the theme.

Elements of theme are often handled through subtext (both as subtext content and (obviously) subtext technique), and they can relate to undercurrent stories. Being more subtle (by using them this way), can also help you avoid problem #1 (though may not solve it completely).

For theme, I feel that undercurrent stories and subtext are just more ways to render it effectively in the narrative.

Throughout the course of a story, theme may seem to play out similar to an undercurrent story--where the theme topic is touched on in the surface story again and again, until finally the thematic statement comes to the surface at the end. But honestly, trying to look at it this way seems to muddy it more to me, and not all undercurrent stories surface.

Also, some elements of theme may be addressed directly on the surface of the text, and therefore not be subtext or undercurrent story.

For me, I like to think of theme more as its own thing.

Anyway, I hope this all hasn't been too overwhelming! And by all means, don't feel like you need to think about stories the same way I do. Take what is helpful to your writing.

Next week I'll be back with a simpler subject.

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 one 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.