Should Your Main Character Be Likable?

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve gotten the note: “Make your character less difficult. She’s not likable enough.” I didn’t do it on purpose; it’s just that my female characters tend to be complex, like the women I know. It happened when the female leads were opinionated. They had standards and held fast to them. They want. They railed against those who got in their way.

Should Your Main Character Be Likable 2

They were not compliant.

There aren’t that many female characters in literature or TV that can be considered difficult. Check out this list of unlikable characters from literature. There are female characters on there, yes, but the only female on it is Bella Swan of Twilight (a box I’d rather not open on this particular post).

Male characters with those difficult attributes are generally embraced by the public. Think Sherlock Holmes. A Man Called Ove. House. Sheldon Cooper. Nobody would ever call them compliant, yet they are beloved. Even those who may not be beloved (Dexter, Don Draper, Walter White) are still pretty darn popular.

What’s the Explanation?

Unlikable female main characters only seem to inhabit a limited number of genres. If you’re writing women’s fiction and not a thriller or literary fiction, you’re likely to find resistance with an unlikable female lead. Why is that? An editor might tell you that an unlikable female character won’t engage the average reader, and therefore not sell books. Upmarket fiction is a blend of literary and commercial: think generally the type of novel with a theme meaty enough for book clubs and enough plot to keep the average reader engaged. In this genre, I would bet that most female characters are likable.

Non-compliant women threaten to overturn our social norms. My guess is because although American society has made great inroads since women got the vote, it still hasn’t been all that long since women were considered property. Even those who consider themselves feminists are not always completely able to shake free of sexism. We don’t like it when women defy social norms. Celeste Ng’s terrific Little Fires Everywhere explores in part how the bourgeoise take down those women who defy unwritten cultural rules, fearing that their own lives will be called into question.

Also think of Elizabeth Strout’s character Olive Kitteridge. Nobody could call Olive likable. She’s thorny, with standards that others find it impossible to live up to. She messes up her relationships. And she doesn’t care what others think. Essays have been written about her unlikability. Same with Claire Messud’s Nora in The Woman Upstairs. Messud told Publisher’s Weekly, “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’”

Should Your Main Character Be Likable?

That’s up to you. Perhaps an unlikable narrator is just not right for your story. Or perhaps you’ve written a deliciously non-compliant difficult woman for a thriller, and you want to keep her that way. Whether or not your character is likable in the traditional sense, their actions must be borne out of a grounded place. And of course, even if your character’s unlikable, they must still be interesting.

But if it’s important to your story that the reader identify with your character and it’s bothering you that your main character is labeled difficult, then there are a few ways you could amend that.

What Makes a Difficult Character Likable?

Here are two TV examples of difficult women. Sophia in The Golden Girls is pretty crotchety, but hey, we can excuse her because she’s super old. And she loves her daughter, and her daughter’s devoted to her.

April Ludgate from Parks and Rec is also difficult. But she loves the resident doofus, Andy. And she secretly loves everyone. And by the end of the series, April has softened considerably.

Perhaps that’s the key—audiences like to see those difficult females actually do love certain people and transform. We know that Sophia’s not going to change because she’s too old, and her blunt snarkiness is key. But someone like April could change.

And this could be true with some of the male main characters I cited. Sherlock Holmes doesn’t really love anyone deeply, except maybe Watson—and he still abuses the poor guy quite a bit. But we forgive him because he’s a GENIUS! And in the newer BBC series, we do see a little character development with him.

In A Man Called Ove, Ove’s backstory slowly unspools. We learn of his despair since he lost his wife, and how important she was to him. There’s a warm cast of characters who believe in him despite his gruffness. He changes, too. He also saves and then cares for a stray cat.

So if you want readers to like your difficult character:

• Make someone else see the good in them.
• Give them something to love. A plant, a pet, a sibling she saves from death (Katniss!), a lost love.
• Add humor. A difficult character with biting wit is more fun to read than one who’s not only difficult but humorless.

Has anyone told you to make your female main character more likable? Do you think the “likability factor” holds true for gender non-binary characters as well? Do you think an upmarket women’s fiction book market would support an unlikable female main character? What are your favorite books, films, and TV shows featuring unlikable main characters?


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Sneak Peek at Story Drills: Character Arcs

Today’s post offers a sneak peek at my forthcoming book, Story Drills: Fiction Writing Exercises for Building Storytelling Skills. This exercise examines character arcs. Enjoy!

Character Arcs

In storytelling, an arc is a path of transformation. A character arc is the journey that a character experiences throughout the course of a story, which leads to a significant change.

Changes can occur internally or externally. Characters can acquire or lose knowledge, skills, or emotional strength—or they can gain or lose relationships, material possessions, or status. Some of the best character arcs are a combination of both internal and external transformations.

A character’s arc can be positive or negative. Most heroes emerge from a story wiser, stronger, or better off in some significant way. However, some characters experience a downward spiral—they are on top of the world when we meet them, and then we watch them fall. A character’s arc can also wind through the story’s events—up and down—only to lead back to where they were at the beginning.

An arc is common—some say essential—for a protagonist, but any character in a story can experience an arc. In Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope, the protagonist, Luke Skywalker, undergoes significant growth, but supporting character Han Solo also gets a meaningful arc that is critical to the story.

At its core, an arc signifies change and gives the events of the story deeper meaning—after all, stories are about conflict, and what good is conflict if it doesn’t produce meaningful change in our lives?

These changes range from deeply significant to superficial. Some characters will start out as store clerks and end up as store managers. Others will save the world.

Character arcs don’t appear in all stories. Stories with minor or nonexistent character arcs are usually plot driven. For example, police procedural series tend to focus more on showing the detective solving crimes in each installment without undergoing much meaningful personal transformation.

There are some common milestones that characters experience throughout an arc, especially the protagonist. These include establishing goals or realizing that they want or need something; facing conflicts and challenges; making difficult decisions; and experiencing the consequences of their decisions (good and bad). As a result of these experiences, the characters are transformed by the end of the story.


Choose a character from a story you know well and plot the character’s arc, noting the gains, losses, and transformations that the character experiences as the story progresses. Make sure you note the corresponding story event with the change that it effects in the character.


Start with the following premise: A child’s mother dies while the father is overseas on a top-secret mission. The child is put in foster care for almost a year until the father returns. Make a list of five plot points and how each of these events changes the protagonist. Then write a short paragraph describing the protagonist’s arc over the course of the story. Feel free to come up with your own story premise for this exercise.


Can you think of any protagonists that don’t change over the course of a story? Can you think of some supporting characters who experienced significant arcs? How does a character arc enrich the reader’s experience?

By Melissa Donovan

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Stumped for Story Ideas? Try This One Tip

In a recent episode of Jane the Virgin, the main character, Jane, is stumped for story ideas. She already published one book, but that was inspired by her dramatic telenovela-like life. She’s convinced that she has no other story to tell.

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When she shares her dilemma with her fellow writing-class students, they assure her that what she described is not a problem at all. She doesn’t need new story ideas. Why?

Because she can retell the same story.

Follow the Heat

Cheryl Strayed calls this “following the heat.” Her most famous book is Wild, a memoir about the hike that help her deal with her mother’s death.

But she wrote about that period of her life and the loss of her mother repeatedly. She wrote personal essays about it and fiction inspired by it. She told and retold her story as many times and as many ways as she could.

That’s following the heat.

There are so many examples of authors rehashing the same story ideas and telling stories about the same thing over and over again. Philip Roth is one of the most prolific American writers ever—somehow Newark, NJ manages to find its way into most, if not all, of his books. In the show, Jane’s fellow classmates astutely point to Jamaica Kincaid and John Updike and their tendency to return to the same themes or characters.

Tell and Retell

So, do you feel like you’ve already told your one great story?

No problem. Tell it again.

Tell it from a different perspective (e.g, a side character). Zoom in on a specific moment or zoom out to show how it fits into something bigger. Try telling your great story in a different format: perhaps a personal essay instead of a novel, or vice versa.

It’s OK to take the same story ideas and tell your story again and again and again.

Can you think of other writers who have told and retold the same story? Let us know in the comments.

By Monica M. Clark

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The Surprising Truth About Split Infinitives

Here’s a secret: I’ve never been explicitly taught not to split infinitives (or to not split infinitives?). Surprise!

If that statement’s a shocking pronouncement, or if it makes no sense at all, never fear. Let’s take a step back and look at the long, illustrious history of split infinitives.

What is an infinitive?

First off: what’s an infinitive?

When you use a verb in a sentence, you conjugate it—that is, you change its form to match the subject and the tense. The infinitive, though, is the original form of the verb, before it’s changed to fit into a sentence.

Here’s an example:

Infinitive: to snuggle
Conjugated: I snuggle, you snuggle, he snuggles, she snuggles, we snuggle, they snuggle

The funny thing about the English language is that the full infinitive of a verb is always two words: it always includes the word “to.” Without the “to,” it’s called the bare infinitive.

And that’s where all this trouble starts . . .

What is a split infinitive?

It’s exactly what it sounds like:

Want some examples? Try these:

I want to really understand what you’re saying.

She got a new alarm clock because she’s trying to not oversleep every morning.

Or this famous example:

To boldly go where no man has gone before. —Star Trek

Why shouldn’t you split infinitives?

There’s a long-standing, often-repeated rule in English that thou shalt not split infinitives. It’s generally taught in schools and many grammar nazis uphold it with unswerving fervor.

It’s a pretty archaic rule. Most scholars trace it back to the early 19th century, when modern English grammar was still being invented. Some guy named Henry Alford (who wrote the book The King’s English) decided that since you can’t split infinitives in Latin, you shouldn’t be splitting infinitives in English.

Here’s the thing: infinitives in Latin are just one word. It’s impossible to split a Latin infinitive because there’s nothing to split.

It may be an old, oft-cited rule—but it’s also pretty baseless.

When should you obey the rule?

Before we abandon the rule completely, let’s talk about the times when it’s helpful. There’s no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Take a look at this example:

He’s going to nicely, sweetly, and unexpectedly ask her to the prom.

That’s four words between “to” and “ask.” By the time you get to “ask,” you’ve almost lost track of the sentence completely. Let’s move some words around:

He’s going to ask her to the prom nicely, sweetly, and unexpectedly.

Beware of cramming too many words into your infinitives. That can get clunky, messy, and confusing fast.

On the other hand, let’s take another look at our original examples. If we were to rephrase them, we’d lose some meaning:

I really want to understand what you’re saying.

Sure, you might really want to understand, but that’s different from really understanding. One means to have a true desire to understand; the other is to want a deep, thorough understanding.

She got a new alarm clock because she’s trying not to oversleep every morning.

“To not oversleep” puts firm emphasis on her action, which we lose with this arrangement. She’s trying to NOT OVERSLEEP, okay?! Stop giving her a hard time about her mornings!

To go boldly where no man has gone before.

This loses the elegant ring of “to boldly go.” Would “to go boldly” ever have become such a famous phrase? We’ll never know.

To split or to not split? Don’t worry

Splitting infinitives doesn’t generally hinder comprehension unless you’re trying to cram fifteen words in (don’t do that!). So split away!

Enjoy being able to slowly chew your dinner! Take time to really think of your fabulous story ideas! Make it your mission to boldly go where no man (or woman!) has gone before.

And if grammar nazis or English teachers give you trouble, feel free to confidently whip out your knowledge of the history of the English language and defend your split infinitives.

Do you feel passionately about split (or not-split) infinitives? Let us know in the comments.

By Alice Sudlow and Liz Bureman

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Stock and Cloned Characters in Storytelling

I was recently reading a novel, and a few chapters in, I realized I had mixed up two of the main characters. In fact, I had been reading them as if they were a single character. I’m a pretty sharp reader, and this has never happened before, so I tried to determine why I’d made the mistake. Was I tired? Hungry? Not paying attention?

I went back and reviewed the text and noticed that these two characters were indistinct. They were so alike that without carefully noting which one was acting in any given scene, it was impossible to differentiate them from each other. They were essentially the same character. Even their names sounded alike.

This got me to thinking about the importance of building a cast of characters who are unique and distinct from each other instead of a cast of stock characters who are mere clones of one another. 

Stock Characters

We sometimes talk about stock characters in literature. You know them: the mad scientist, the poor little rich kid, the hard-boiled detective. These characters have a place in storytelling. When readers meet a sassy, gum-popping waitress in a story, they immediately know who she is. They’ve seen that character in other books and movies. Maybe they’ve even encountered waitresses like her in real life. These characters are familiar, but they’re also generic.

When we use a stock character as a protagonist or any other primary character, we have to give the character unique qualities so the character doesn’t come off as generic or boring. It’s fine to have a sassy, gum-popping waitress make a single appearance in a story, but if she’s a lead character, she’s going to need deeper, more complex development so the readers no longer feel as if they already know her. She has to become fresh and interesting.

Stieg Larsson did this brilliantly in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the sequels that made up the Millennium trilogy. At first the protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, seems like a surly punk, the kind of character we’ve seen a million times before. As the story progresses and Lisbeth moves to center stage, we learn there’s more to her than meets the eye. She’s antisocial, and she’s a computer genius. She’s bold, brave, and tough. She’s not just some surly punk. She is a moral person with unique challenges — one of the most intriguing characters in contemporary fiction.

Cloning Characters

Stock characters are often taken from source material, sometimes as an homage and other times as a blatant rip-off. Such characters are problematic when they feature prominently in a story and have no traits that differentiate them from the character upon which they are based. Do you want to read a story about a boy wizard named Hal Porter who wears glasses and has a scar on his forehead? Probably not, unless it’s a parody of Harry Potter, whom we all know and love.

You can certainly write a story about a young wizard who is based on Harry Potter, but you have to differentiate your character from Harry. Make the character a girl, give her a hearing aid instead of glasses, and come up with a memorable name that doesn’t immediately bring Harry Potter to mind. And give your character her own personality and challenges.

As the book I was recently reading demonstrates, we also have to watch out for cloning characters within our own stories. For most writers, this is a bigger problem than cloning characters out of other authors’ stories.

Think about it: you are the creator of all the characters in your story. You might have based them on people or characters you know and love (or loathe). You might have conjured them from your imagination. But they are all coming from you: your thoughts, your experiences, and your voice.

While I’ve never mixed up two characters in a book I was reading before, I have noticed that characters who act, think, and speak similarly are common. And while a cast of characters who are similar to each other in every way imaginable doesn’t necessarily make a story bad, a cast of characters who are noticeably distinct from each other is much better.

Nature vs. Nurture: How to Avoid Cloned Characters

Cloning is the practice of making a copy of something, an exact replica. You can clone a human being (or a character), but once the clone comes into existence, it will immediately start changing and becoming different from the original. Its personal experiences will be unique. By nature, the original and the clone are exactly the same, but nurture (or life experience) will cause the clone to deviate from the original.

Here are some tips to make sure your characters are unique and not clones of each other or any character or person they are based on:

  • Give your characters distinct and memorable names. Avoid giving characters name that sound alike. Don’t use names that start with the same letter and are the same length, and don’t use names that rhyme.
  • Unless you’re writing a family saga, make sure your characters don’t all look alike. Try developing a diverse cast of characters.
  • Characters’ speech patterns will depend on where they’re from, but individuals also have their own quirky expressions and sayings. Use dialogue to differentiate the characters from each other. Maybe one character swears a lot while another calls everyone by nicknames.
  • Create character sketches complete with backstories. If you know your characters intimately, you’ll be less likely to portray them as a bunch of clones.
  • To help you visualize your characters, look for photos of actors, models, and other public figures that you can use to help your imagination fill in the blanks.
  • Once you’ve created your cast, ask whether any of them are stock characters. If any of your primary characters feel like stock characters, make them more unique.

Are You Using Stock Characters? Are Your Characters a Bunch of Clones?

The main problem with the book I mentioned at the beginning of this post was that there were two characters who were essentially functioning as a single entity, at least for the first four or five chapters, which is as far as I got in the book. Together, they shared the same purpose or function within the story. The best fix for that problem would have been to combine the two characters into a single character, something I have had to do in one of my fiction projects that had a few too many names and faces.

I can’t help but wonder if the author ever bothered to run the manuscript by beta readers, and since the book was traditionally published, I wondered how the cloned characters made it past the editor.

How much attention do you pay to your characters when you’re writing a story? What strategies do you use to get to know your characters and make sure they are all unique? Have you ever noticed stock characters or cloned characters in a story you’ve read? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing!

By Melissa Donovan

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5 Tips for Spring Cleaning Your Writing Habits

Spring is almost here, which means it’s almost time to spring clean. Spring cleaning isn’t only good for cluttered houses, but for cluttered minds, as well. As writers, it’s important to learn new skills so long as it’s not at the expense of polishing old ones. Spring is the perfect time to do take a look at your writing habits and do some review.

5 Steps for Spring Cleaning

Here are five things you can do to avoid falling into bad writing habits.

1. Get rid of adverbs

As Stephen King said, “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” If you’ve ever taken a class on writing or read a few articles, you’ve probably heard that adverbs are the devil’s tool. It makes for lazy writing. If a man can walk quickly, he can march instead, or jog, or trot. Expressing those movements with adverbs is a bad writing habit.

If you feel the urge to use an adverb, take a look at your verb and see if there’s a stronger choice available to you, then go with that one.

2. Brush up on your vocabulary

You don’t have to pepper all of your paragraphs with SAT words—in fact, please don’t, as that usually makes your writing look pretentious and turns readers away—but it doesn’t hurt to throw a doozy in there every now and then.

Just make sure your ten-dollar words are well placed, somewhere that will allow them to make the greatest impact. If you call a show, for example, “bombastic” rather than “grand,” it conveys something much different.

3. Simplify your sentences

There’s a fine line between interesting writing and convoluted writing. Yes, make your prose sing, but also remember that what a reader wants most of all is to get right to the point and move on with the story. Don’t dwell on any one thing for too long for the sake of showing off your poetic phrasing or using the aforementioned ten-dollar words.

Don’t flounder. Keep things moving at a steady pace

4. Spruce up your description

There is nothing more boring than reading a tired, cliché description. As a poetry instructor of mine once said, “get weird.”

During a class all about similes and metaphors, he asked us which was more interesting to read: “Love is like a rose” or “love is like a dog from hell?”

Obviously, we all said the second one was more interesting. Why? Because it was weird, unexpected, and creative.

Don’t be afraid to be bizarre. Your writing will thank you for it.

5. Reorganize your workspace

A reliable workspace is important for any serious writer. It doesn’t have to be big or flashy. It can be as simple as a place as your kitchen table. Wherever you write, take a look at that space and make sure everything is in order.

Do some literal spring cleaning by tossing trash where it belongs, putting books back on their shelves, and making your desk as neat and tidy as possible. Orient the furniture differently, if you want. Change things up so you have room to focus and stay refreshed.

Clearing the Clutter

Our minds are full of thoughts, worries, and questions about our busy lives, all the time. With all of those preoccupations racing through our brains, it can be hard to focus on our creative pursuits, but easy to fall into bad habits. Take this as your sign to stop, inhale, exhale, and ask yourself what you can do to improve your writing habits.

What aspects of your writing do you want to polish? What writing habits do you want to develop? Let us know in the comments.

By The Magic Violinist

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Dilemma: 4 Powerful Steps to Make Your Characters Choose

The Spring Writing Contest is coming soon!

If you haven’t heard of them, the Write Practice’s seasonal writing contests are a great opportunity to get published and possibly win fame and (a small) fortune.

Perhaps you’ve entered before, but haven’t found the winner’s circle. Rejection is a familiar badge of honor amongst seasoned writers, but for many of us it can be tiring, and even tempt us to stop entering contests or submitting to publications.

But what if there was one thing you could change about your writing that could almost instantly make it better?

There is! There is a storytelling element that I’ve seen as an entrant and judge of multiple fiction contests that makes stories work and win, standing out above the rest.

And that single, difference-making element is a Powerful Choice.

When We Forget “Choice”

Unfortunately, this element isn’t as simple as it sounds. Characters yelling and screaming and fighting and kissing doesn’t necessarily count as a powerful choice. Sometimes it’s just noise, not a dilemma.

Other times writers fill their 1,500-word submission with lyrical prose and vivid imagery, but nothing happens. There are no dilemmas to be found. And though it always saddens me to do, as a judge I had to move on from such pieces.

Stories contains many elements that may be fun to write or read. But a story cannot possibly work without a powerful choice. It is central to any successful narrative.

In the same way, a house may be more valuable if it comes with marble countertops or vaulted ceilings. But without a solid foundation, the house is worthless, regardless of how aesthetically pleasing it may be.

In Aristotle’s Poetics, he defines dramatic tragedy as “the imitation of an action.” And while the stories you write are not all tragic, they are dramatic, in that they seek to create an impression of life.

In other words, they imitate life.

And when we imitate life, we are imitating the most basic act of life: a choice, or an action.

A story without a choice may be beautiful for its language or description. It may be memorable for any number of reasons.

But it won’t be remembered as a contest winner, because it will fail to do the most important storytelling job: To imitate the action of choice.

How to Imitate an Action

Imitating an action may seem like a simple chore. After all, “action” is a lot of fun to write, isn’t it?

But genuine choices aren’t just about the action or motion that takes place. Often most of the energy is potential — it’s in the build-up to the action.

And that is where you need to focus your storytelling energy, at least at first. Then, once your character has made his or her choice, you need to spend time on the fallout from this choice. Consequences are massively important to a well-told story, and your reader will want to know how a character’s choices play out.

So let’s look at the four steps to a powerful choice that will make your story a winner!

1. Desire & Goal

Before any choice is made, the protagonist must have a Desire.

Without desire, a choice doesn’t have any meaning. It is simply an item on a grocery list. And story desires can never be so trite and hope to win over a reader.

Then, the desire must be formed into a Goal, a stated or thought objective in the protagonist’s mind. If it isn’t clear to the protagonist — and therefore the reader — that this goal is the “Why?” behind everything he/she is doing in the story, then the story will be confusing and the reader will struggle to follow it, even if it makes sense to you.

So despite how “deep” we want our stories to be, two things must be abundantly clear: What the protagonist wants (Desire) and how he/she plans to get it (Goal).

2. Resistance & Conflict

The next step in a powerful choice is Resistance and Conflict, two forces that will make your protagonist’s goal interesting and worth reading about.

After all, if the object of desire (money, a lover, a new job, getting home, etc) is easily attainable, then it will fail to produce a story that your reader simply can’t put down.

So there must be a reason, or reasons, why the protagonist cannot achieve the goal and get what he/she wants right now. And those reasons must seem insurmountable.

The resistance and conflict can come from diverse places, too. The setting can push back. Family and society can dissuade and even forbid the protagonist from advancing. And a villainous antagonist (and his/her minions or servants) can make life hell for our hero along the way.

Without brutal resistance and difficult conflict, the protagonist cannot be faced with a tough dilemma and driven to the point of making a powerful choice. Devoid of this pushback, the choice would be easy, predictable, and obvious. That’s the last thing you want!

So make sure that the resistance and conflict push your protagonist as far as he/she can go without completely breaking.

3. Risky Choice

Finally, the moment must come when the protagonist imitates the greatest action in all of humanity: the Choice with unimaginable consequences!

But it requires lots of set-up. It can’t be done without a relatable and clear Desire/Goal, or a highly antagonistic pairing of Resistance/Conflict.

To make the choice work, the hero can’t simply choose between an obvious “Yes” and equally apparent “No.” Choosing to kill the bad guy versus choosing to run away like a wimp isn’t really a dilemma.

No, choosing to kill the bad guy who is the hero’s brother or not kill the bad guy who will probably retaliate anyway is a high-risk choice. It’s powerful because of the implications.

And it will have your reader turning pages like lightning!

Shawne Coyne’s The Story Grid teaches about two types of crises that produce amazing moments of choice: The Best Bad Crisis, and the Irreconcilable Goods Crisis. The “bad guy is your brother” anecdote is an example of the “Best Bad Choice.”

Risky choices are just that because there’s almost always something to lose. There are few moments in life when everything turns out okay, and there are no negative consequences.

Which is why the fourth and final step is so important.

4. Consequences

Readers want to know “What happens after …” your protagonist’s risky choice. And if they don’t get a satisfactory answer, they’ll leave your story feeling cheated and bitter.

This doesn’t mean you have to give them an ending that rivals Return of the King, but you need to make it clear exactly what the Consequences of the risky choice were.

  • What did he/she gain? At what cost?
  • Did he/she commit any sins or grievous offenses in pursuit of his/her goal? How were these paid for, if at all?
  • And what did he/she gain, and how is it affecting life now, after the story journey?

You don’t have to tie up every single loose end the story may have — especially if you intend to pen a sequel! In fact, leaving one plot strand dangling while all the others are snugly knotted can be a great way to keep readers around, ready for your next release.

Make sure you thoroughly address how the action ends up, though. Because this, too, is a part of the imitation of an action. Every action has a reaction, and readers know it. They’ll be expecting it your story, too.

Time for Action!

Whether you’re planning to enter the Spring Writing Contest or not (though you really should!), I hope that the value of a well-written action will be central to your stories.

Not only is it solid storytelling, but it’s exactly what readers want. And the best part is that this isn’t genre-specific. This is precisely the kind of journey that readers crave, whether they’ve picked up your Cowboy Romance novel or your Sci-Fi Horror short story collection.

So plan your next story with these four steps in mind. It’s time for action!

What’s the toughest choice you’ve ever made your characters make? Let us know in the comments.

By David Safford

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Poetry: Rhythm and Meter

Rhythm is everywhere: we hear it in the hum of vehicles and appliances. We feel it when we walk or run. We see it in the very rising and setting of the sun. Even our hearts beat to a rhythm. Rhythm is built into the way we experience and perceive the world.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary offers several definitions for rhythm:

  • an ordered recurrent alternation of strong and weak elements in the flow of sound and silence in speech
  • the aspect of music comprising all the elements (such as accent, meter, and tempo) that relate to forward movement
  • movement, fluctuation, or variation marked by the regular recurrence or natural flow of related elements 

Poetry encapsulates all of these definitions of rhythm. But what about meter? 

The words rhythm and meter are often used interchangeably, but their meanings are slightly different in the context of poetry. Perinne’s Sound and Sense describes this difference clearly and simply: “rhythm is the flow of sound; meter is the patterns in the sounds.”


In poetry, meter is determined by accented (stressed) and unaccented (unstressed) syllables. Silence (or pauses) also contributes to a poem’s meter. Scansion is the practice of marking up a poem to reveal its meter. Here is a traditional method of marking up a poem, using Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee” as an example:scansion annabel leeThe character that looks like the bottom half of a circle is called a breve. The breve indicates unstressed syllables, and the slash indicates stressed syllables. You won’t find the breve on your keyboard, but it is available in Microsoft Word by using the Insert –> Symbol function.

However, working with breves and slashes on a computer in this manner is tedious and time consuming. Fortunately, there are some other methods available to us.

Some dictionaries include pronunciation guides, which indicate stressed and unstressed syllables. Dictionaries often use quotation marks for stressed syllables and apostrophes for unstressed syllables: PO”e’try’. This isn’t easy on the eyes. Another option, which is much clearer, is to use all caps for stressed syllables and all lowercase letters for unstressed syllables: POetry; and we can add hyphens to further denote each syllable: PO-e-try. Ah, that’s more like it: easy to read and easy to type.

Metrical Units

We now know how to show meter with scansion, but we also need to know how to talk about it. Here is some special terminology that helps us communicate when discussing meter:

A metrical foot is a unit of metrical measurement that includes stressed and unstressed syllables. Here are a few types of metrical feet:

  • Anapest: Two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable (da-da-DA). Example: un-der-STAND.
  • Dactyl: One stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables (DA-da-da). Example: PROM-i-nent.
  • Iamb: One unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable (da-DA). Example: be-LONG
  • Trochee: One stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable (DA-da). Example: O-ver

We also use special terminology to refer to the number of feet in a line of poetry:

  • 1 foot: monometer
  • 2 feet: dimeter
  • 3 feet: trimeter
  • 4 feet: tetrameter
  • 5 feet: pentameter

Let’s return to the first line of “Annabel Lee” and show its metrical feet:

it was MA|ny and MA|ny a YEAR | aGO ||

This line consists of three anapests followed by an iamb, or a combination of anapestic and iambic feet.

But what about the number of feet? How do those factor into the language we use to talk about meter? Let’s look at a line from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” (please note that I have changed the capitalization to accommodate scansion):

shall I | comPARE | thee TO | a SUM | mer’s DAY? ||
Thou ART | more LOVE | ly AND | more TEM | perATE:

Each line consists of five metrical feet, so this poem is written in pentameter. Each line also includes five iambs, one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable. These lines are therefore written in iambic pentameter.

Silence (Rests, Pauses)

In poetry, line breaks, stanza breaks, white space, and punctuation provide cues for pauses. We’ll pause a little longer between stanzas than we will between lines. We’ll hold on a period longer than on a comma. Sometimes breaks and punctuation are part of the aesthetic design of a poem, but their placement will almost always affect a poem’s meter and rhythm, because they instruct the reader to pause.

End-stopped lines contain a complete grammatical phrase (or clause) or terminate with a period, closing parenthesis, colon, or semicolon. Enjambment occurs when a line break occurs in the middle of a complete phrase or clause or when terminal punctuation marks are absent. The first two lines of “Annabel Lee” (above) are enjambed; the first two lines of “Sonnet 18” (above) are end-stopped.

Let’s Get Back to Rhythm

Rhythm is best understood as the flow of sound, whereas meter is a pattern of sound. If we mistakenly equate rhythm and meter, we might assume that free verse poetry lacks rhythm because it doesn’t use metrical patterns. Let’s look at the first stanza of “Spelling” by Margaret Atwood, which is written in free verse:

My daughter plays on the floor
with plastic letters,
red, blue & hard yellow,
learning how to spell,
how to make spells.

There’s no discernible pattern in the meter, which is why the poem is called free verse. Yet the poem still has a flow, a rhythm. If the rhythm isn’t coming from the poem’s meter, where is it coming from?

Even though there aren’t repeated patterns, the accented and unaccented syllables still inform the rhythm. But so do the pauses. Consider the pause after “spelling” and before “how to make spells.” This pause influences the musicality of the poem. But the poem uses some other tricks to create rhythm. Look at the rhyme of “yellow” and “spell” (not a perfect rhyme, but a rhyme nonetheless). And look at how it echoes into the next two lines with “spelling” and the repetition of “spell” in the final line. There’s a pattern of sound there, which creates rhythm.

As we can see, meter is not the only contributing factor to rhythm.

How Rhythmical is Your Poetry?

If meter is a pattern of sounds and rhythm is the flow of sound, which of these elements is more important in poetry? When you write poetry, do you check for meter or rhythm? Do you prefer metrical poems or are you drawn to poems with vivid rhythm? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing poetry!

By Melissa Donovan

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How to Develop Story Ideas Into Amazing Stories

I often hear practicing writers ask, “What if I can’t think of anything to write about?” Sometimes they even have notebooks full of observations, but they feel like none of them are good enough for a full story, and they’re not sure how to develop story ideas into amazing stories.

I’ve felt the same way, but there are more opportunities or seeds for story ideas in our notebooks than we think. It might be an image, a snippet of a conversation we overheard at lunch, or a social issue that grates against us. Once we have the seeds, how do we take those seeds and develop them into stories?

How to Develop Story Ideas

I love hearing the different ways writers develop story ideas into full length projects. It’s one part of the writing process that often remains cloaked in mystery. Sometimes, a writer isn’t sure how an idea develops, so they’ll say, “Oh I just write,” which makes the rest of us feel like failures when we sit down and nothing comes.

Sarah Gribble shared a great way to outline fiction in a post earlier this week, but what do you do in the space between “I noticed this thing” and “outline the story”?

Some might say, “Oh that’s the magic. You can’t teach that. It’s too formulaic. It just happens.” That might be true, but I can’t have my classes of fiction writers sitting around waiting for the magic to happen. I have to teach them how to make magic. (Do I have an amazing job or what?)

Here’s one way I help my students develop a story idea into an outline and draft.

Choose Something Specific

When students begin trying to find story ideas, they inevitably pick something too big.

“I want to write a story about the way technology makes us less human!”

“Global warming!”

“True love!”

“Space opera!”

These are all topics and themes that could yield great stories, but they are too broad and too general. We need to get much more specific to capture the humanity of these themes.

As I search through my notebooks, I look for a vivid image, event, or conversation. Here’s an example I found recently:

So good to have my sister here. Odd conversation tonight that stuck with me. She said her kids might not need to learn to drive the way self-driving cars are advancing. She said, “They use information from satellites, traffic cams and even other cars to minimize user error and fatalities.” It’s hard to imagine.

The thing that interested me was this idea of minimizing fatalities. Who gets to decide which one person can be “minimized” to allow the others to live in a car crash? I pulled the idea of self-driving cars along with that one phrase from our conversation: “Minimizing fatalities.”

Find the Heat

Once you choose a specific idea, find the hot spots in it or create one. A hot spot is a place where the temperature is higher or “a place of significant activity or danger.” It might be the inherent conflict in a conversation or the oddity in an image that could lead to or expose disaster.

Again, specificity is your friend. Some examples:

You overhear a conversation: “So help me if you leave with the hamster and espresso machine, I’ll …”

Or a headline from the news with an odd (and heartbreaking) image: “Woman who gouged out her own eye found standing next to church.”

Both of these moments hold immense potential for stories because they prompt us to ask, “Why?” and “What if?” The emotions behind these small hot places can be great places to develop an idea. If you can capture the emotion behind a moment, you can build any world you like around it.

A Character as a Hot Spot

Maybe your idea isn’t an image or event, but a person. If you start with a character, you can follow the same process by asking a few specific questions.

What does this character want from the moment we meet him?

How far is he willing to go to get it?

How can this character’s fears, anger, or insecurity get them in trouble?

You can short cut this by building from someone you know or using an actor or type. Then get specific. I can start with my Uncle John, because he is curmudgeonly and outspoken against technology, but I’ll need to change it up and give the character some details that belong only to him.

Also, remember you aren’t writing about a character’s life, you are writing about his or her problem. Specific, vivid details will make the character leap off the page.

An Example

The thing that interested me most in the conversation with my sister was this idea of minimizing fatalities. Who gets to decide which one person can be “minimized” to allow the others to live in a car crash?

I asked some questions: Who is responsible in a car crash involving a self-driving car? The driver or the car company? The tech company who built the algorithm? The satellite company reporting the data?

What if a new IT graduate buys a self-driving car and her grandfather disapproves? What if that same girl is in a fatal accident?

There are a number of hotspots in this idea that could create conflict, because there are so many emotions surrounding a crash and the element of responsibility. From here, I’m ready to outline the goal of my character, the conflict, and the climax that will guide my story.

Once you’ve explored the possibilities, you can outline the main beats of your story and get to drafting.

Do you have a method for getting from seed to draft? Do you have any tips for how to develop story ideas? Let us know in the comments!

By Sue Weems

Visit us at First Edition Design Publishing

37 Questions to Ask Your Character

Pretend you are an interviewer for a newspaper, a secret agent, or a novelist, and you are interviewing, or interrogating, a character for your story. Imagine the character is sitting in front of you, you have a new fifty-sheet yellow writing pad and your favorite pencil your cat chewed, and you are about to ask them a list of questions.

Create a character by conducting an interview. Interview your character before you start writing so you can immerse yourself completely in who they are and what they stand for. Interview them and find out who they are.

Why Interview Your Character Before You Start Writing?

When you completely know your character before you start writing, you will have a better understanding of how they will react in different situations. Your character will be more three-dimensional if you know who they are before you start writing.

Your character will be three-dimensional and not flat if you spend time thinking about how they think and feel about life. If you know your character’s worldview it will be easier to keep their personality consistent throughout the story, and you will have a better understanding of how your character will grow and change as they deal with conflict.

37 Questions to Ask Your Characters

These questions will help you find out if your character is kind, honest, loyal, or trustworthy. These questions focus on how your characters think, not what they look like. We will develop their appearance later when the photographer arrives to photograph your characters.

10 Questions

  1. What did you eat for breakfast? Did you make it yourself? What time do you eat breakfast? Do you wash the pan after you cook the eggs or do you leave it for the maid to clean? Do you have a maid?
  2. Do you have a cat? How many cats do you have? Do you wish you were a cat? How many litter boxes do you have? Do you clean the litter boxes every day? Or does your maid clean the litter boxes?
  3. Do you go our for lunch or bring a sack lunch? Do you
  1. take an extra long lunch break and charge the company?
  2. Are you an only child? How many siblings do you have? Are you close or are you estranged?
  3. If you are adopted, do you know your birth parents? Do you want to find them?
  4. Do you call your mother every day, or only on her birthday, Mother’s Day, and Christmas? Are your parents alive?
  5. Do you like to cook? Do you use recipes or make up your own recipes? Do you eat out every night?
  6. Do you put both socks on first, or one sock, one shoe?
  7. Do you have a dog? Is the dog a rescue dog or bought from a breeder?
  8. Or perhaps a hamster? Or do you have any pets?

11 More Questions

  1. Do you iron your clothes? Who does your laundry? Do you do it yourself or do you send it out?
  2. Are you married? Are you divorced? How many times have you been married?
  3. Do you brush and floss your teeth before you go to bed? Do you use an electric toothbrush and a water pick?
  4. Do you have any cavities?
  5. Are those your real teeth, or are they dentures, or are they all capped?
  6. What do you throw into the garbage? Do you recycle?
  7. Do you live in an apartment or a house?
  8. Do you own your own home or rent?
  9. Do you mow your own lawn or use a landscape service?
  1. Have you ever had a garden?
  2. Have you ever eaten a carrot right out of the ground?

16 More Questions

  1. Do you pick your nose?
  2. Do you bite your fingernails? Do you have any bad habits?
  3. What is your earliest memory?
  4. Do you hold the door open for the person behind you or do you let it go and slam in their face?
  5. Do you take chicken soup to your elderly neighbor when they are sick?
  6. If you had a dog, would you pick up your dog’s poop when you go for a walk or sneak off and hope no one saw your dog poop on their lawn?
  7. If your boss asked you to cheat on your invoice and bill your client for extra hours, would you do it?
  8. On Monday morning, are you excited to go to work, or are you sad?
  9. If you could go back in time for one day, where would you go?
  10. You can cure one disease. Which one would you cure?
  11. Do you honk at the car in front of you if they didn’t see the light turn green?
  12. Do you exercise or are you a coach potato?
  13. If a Boy Scout comes to your door selling popcorn, do you hide in the kitchen or buy popcorn?
  14. Have you ever served in the military?
  15. What is your greatest fear?
  16. Would you like me to get you a glass of water? Or would you rather have soda? Wine? Whiskey?

Know Your Characters

Questions like these can help you know your character better. If you’d like even more, read this famous list of 35 questions French novelist Marcel Proust was asked by a friend when he was fourteen years old.

Think of other questions you would like to use in your interview. What questions will help you understand your character’s personality, motivations, and goals?

I wonder how your characters in your current story would answer these questions?

What questions would you want to ask your character in an interview? Let me know in the comments section.

By Pamela Hodges

Visit us at First Edition Design Publishing