All right, hands up: What’s the one thing we can’t get enough of in fiction but we avoid like a screaming toddler in real life? Conflict
It’s ironic that something we try to avoid in the real world is the very thing we can’t get enough of in books. Psychologically speaking, though, it makes perfect sense. Books do not significantly trigger a reader’s fight-or-flight instincts, making it safe for them to experience conflict—after all, that bad stuff is happening to someone else. Yet, if the story is well written, it draws them in so they’re right there with the hero or heroine, feeling some of that dread, anger, and confusion. They identify with the character’s experiences because their own real-life ones have taught them the agony of uncertainty and fear and what it’s like to feel completely outmatched.
In a nutshell: conflict contributes to reader engagement.
And with all the books on the market, keeping readers involved and interested all the way to THE END should be one of our biggest goals. It’s crucial that we employ this storytelling element thoughtfully and purposefully, but with conflict in every scene—very often, multiple conflicts per scene—that’s a lot of drama. How do we keep those scenarios from becoming redundant, flat, or melodramatic? The key is to use different kinds.
The variety of conflict is what makes a story crackle with power—whether we’re talking about the ones at the heart of an overall plot, or scene-level complications meant to pressure the character and raise the stakes. The best stories don’t stick to the same type of conflict over and over. They pull from multiple forms that work naturally with the story’s main premise to hit the character from all sides.
As Angela and I were writing The Conflict Thesaurus, we had so many options for scenarios that it became clear we’d need to categorize them to keep them manageable. Because we’ll soon be releasing this book into the wild, we’re going to spill some of the beans a little early and share the categories we came up with, along with a few of the book entries from each. This breakdown should give you an idea of the various kinds of conflict that are available so you can use a strong variety of scenarios in your story.
Relationship friction can be the good kind (lighthearted teasing between siblings or an intense glance shared by two lovers), but often it’s the other—the type that creates a bristly moment of silence after an argument or the sting of hurt when a secret is carelessly spilled. Conflicts that create problems in relationships result in your character’s emotions being easily activated, increasing the chance they will lash out, cross a personal or professional line, or make a mistake that leads to more trouble.
Another way to bring conflict to your character’s doorstep is to think about how duty and responsibility can pile up and disrupt the status quo—especially when it comes to their personal and professional life. A career is necessary to pay the bills, but it becomes a source of conflict when the demands of the job leak into family life. Likewise, if the paycheck can’t keep up with the mortgage or one partner is carrying the biggest load at home, tensions will rise.
When a character’s home—that most sacred and safest of places—becomes a powder keg, how much additional conflict will blow her world to bits? It won’t take much additional stress for her fragile ecosystem to shatter.
Examples: An Elderly Loved One Requiring Care, Having to Break a Promise, Needing to Disobey an Order
Failures and Mistakes
The aftermath of a failure or mistake can go one of two ways. If a character panics, their emotions go into overdrive and they become fixated on the worst-case scenario. They believe they must act immediately to prevent catastrophe, only they aren’t calm or objective enough to think things through. This usually lands them into even more hot water, which is bad for them but good for you and the story because…conflict!
A failure or mistake is also an opportunity to learn and grow, so this is the second path characters can take. Failing hurts, but it can act as a checkpoint that forces characters to look at their route and make decisions. If a character reflects on what happened and realizes they need to try again, then we know they’re open to change. This becomes a powerful character arc moment.
A dilemma is when a person faces a choice between two values, duties, or convictions that align with their sense of integrity. Moral temptations involve decisions that push the character to choose between right and wrong. Sounds pretty straightforward, but the temptation part makes it anything but.
Dilemmas and temptations—especially in extreme circumstances—can cause a character’s values to shift. Moral conflicts are not only great for forcing your characters to examine who they are and what they believe, they can also reinforce a story’s themes on right and wrong and personal identity.
Sometimes you want characters who are working under pressure or a short timeline to rise to a challenge; other times you need to explore what will finally break them. Pressure can help you do both. It’s also great for creating tension for readers as they wonder whether a character can handle the new threat. How can they work past this new challenge? Can they beat the clock? This additional stress will keep readers turning pages late into the night, anxious to discover if the character can circumvent this latest development or not.
Examples: Being Given an Ultimatum, Unwanted Scrutiny, Being Made to Wait
Sometimes you need truly agonizing conflict—the type that forces the character to choose between bad and worse. Lose-lose situations are especially dangerous because they bog characters down in an emotional quicksand of fear, obligation, and guilt. This negative psychological spiral often results in them sacrificing their own happiness and needs.
Examples: Being Unable to Save Everyone, Being Set Up to Fail, Conflicting Internal Needs and Desires
Conflict is what we use to poke at a character’s soft spots, raise the stakes, and maybe encourage a specific path to self-growth. So when you’re choosing conflict options for your character, vary the forms. This ensures that the problems they’re facing will spread like cracked glass, threatening multiple areas of their life and making things exponentially more complicated and difficult for them.
Successful stories are driven by authentic and interesting characters, so it’s important to craft them carefully. But characters don’t usually exist in a vacuum; throughout the course of your story, they’ll live, work, play, and fight with other cast members. Some of those relationships are positive and supportive, pushing the protagonist to positive growth and helping them achieve their goals. Other relationships do exactly the opposite—derailing your character’s confidence and self-worth—or they cause friction and conflict that leads to fallout and disruption. Many relationships hover somewhere in the middle. A balanced story will require a mix of these dynamics.
The purpose of this thesaurus is to encourage you to explore the kinds of relationships that might be good for your story and figure out what each might look like. Think about what a character needs (good and bad), and build a network of connections for him or her that will challenge them, showcase their innermost qualities, and bind readers to their relationship trials and triumphs.
Description: More than rivals or competitors, enemies are people who are actively working to defeat or destroy the other. The reason for their animosity may be personal, stemming from a shared past experience, or it may simply be a matter of them working at cross-purposes and blocking each other from reaching their respective goals. The richness in this relationship comes from the fact that both parties believe in their own rightness. Writing a dynamic and interesting pair of enemies requires a carefully exploration of the relationship’s complexity so they don’t veer into cliché, unsympathetic, or flat-character territory.
RelationshipDynamics Below are a wide range of dynamics that may accompany this relationship. Use the ideas that suit your story and work best for your characters to bring about and/or resolve the necessary conflict.
Enemies who are both seeking the same resource or objective, and defeating the other party is a necessary part of their success Two people who are actively seeking to destroy one another Enemies who used to be friends or allies, with a shared history Enemies who are part of the same team but are secretly working against each other
Challenges That Could Threaten The Status Quo One person asking for a truce One party being taken out by a serious illness or injury A powerful third-party demanding an end to the feud One party discovering a damning secret about the other The two being physically trapped in the same space Both parties losing something of value A common enemy entering the picture One party joining forces with a stronger and better connected person or entity, disrupting the balance of power One person having an epiphany about past mistakes or their role in the relationship One person seeking forgiveness in order to heal
Clashing Personality Trait Combinations Cautious and Reckless, Unethical and Honorable, Confrontational and Timid, Perfectionist and Talented, Mature and Irresponsible
Negative Outcomes of Friction Anxiety and depression Arguments and fights Self-blame for not handling the situation better Publicly trashing one another Difficulty trusting others Becoming fixated on defeating the other person Missing important events because the other person will be present Losing friends and family members who take sides The animosity escalating into abusive or violent behavior Seeing no way out of the conflict Being targeted by the friends and family members of one’s enemy
FictionalScenarios That Could Turn These Characters into Allies Both parties realizing they have a common goal Both parties needing to keep a secret A business venture or financial opportunity that requires both to participate An event that forces the two into close proximity (a family reunion, them being held hostage or getting lost together, etc.) Putting differences aside to present a united front against a more threatening enemy Discovering that the feud was based on a lie One party altering their religious, political, or cultural beliefs Romantic feelings developing between the two A third-party encouraging reconciliation
Ways This Relationship May Lead to Positive Change The character recognizing their role in the relationship and taking accountability for their actions The enemies breaking a cycle of hatred One party learning to seek and extend forgiveness Either person learning to see the situation from the other’s perspective The character recognizing unhealthy thought patterns and behaviors Either party refusing to engage with their enemy, thereby diffusing the situation
Themes and Symbols That Can Be Explored through This Relationship A fall from grace, Betrayal, Danger, Death, Deception, Friendship, Inflexibility, Isolation, Journeys, Love, Peace, Suffering, Violence.
How characters look is a much-discussed element of writing craft. So, just how much do we need to describe our character’s appearance?
Obviously individual writers’ mileage may vary on this question. Some authors may spend a lot of time on character appearance. Others may do it more intuitively, or leave it almost entirely up to the reader’s imagination.
With this background in mind then, I am going to offer up my top tips on character appearance in your novel. Ready? Let’s go …
Beware of ‘Laundry List’ Character Introductions
Character introductions are super-important. The first time we ‘see’ them, we should get a feel for WHO they are via WHAT they are doing.
In screenwriting, we say ‘characters are what they DO’ … but too often, writers introduce their characters just by what they’re wearing. I call this the ‘laundry list’ character introduction. Yet all of us know ‘clothes DON’T make the wo/man’!
Sometimes it won’t be clothes. Instead it may also be the way they wear their hair, how they do their make up or whether they have certain physical attributes. (For example, whether the character has big breasts … Yes, you’ve guessed it, female characters fare worst in this).
Yes, what we choose to wear CAN reflect our attitudes (especially strong looks like punk or hippy). But the fact is too many writers use this as a lazy shortcut **on its own**.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Avoid the ‘laundry list’ introduction. If you want to use clothes go ahead … just don’t rely on them to define the character.
2. Avoid non-stop moving body parts!
So if characters are what they DO, then we should rely on action when thinking about appearance. This Physical Feature Descriptive Database at One Stop for Writers offers some good hints for describing things like a characters’ lips and what they may do to signify different emotions.
However, we’re not out of the woods yet!
Whilst characters physically moving *can* be a good indicator of what they’re going through, we don’t want to rely on it too much either.
When it comes to novel writing, the psychological aspect is very important. If we reduce every character to what they’re physically doing all the time, it can adversely affect the read. Instead of an emotional connection, the reader becomes a voyeur.
This is most obvious when authors write constant actions pertaining to the body, such as …
Hands on / off hips
Nodding / shaking of head
Smiling / grimacing
Licking of lips
Hands in the air or similar gestures
In other words, constant moving body parts become a ‘filler’ or worse, a stand in for actual characterisation. No thanks!
KEY TAKEAWAY: Avoid your characters’ movements becoming ‘filler’ by taking the emphasis off their ‘smaller’ actions. Use them in moderation instead.
3. Beware the WORD OF DOOM
There’s one word I see too often when I read female character introductions. Guess what it is …
I call this the ‘word of doom’. (BTW, we may also see other variants of this word too, ranging from ‘pretty’ to ‘sexy’, so nice try but no cigar!).
In fact, the word of doom pops up in the screenwriting world so often there are whole websites devoted to terrible casting calls, such as Miss L’s brilliant but scathing Casting Call Woe over on Tumblr. Here’s another called @femscriptintros.
Confused?? After all, ‘beautiful’ is a compliment, right?
Well, think on it this way. Female characters are often described by HOW THEY LOOK *over* WHAT THEY DO.
Yet if characters are supposed to be what they do, their behaviour is supposed to be what drives them, not how good-looking their appearance is.
Remember, a male lead might often be good-looking too, but they’re still more likely to be introduced by their character traits, than how they look. Gnash!
KEY TAKEAWAY: Avoid falling back on the ‘word of doom’ when introducing female characters. Instead of focusing on their appearance, think about their internal character traits and behaviour. Personality before gender (this works for all characters, by the way).
Do you remember how you felt while reading The Da Vince Code or Gone Girl? The sweaty palms, the pleasant shiver, the jaw-clenching tension? Remember how those well-drawn elements of suspense held you in thrall, feathering along your skin, raising goosebumps?
Suspense fiction comes in a variety of flavors, all delicious, and if you have a yen for building suspense in your writing and learning how to create the same kind of reading experience for your own audience, this is the place for you.
In a special series of articles, I’ll be your guide as we dig deep into the elements of suspense that grab readers and don’t let go. These elements apply, regardless of the publishing route you choose for getting your stories out to your suspense readers.
Here, we will learn how you can craft suspense in your own books, starting now.
Anticipation…Worth the Wait
Anticipation is a critical part of suspense, and I suffered/enjoyed a long period of anticipation before I started my writing career.
With young children at home and a husband often away, serving on US Navy submarines, I waited until my baby graduated from high school and flew the nest. But my writing dream did not sit idle during those years.
I read just about every book on the craft of writing I could find, focusing my study on suspense fiction, and reveled in learning all I could. Most of all, I anticipated the season of my life when I would begin writing my own mystery novels, thrillers, and suspense stories.
At the time, I didn’t realize how critical this would be to my success. Understanding what grips readers in the thrall of mystery and thriller stories is key. And knowing how to enjoy a book for pleasure—to be a reader—is essential to being a good storyteller.
Learning From Story Masters
While working for our local library system, I attended an all-staff training day that changed my life.
Orson Scott Card was the keynote speaker and since I was part of the entertainment for the event, I shared the stage with him. I had visions of the two of us striking up a terrific rapport and him taking me under his wing as I prepared to enter the writer’s world.
None of that happened.
Mr. Card gave an excellent presentation on the power of words, but we never spoke beyond a hello.
However, in a breakout session after the main event, I had the great good fortune to meet the renowned writer and editor, Kristine Kathryn Rusch. She and her husband, the prolific author Dean Wesley Smith, have been my valued mentors for about the last ten years.
A good deal of what goes into my own work today sprang from the massive store of writerly wisdom they passed on to me, and it’s jumped my writing light years ahead, helping to make up for my late start.
I’m pleased to be able to share some of what I’ve learned from my years of preparation and experience with you!
Examining the Elements of Suspense (and Why This Matters)
What is suspense? What function does it serve and why is it so appealing to readers?
More importantly, how can you create it in your own work?
In this article and the ones to follow in the series, I will teach you the key elements of suspense.
Here’s some of what we’ll cover:
What is Suspense? Why and How It Makes Books Better
We’ll take a stab at defining suspense and look at some important distinctions between suspense as a necessary ingredient in every story and suspense as a popular genre category. With a little help from the master, Alfred Hitchcock, we’ll see how suspense is different from surprise and how they both function in a story.
We’ll also talk about the foundation you’ll need to build in order to use the elements of suspense to good effect in your own stories. For example, in order for readers to experience suspense in your stories, they need to be mindfully present and meaningfully invested.
Deep POV: 6 Key Details to Use in the Beginning of Your Book
As part of the foundation you must lay for a suspense-filled tale, you’ll need to grip and pull the reader deep into your story. There are many writing techniques you can use to accomplish this throughout your entire story.
For example, when you solidly ground the reader inside the head of the point of view character, filtering every word through that viewpoint, your readers will forget they’re reading.
Grounding your reader deep in your protagonist’s POV will do a world of good for the rising action in your story, building stakes and smaller conflict as they spiral into an intense, climatic moment. Silence of the Lambs is a great example of this, where as Clarice Starling grew closer to discovering the whereabouts and identity of Buffalo Bill, Hannibal Lector’s masterful escape plan spiked.
Learn more about these techniques in this article.
Sympathetic Characters: 10 Writing Techniques That Make Readers Care
A writer can craft a scene full of exciting action and surprising revelations, but if they haven’t first engaged their reader in caring about the main character, it won’t matter.
Readers like strong characters, but also appreciate a hero that has flaws. Learn how character development, and how to make your reader invest in your protagonist in this article.
Raise the Stake: The Ultimate Guide to Building Suspense in a Plot
Writers who know how to raise the high stakes in a story understands how to provide action that drives the story forward.
Action often brings impending danger, and is one of those “go-to” elements of suspense, but you’ll see that you don’t have to rely on a high-speed car chase or hand-to-hand combat to get suspense out of action.
Ensuring that there is tension between the characters in a scene, using active setting, and making sure the pacing matches the content are some of the methods you can use to create action that will generate a feeling of suspense.
Learn more about how to raise the stakes in this article.
Sequence of Events in a Story: How to Order Scenes That Build Suspense
How and when you impart information to your reader is a crucial factor in adding suspense to your stories. It’s all about giving your reader what they need and when they need it, so they’ll keep reading and stay deeply involved and actively participating in the story.
Learn more about how to write a story with a strong sequence of events in this article. “ Mastering the elements of suspense will hook your readers and keep them invested in your story.
Learn the key ingredients you need in your story to do this, and more to come from an exciting new series on writing suspense!
Cliffhanger Meaning 101: What They Are and How Writers Use Them
Cliffhangers hark back to anticipation, like that old ketchup commercial—you know it’s coming, and you know it’s going to be good, and your hunger and eagerness grow as you wait for it to happen. The art is in the timing.
You want to know where to cut the scene for maximum effect, and how to build the anticipation without letting those french fries grow cold.
There are a number of cliffhanger techniques that deserve attention, and we’ll take a good look at several and learn how to craft them. Realizing that without the foundational setting of the stage these cliffhangers will lose some of their impact, I’ll share some examples from writers like Dennis Lehane and Stephen King.
Read all about cliffhangers and how to write them in your suspense story here.
Story Pacing: 4 Techniques That Help Manage Your Plot’s Timeline
Pacing is perhaps the most advanced of the elements of suspense. It makes sure that the reader feels invested in a plot and character.
One of the guiding principles of pacing is making sure that your form follows content, creating a compelling congruency that will keep your reader plunging forward, immersed in a story.
What do I mean by form following content? Ask yourself what’s happening in your story.
Examine how the masters provide strong story pacing in their suspense books by using the techniques I mention in this article.
How to Write Action Scenes That Add Suspense to a Story
In the years after your reader has finished your book, they may not remember every plot point, but they will remember how they felt while immersed in your story.
Part of this thrilling emotions come from action scenes—but moving your story into an action sequence can be a risky business. It requires special attention, and if you don’t give it what it needs, you invite your reader to leave the book.
In this article, I teach three obstacles writers face when writing action scenes, and how to overcome them.
Foreshadowing: 10 Clever Methods to Write An Engaging Plot Twist
Foreshadowing is the weaving of hints into your story so that future events feel natural and inevitable instead of contrived. It also allows the reader to predict and anticipate those events, adding suspense.
The addition of situational irony can also heighten the suspense of any story.This is when you put the reader wise to something your protagonist doesn’t know, thereby letting them sweat for the unaware hero. “ Seasoned writers use literary devices to weave suspense throughout their stories. Learn how to incorporate some of these in your book with this article.
Seasoned writers use literary devices to weave suspense throughout their stories. You can learn ten methods on how to do this in your stories in this article.
Mystery Clues: The Ultimate Guide to Clues and Red Herrings
Red herrings, or false clues, are essential in suspense stories, mysteries, and thrillers. This misleading trail will keep readers guessing, and simultaneously keep them invested and excited in finding out what happens next.
Mastermind red herrings, however, isn’t always easy.
You can learn more about the importance of mystery clues, and how to plant red herrings and turn clues in your book in this article.
Subtext Examples: 7 Techniques to Supercharge Your Scenes
Have you ever read Hemingway’s story, “Hills Like White Elephants?” Dripping with subtext, it masterfully raises questions and builds suspense.
You can learn to do that, too.
Using subtext lets you add nuance to a scene by giving it an underlying meaning implied by the surface action and dialogue. A striking example comes from an early scene in the Billy Wilder movie, Double Indemnity, based on a James M. Cain story. The two principle characters speak of cars and speed limits as euphemisms to cover their budding interest in each other.
You can learn all about subtext and how it adds suspense to your stories in this article.
Atmosphere Literary Definition: Genre Examples That Evoke Emotion
Atmosphere is the texture of the story, created by the careful selection of details, that provides the sensory palette through which the reader will experience story events.
Atmosphere matters. But how do you use atmosphere in your book?
Learning the literary definition of atmosphere (with genre examples) can help you write a better book, all of which I teach in this article.
Euphonics: How Sounds and Words Engage Readers
Euphonics deal with the sounds of the words you use, their rhythm and resonance. For example, words riffing on the letter F tend to bring to mind the flighty and frivolous, things that are fluffy, ruffly, flirtatious, and so on.
Using these words imparts a certain feel to the writing. You can use other phonetic sounds to produce a variety of euphonic effects.
There’s a reason suspense starts with S.
These techniques are enhancers, like the seasoning that brings out the best flavors in a well-prepared meal. Judicially sprinkled, they can boost the level of suspense in a well-told story.
I’ll teach you how to use euphonics in your story in a future article.
Genre Expectations to Satisfy Your Reader
Readers are drawn to the suspense genres—mysteries, thrillers, and suspense—because that’s the flavor they crave. When you sit down to write such a book, you’re making big promises to your reader—and you’d better follow through.
Readers want a certain type of reading experience, and my target readers have learned they can find it in the pages of a well-written mystery, thriller, or suspense novel.
It’s my job, as a writer, to make sure they get what they came for, and you’ll want to do the same for your readers. “ Readers pick up a certain genre for a reason. What genre are you writing? Do you know how to satisfy these story expectations? Tweet thisTweet
One way to make this happen is to give them what they expect, but not in the way they expected it. For instance, readers of detective fiction expect there will be a scene toward the end of the book when the detective explains how he reached the solution.
When you write a detective mystery, you must somehow include this scene. It’s indispensable, if you want to please your reader.
We’ll look at some of the other expectations reader have, like the introduction of the crime scene and the final confrontation between hero and villain, in a future article on genre.
Building a Team to Satisfy Your Reader
One particularly pleasing aspect of most well-loved stories is the team.
While it’s not usually marked out and blatantly labeled as a team, most popular protagonists surround themselves with a support structure. The members of that structure serve important functions and provide points of interest for the reader.
For example, if you’re a fan of the TV show NCIS, you’re well acquainted with Gibbs’s crack team of crime solvers. James Patterson has created for his character, Alex Cross, a team of colleagues and family members that his readers adore.
In an upcoming article, we’ll learn how to build a team to help drive the story, deliver pertinent information, and populate the type of secondary plotlines that add dimension and support the main storyline.
Strengthening Your Story Idea
Every story has been written before, but you might be able to tweak and twist your story idea into something fresh and compelling.
For example, you could change up the genre, like the writers of Throw Mama from The Train did when they vamped on the Alfred Hitchcock film, Strangers on a Train, turning the thriller classic into a comedy.
We’ll look at a variety of methods you might use to innovate your idea for a mystery or thriller novel or short story in a new article soon.
Plotting for Suspense
After studying the elements of suspense and learning how to use them in crafting a suspenseful story, we’ll focus on plotting, creating the underlying structure that will support and give shape to the story.
Understanding the elements of suspense will help you construct a plot optimized for suspense.
Plot diagrams are a good way to study these elements in plotting and structure. A favorite of mine, and the one I use in conjunction with Scrivener to write each scene of my novels, is what Shawn Coyne calls The Five Commandments of Storytelling.
Another structure similar to this one is the Six Elements of Plot, which Joe Bunting covers in his book The Write Structure.
We’ll take a closer look at this structure and examine some of the other plot diagrams best suited for the suspense genres, like the Lester Dent Seven-Point plot structure and the Brooks model.
All of this coming in an important upcoming article soon!
The End…Now What?
At some point—after the writing, polishing, and proofreading—it will be time to package your work and release it into the world. But where will you send it? What exactly have you created, anyway?
Your book will appeal to a certain set of readers.
The trick is to make sure they can find it. If you market it incorrectly, placing it on the wrong “shelf,” no one will buy it and those who do probably won’t like it. You need to make sure it shows up where the readers who will like it shop for books.
We’ll examine a series of questions you can apply to your book to help determine genre and sub-genre. A lot of this depends on how much weight you’ve given each of these five story elements: character, setting, plot, voice, and style.
And we’ll look at additional paths you can use to figure out what you’ve written and how to reach those who will appreciate it. Stay tuned for a future article on these essentials!
Get Empowered by Becoming Knowledgeable, Then Write!
The reason I write, the driving force behind my continuing efforts, is my desire to create for readers of suspense what other writers have done for me. I want to bring that gift, that same kind of thrill and zest, to someone, somewhere, curled up with one of my books.
If you have that same kind of desire, stick with me through this series of articles. We’ll dive into the elements of suspense, examine them, learn how to craft them, and discover how to go deeper and learn more.
Bookmark this spot. Watch for the upcoming articles, read them, put them into practice, and get empowered!
You can learn how to write a gripping mystery or thriller that readers will love.
Until then, I hope this introduction to the elements of suspense has got your wheels turning. Take that story idea that’s been harvesting in your head, and let it loose.
How about you? Are you excited to learn more about the elements of suspense? Tell us about it in the comments.
Everyone wants to know the answer to the kazillion-dollar question:
How do you get readers to show up, read your work, and become so invested in it that they can’t help but talk about it for days, weeks, and perhaps even years after they’ve read it?
The first thing first is the most obvious, tell a good story.
Here’s the thing, though, lots of writers tell good stories, whether it’s a 2000-word article, a catchline, or even a book (especially a book).
And yet, a good story in of itself is not always enough.
After all, you’ve written good stories, and so have I, and yet we’ve both struggled to get readers to care enough to tell their friends and neighbors about what they’ve read.
What was missing?
What’s the special ingredient that gets readers to keep coming back, rereading it so often that even they are astounded as to why they can’t put your story down.
The Secret Sauce
You need a good hook: An Enticing Mystery, or Two, or Three.
It seems simple enough, right? Create a mystery—I mean, everyone loves a good mystery. And yet, it’s not that simple at all.
In fact, there is a mystery genre in writing, but if you’re like me writing a mystery story itself isn’t your cup of tea, and not all readers want to read a who-done-it. Then again, many love to read and write in the genre, just ask Watson!
That’s okay, if you don’t, your story could be a romantic thriller, or a romcom, or an epic fantasy story, or you could simply be trying to come up with the best slogan for a company that hired you.
All of these types of stories have room for a good mystery in them, questions the reader wants to answer, and when those questions are finally solved the reader receives such a powerful dopamine kick that it keeps them coming back to find out if they missed anything.
A good mystery or mysteries within your story is one of the key ingredients that make your writing must-read material. Readers love to question things. We, you and I, we are both readers too, we love to be fascinated and wonder about what was the meaning of this or that, and did that really happen the way you read it?
If you have a good story that the reader becomes invested in, you want to pull them in even further with mysteries they can solve (or think they can solve) and, more importantly, want to solve.
The Best Way to do This
One of the best ways I’ve found to create a good mystery readers are compelled to solve is to not make the hook so obvious. Sometimes this happens as a natural occurrence due to the story itself and sometimes you have to get creative and purposely add the elements of mystery.
In my new book, The Wee-Jees, there are several mysteries tied into the story, some are obvious, and others are obscure, which when done right makes the story even more compelling.
Let’s start with the title: The Wee-Jees.
What are Wee-Jees? It’s a unique title because it sounds familiar yet is still so unfamiliar. What is it—where’d it come from? It’s a mystery, and I only reveal the answers within the story (or do I?).
This question of what the Wee-Jees are is even more compelling thanks to the subtitle of the book, A Ghost Story Based on True Events.
Are they ghosts?
You’ll have to read the book to find out! So, already with the title, we have a mystery hook. But the title alone is not enough.
There are many mysteries within the story itself, I am already receiving a ton of messages about chapter twelve, The Two Jakes. Some say what’s in that chapter is the spookiest thing they’ve read in a long time (in the best way possible).
But most people are emailing me a certain question about another event in another chapter, which I won’t reveal here. The answer, after all, is in the book, and in this case, like all good hooks, the answer itself is shrouded in mystery, too. It’s a great discussion starter when the book becomes the choice read in reader groups.
Several of the inquiries I’ve received have been unanticipated and have caught me by surprise, so parts of the mysteries were unintentional and are a natural part of the story. Good stories, especially those based on true events, will always have mysteries that develop within themselves. Some questions will never be answered.
Coming of Age and Love Story Questions
The story in my mind for 30 years wasn’t just about the strange events. My friends, and a young boy and girl’s first budding relationship, those stories get told because in order to give context to the otherworldly events I had to tell you, the reader, about everything that happened before, during, and after the events themselves.
It’s the context that makes this book so special and allows the already strange events to stand out in their absurdity. It’s also this coming of age story that really connects and raises questions within readers, especially those who see glimpses of their own childhood within my story.
These questions I could not anticipate as everyone sees a part of themselves somewhere in this story. So beware, memories can be triggered, much as Stephen King’s Stand by Me did for audiences in the 80’s.
How Many Are There?
A fun mystery in The Wee-Jees, which requires perhaps several rereads to solve, is:
How many ghosts are there?
How many ghosts are in the story? I’ll give you a hint, not all the ghosts in the book are obvious. There’s some sixth sense stuff going on that not everyone figures out after the first read-through, or the second, for that matter. Don’t worry, that’s not as big a giveaway as you might think–or is it? However, one Amazon reviewer (this is a clue) revealed some of the ghosts in her spoiler review (she guessing and she could be right).
Let’s have fun with this.
Enter to Win:
I tell you what, for anyone who has read The Wee-Jees, I’ll send you a gift if you solve the following mystery:
If you send me an email to bryanpositivewriter (at) gmail (dot) com correctly naming and/or describing all of the ghosts in the story, I will reply to you with a $50.00 Amazon gift card! You must name and/or describe ALL of the ghosts.
I’ll update this post here when the mystery has been solved! Send your answer to:
Take your time and read the book a few times before sending me your answer because I will only accept one entry per reader and only the first person who gets it right will win! The cut off to send your answer to me is Halloween, Oct 31, 2020!
The best part is that the book is just 99cents on Amazon until Midnight, 31 October! So it’s a small investment to read a nice little spooky story and have fun doing it. I recommend reading this one in bed, in the dark, with a flashlight the first time (if you dare).
It’s a short book, so surely you can read it several times before the 31st! Keep a pencil and notepad with you while you read it during the second (or third) time.
All great stories do this, they have a good mystery, or several mysteries, layered within them.
There is always room for your writing in the world. If you seek it out with determination, your work will reach places beyond your wildest dreams.
In July 2020, I had a poem published by Independent Catholic News. I think of myself as both a poet and a prose writer, but I am more experienced with publishing nonfiction prose. This was my first time attempting to publish poetry professionally.
Through the lens of faith, my poem, “A Prayer to Shine Through,” responds to the monumental issues our world has been facing this year. Following Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s Examen prayer, the first part acknowledges that people are profoundly struggling. Inspired by the Ignatian idea of finding God in all things, the second part highlights how faith and God can still be found. The piece concludes with a prayer that we continue to see signs of hope.
Though I plan to further my study of poetry as I pursue my MFA in Creative Writing, I have only taken one undergraduate poetry course. I knew that my work required more revision and craft elements to be a literary piece. I wanted to publish it anyway as it may be a source of hope for others. I also knew that literary publications typically release new issues quite some time after the work is submitted.
My poem seemed like it would help people if printed during these times, not months after. News outlets appeared to be the best option. I submitted to local and national publications that printed pieces addressing faith and current events. Most depicted faith positively but hinted at struggles—a major factor influencing my decision to submit.
I remember reading through the submission guidelines and cringing at the maximum accepted length—twenty lines for one magazine, forty for another. As my piece was over one hundred lines, I decided against attempting to condense to twenty—too much would be lost. I did, however, condense to forty lines. The magazine that I was submitting to is one that I admire. I knew that, if I did not submit it, I would always wonder whether it would have been accepted.
Trying to cut and move over eighty lines was a major challenge. Reading some articles helped. One discussed how line breaks emphasize ideas. I had learned this in class, but having a reminder gave a fresh perspective. Did I really need certain articles like ‘the’ and ‘a’ on their own lines? No, it seemed more effective to break a line on actual keywords, so I revised accordingly. Some stanzas mirrored others, depicting the same idea in different wording. I cut the duplicates and reworked those remaining to have the keen details of the discarded ones.
Although I was pleased with my submission, I felt a faint tug of disappointment afterwards. Many revisions were for the best, but some did not do the piece justice. The editors would not see the power of the unique line breaks and repetition that had originally been there. Part of me felt like I sent a synopsis rather than the poem itself.
When the rejections came, it was naturally disappointing, but it was not the end of the world. In my twenty-three years, I have seen my father die of cancer and my mother overcome the obstacles of single parenthood. I am physically disabled and rely on a motorized wheelchair and an Assistive and Augmentative Communication device. Looking at our struggles and at the world now, the rejections do not even compare.
Rejections are just like paper cuts. We all must endure them regardless of age or level of experience. They appear when the writer is finally seeing the rhythm of the work—when the thought comes that this piece could actually be a page-turner. As soon as the writer moves in a direction that goes against the angle sought by editors, the rejections appear, tearing the skin of the writer.
It is important to note the size and magnitude of the paper cut of rejection. It is tiny. The cut stings at first, but the sensation lasts for a matter of moments. Pain may remain in the following days, but the cut will heal, dissipating into nothing but tough skin.
Too many writers mistake rejections as a sign that they do not have what it takes to succeed. Rejections do not mean that the writing is bad. Editors may love the piece and see its potential to touch readers. If its content or style is beyond the publication’s scope, they are simply not at liberty to take it.
I knew I needed to keep pursuing the poem’s publication. The words, raw and honest, had flowed just right, braiding together emotion, hard truths, and bright insights. This was a piece to be shared widely. I just had to find the right avenue. I began to think more strategically than I had in previous submissions.
Remembering my undergraduate publishing courses at Fairfield University, it dawned on me that it may not be a piece for mainstream publications. I knew that my poetry was not yet at that polished, literary quality that editors seek—I just did not have enough background in craft yet. I knew, too, that mainstream publications look for very specific angles and that mine did not quite fit.
At Fairfield, I learned that independent publications are typically more willing to accept work that is from emerging writers and unconventional in its content, style, and form. I began researching faith-based and Catholic-based independent news outlets and discovered Independent Catholic News, a global outlet based in London, England. Its website features a poetry section showcasing the work of famous poets—Seamus Heaney, to name a personal favorite—along with emerging or lesser-known poets. The poetry focuses on celebrating faith as well as depicting the trials faced by saints, martyrs, and believers.
I decided to write to the editor, sending my poem and asking if she would consider publishing it. I revised my poem so that it was the version that I would like the world to read, taking my original version and working in new wording that the condensed versions helped me discover.
The site did not display submission guidelines, though, and I had no idea if the editor was seeking new works. I decided to take a risk, choosing not to write the typical query letter. I instead wrote an email explaining who I was, what had inspired the work, and my hope that it would help people. My email seemed to adequately explain my poem in a way that query letters had not.
I admit that I paused quite a few times before I finished and sent it. I could not help but ponder what on Earth I thought I was doing. I was a twenty-three-year-old new college graduate and incoming graduate student in the United States, and here I was asking some editor on another continent to consider publishing my amateur poem. The chances that she would even read and respond to my note, I thought, were almost nonexistent. Yet something inside me made me continue, and I sent the email as soon as it was finished. It only took the editor a day to respond with an acceptance and a week for the poem to be published.
Following its publication, I spent many days writing and responding to loved ones and acquaintances who had read the poem. I could not believe how it was spreading—just when I thought I had replied to all who had written to me, more conversations began. What strikes me is not the quantity of people. It is the words that they have shared on how the poem has brightened their days and how they have shared the piece with others. These are just the people that I know. It is astonishing to think that people across the world could be reading and reacting to my poem.
When reflecting on the poem’s journey, I am astounded. I had hoped that the poem would be printed in a local or national publication. If I had not been rejected, it never would have reached the international publication. The rejections gave me an opportunity to discover and fine-tune the poem’s most effective wording and form. If I had not pursued publication after the rejection, the poem would not be where it is today.
I will not urge other writers to follow the same steps I took. Every writer must have their own unique process. I will simply offer this advice: be bold. Be brave. Be fearless in your writing. Dare to explore that unfamiliar genre. Dare to use unconventional forms and themes to illustrate what the world needs to hear. Dare to seek out new avenues to get your work out there, even if it means writing to an editor on another side of the planet. Dare to manipulate the pages even after the paper cuts of rejection attempt to derail your plans.
For the past few years, my desire to become a published author has become topmost in my mind. Because of that, many of my action plans have revolved around improving my writing.
These action plans have included taking online courses, and I learned a lot from them. In hindsight, I noticed that it’s not the one-time thing that actually helped me become a better writer: instead, it’s the little habits that I didn’t even pay much attention to during the time.
10 Habits to Improving Your Writing
Here are 10 habits that I’ve tested and proven to help anyone become a better writer:
1. Write even when you don’t feel like it.
We writers are quick to blame writer’s block when we are not in the mood to write. These past few months, I’ve tried pushing myself even when I don’t feel like writing, and to my surprise, after the first sentence or so, I can write!
I think this is one of the most important habits that any writer needs to develop, to push past the feeling of blah and just get writing.
2. Be OK with an unexciting first line—at first.
One of the greatest pressures that we writers face is the need to make that first line absolutely perfect. After all, doesn’t everyone tell us the first line has to hook your readers in, or else you’ve lost them forever?
Because of that, I find myself stuck whenever I can’t think of a great first line. One way that helped me move past this is to force myself to be OK with any old first line when I first writing. Then I just make a mental note to myself (or a literal note, typed in bold so I can quickly see it!) to edit that first line after I finish the entire piece, be it an article, a blog post, or a chapter in a novel.
3. Write first, edit later.
Another pitfall that many writers struggle with is the internal editor always forcing us to go back and fix things as we go along. This causes many delays, and sometimes even quenches the creative flow. I learned this important habit from several writing blogs, and I need to force myself to shut out the inner editor so I can just write my first draft and edit later.
4. Don’t be afraid to outline.
In the world of novels, two extreme writing styles are the plotter and the pantser. The plotter outlines everything, while the pantser just writes “by the seat of his pants.” I’m a fairly organized person, but I usually don’t have the patience to outline, and perhaps mistakenly think of myself as a pantser.
To test out this “theory,” in my current project of writing a nonfiction book, I tried outlining. To my surprise, it made writing the contents so much easier because I already know what I’m supposed to write about in every chapter!
5. Time yourself writing with undistracted attention.
I stumbled across this trick when I started writing for someone who asked me to use time-tracking software. Because I was timing myself, I was forced to focus on the task. Cal Newport, in his book Deep Work, explains how focusing on a task, instead of the constant multi-tasking that this information-rich generation does, actually helps us have more creative output.
I believe focused attention is one habit that writers really need to develop, and if it calls for a set time to do that, by all means, try it yourself!
6. Write different genres.
As writers, we may have specific genres that we enjoy writing about. But I’ve found that trying out different kinds of topics or styles can give a much-needed break, which helps recharge my writing all over again.
I suppose it’s strange, that having a writing career, I still write to relax!
7. Read, read, read.
Think of writing as exhaling, and reading as inhaling. Reading helps us writers feed on other people’s ideas and styles, and I believe it’s one habit that we need to keep cultivating.
For myself, I enjoy reading both nonfiction and fiction books, to relax after a long day of writing.
8. Practice touch-typing
I’m glad I already know how to touch-type, and relatively fast, so I can generally type out my thoughts as they come. If you don’t know how to touch-type, it may be a good time to learn how to do so, and keep practicing to improve your typing speed.
9. Keep learning.
Although I did say that the little habits I develop throughout the day gave me more results, as writers, we still need to keep learning. I’ve found that taking classes or finding a mentor to give direct feedback on my work is a great way to keep learning and improving.
10. Don’t despise small beginnings.
Lastly, one habit I need to keep cultivating is appreciating the little things. Are you “only” in Chapter 1? Don’t complain, instead celebrate it! The more I celebrate little victories, the more encouraged I am to keep going.
When you look back months, or years down the road, you will find that these 10 habits pay great dividends in helping you improve not just as a writer but even as a whole person.
Most writers have at one point or another, usually when facing some sort of difficulty. Maybe you’re struggling with writer’s block, you’re unhappy with your progress, or you received some negative feedback that has you doubting yourself.
Whatever may have caused you to question writing’s place in your future, it’s not an easy decision to keep writing. The practice takes up a lot of time, for one thing, that you may feel would be better suited doing something else. The writing journey can also be frustrating, discouraging, and disheartening, and there’s no guarantee you’ll reach the success you hope for in the end.
If you’re caught in the middle and unsure what is the best choice for you, it can help to imagine the regrets you may have in the future if you quit writing now. Imagine for a moment that you’re 90 years old and looking back on your life. Consider two scenarios: in one, you kept writing. In the other, you left it behind and went on to do something else.
Which decision would you be more likely to regret? These four questions should help you determine the answer.
1. Will I Regret Not Going After My Dream?
One of the most common regrets at the end of life is not going after your dreams. The reasons are many, from trying to be practical to not believing you can do it to wanting to live up to someone else’s expectations of who you should be. In all cases, dreams are put on the back burner until it’s too late.
For a study published in 2018, Dr. Shai Davidai from the New School for Social Research and Professor Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University conducted six experiments examining what’s behind our deepest regrets. Their results showed that “people are haunted more by regrets about failing to fulfill their hopes, goals, and aspirations than by regrets about failing to fulfill their duties, obligations, and responsibilities.”
In other words, we regret more not pursuing our dreams and letting ourselves down than we do failing to live up to others’ expectations.
Will you regret it? Do you dream of being a writer? Will you feel bad if you let this dream go? Or is there another dream you should be pursuing instead?
2. Am I Too Worried About What Others Think?
Most of us worry about what others think of us at least on some level, particularly when we’re starting out as writers.
“One of the surest ways to find unhappiness and limit your creativity is worrying about what others think of you or your work,” writes author Bryan Hutchinson over at Positive Writer. “It’s true, and I am guilty of it. But it doesn’t have to be that way.”
When you sit down to write, do you hear someone else’s voice in your head questioning or discouraging you? Be careful. Placing too much importance on what others think and not enough on what you think is one of the common regrets people have as they get older. Sure, in the moment, the opinions of others may seem important to your success and happiness, but at the end of life, what will matter most is whether you stayed true to yourself.
Will you regret it? As you look back on your life, discounting everyone else’s opinion, do you think you will regret not pursuing your writing dreams? Or will you regret, instead, spending so much time on writing when your heart is somewhere else?
3. Am I Too Focused on Being Practical?
We all make practical choices most of the time, but sometimes, practicalities can hold us back from what’s most important in life.
If you are the one who foregoes a beach vacation to save money for your child’s braces, stays in a job you don’t like to put your kids through college, or puts off retirement to fix the roof, you’re being practical, which is usually a good thing. But on occasion, making the practical choice may be something you regret, particularly if that practical decision means quitting writing.
Sometimes it pays to ignore practicalities. Cutting back on your hours (and your paycheck) for more time to devote to writing may tighten your budget, but imagine how you’ll feel within a year or so when you have a novel to show for it.
Will you regret it? Divide a sheet of paper into three vertical columns. In the first one, write down at least five decisions you’ve made concerning your writing. Examples may include whether you decided to write today, whether you made a change in your life to allow more time to write, or whether you decided to take a risk and attend a writing conference even though your budget didn’t really allow for it.
In the second column, write whether each decision was practical or impractical. In the third column, write what your 90-year-old self would think of that decision. Finally, ask yourself, “If I quit writing now for practical reasons, will I regret it 20, 30, or 40 years from now?”
4. Am I Playing It Too Safe?
Most humans prefer to play it safe most of the time. But on their deathbeds, they regret not taking more risks. This is an important regret for writers to consider because in living the writing life, pretty much everything involves risk, including:
Thinking you may have writing potential. What if you’re wrong?
Spending so much time writing. What if, in the end, the results disappoint you?
Showing others your writing. What if they don’t like it?
Publishing your writing. What if you get bad reviews?
What we can learn from the older generation is that the feeling of never having tried can gnaw at a person like a wound that won’t heal, whereas failure can be confronted and overcome. In the end, taking risks teaches us much more than playing it safe.
Will you regret it? Think back on your experience as a writer. Try to recall at least three risks you’ve taken. They can be simple risks, like showing your work to a family member or friend or attending a writing workshop. How did taking each risk turn out? Looking back, are you glad you took the chance, or do you wish you had chosen to take the safer route? What does this tell you about your future as a writer?
What Do Your Answers Tell You?
Now look back at your answers to these four questions and see if you can gather from them an overall feeling about your writing. They should help you determine whether you’re ready to quit and try something else, or if other concerns are interfering with your true desire to continue writing.
In the end, what matters are your dreams and expectations for yourself. Other, smaller concerns will fade away with time, but these will remain with you until your dying day. Remember that when deciding whether to continue writing.
Are you having problems with your main character? In this post, we look at what to do when your protagonist is a bore.
I was chatting to a few students the other day and we were having a conversation about the novels they were writing, and a few agreed that their other characters were more fun to write than their protagonist. This is not ideal, and it got me thinking about our relationships with our protagonists.
Has Your Protagonist Become A Bore?
Why Does This Happen?
We put our protagonist on a pedestal.
I think it is because we like good people. What we consider good is debatable and yes, there are exceptions, but most of us prefer people who share our morals and values. This means that sometimes we end up giving our characters the high morals standards that we strive for and then these characters sometimes become a little boring.
There are no grey areas for them. There are no questionable decisions. There are no maybes.
How Can We Fix That?
1. It’s Just A Name
Remember just because they are your protagonist it does not mean that they have to be good. Just like your antagonist does not have to be evil, your protagonist does not have to be a golden Adonis who never does anything questionable. It may help you to stay away from the words ‘protagonist’ or ‘goodie’ and use the word main character (MC) instead. This is the character we are most invested in. The one around whom the story revolves and the one we are rooting for.
2. They Need To Act
Don’t immobilise your main character. Put them in positions where they need to act. They do have to be the primary decision-makers in their story, and they should be the ones getting themselves out of trouble. They can’t keep passing the buck and waiting around for someone to get the story going. That’s their job. Minions and friend characters are fine, but most of the work needs to be done by the MC.
3. They Need To Be Motivated
If you are struggling with this, you need to re-evaluate your main character’s goal and motivations. Do they really want to achieve the goal? Raise the stakes if they don’t. What will happen if they fail?
4. Make It Hard For Them, But Don’t Make It Impossible
You should stack the odds against your main character, but sometimes we can go a bit overboard. Make it hard, yes, lock them in a room and throw away the key, but at least give them a paper clip to pick the lock. Give them a small win every now and again.
The Last Word
You can do whatever you want, and you will find exceptions, but it’ll be easier to write about an active, motivated character – not a protagonist who is a bore. They should want to succeed or have no choice to succeed. They can definitely fail, but they must at least try.
Creative writing prompts are excellent tools for writers who are feeling uninspired or who simply want to tackle a new writing challenge. Today’s creative writing prompts focus on nature.
For centuries, writers have been composing poems that celebrate nature, stories that explore it, and essays that analyze it.
Nature is a huge source of inspiration for all creative people. You can find it heavily featured in film, television, art, and music.
Creative Writing Prompts
You can use these creative writing prompts in any way you choose. Sketch a scene, write a poem, draft a story, or compose an essay. The purpose of these prompts is to inspire you, so take the images they bring to your mind and run with them. And have fun!
A young girl and her mother walk to the edge of a field, kneel down in the grass, and plant a tree.
The protagonist wakes up in a seemingly endless field of wildflowers in full bloom with no idea how he or she got there.
Write a piece using the following image: a smashed flower on the sidewalk.
A family of five from a large, urban city decides to spend their one-week vacation camping.
An elderly couple traveling through the desert spend an evening stargazing and sharing memories of their lives.
A woman is working in her garden when she discovers an unusual egg.
Write a piece using the following image: a clearing deep in the woods where sunlight filters through the overhead lattice of tree leaves.
Some people are hiking in the woods when they are suddenly surrounded by hundreds of butterflies.
A person who lives in a metropolitan apartment connects with nature through the birds that come to the window.
Write a piece using the following image: an owl soaring through the night sky.
A well-to-do family from the city that has lost all their wealth except an old, run-down farmhouse in the country. They are forced to move into it and learn to live humbly.
Two adolescents, a sister and brother, are visiting their relatives’ farm and witness a sow giving birth.
Again, you can use these creative writing prompts to write anything at — poems, stories, songs, essays, blog posts, or just sit down and start freewriting.