If you want to succeed as a writer, you need a stress-free time to work and think. Writing sessions during the holidays can be hard for us. With all the added parties and present buying and family events, it can be easy to feel stuck and unable to work on your latest writing project.
But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to find time for writing.
In this article, you can learn three tricks to keeping your holiday spirit, and also working on your writing skills.
Let this holiday season be one you enjoy, while also working in those meaningful writing sessions.
3 Tricks for Writing During the Holidays
Yes, writing can be particularly challenging during the holiday season. But that’s no reason to quit trying altogether.
Instead of giving up and not writing for the winter holidays, try these three writing project tricks. I use them to get me through the craziness of the holiday season.
1. Try Using a Different Medium
Typically, I write on my laptop in Microsoft Word. When I sit down to write, I like to give myself a solid hour of productivity, and that doesn’t include the thirty minutes I know I’m going to need to ramp myself up.
During the holidays, ninety minutes of free time is rare. Between family activities, work, and my children’s social calendars, I’m lucky if I get thirty uninterrupted minutes in front of my laptop.
Not having enough time can make me feel trapped. When I do find time to sit down and write, I spend large portions of it watching the clock and worrying that my few precious minutes will run out before I can really get going.
Like all great self-fulling prophecies, my anxiety comes to pass and I spend so much time worrying that I never actually get a great writing flow going.
To combat this anxiety, I hack my own system. During the holidays, I make sure I have a journal with me wherever I go. Whenever I have five minutes to myself, I start writing in my journal.
This is an exercise that even experienced authors recommend. And it works!
I may only get a fragment of an idea out or half of a conversation. That’s okay, because when I do get thirty minutes to sit down at my laptop, I’m not starting from scratch. I can pick up my journal and jump in where I left off.
“If you’re stuck or can’t find time to write, change the medium you’re writing with.
Changing the medium you work in can be a great way to keep things fresh. If you are feeling stuck, try taking one of your initial ideas and writing in a different way. If you usually do your work long hand, go straight to the keyboard. If you think and type like I do, try some dictation with your phone.
You might just find this method of writing an amazing experience.
2. Try Writing Something Else
When I played sports in high school, if the team wasn’t doing well, often our coach would try to re-center us by switching things up. In basketball, we would move from a fast-paced full-court press to a slower zone defense. In football, we would shift from our passing game to our running game. In baseball, the coach would switch out the pitcher, hoping a new arm would bring different results.
Writing can be a lot like playing sports. If you are losing, sometimes it helps to try something different. Different can prove to be a restorative experience!
“If what you’re writing isn’t working, try writing something different.
Right now I’m in the midst of finishing my third novel. Finishing this one has been difficult. Often I find that I don’t like the scene I’m writing, which makes the work go painfully slow. More than once, I’ve found myself getting up and walking away from the laptop.
This frustration with my writing is exacerbated by the holidays. When I sit down to write, I’m already tired from all the activity, and stressed about the money we are spending on presents, and worried about creating a great experience for my kids. The holiday stress coupled with not enjoying me writing can completely paralyze me.
When that happens, I put the novel away and work on something completely different. I’ll try journaling my feelings about the holidays, or I’ll start a short story. If I was stuck in prose, I’ll try only writing dialogue. If I was banging my head trying to make dialogue sound real, I’ll try writing a story in which no one speaks.
Last year at Christmas, when I was jammed up in a particularly frustrating short story, I tried to write a Seussian children’s tale about a mouse who brought home a cat as a pet. After the children’s story, I was so energized the short story just flowed out of me.
3. Take That Holiday Moment and Blow It Up
Ever have that moment when a song starts playing in your head and it won’t go away? At first it seems fun, but after a while it starts to drive you crazy. When that happens, the only way I can ditch the song and return to sanity is to sing it all the way to the end.
Sometimes when I’m stuck, what I need to write about is the last thing that happened to me. I need to take the conversation I just had, or the party I just attended, or the meal I just ate and I need to write it out.
If I don’t, that last event will play on repeat in my head and block me from writing anything else.
Unfortunately, my life is too mundane for someone to enjoy reading. For example:
This morning I got up at five. Then I made coffee. Then I checked my email. There wasn’t anything exciting in my email, so I toasted a bagel for breakfast. While the bagel toasted, I thought about what Christmas presents we still needed to buy.
In order to make the event something that might be entertaining to read, I try to add a fantastic element that wasn’t there in real life.
Maybe, as I was making breakfast, I saw an elf in the front yard?
Maybe, when I was thinking about the Christmas presents, I wasn’t thinking about books and toys, but I was thinking about all the zoo animals I was planning to give my children and pondering the effect the animals would have on our apartment?
Maybe, instead of thinking about Christmas presents, I was devising ways to kill the mouse that lives under our refrigerator?
When you are stuck, try taking a real life event and adding an element of the fantastic to it. These writing exercises can really get your juices flowing.
The holidays might be exciting, busy, and a little bit crazy. But you don’t have to lose a month of writing. Your holiday writing might just look a little different, and that’s okay.
If you are feeling stuck, don’t give up! Just try something new.
Are there other ways you get unstuck? Share them with us in the comments.
Heroes embody courage, perseverance and skill. They can easily turn into villains when they use their talents for personal gain. This means antiheroes are like their name suggests … a character that DOESN’T have or has twisted the classic hero attributes, for whatever reason.
Lots of writers believe antiheroes ‘have’ to be protagonists, but this is not the case. An antihero can be ANY main character – protagonist, antagonist or even secondary – that has ‘gone wrong’ when it comes to being a hero.
In I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes, our protagonist Pilgrim is contrasted with the antagonist, Saracen. Pilgrim is supposed to the ‘classic’ American spy thriller hero, whereas Saracen is the threat to the Western world from the so-called ‘Axis of Evil’.
As the story continues, it becomes clear the two are both not only antiheroes, but doppelgängers. They are the same men, but on opposite sides. In contrast to reader expectation, Pilgrim is arguably NOT the ‘good’ one, nor is Saracen the ‘bad’ one.
In the TV series Breaking Bad, Walter White’s arc is ‘Mr Chips becomes Scarface‘. Facing a terminal diagnosis for lung cancer, White’s intentions to provide for his family after his death are understandable and good. However, in doing this he descends onto a rocky road where he becomes a drug kingpin. NOT good!
In the Marvel movie Black Panther, Erik Killmonger is a genocidal murderer and wants to bring Wakanda down, whom he blames for his father’s death. He is evil, but he is right: Wakanda did him a terrible wrong. His own family abandoned him as a child to keep up appearances.
In Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Amy Dunne is the voice of spurned women everywhere. She discovers her husband Nick has betrayed her, so decides to take him down by utilizing society’s misogyny in her favor.
Amy proves she will stop at nothing to make him pay. Knowing most women are murdered by the men in their lives, she fakes her own disappearance and frames Nick.
In the TV series Sons of Anarchy, middle-aged matriarch Gemma Teller thinks of herself as a loving mother and facilitator of the motorcycle club SAMCRO.
Gemma tells herself she puts her son Jax Teller and his own sons first, plus she is a strong woman who has survived much hardship. Even so, in reality is she a liar, manipulator and even murdered Jax’s own father JT.
The age of the antihero has arrived very obviously in the screenwriting world thanks to what producers sometimes call ‘The Gone Girl Effect’.
Obviously, Amy Dunne is not the first female antihero/antagonist, but she made a huuuuuuuuge cultural impact. Thanks to her, the industry is finally open to complex female leads. This includes books as well.
But what are the key qualities of an antihero?
How to Write an Antihero
1) Never underestimate the power of manipulation
The antihero has key qualities – both good and bad – that deserve attention when we are planning our characterization. An antihero will frequently prefer to use manipulation in the first instance. They may enjoy violence, or they may prefer not to get their hands dirty. Whatever the case, they tend not to go 0-60mph when trying to get what they want.
2) Use shock and awe
When antiheroes DO use violence (physical or verbal or both), they are frequently showy with it. This is because they know the power of shock and awe. They will confuse their enemies and leave them reeling.
This does not mean cheesy displays, but rather surprise tactics. This enables the antihero to shock their target into agreeing with them or giving them what them what they need.
3) The antihero thinks they are right (or they at least have ‘no choice’)
The antihero may lie to themselves, saying they are the ‘good guy really’. They may have no problem looking at piles of bodies in their wake (metaphorically or literally), or it may give them nightmares. They will continue regardless.
Alternatively, the antihero may literally be right, but their methods are wrong (again, literally or metaphorically). They will still kid themselves, saying they have ‘no choice’ but to continue in their path.
4) Ruthlessness is nothing personal
Antiheroes understand they must make sacrifices to get ahead. This may mean getting rid of allies in that bid for power. Though some may feel sorrow about this, they will do it anyway.
So, if you want to write an antihero, keep these points in mind. Nuanced and layered characterization has been gaining momentum for the last decade or so.
Readers and audiences have proven they can relate to such characters without condoning their bad behavior. They just want to know WHY antiheroes behave the way they do, so provide them with compelling reasons and fascinating traits.
If you’ve ever written a book, you know that writing the middle of your story is tough. There’s a reason the saying “muddle through the middle” is common language in a writer’s conversation. Your protagonist must face Hero’s Journey Trials and make Allies and Enemies in these moments. How can you do this?
By studying The Hero’s Journey, an age-old story structure theorized by Joseph Campbell. When you master the Hero’s Journey’s twelve steps, constructing the middle of your story—by focusing on tests and Trials—gets easier.
In this article, you’ll learn writing strategies to help you raise the stakes and successfully develop one of twelve important steps in the Hero’s Journey—and the longest one at that.
Here’s what to do.
The Hero’s Journey: How We Got Here
Professor of mythology Joseph Campbell originally published his “monomyth” about stories in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. For those who want the condensed version, they need look no further than the work of Christopher Vogler, who summarized much of Campbell’s theory into a twelve-step journey, known commonly as The Hero’s Journey.
One of the greatest aspects of this monomyth is that it applies to ancient as well as modern stories. It teaches writers about common archetypes and characters who tend to appear over and over again, representing humanity’s changelessness in time. These archetypes are derived from much of Carl Jung’s work.
To reach the middle of the story, the hero must take several journey steps. First, they must depart their Ordinary World, after a Call to Adventure, and Initiation stage, wherein the hero will meet a Mentor who prepares the way. Readied by the mentor’s teaching, the hero ventures of the ordinary world into the new, special world, often in a scene that pits them against a threshold guardian, like a monster or representative of the story’s enemy.
All of these work as a previous step that drives the hero to this next important stage.
Once the hero has succeeded in leaving home, it is time for the next stage in the Hero’s Journey: The series of Trials, Allies, and Enemies. “ A hero’s adventure MUST test them. Without Trials, there’s no reason for them to adapt and grow.
Learn how to write the middle of your story by applying an important Hero’s Journey step: Trials, Allies, and Enemies.
Step 6: Trials, Allies, and Enemies
Let’s begin with a simple explanation of this step.
The middle of a heroic journey is filled with Trials, Allies, and Enemies. These are scenes where the hero faces challenges that improve their skills, meets and befriends strangers who join the hero’s journey, and encounters characters and creatures who oppose the hero’s progress and aim to destroy them. All of these scenes come together to move the hero toward the final confrontation with the Shadow in order to obtain the final goal.
Take a break to think about this for a bit but looking at Harry Potter:
After Harry Potter boards the train to Hogwarts, he immediately meets Ron Weasley, who becomes an ally, and Draco Malfoy, who becomes an enemy. Both characters will be essential for aiding or initiating conflict that Harry must face in the middle of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and much of the series.
And all of this builds Harry’s skills and relationships that will be paramount in the climax of the book.
Overall, step six in the Hero’s Journey tends to be the longest in the story, often taking up most of act two. However, it isn’t formless or without direction. It is the the bulk of your hero’s growth, and it must be developed intentionally and carefully.
Let’s learn how to make the middle the absolute best part of your writing experience!
Fill the Middle with Tests and Trials
The purpose of a heroic story’s Middle is to refine the hero through a series of tests. While they ultimately acquire some skill and knowledge from the mentor, the hero still must be unprepared for the ultimate challenge that lies ahead: Facing the Shadow. That’s why your story’s Middle should be filled with Trials.
This is all part of a common journey and stages in a classic tale.
A trial is some sort of test that measures the hero’s ability, worth, or talent.
These tests can take multiple forms:
The hero must prove their worth through strength, stamina, or skill. We see this when Harry impresses his classmates by skillfully riding a broom in Harry Potter, and Katniss demonstrating her ability with a bow before the gamemakers in The Hunger Games. In classical mythology, Odysseus’s escape from the Cyclops’s cave is a prime example you may have read in high school.
The hero must demonstrate superior intellect or wisdom. For Woody in Toy Story, this involves figuring out how to outwit the sadistic Sid and escape his house of horrors. In classical mythology, this is easily seen when Oedipus answers the riddles of the sphynx in order to redeem Thebes.
The hero must prove their loyalty to God, the gods, or a spiritual power. This is clear when Luke Skywalker uses the Force rather than his targeting computer to destroy the Death Star, a move that sets him on a colision course with Darth Vader for the trilogy’s ultimate act of spiritual purity, rejecting the Dark Side.
The tests must strain your hero’s strength, mind, and spirit, humble them, and then allow time for triumph/ defeat, recovery, and then reflection.
No matter what, the purpose of the trial is to push your hero past their limits and reveal his or her true nature. Part of what makes a heroic journey so special is that it shows why we need to be forced out of the duldrums of mundane life and forced to do something special. A heroic story is such because it abandons the ordinary world, which is true to its title, and explores the special world that lies beyond: The world of adventure.
That adventure MUST test your hero and force them to adapt and grow, or else it won’t be interesting, and it won’t be heroic.
To that end, never put your hero into a trial merely to show how “awesome” they are. This may seem cool in your mind, but for a reader it is quite boring. Readers want to see a hero work through a nearly impossible problem and triumph in the end. If you deliver anything but, and
In the Middle of your heroic story, your hero will also make friends. These are often chance encounters that begin anxiously, only to produce friendships. Consider the Indiana Jones franchise, where Indy travels from continent to continent, meeting people who know something about the MacGuffin he seeks.
In Raiders of the Lost Ark, he first meets Marion Ravenwood, an old flame who hates him. While she seems friendly at first, the audience experiences shock with Marion smashes an empty bottle over Indy’s head. Is she a friend? Or an enemy?
Then we meet Sallah, an Egyptian foreman who is helping the Nazis search for the lost ark. From the beginning he strikes us as an ally . . . but will he remain true to Indy?
Great heroic stories are filled with supporting characters like these, most of whom are met somewhere along the journey. This is also a core principle of a hero’s journey: Our ordinary lives rarely contain all the characters we need in order to become our best selves. We must travel to a distant land, whether in body or spirit and reach outside our comfort zone for new, challenging relationships.
Here are some common character types your hero will meet:
Some characters will be what’s known as “Loyal Retainers,” Allies who remain true to the hero. In other words, they “retain,” or keep, the hero’s values and goals.
They may fall away due to frustration or brief disagreements, but never forever. Ron Weasley is the perfect Loyal Retainer for Harry Potter, as he is the boy-who-lived’s best friend. Sure, they engage in difficult spats, but never for good. Ron always comes back because of his incredible loyalty.
These characters are tough to pin down due to the fact that they will be loyal one moment, but traitorous the next. These characters tend to appear in the mysterious adventure where the hero is in an unknown land, unaware of what may be lurking in their blind spot.
The Shapeshifter is frequently a self-serving character whose alliances are fleeting. Captain Jack Sparrow of Pirates of the Caribbean is a classic Shapeshifter, changing sides with the tides.
Damsel in Distress
As long as there have been hero journeys, there have been women in need of rescue. Of course this trope is dated and sexist, but there is truth behind the fact that bad men do bad things to women.
Some authors like to flip the script, making a female the hero and the man the damsel. Other times, like in Pixar’s Ratatouille, the damsel will be anything but, often behaving more fiercely than the men around her.
As you write your heroic journey, sketch out some encounters for your hero. Consider how you can make your hero uneasy. Rarely write a scene where an ally is 100% trustworthy, and instead come up with reasons to keep your hero—and therefore your reader—on edge.
Fill the Middle with Enemies
Finally, the middle of a great heroic story features lots and lots of monsters, Enemies, and obstacles. Sometimes the enemy is in hiding, posing as a friend. But more often than not, the enemy is an obstacle blocking the hero’s way. Sometimes the enemy is a character or creature in pursuit of the MacGuffin or possessing a crucial tool the hero needs to defeat the Shadow and/or obtain the MacGuffin.
There are several kinds of Enemies you can employ, and each should be somehow related to your story’s ultimate bad guy, the Shadow:
Another Threshold Guardian
Your hero must overcome a minion of the Shadow, a devoted servant who believes what the villain believes. Bad guys tend to be the “bosses” in video games and the stars of fight scenes in the middle of action movies.
A great example of a villain in disguise is Bathilda Bagshot in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, a walking corpse who is secretly harboring a deadly serpent that is ready to strike.
Monsters are evil creatures that the Shadow uses to stall the hero, or natural creatures that live in the unsafe, foreign special world the hero must travel through. These are trolls and orcs in The Lord of the Rings, or tyrannosaurs and velociraptors in Jurassic Park.
Classic tales like The Odyssey are filled with them: The Cycopes, Scylla, Charbydis, and more. Never skip the opportunity to feature a great monster in your story!
Not all problems are human or animal. Your hero’s progress may be guarded by a natural obstacle, like a canyon, bridge, wall, thorn bush, and so on. The special world should be filled with natural barriers that the hero doesn’t normally face at home.
These are unique opportunities to show your hero’s emotional state during the journey; how do they handle these new challenges that never appeared during the old, mundane life of the ordinary world?
Throughout your story’s Middle, there must be Enemies and obstacles that impede your hero’s path, filling them with dread, pain, and struggle. And while your hero will always overcome these mid-story Enemies, they must leave wounds, physical and emotional, that your hero can’t easily get rid of.
This, too, is an archetype:
The Unhealable Wound
For example, in The Lord of the Rings, the Ringwraiths represent a formidable act one enemy hunting Frodo and the hobbits as they flee the Shire.
In the climactic moment of these journey steps, the Nazgul find the hobbits on Weathertop and one of them stabs Frodo with a cursed blade. What follows is a frantic sprint to Rivendell. While Frodo is healed of the wound’s immediate effect, it never truly heals, and on the anniversary of the stabbing each year, he falls ill.
This kind of unhealable wound is a powerful way to leave marks on your hero as they strive to achieve their goal. It makes the middle matter. When you put your hero in a literal house of death, fighting to survive, and the story is only midway over, your reader will struggle to put the book down.
Don’t save your hero’s struggles for the very end. Fill the middle with one struggle after another, forcing them to face their fears and weaknesses. It’s the only way they can grow and become the inspirational figures readers long for.
Handing Death in the Middle
It’s not uncommon to place a major character death in the middle of your story. This could be a mentor or loyal retainer, but it’s essential that the character be of great importance to your hero. This has several benefits to your story, as morbid as it may sound.
First, you add the benefit of the “supernatural helper” archetype, or the “voice from the heavenly land.” Consider how Obi-wan Kenobi speaks to Luke during the finale of Star Wars, saying, “Use the Force, Luke!”
While you may not (and probably should not) have a literal voice speaking from the heavens, you do want to force your hero to internalize the lessons learned from the mentor OR the precious memories of the loyal retainer who has been sacrificed.
Faced with the immediate consequences of their journey, the hero is required to reckon with the cost of what is happening. Quests for physical objects almost immediately become supernatural adventures with deep, moral stakes.
You also don’t have to pull the trigger. It’s entirely possible to sideline a character with a lasting, debilitating injury. This, too, can be physical or emotional. While this won’t have the full power of a character death, it might be a better fit if your story doesn’t involve life and death stakes, or killing a character off isn’t the right choice for your story, book series, or style.
Master the Middle
How does a writer figure out the tricky Middle of a heroic story?
And how can you figure out what to do with all of these Trials, Allies, and Enemies?
Plan, dear reader. Plan.
I recommend a bubble/mind-map strategy, listing and linking all the possible Trials the hero could endure, all the potential allies they might befriend, and the necessary Enemies stalking the hero and trying to end this journey early. List, link, detail possible scenes, and decide what steps your hero needs to take in order to be ready for the ultimate showdown with the Shadow.
Because it’s coming. The Shadow must be confronted.
But not yet. For now, your hero has to struggle, and the Middle is the perfect place to make that happen.
What Trials, Allies, and Enemies can you think of from stories youlove? Let us know in the comments.
Do you want to write a short story, but are unsure about how to develop a short story plot?
Short stories rarely require extensive plotting. They’re short, after all. But a bit of an outline, just to get the basic idea down, can help you craft a strong plot.
Plotting your short stories will give you an end story goal and will help you avoid getting stuck in the middle, or accidentally creating plot holes. You’ll have fewer unfinished stories if you learn to do a little planning before you start writing.
And in this article, you can learn how to take your short story’s primary conflict, and build a plot around it.
Definition of Plot and Structure
I see the terms “plot” and “structure” thrown around interchangeably quite a bit, so I’d like to correct that before we move on.
Plot is a series of events that make up your story.
Plot is (most likely) unique to your story, but there are a handful of basic structures that are universal and used over and over again. (We’ll get into the basic three act structure in a later post.) Structure is the bones and plot is what fills it out.
When I first started out writing short stories, I had no idea where I was going with any of them. Absolutely none. I see this time and time again with newer writers. I think it’s because we’re conditioned to think any kind of art is only driven by that infamous and often elusive muse rather than hard work. I felt the same way.
And then I started getting more stories under my belt. Some I finished. Some I didn’t.
You know what the difference was? The stories I finished, I plotted before I wrote. “ If you want to finish writing a story, try plotting it first. Learn how to plot your short stories in this article.
Now I know a lot of writers loathe plotting or outlining stories—of any length, but especially short stories. They have various reasons for this dislike, but the most common one I hear is planning or outlining takes all the “magic” out of writing. “Creative writing is about being creative!”
I won’t get into the idea that writing is actually a job here—it is. That’s not what this article is about.
Instead, I’m going to propose a different reason for planning a short story with one important question: Is your idea even a story?
Planning out your story, even if it’s short, can give you an answer to this question. It will determine whether or not your central character can work towards achieving a goal (and simultaneously the plot moves towards a climax), or if your idea ends there—at the idea.
Writer’s tip: If you’re feeling stuck on coming up with an idea that could withstand a story’s length, try looking at the types of plots discussed in this article.
Is It a Story or Just a Story Idea?
Don’t panic. I don’t plan extensively. But what I’ve found was absolutely no planning whatsoever more often than not leads to wasted time. Nobody has time to waste.
If I don’t plot at all, I’ll get maybe a third of the way through the story and get stuck. I’ll have no idea where it was going, and without that goal in mind, I’ll flounder. I might tinker around with the idea a little longer, but most of the time I’ll end up abandoning the story.
A few weeks ago, I had the infamous muse visit me. I grabbed my notebook and started writing. It was great writing. The prose was good, the main character was crazy interesting, ditto for the secondary character, and I’d set up a mystery that made you want to turn the page. The problem was I had no idea what the mystery was. I had set up and no payoff. This story idea fizzled out at the start of the second act.
Now, to be clear, I do indulge my muse every once in a while. It does feel good to be taken over by an idea, even if you don’t know where it’s going. It’s all very “artisty.”
But the fact is I’ve sold one story that I finished without plotting it beforehand. One. Out of dozens I’ve started. That one took me about a week to write and it was torture for me, for my characters, and, I’m sure, for the backspace on my keyboard. Everything about the story reads as forced. It’s uninspired. And you know what?
That’s the one my muse started me on! Inspiration is supposed to be the point of the muse, right? But a muse can only get you started; it can’t keep you going.
When your muse starts poking at you and you don’t know if your idea is a story, ask yourself a couple of questions:
Am I going to remember this idea tomorrow? Yes, it’s nice to be taken over by inspiration. Feel free to indulge that every so often. But also be prepared to have an unfinished story on your hands. You don’t necessarily have to wait until tomorrow to write the thing (especially when we’re talking about shorts), but you do need to know if your enthusiasm is going to wan a few minutes down the road when your muse decides to go take a nap, leaving you with nothing but frustration. (That story I mentioned a moment ago? I haven’t completely forgotten about it, but it does not sit at the top of my mind.)
Do I have a “What if?” question and an answer to that question? If you’re thinking about beautiful sentences where nothing is happening, that’s probably not a story. If you can’t think of an end goal for your character, that’s probably not a story. See the next section for more on “What if?” and the answer. (The story I didn’t finish did not have a goal in mind.)
Do you have a character? This one seems like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how often I used to start “stories” and just ramble on with purple prose. No people, no action, no story.
If the answer to all these questions is “yes,” then you most likely have a finishable story. If it’s “no” tell your muse to go back to its hole until it can come up with something better.
If you must, explore the idea a little more and see if you can’t plot a little something. (Do not write yet!)
Enter the “What if?” question.
What If? How Asking This Question Can Plot a Short Story
In the last post, I told you my favorite way to think of a short story idea is the “What If?” question. This question can help you think about various ways to put your central character into a conflict, like: What if X happened? It’s your own mind giving itself creative writing prompts.
Let’s expand on that method a bit. Notice it’s a question. And questions often have answers, do they not? Knowing the answer to your “What If?” question is the most basic outline of a story.
Let’s start with a basic question.
Q: What if someone knocked on my door?
A: I’d probably ignore it.
That’s it. That’s the story. It’s kind of crappy, right?
Notice that answer is my immediate reaction to the knock. It’s not something that happens down the road. That’s part of what makes this scenario NOT a story.
The other issue here is there is no conflict. I don’t answer the door, the person goes away, and I’m left to my own devices. There are no consequences for my decisions, so nothing happens—and nobody reading about this incident cares.
Remember conflict can come in many forms and doesn’t have to be a shoot ’em up kind of situation. Internal conflict can also make a short story. But there MUST be conflict.
So, on multiple levels, this question and answer session is a loser.
Now, let’s say I don’t answer the door. (I’m a millennial. I’d rather not talk to people if I can help it, so this really is the most likely thing to happen.) The person assumes I’m not home. But wait! They’re a burglar. They now try to break into my house. The “What If?’ question has now changed to “What if someone tried to break into my house while I was home?”
See how the central character has to do something now? Even if they don’t, there will be consequences.
Because the story idea establishes stakes, I know I’ve got something. How do I know? There are myriad possibilities here. I could call the cops. I could run out and confront them myself. I could freeze and run upstairs and hide. I could sic my dog on them. I could wait for them to get inside and invite them to join me in having a cup of tea.
Whatever I choose to do, there will be a cause and effect trajectory of events. Which means more stakes, and more opportunities that force my protagonist to face their conflict. They have to make decisions, which will lead to a whole slew of other “What If?” questions:
What if they get in before the cops get here?
What if they break a window?
What if my dog was outside and they hurt him?
What if a neighbor sees them and comes running over?
What if they “break in” but it’s really just my sister needing in my house for something?
What if I’m hiding under the bed and they find me?
What if they hate tea?
What if … and the list goes on.
These are all more interesting scenarios than just ignoring the door and the person going away. But we’re still looking for the answer to the initial “What If?” question. The answer solves the question and puts it to bed. It doesn’t lead to other questions.
Don’t Forget to Answer Your What If Questions
A short story only has one to three scenes normally, so your answer needs to come in a short span of time. It can’t come years down the road. Any span of time longer than a few hours, maybe a day or two, is probably too long.
Q: What if someone tried to break into my house while I was home?
A: I would call the cops, but also grab my bat and be ready to use it.
But wait. That still doesn’t answer the question, not in a final way. There’s still an open ending there, still questions. (Did I use the bat? What happened if I did?) Let’s try again.
A: I would decide not to use my bat and would talk to them until the police got there.
That’s better. With this scenario, I can think of a couple of things that would happen after the police got there, but at that point the situation is over. I’ve done it. I’ve defeated the burglar. Anything afterwards is a conclusion to the story.
The best part is, I’ve actually done it in a way that means change for me as a central character. I didn’t want to talk to anyone to begin with, which is what led to the whole situation. But I have to overcome that aversion by talking to someone in order to solve the problem.
Short Story Structure
We’ve got two important elements of the story narrowed down now: the “What If?” question and its ultimate answer.
If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you might have come across the many posts we have about plot structure. In a story you need six things:
Need a refresher on these plot elements? Dive further into story structure here.
A short story is often only one to three scenes. That means this structure, these six elements, stretch over the entire story to form the framework. (The scenario I’ve presented would most likely be a one-scene story.) Notice I’m talking about framework here. These six elements are your story structure.
So what do we have here after all this thinking about questions and answers?
The “What If?” question is your Inciting Incident.
The ultimate answer is your Climax.
Boom. Two elements down. And these two elements happen to be the bulk of what your readers will remember from your story.
We’ve planned a story, believe it or not. And it didn’t even hurt that much. “ Asking “What if?” can determine if your story idea can last the length of a story, however short. How your story’s climax plays out determines the answer to that question.
But wait! There’s more. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.)
In the process of coming up with these two elements, we’ve inadvertently come up with a couple of others.
Choosing not to use the bat and talking to the burglar instead? That’s the Crisis. All those streams of “What if?” questions? Those are progressive complications.
Whoops. We’ve outlined basically the whole thing, haven’t we? I sort of tricked you there. Sorry, not sorry.
Plotting Doesn’t Hurt—Too Much
Plotting a short story doesn’t have to be a meticulous thing that requires hours of work and a running spreadsheet. It also doesn’t have to take the magic out of writing.
Your plan for your short story can be a simple, loose outline. (By the way, outlines can change if you think of something better! They’re not set in stone.) Really, you just need two elements to get to writing a short story:
A “What If?” question (identifies the Inciting Incident)
The answer (shows the Climax)
And then you’re ready to write!
In future articles, we’ll dive more into writing structure and the essentials and plot elements of a short story. For now, use this “shortcut” to plan out a few short stories of your own! Have fun with it!
Do you like planning or are you more of a pantser? Let me know in the comments.
Have you tried writing a book but failed to finish it? Do you wish you could have some writing success, but each time you set out on an idea, something stops you?
Do you have a writing system?
Having writing skills are only half the battle. If you want to be a successful writer, it helps to establish a solid, reliable writing system that evaluates your writing process. To do this, you need to experiment with three key steps to designing the best system for you.
No Writing System = No Books
Let me tell you about the book I didn’t finish.
And that other book I didn’t finish.
And that other other book I didn’t finish.
That’s not counting the outlines I half started, or the ideas I jotted down then lost.
Before I had a system, I started every book in a different way. Sometimes I tried to dive right in. Sometimes I tried to make an outline. Sometimes I tried to use a template to create a synopsis. Before having a system, I finished a total of one book. It took three years and was a complete mess. I left it for long periods of time and had to re-find my way around the plot every time I returned to it.
Since finding my system, I’ve finished four books, three of those within the past year and a half. Having a system has completed changed how I write and allows me to approach each book in a consistent, easy, and predictable manner. It removed uncertainty and guesswork and as a result, my success rate has shot way up.
What is a Writing System?
The word “system” tends to make people think of computers, programs, and a lot of scary, technical things that have very little to do with creativity. But that’s a misconception. Systems are actually very important and useful to writers. They make it possible for them to churn out a solid first draft—and do it more than once.
So what is a system?
The technical definition of a system is a set of rules, an arrangement of things, or a group of related things that work toward a common goal. What does this mean exactly? Well, to put it in simpler terms, it means a set of steps you can take to achieve consistent results. A good writing system is useful to a wide range of writing levels and has several traits:
Generic: It can be applied to different projects and still produce similar results. In this case, it means you can apply it to any genre or writing project with minimal variation.
Repeatable: You can use the same steps over and over without having to reinvent the wheel each time.
Well-defined: It has clear, well-defined steps and tasks that you can start and complete.
Accessible: It can be used anytime, anywhere, with minimal restriction on access and tools.
Easy: It’s not difficult to implement. It should reinforce and organize the habits you have, not force new ones. Effective writing comes from effective systems, and more importantly, easy systems.
When a writer defines their writing system, they set themselves up to actually finish a book—and enjoy their writing process. “ When a writer defines their writing system, they set themselves up for writing success. Here are three steps to design your writing system.
What are my writing habits? Do I need time tracking? Motivation? Reward system?
Knowing the kind of writer you are will help you identify the key elements of your system. By answering these questions, you know what your system needs to help you accomplish every time you start a new story.
For example, the following is how I would answer these questions:
I am a plotter. My system needs an easy-to-use plotting tool.
I tend to start my book with an outline. My system would benefit from including a consistent format for outlining.
I write in multiple phases, usually with two to three drafts. My system should have a good way to track different versions of the book.
I do well having a consistent word count goal, both over a period of time and on a daily basis.
Your system must be: repeatable, accessible, easy, and reinforce what you already do rather than force you into something completely new.
2. Evaluate Your Options
Of course, just because you know what you need doesn’t mean what is available out there will match everything on your list. Nothing ticks all the boxes.
It’s not unusual for a new writer to feel like they need to fit their writing method into an existing tool, especially if the tool is popular and well-known. I made this mistake with Scrivener. While I am by no means knocking Scrivener, which has helped many writers write their books, it’s not for me. Its many tools and features felt overwhelming when I tried to use it, and I gave it up quickly after a brief stint and sought out something simpler.
In my opinion, it’s best to mix and match your options rather than forcing yourself to stick to one. There are two components to consider: methods and tools.
Methods are ways you approach writing. This is where the plotter/pantser philosopher comes in. Check out this article to figure out the kind of writer you are.
Tools are what assist you in your method. Here is where it gets a little tricky, but it’s easy to be dazzled by all the tools available out there. Remember that you absolutely do not have to use them all or even any of them. They are only here to help your writing method.
Tools come in different categories:
These help you plan your book. It’s worth it to explore options based on how much detail you want to go into when you plan. Keep in mind that it’s okay not to use any of them if they don’t suit you. Some writers prefer to pants without plotting at all, or just writing a simple outline in Word.
These are what you use to write your book. Tools like Scrivener and Novel Factory also offer space to do the actual writing and give you the option to separate scenes and chapters, but some people, like me, prefer to keep the book together on something simple like Word.
Accessibility is also a factor. I used to write everything in Word, but now I use Google Docs, which allows me to acces the document from anywhere instead of having to email copies to myself back and forth, which also causes confusion from too many versions.
These are the tools that help you put that finishing touch on your book, such as checking your structure, grammar, and word usage. These tools can vary a lot in functionality. Personally, I am still looking for the perfect one.
Something useful to keep in mind is that no editing tool can ever replace the expertise of a professional editor.
Project Management Tools
These are the tools that help you build habits and stay on track.
A lot of people don’t understand how “project management” works. It simply means setting goals and meeting them in a timely fashion. I tend to keep things simple in this department—an excel sheet with four columns. Column A is the date, B is the total words I should have on that date, C is the actual word count, and D is how much I am behind or ahead by.
This method works for me because I’m a fairly seasoned habitual writer by this point. But a year or two ago I needed a little extra push to stay on top of things.
Keep in mind that there’s also nothing wrong with post-it notes and whiteboards to keep yourself on task.
Ultimately, the point of this tool is to keep you on task. There’s no such thing as too simple, too silly, or too weird. If a pretty list or gamifying your goals works for you, then by all means go for it.
3. Compile Your System
A good writing system will carry you from beginning to end every time. While small parts of it can be tweaked to match different projects, you should be able to refer back to your system and make it work for you every time. To achieve this, you should avoid making parts of your system too specific and strive for as generic and flexible as possible.
Here are a few examples:
STEP: List out all chapter titles before writing
This step is too specific and rigid. You may not be able to think up appropriate titles or want to change the titles later. There’s also a possibility you will feel obligated to stick to the chapter titles you came up with, which may compromise your writing pace.
ALTERNATE: List out story arcs before writing
Story arcs are more functional and flexible, and provide you with a better guideline for your writing.
STEP: Write full character bios for every character
A lot of writers do this, but in reality, this is not always doable and in fact may seem daunting, especially to new writers. A lofty task like this may slow you down and make you feel like you’re failing if you don’t complete it.
ALTERNATE: List out at least five key facts about each main cast member
This is a less monumental task and is more likely to be completed quickly.
STEP: Use Scrivener to plot out each book
Restricting yourself to specific tools is never a good idea. Sure, it’s common to find a tool and stick with it, but it’s better to allow yourself room to explore. Avoid naming specific tools in your plan.
ALTERNATE: Use a plotting software to plot out each book
This leaves you room to try out tools and methods without feeling like you have to stick to one.
At the end of the day, a system is what works for you. Tailor and tweak your plan so that it makes life easier rather than something that you feel obligated to stick to. Using your plan should feel freeing and effortless.
If it doesn’t, something needs to be changed.
Example: My Writing System
As a reference, I’d like to share the novel-writing plan that I use. I developed this plan while working on Headspace and it’s carried me through three more books in the past year and a half.
Determine story idea: I write a one-sentence summary of the story.
Write story synopsis: I describe the story in one to two pages, focusing on what the core of the story is really about.
Develop a cast: I don’t do story bios as I prefer to find out who my characters are in the first draft.
Scene list: I use Hiveword for this; reference this revision list article.
Write first draft: I usually budget six to eight weeks for this, but no more than three months. This draft is very rough and is mainly used to figure out exactly what happens in the story. I write with Google Docs for easy access.
Plot treatment: I will address this part in a later post, but essentially this is where I figured out, chapter by chapter, what needs to change from draft one to draft two. This is done with the help of the revision list.
Write a second draft: This usually takes two to three months. I have the plot treatment and first draft open as I write, and reuse what I can. I also keep a new revision list for this step.
Repeat the plot treatment/rewrite steps: I repeat steps six and seven until the book is satisfactory.
Book goes to editor and beta
This is a system that works for me. There might be a better system that works for you. Feel free to experiment as you figure out what your system will be! What steps bring you success? What steps aren’t helpful after all?
Your system doesn’t have to match mine. It just needs to exist, and it needs to work for you. Remember, having a writing system can determine whether or not you write a book that gets published.
What system of steps do you use to finish a book? Let u know in the comments.
In this post, we look at instant messaging in storytelling and tell you how to use instant messages in fiction.
Texts, instant messages, and chat rooms are central to modern talking. When people talk, they do it online and through websites or apps. We talk on the internet almost more than we discuss things in person.
They are an important part of dialogue in storytelling.
Real Common Noun: ‘Did you get my Whatsapp message?’
Fictional Common Noun: ‘Let’s talk on SkyPlace.’
Unmentioned: ‘I got your SMS/text yesterday.’
4. Take King’s Advice
‘Writing a story about phones. Here’s the first iPhone from 2007. No reason to post this. I just thought it was a hoot. For the children among you, SMS was text messaging.’ – @StephenKing on Twitter, July 15, 2018
Stephen King used Twitter to announce a story about phones in 2018. King wrote the novel Cell in 2006. Cell combined zombies, phones, and texts into one plot.
Riddles, maps, and texts appear often in Stephen King’s work. Cell uses them to build tension in the earliest scenes.
Many writers equate preparing for a professional edit with revision. We’ll cover a few revision tasks in this article, but revision is only half the battle. Preparing your manuscript is the first part of getting ready for editing. The second part is preparing yourself.
Knowing when a manuscript is ready to be sent off for editing is fairly straightforward. The manuscript should be thoroughly revised, incorporating a close review of the plot, character arcs, story, and writing, outside feedback, and a healthy dose of author-powered proofreading. The manuscript you submit for editing should be the very best ambassador of your storytelling and writing abilities it can possibly be.
Knowing when you yourself are ready for editing may seem less obvious. You could choose to approach editing as a brief but unpleasant course of medicine you should hold your nose and chug as quickly as possible. Or you could choose to make more of it, as a relatively rare window allowing you to peer inside your writing in a new way. You, as a writer, are ready for editing when you’re warmed up and ready to grow.
Getting Your Manuscript Ready for Editing
A sparkling novel, like a scintillating diamond gem, is created through cutting and polishing, not simply the pressure that initially forms the stone. A first draft is still a lump of coal. It’s raw potential. A first draft has no business sticking its snoot beyond the cooling fan vents of your computer. It’s for your eyes only.
Editing a less-than-thoroughly-revised manuscript limits the book’s creative and commercial potential. It burns editorial cash and time on issues you could and should have addressed yourself. There’s no need to pay an editor to teach you fundamentals you could’ve found on websites like this one or feedback you could’ve gleaned from critique partners and early readers.
There’s a reason editors suggest revision strategies like the ones I’ve listed below: Together, they give you ample opportunity to make your work as solid as you’re capable of on your own. That’s the secret sauce in making a manuscript ready for editing.
1. Put the manuscript away for at least several weeks. You can’t revise what you can’t see, and you can’t see your own work with fresh eyes until you’ve dried out from the initial deluge of writing. Give yourself at least two weeks away from your manuscript; I recommend eight weeks or more.
2. Revise in layers like an onion, not front to back like a book. Revisions begin at the top—not at the first page of the book, but at the top layer of the manuscript. The number of drafts you generate is less important than making a dedicated revision pass for each layer: character arcs and story, plotting, individual scenes, writing depth, and proofreading. Especially if you’re new to writing, follow a systematic approach. I recommend Janice Hardy’s Revise Your Novel in 31 Days (free web articles) or the full plan in Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, or get Beth Hill’s encyclopedic masterpiece The Magic of Fiction (affiliate links).
3. Set a deadline. Once you’ve completed your first story-level revision draft, assign yourself a deadline for completing the rest. Story revision tends to take longer than other types, so you should reliably be able to use that to guesstimate the time needed for the rest. If you’re a sucker for some sweet external pressure, find the right editor and book your edit to give yourself a deadline with a deposit on the table.
4. Write a synopsis, even if you’ll be self-publishing. A synopsis is an unambiguous conclusive tool for proving that the plot and character arcs hang together. If you’re having trouble articulating the conflict and stakes or showing how one thing leads to the next, you have more work to do.
5. Get outside feedback. Take an initial temperature reading after your first draft with one or two trusted alpha readers. After the next draft or two, seek informed feedback from writing peers (critique groups and partners). As you get further along, test reader reactions from people you don’t personally know who actively read your genre.
6. Read the entire manuscript out loud. Hearing your book read aloud will reveal a whole host of things you overlooked during revision. Listen to the entire manuscript, noting issues as you go. Reading silently to yourself isn’t the same; you need the slower pace and different input of the hearing the text. If that much reading aloud seems overwhelming, use a text-to-speech feature or app.
By this point, you should be reaching your self-imposed revision deadline. You may notice you’ve begun endlessly fiddling with details of description or dialogue, fussing over the writing rather than structurally improving it. That’s the clarion call: time for editing.
TIP: The Storyteller’s Roadmap at One Stop for Writers has a Revision Map that gives you a good idea of what story revision can look like.
Getting Yourself Ready for Editing
Preparing yourself for editing is arguably more important than preparing your manuscript. Are you crouched in defensive mode, poised to protect your vision from outside influence, or are you ready and open to exploring new depths in your work? It’s the difference between being the naive target of other people’s visions for your work and being an informed master of your creative output.
1. Are you grounded in the craft of storytelling? What you don’t know about writing fiction can hurt you. So many new authors begin writing with the assumption that an awesome idea or scenario is all they need. Without an understanding of how the story engine works, your success will be based on instinct and luck. Level up: Learn the craft.
2. Are you a reader? Can you imagine a songwriter who listened to no music and played no instruments? Me neither. If you’ve never read the sort of book you’re trying to write, why not? If you have no idea what’s on the bestseller lists right now, why should you expect readers to buy your book? Writers write for themselves; authors write for readers. Know your readers—be one.
3. Are you expecting the editor to do the heavy lifting? If your preparation consists of whisking through your manuscript while mumbling “I’ll let the editor fix that,” that’s exactly what you’ll get: editing focused on fixing basics a wordsmith should already have mastered.
4. Are you ready to evolve? Your first few novels and edits are your classroom as a novelist. Are you ready for a major step in your creative evolution? Criticism can be intimidating, but turtling from feedback prevents you from growing as an artist. Editors suggest and recommend; they don’t mandate. The throttle is yours. Are you ready to accelerate?
When You’re Not Ready Yet
Most people assume that writing the book is the hard part. They don’t see the part of the iceberg below the waterline, the real development that takes place before and after the first draft.
Like everything else about writing, revision is a skill. You’ll get better with time and practice. If you need help at first, a story or writing coach can help you prioritize and focus your efforts.
In the end, revision may reveal fatal flaws in the manuscript, or you may decide the story has potential but your execution isn’t there yet. That’s okay; better to know that now than after you’ve paid for editing. Sometimes getting ready for editing means shelving the manuscript for now and writing another.
Info dumping is a common piece of feedback for authors who include too much information in their stories. If you info dump, you will slow the pace—and worse, you’ll likely bore readers. You never want to bore your readers.
So how do you know when to include a “chunk of info” and when it is better to strip your scenes to the bone? (Almost always, by the way.)
In this article, you can learn what info dumping is, along with some common ways writers accidentally do it. You’ll also learn some editing questions that can help you condense your writing, leaving your reader with only necessary information that develops characters or advances the plot.
A Common Writing Mistake: Info Dumping
When I first started writing, I absolutely info dumped, something not uncommon for new writers (and especially for a science fiction author or fantasy author—all that world building, you know?).
Although I wasn’t told that I info dumped in so many words, I remember being super excited to share part of my YA fantasy story with an agent after attending a Writer’s Digest workshop. I edited the opening scene multiple times. I had other people read it for mistakes. I hit send, and—
If you’ve ever been given this advice, don’t fret! It mainly means that you’re info dumping and that the story doesn’t need to include all the details you’ve shared.
While any revision work is hard work, I promise that when you learn how you info dump you can become more conciseness on when to not to info dump in your story. Cleaning up areas where you info dump will make your story smoother. It will make the reader’s experience far more enjoyable. And you will be way prouder of it than you ever were before!
To do this, you need to figure out how to trim your scenes instead of bombarding an entire scene with uninteresting and weightless details. Let’s learn how to identify info dumping, and ways to avoid it.
Definition of Info Dumping
Info dumping is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Imagine you’re under a bucket of water, and someone pours the whole thing on top of you. Now imagine a bucket that’s ten times larger, and imagine that you’re being drenched in exposition instead of water. Info dumping is what happens when the author gives the reader a massive amount of background information in a matter of pages instead of letting the story unfold.
It’s generally a mark of lazy writing (not good), and more than often will disinterest your readers (really not good), which could lead to them giving up on your book.
3 Common Types of Classic Info Dumping
Here are some common ways a writer info dumps in their story: “ Avoid info dumping at all costs! Here are three ways writers info dump in their stories.
Sometimes writers think that they need to explain everything to a writer instead of trusting the reader’s intelligence. In these cases, they often drop “chunks of info” in a scene because they think that if the writer doesn’t get all these details, they won’t be able to make sense of what’s going on.
Usually this isn’t the case, and the information drowns the scene instead of enlightens the reader.
World building info dumps most commonly happen in exposition. They substitute action with wordy details about everything in the setting or history of the world. More often, putting a character into action with their setting is a far better way to show a story’s world rather than tell a reader what makes it special.
Think about this. Even in opening scenes with massive worldbuidling, like Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games or any of Brandon Sanderson’s epics, the primary focus for the scene is on the protagonist trying to do something, not District 12’s life history. We get to know District 12 because of how Katniss navigates the woods and avoids Peacekeepers and shops at the Black Market.
Sure, it’s important to give a reader some information about what makes District 12 special (and deprived)—but we only really learn about District 12 when Katniss interacts with her home.
Avoid giving the entire history of your story’s world. Instead, allow us to get to know the world through either shallow or steep world building.
For shallow world building, think Harry Potter, where we learn about the world and the School of Wizardry with Harry.
For steep worldbuilding, think The Ways of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. Sanderson, in all his books, assumes the reader gets what he’s talking about and keeps going. You need to trust the reader’s intelligence and imagination with steep worldbuillding, meaning you don’t explain everything and instead focus on the plot as it charges ahead.
Writer’s tip: Putting a character into action doesn’t mean every scene needs to be a car chase, but a character should be trying to accomplish or do something. When obstacles get in the way of this movement, there’s conflict. Conflict is what forces decisions. And decisions are what make a scene by developing characters and advancing the plot.
You can learn more about basic, important scene structure in the six elements of plot. Or, read more about how to establish the setting in your story in this article.
2. Character Info Dump
Have you ever read a book with a classic character exposition info dump? The kind of introduction of a character that explains every detail about them, from their childhood to the radiant blue color of their eyes?
Character info dumping is probably one of the more popular ways writers info dump. They think they need to give a complete breakdown of every physical and emotional detail about the character.
Spoiler alert: you don’t.
It’s much better to introduce a character, as I mentioned above, through action rather than description. Sure, it’s great to know a defining feature or quirk about a character, like Katniss’s braid or Zelie’s white hair (Children of Blood and Bone) or the radiant smile of Jay Gatsby:
He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life.
—The Great Gatsby
But what’s really going to hold a reader’s interest isn’t what they look like—other than those few defining features. It’s what a character does—how they act and treat others.
To avoid character info dumping, allow the scene to unfold in a way that challenges the character from getting what they want. Focus on how a character makes decisions, not physical descriptions.
Avoid an emotional info dump, too. In these dumps, a reader might find themselves thinking, “Wow, this character is super whiny.” Which means they will start to get annoyed by the character and how much they’re complaining or sharing.
I’m a big believer in internal character arcs. I argue that stories aren’t masterwork-worthy unless the internal arc is as intriguing and important as the external events driving the plot.
Still, in most manuscripts I’ve edited, you can eliminate at least a third of those internal tangents. As a tip, if you can say something in ten words instead of five hundred words, the shorter option is almost always the better choice.
Avoid long paragraphs of dialogue at all costs. A novel is not a script—and even in a screenplay, you’ll notice that characters have way more conversations that break up dialogue than giant monologues.
Sure, there are opportunities in novels where you might need that big speech. Atticus Finch’s closing argument in To Kill a Mockingbird is a great example of when lengthy dialogue is appropriate—when the reader will hang onto every word instead of skim whatever is being said.
“In the name of God, do your duty.”
—To Kill a Mockingbird
However, dialogue is, more often than not, far more interesting if it’s broken up with (shocker) action (a character doing something while they talk—body language can be as emotionally effective as words themselves) or other dialogue (create a conversation instead of a wordy explanation of something).
When you’re writing, flag any areas of lengthy dialogue in your books. Then, ask yourself if you need to really have the character say everything, or if it could be discussed with other characters. If it’s not the time for a conversation, see if you can replace content with actions that show instead of tell, like:
A detective examining a dead body instead of talking about it.
A wizard walking through a magical shopping area rather than being told about it.
A spouse proving their love by doing THIS instead of telling their partner why they love them so much (although you’ll probably want some dialogue here).
Aside from getting a viewer reacquainted with what has happened so far this season on The Good Wife, info dumping can be used effectively in comedic works of parody or satire. It can take the form of an “as you know . . .” lecture, in which one character tells another what has been going on for the past fifty pages, in case the reader hasn’t been paying attention.
This conversation would never realistically happen. A cousin of the “as you know . . .” lecture is the villain monologue, which thoroughly explains the villain’s evil plot for destroying the world/kidnapping the princess/eating the last cookie. God forbid the reader be smart enough to pick up on subtle hints along the way.
Create an Enjoyable Reader Experience
Moral of the story: info dumping usually flags poor writing rather than effective storytelling. When a writer avoids info dumping, they’re far more likely to engage the reader in the character’s journey, because the reader can concentrate on how the plot and setting are challenging the character, rather than being told all about, well, everything.
A great reader experience is grounded in memorable characters, which is better experienced through decision making. It’s also enlivened by a plot that moves forward with sound, structured, and intentional scenes that only include the details we need to know, for the present moment or for later in the plot. It cuts out everything else.
To help you identify when it’s time to cut out details, consider these editing questions:
How can I eliminate at least ten words in every paragraph?
Am I explaining something about a character or setting, or showing how the character interacts with their surroundings? (You can have some details to explain important setting elements that are significant to the larger story, like a wand made of holly that possesses a phoenix feather core.)
Does this detail matter? In other words, if I take “X” sentence out, will the reader or plot lose anything because of it? Will it cause confusion, or clarity and connection through condensed description?
Every writer needs to learn how to “kill their darlings” at some point in their writing process. Wouldn’t it be awesome if when the time came, you’d already avoided the large passages of info dumping?
What are some ways you’ve info dumpedbefore? How did you edit these sections of your story? Let us know in the comments.
You invest a lot of yourself in your writing, and putting your creative work in front of others is scary. Your mind floods with questions like, What if they don’t like it? What if they think I’m dumb? What if I’m no good at this? And what if someone doesn’t like it? Do you know how to handle negative criticism?
Here Come the Rocks and Rotten Tomatoes
No doubt about it, folks. Publishing is a courageous act. When you send out submissions, you set yourself up for rejection from publishers. When you share your story in a writers’ group, you open yourself to negative feedback from peers.
When you publish a book or post on a blog or put something up on social media, you become subject to emails, comments, and reviews — and sometimes that includes destructive criticism. As a writer, for better and worse, you gain exposure in the public arena. And that means a criticism.
3 Strategies for How to Handle Criticism
Makes you want to don a suit of armor, doesn’t it? But what if, instead of avoiding the negative feedback, you could actually put it to work for you? Make it friend, rather than foe?
I’ve been thinking and studying on this for several weeks, and I’d like to share three strategies that could help you harness criticism to drive your success. Here’s how to foster a more effective reaction to criticism:
1. Practice Rejection
A couple years ago, Tim Grahl released a book called, Running Down A Dream. The book is a truthful look at the sort of struggles we go through as creatives. In one chapter, Tim tells the story of Jia Jiang.
When Jia was a young boy in school, his teacher conducted a class activity where the children would say something they liked about each student. When it was Jia’s turn, he stood in front of a silent classroom. No one had anything good to say about him.
He was so devastated by this experience that it followed him into adulthood. Until he decided to face his fear of rejection head-on. He came across Jason Comely’s Rejection Therapy Game. The game has one rule: for thirty days you have to be rejected by someone, at least once, every single day.
The first day, Jia asked a stranger to loan him $100. He was surprised to find it wasn’t a big deal when the person turned him down. He went on for a hundred days, asking to be a greeter at a coffee shop, to give a lecture at a college, to play soccer in someone’s backyard, and being rejected more often than not.
That’s some powerful therapy
Imagine the perspective he gained through this exercise, the impact this had on his emotional intelligence. He used the helpful feedback to his advantage, allowing him to acquire greater empathy and learn strategic ways to ask for things.
But the best lesson he learned is that rejection is not something you have to be afraid of. He crafted a response to criticism that served his interest.
Tim ended the chapter with this: “If you practice getting rejected, the pain you experience with each subsequent rejection lessens. —Tim Grahl
I’m not suggesting you should go out and actively seek rejection (though apparently there’s some benefit to that). I am suggesting a change in attitude towards criticism. It’s a good idea to prepare for rejection and destructive criticism, for it’s sure to come your way.
Preparation is a great first step in handling criticism effectively.
An important principle to remember is this: it’s your work under the microscope — not you. The writing, not the writer.
With your writer hat on, you should fully engage with your work, emotionally. But when it’s time to put on the editor, publisher, and marketer hats, you’ll perform better if you can manage an emotional separation, allowing you to consider criticism more objectively, mining the gold, and discarding the dross.
It makes an enormous difference where the criticism is coming from. Depending on the source and type of feedback, it should be examined and filtered in different ways.
Criticism from a random stranger, such as a bad review on Amazon or a negative comment on a blog post, can probably be safely ignored unless it becomes a common theme in the feedback you receive. You have no way of knowing if the person has any expertise or authoritative experience driving their criticism. Without that, it’s just one person’s opinion, without a leg to stand on.
Criticism from family and friends warrants a huge grain of salt. There’s usually too much emotional history there to be reliably objective. It’s complicated.
Vibes from the tribe
Criticism from your tribe, your writers’ support group, is something to treat carefully. In such a situation, I suggest looking for each reader’s response to your story, rather than advice on how to repair any problems they perceive. And remember, that response — how one reader experienced your story — is individual and stems from that reader’s personal taste.
Having a tribe is paramount. There’s a tremendous amount to be gained as a member of a writing community. In your tribe, expect to get honesty, support, camaraderie, and any number of other benefits. But you shouldn’t necessarily expect a professional action plan for fixing your work.
Recognize that others in the group are coming from a place of wanting to help you grow as a writer, and be willing to extend the same courtesy. But realize that most members are struggling to learn the craft themselves. They’re at a point where they really can only give their personal reaction to the writing, not an expert opinion or actionable advice about how to fix it.
Pain from the pros
And then there’s criticism from writing professionals. This has the most weight behind it and can therefor knock you flat, if you’re not prepared. Or boost you up, if you are. This is where you can really listen and learn, using their constructive feedback to move you to a whole new level with your writing.
Here’s how to handle criticism from professionals: When you find an editor or mentor that you trust, do what they say. There’s little point in getting expert advice if you’re not going to follow it. If you defend against their every suggestion and rationalize every one of your choices, they’ll soon tire of working with you.
And don’t forget to cut yourself some slack. Accept that you’re not going to hit it out of the park every single time. Be prepared for constructive criticism and receive it with gladness. Struggle and failure are part of the process, not an indication that your efforts are doomed.
3. Combat Self-Criticism
You’ve heard it said that we are our own worst critics, and you’ll get no argument from me on that score. We tend to magnify our own imperfections and often, instead of using them to motivate improvement, we let them immobilize us.
So here’s something you can do with a choice piece of self-inflicted unfair criticism — flip it on its head. I’m going back to Running Down A Dream for this. Do what Tim did when he caught himself thinking thoughts like “You’re never going to be good at this” and “This is a complete waste of time.” He said:
I started trying to pay attention to my thoughts as they came in. If I saw a particularly negative thought making repeat appearances, I would write down the thought and then come up with an affirmation to directly combat it.
Gotta love the Z man
Tim had been using Zig Ziglar’s affirmations to help overcome his doubts and fears. He added two affirmations that apply nicely to us, as writers:
I give grace to myself and accept that perfection is not the goal; only truth.
I am proud of being a writer and consider it an honor to serve the world in this way.
By taking a negative thought and reversing it, we can use the criticism to empower us, motivate us, and fuel our enthusiasm for the work we’re doing.
The Joy of Criticism
So, take a deep breath and give thanks for the criticism. It really is an amazing thing to be able to create stories and share them with the world. When we engage in such mighty endeavors, criticism is sure to come. As well as gratitude, delight, and reader satisfaction.
The bitterness of criticism only serves to make the accolades all the sweeter.
How about you? Do you use any other strategies for how to handle criticism?
I think we all agree, stories need to be more than a character, goal, and a series of scenarios that keep the two apart. Reading isn’t a mechanical action after all, it’s something we do to escape and enjoy. So, to deliver a true experience, we want to write fiction with layers, pulling readers in deeper as they go.
This depth can be added a number of ways—through subplots, character arc, subtext, theme, and symbolism. Of them all, symbolism is one of the simplest methods to deploy, packs a serious wallop, and is often underused. Let’s talk about why you should use it.
Symbolism can turn an ordinary object (or place, color, person, etc.) into something that goes beyond the literal. Babies represent innocence and unlimited potential, spring is synonymous with rebirth, shackles symbolize slavery, the color white brings to mind purity.
Symbols like these are considered ‘universal’ because the associated meaning is so well known within a culture or society. As such, using universal symbols in fiction means writers can deliver a deeper message without having to state it outright. Not only that, symbols tighten description too. By its very nature, if something is understood to be symbolic, it’sconveying something more.
A symbol can also be personal in nature. This is where it means something specifically to a character or specific group.
For William Wallace in the movie Braveheart, the thistle represents love since one was given to him by Murron when they were children. To most people, love in the form of a prickly weed wouldn’t typically compute. But as it’s used throughout the film at poignant moments, the audience comes to recognize this personal symbol for what it means.
So whether the symbol is universally obvious or one that’s specific to the protagonist, it can add a layer that draws readers deeper into the story. The setting itself can become a symbol as a whole should you need it to. A home could stand for safety. A river might represent a forbidden boundary.
More often than not, your symbol will be something within the setting that represents an important idea to your character. And when you look within your protagonist’s immediate world, you’re sure to find something that holds emotional value for him or her.
For instance, if your character was physically abused as a child, it might make sense for the father to be a symbol of that abuse since he was the one who perpetrated it. But the father might live thousands of miles away. The character may have little to no contact with him, which doesn’t leave many chances to symbolize. Choosing something within the protagonist’s own setting will have greater impact and offer more opportunities for conflict and tension.
Perhaps the symbol might be the smell of his father’s cologne—the same kind his roommate puts on when he’s prepping for a date, the scent of which soaks into the carpet and furniture and lingers for days.
Another choice might be an object from his setting that represents the one he was beaten with: wire hangers in the closet, a heavy dictionary on the library shelf, or the tennis racquet in his daughter’s room that she recently acquired and is using for lessons. These objects won’t be exact replicas of the ones from his past, but they’re close enough to trigger unease, bad memories, or even emotional trauma.
Symbols like these have potential because not only do they clearly remind the protagonist of a painful past event, they’re in his immediate environment, where he’s forced to encounter them frequently. In the case of the tennis racquet, an extra layer of complexity is added because the object is connected to someone he dearly loves—someone he wants to keep completely separate from any thoughts of his abuse.
Motifs: Symbolism on a Larger Scale
Connecting readers with our stories is what we all hope to achieve as authors. This is why the stories we write often contain a central message or idea—a theme—that is being conveyed through its telling. Sometimes the theme is deliberately included during the drafting stage; other times, it organically emerges during the writing process. However it occurs, the theme is often supported by certain recurring symbols that help to develop the overall message or idea throughout the course of a story. These repeated symbols are called motifs.
For example, consider the Harry Potter series. One of the motifs under-girding the theme of good vs. evil is the snake. It’s the sign for the house of Slytherin, from which so many bad wizards have emerged. Voldemort’s pet, Nagini, is a giant snake. Those who can speak Parseltongue (the language of serpents) are considered to be dark wizards. By repeatedly using this creature as a symbol for evil, Rowling creates an image that readers automatically associate with the dark side of Potter’s world.
Because motifs are pivotal in revealing your theme, it’s important to find the right ones. The setting is a natural place for these motifs to occur because it contains so many possibilities. It could be a season, an article of clothing, an animal, a weather phenomenon—it could be anything, as long as it recurs throughout the story and reinforces the overall theme.
Themes can either be planned or accidental. If you know beforehand what your theme will be, think of a location that could reinforce that idea—either through the setting itself or with objects within that place—and make sure those choices are prominently displayed throughout the story.