Monthly Archives: February 2022

Stoking Your Story’s Fire: Three Considerations for Revising Scene by Scene

By David G. Brown

The Two Pillars of Storytelling

After my first couple years as a fiction editor, I realized that all of my developmental feedback for clients fit into one of two categories. The first is immersion: the quality of a narrative that transports readers to another time and place. The second is emotional draw: that which maintains readers’ interest in a character and thus keeps them turning pages.

Immersion is achieved with scene-based writing, which means a focus on the protagonist’s moment-to-moment experience of setting and conflict. A reader’s sense of immediacy grows out of sensory details, movement, action, and dialogue.

Emotional draw is more complicated. Readers are diverse, and each one brings a slightly different reason for turning the page. But the main components are:

  • Trajectory—the momentum of a character struggling toward a goal
  • Anticipation—a desire to know what happens next
  • Stakes—a looming consequence should the character fail

Immersive Potential

The author’s first job, whether they are writing fiction or narrative nonfiction, is to transport readers into their characters’ world. Context is important in any story, but sensory details are paramount since they are key to a reader’s imaginative experience of the text.

Comb through your scenes with this principle in mind. On every page, ask yourself what your readers might be seeing, hearing, smelling, and feeling. Do they know within a few sentences where a scene is taking place? Can they picture the surroundings? Do they have a physical sense of the characters moving through and occupying space in this locale?

Judge each sentence by the following criteria: does it convey the focal character’s moment-to-moment experience of the scene? Or does it instead provide context?

The more scene you have on each page, the deeper your readers’ potential immersion. As soon as you showcase context, your readers’ imaginative experience diminishes. That’s not to say there isn’t room for snippets of context. It’s a question of balance.

Context includes setting, world-building, backstory, and even interiority—your protagonist’s analysis and reflections. Again, context is important, but it works best when it surfaces in hints rather than explanations.

Treat your readers like detectives—give them clues and let them come to their own conclusions about context.

Chapter Arcs and Consequence

Here’s another reason scene-based writing is so important: it’s where both plot and character come to life.

When characters make decisions and take risks, readers see them for who they really are. Witty asides and snippets of narrative context can give a story much depth, but the true essence of character is contained in what they are willing to do—or not—to get what they want.

Therein lies the nugget of a chapter arc: a character either takes action toward a goal or reacts to a new obstacle. The result is a consequence—their path forward has changed. In most cases, the scene will have some bearing on the overarching narrative trajectory (more on trajectory in a moment), but the action/reaction and consequence might also develop a subplot.

Take a close look at each scene in your manuscript and ask yourself:

  • Does the focal character make a choice or take action in pursuit of a goal?
  • Does this choice or action result in a consequence that leads into the next scene?

If the answer is no or if you aren’t sure, flag the scene for reconsideration: either bring it into the story’s chain of consequence or send it to the chopping block!

Plot is a Chain of Consequence

A large part of emotional draw flows out of trajectory: a character struggling toward a goal. As the protagonist makes decisions and takes risks in pursuit of their goal, they court failure of some kind. If nothing is at stake, it’s extremely difficult to hold readers’ interest, and without a specific goal, the story becomes aimless.

In terms of structure, the beginning of a narrative is the point when a character’s underlying motivation crystallizes into this clear, relatable, and specific goal—the first link in the story’s chain of consequence. Keep in mind, many novels open sometime after this point. For example, in Moby Dick, Ahab’s inciting incident is implied.

In genre fiction, the narrative goal is often in sharp focus: it’s a quest to save the world or a mission to stop a killer. While emotional draw in literary fiction is usually connected to deeper thematic elements, the narrative goal is still a major component, even if the quest is subtler.

A protagonist’s goal is sometimes referred to as a narrative bridge—a question asked in the beginning of the novel that is answered by the end. The protagonist’s goal is the question, and whether or not they achieve it is the answer. This answer also forms the final link in the story’s chain of consequence.

The rest of the narrative chain lies between the inciting incident and the climax. That means each scene causes the next. In other words, if you map out your story scene by scene, there should be a causal transition between each segment: this happens, therefore this happens, but then this happens, therefore… The alternative lacks momentum; it’s anecdotal: this happens, and then this happens, and then this happens.

Here’s a simple example: Rumpelstiltskin.

The miller’s daughter is the protagonist. Her inciting incident comes when her father brags to the king that she can spin gold from straw. She is therefore locked in a room where she is expected to perform her magical feat.

Father and daughter are in deep trouble, but then Rumpelstiltskin appears and offers to do the deed in exchange for her necklace. She agrees and therefore presents the king with his gold the next morning. But then the king wants even more gold; therefore the miller’s daughter needs Rumpelstiltskin’s services again and must make greater and greater sacrifices to pay for them.

The chain of consequence wraps up at the climax: eventually, when Rumpelstiltskin comes to collect on his final demand (her first-born child), the miller’s daughter tries to renegotiate. He gives her an unlikely escape clause: she must guess his name. She therefore follows him into the forest, finds his home, and overhears him singing his secret.

A novel is much more complex, especially given subplots like interpersonal arcs and side quests. For this reason, it’s a good idea to create separate causal maps for your story’s main trajectory as well as the secondary storylines. However, when you look at the big picture, each scene should fit into one of these chains of consequence.

Bringing It All Together

Though this article first touches on the importance of your readers’ story-world immersion, you are better off to focus your initial self-editing efforts on your manuscript’s chain of consequence. You might find that entire scenes aren’t pulling their (causal) weight, which means they either need to be cut or substantially changed to align with the protagonist’s trajectory. For this reason, it’s best to nail down the structure before you start fleshing out and polishing scenes.

To conclude, here are a few more tips for your next self-editing adventure:

  • Take time away from your project. Work on something else for a month or two!
  • On your next read through, pretend your worst enemy is following along over your shoulder. What would they say? What would they roll their eyes at?
  • Between each draft, consider your story from wildly different angles—what if the protagonist and antagonist traded places? What if you switched genres? How would the conflicts play out in a different time and place?
  • Don’t be afraid to tear down walls and install a new front door. In fact, sometimes we need to burn down the house altogether to find the best way forward.


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Top 100 Short Story Ideas

Do you want to write but just need a great story idea? Or perhaps you have too many ideas and can’t choose the best one? Well, good news. We’ve got you covered.

Below are one hundred short story ideas for all your favorite genres. You can use them as a book idea, as writing prompts for writing contests, for stories to publish in literary magazines, or just for fun!

Use these 100 story ideas to get your creative writing started now.

Editor’s note: This is a recurring guide, regularly updated with ideas and information.

If you’re in a hurry, here’s my 10 best story ideas in brief, or scroll down for the full version.

Top 10 Story Ideas

  1. Tell the story of a scar.
  2. A group of children discover a dead body.
  3. A young prodigy becomes orphaned.
  4. A middle-aged woman discovers a ghost.
  5. A woman who is deeply in love is crushed when her fiancé breaks up with her.
  6. A talented young man’s deepest fear is holding his life back. 
  7. A poor young boy or girl comes into an unexpected fortune.
  8. A shy, young woman unexpectedly bumps into her soulmate.
  9. A long journey is interrupted by a disaster.
  10. A young couple run into the path of a psychopath.

Why Creative Writing Prompts Are Helpful

Below, you’ll find our best creative writing prompts and plot ideas for every genre, but first, why do we use prompts? Is it just a waste of time, or can they actually help you? Here are three reasons we  love writing prompts at The Write Practice:

1. Practice the Language!

Even for those of us who are native English speakers, we’re all on a language journey to go from beginners to skilled writers. To make progress on this language journey, you have to practice, and at The Write Practice, believe it or not, we’re really into practice! Creative writing prompts are easy, fun ways to practice.

Use the prompts below to practice your storytelling and use of language. The more you practice, the better of a writer you’ll become.

2. When you have no ideas and are stuck.

Sometimes, you want to write, but you can’t think up any ideas. You could either just sit there, staring at a blank page, or you could find a few ideas to help you get started. Even better if the list of ideas is curated from our best plot ideas over the last decade that we’ve been publishing lessons, writing exercises, and prompts.

Use the story ideas below to get your writing started. Then when your creativity is warmed up, you’ll start to come up with your own ideas!

3. To develop your own ideas.

Maybe you do have an idea already, but you’re not sure it’s good. Or maybe you feel like it’s just missing some small piece to make it better. By reading other ideas, and incorporating your favorites into yourstory, you can fill your plot holes and generate creative ideas of your own.

Use the story ideas below to develop your own ideas.

4. They’re fun!

Thousands of writers use the prompts below every month, some at home, some in classrooms, and even a few pros at their writing “office.” Why? Because writing prompts can be fun. They get your creativity started, help you come up with new ideas of your own, and often take your writing in new, unexpected directions.

Use the plot ideas to have more fun with writing!

How to Write a Story

One last thing before we get to the 100 story ideas, let’s talk about how to write a great short story. (Already know how to write a great story? No problem. Just skip down to the ideas below.)

  1. First, read stories. If you’ve never read a story, you’re going to have a hard time writing one. Where do you find great stories? There are a lot of places, but check out our list of 46 Literary Magazines we’ve curated over here.
  2. Write your story in a single sitting. Write the first draft of your story in as short a time as possible, and if you’re writing a short story, try to write it in one sitting. Trust me, this works. Everyone hates being interrupted when they’re telling compelling stories. Use that to your advantage and don’t stop writing until you’ve finished telling yours.
  3. Read your draft. Read your story through once, without changing anything. This will give you a sense of what work it needs going forward.
  4. Write a premise. After reading your first draft, get your head around the main idea behind your story by summarizing your story in a one sentence premise. Your premise should contain four things: a character, a goal, a situation, and a special sauce. Not sure what that means or how to actually do that? Here’s a full premise writing guide.
  5. Write, edit, write, and edit. Good writing is rewriting. Use your second draft to fill in the plot holes and cut out the extraneous scenes and characters you discovered when you read the first draft in step #2. Then, polish up your final draft on the next round of edits.
  6. Submit! Real writers don’t keep their writing all to themselves. They share it. Submit your story to a literary magazine, an anthology series, enter it into a writing contest, or even share it with a small group of friends. And if it gets rejected, don’t feel bad. You’ll be in good company.

Want to know more? Learn more about how to write a great short story here.

Our 100 Best Short Story Ideas, Plot Ideas, and Creative Writing Prompts

Ready to get writing? Here are our 100 best short story ideas to kickstart your writing. Enjoy!

10 Best General Short Story Ideas

Our first batch of plot ideas are for any kind of story, whether a spy thriller or a memoir of your personal life story. Here are the best story ideas:

  1. Tell the story of a scar, whether a physical scar or emotional one. To be a writer, said Stephen King, “The only requirement is the ability to remember every scar.”
  2. A group of children discover a dead body. Good writers don’t turn away from death, which is, after all, the universal human experience. Instead, they look it directly into its dark face and describe what they see on the page.
  3. A young prodigy becomes orphaned. Orphans are uniquely vulnerable, and as such, they have the most potential for growth.
  4. A middle-aged woman discovers a ghost. What do Edgar Allen Poe, Ron Weasley, King Saul from the Bible, Odysseus, and Ebenezer Scrooge have in common? They all encountered ghosts!
  5. A woman who is deeply in love is crushed when her fiancé breaks up with her. “In life every ending is just a new beginning,” says Dakota Fanning’s character in Uptown Girls.
  6. A talented young man’s deepest fear is holding his life back. Your character’s biggest fear is your story’s secret weapon. Don’t run from it, write about it.
  7. A poor young boy or girl comes into an unexpected fortune. Not all fortunes are good. Sometimes discovering a fortune will destroy your life.
  8. A shy, young woman unexpectedly bumps into her soulmate (literally bumps into him). In film, this is called the “meet cute,” when the hero bumps into the heroine in the coffee shop or the department store or the hallway, knocking her books to the floor, and forcing them into conversation.
  9. A long journey is interrupted by a disaster. Who hasn’t been longing to get to a destination only to be delayed by something unexpected? This is the plot of GravityThe Odyssey, and even Lord of the Rings.
  10. A young couple run into the path of a psychopath. Monsters, whether people who do monstrous things or scaly beasts or a monster of a natural disaster, reveal what’s really inside a person. Let your character fall into the path of a monster and see how they handle themselves.

Now that you have an idea, learn exactly what to do with it. Check out my new book The Write Structure which helps writers take their ideas and write books readers love. Click to check out The Write Structure here.

More Short Story Ideas Based on Genre

Need more ideas? Here are ideas based on whichever literary genre you write. Use them as character inspiration, to start your own story, or borrow pieces to generate your own ideas. The only rule is, have fun writing!

By the way, for more story writing tips for each these plot types, check out our full guide to the 10 types of stories here.

10 Thriller Story Ideas

A thriller is any story that “thrills” the reader—i.e., gets adrenaline pumping, the heart racing, and the emotions piqued.

Thrillers come in all shapes and forms, dipping freely into other genres. In other words, expect the unexpected!

Here are a few of my favorite thriller story ideas:

Rosa Rivera-Ortiz is an up-and-coming lawyer in a San Diego firm. Held back by her ethnicity and her gender, she works twice as hard as her colleagues, and she’s as surprised as anyone when she’s requested specifically for a high-profile case. Bron Welty, an A-list actor and action star, has been arrested for the murder of his live-in housekeeper. The cop heading the case is older, ex-military, a veteran of more than one war, and an occasional sufferer of PTSD. Rosa’s hired to defend the movie star; and it seems like an easy win until she uncovers some secrets that not only make her believe her client is guilty, but may be one of the worst serial killers in the past two decades… and he knows she found out.

It’s the Cold War. Sergei, a double-agent for the CIA working in Berlin, is about to retire when he’s given one final mission: he’s been asked to “defect” to the USSR to help find and assassinate a suspected double-agent for the Kremlin. Sergei is highly trusted, and he’s given to understand that this mission is need-to-know only between him and very few superior officers. But as he falls deeper into the folds of the Iron Curtain, he begins to suspect that his superior officer might just be the mole, and the mark Sergei’s been sent to kill is on the cusp of exposing the leak.

It is 1800. A lighthouse on a barren cliff in Canada. Two lighthouse keepers, German immigrants, are alone for the winter and effectively cut off from the rest of the world until the ice thaws. Both Wilhelm and Matthias are settled in for the long haul with warm clothes, canned goods, and matches a-plenty. Then Wilhelm starts hearing voices. His personal belongings disappear from where he’d placed them, only to reappear in strange spots—like the catwalk, or dangling beneath the spiral stair knotted in brown twine. Matthias begs innocence. Little by little, Wilhelm grows convinced that Matthias is trying to convince him (Wilhelm) to kill himself. Is the insanity real, or is this really Matthias’ doing? And if it is real, what will he do to defend himself? There are so many months until the thaw.

Click for thriller short story ideas.

20 Mystery Story Ideas

Enjoy a good whodunit? Then you’ll love these mystery story ideas.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Ever hear the phrase, “It is not who fired the shot but who paid for the bullet?” This is a philosophy Tomoe Gozen lives by. Brave and clever, Tomoe follows clues until she learns who ordered the murder: Emperor Antoku himself. But why would the emperor of Japan want to kill a lowly soldier?

Mystery writer Dan Rodriguez takes the subway every day. Every day, nothing happens. He wears earbuds and a hoodie; he’s ignored, and he ignores. Then one evening, on his way home from a stressful meeting with his publisher, Dan is startled out of his funk when a frantic Middle-Eastern man knocks him over at a dead run, then races up the stairs—pursued by several other thugs. The Middle-Eastern man is shot; and Dan discovers a mysterious package in the front pocket of his hoodie. What’s inside, and what does he need to do to survive the answer?

A headless corpse is found in a freshly-dug grave in Arkansas. The local police chief, Arley Socket, has never had to deal with more than missing gas cans and treed cats. His exploration of this weird murder digs up a mystery older than the 100-year-old town of Jericho that harkens all the way back to a European blood-feud.

Click for the mystery short story ideas.

20 Romance Story Ideas

Ready to write a love story? Or perhaps you want to create a subplot with a secondary character? We’ve got ideas for you!

Hint: When it comes to romance, a sense of humor is always a good idea. Have fun! Here are a few of my favorite love story ideas:

She’s a cop. He’s the owner of a jewelry store. A sudden rash of break-ins brings her to his store over and over and over again, until it becomes obvious that he might be tripping the alarm on purpose—just to see her. That’s illegal—but she’s kind of falling for him, too. Write the moment she realizes she has to do something about this crazy illicit courtship.

Colorado Animal Rescue has never been more challenging than after that zoo caught on fire. Sally Cougar (no jokes on the name, or she’ll kill you) tracks down three missing tiger cubs, only to find they’ve been adopted by millionaire Bryce Champion. Thanks to an antiquated law on the books, he legally has the right to keep them. It’s going to take everything Sally has to get those tiger cubs back.

He’s a museum curator with a fetish for perfection. No one’s ever gotten close to him; how could they? They’re never as perfect as the portraits, the sculptures, the art that never changes. Then one day, an intern is hired on—a young, messy, disorganized intern, whose hair and desk are in a constant state of disarray. The curator is going half-mad with this walking embodiment of chaos; so why can’t the he stand the thought of the intern leaving at the end of their assistantship?

Click for the romance short story ideas.

20 Sci-Fi Story Ideas

From the minimum-wage-earning, ancient-artifact-hunting time traveller to the space-exploring, sentient dinosaurs, these sci-fi writing prompts will get you set loose your inner nerd.

Here are a few of my favorite sci-fi ideas:

In a future society, neural implants translate music into physical pleasure, and earphones (“jacking in”) are now the drug of choice. Write either from the perspective of a music addict, OR the Sonforce agent (sonance + enforcer) who has the job of cracking down.

It’s the year 5000. Our planet was wrecked in the great Crisis of 3500, and remaining human civilization survives only in a half dozen giant domed cities. There are two unbreakable rules: strict adherence to Life Quality (recycling doesn’t even begin to cover these laws), and a complete ban on reproduction (only the “worthy” are permitted to create new humans). Write from the perspective of a young woman who just discovered she’s been chosen to reproduce—but she has no interest in being a mother.

So yeah, ancient Egypt really was “all that” after all, and the pyramids turn out to be fully functional spaceships (the limestone was to preserve the electronics hidden inside). Write from the perspective of the tourist exploring the ancient society who accidentally turns one on.

Click for the short story ideas.

20 Fantasy Story Ideas

Bored teenaged wizards throwing a graduation celebration.

Uncomfortable wedding preparation between a magic wielding family tree and those more on the Muggle side of things.

A fairy prince who decides to abandon his responsibilities to become a street musician.

Just try to not have fun writing (or even just reading!) these fantasy writing prompts.

Click for the fantasy short story ideas.

The Secret to Choosing the Best Story Idea

Stories, more than any other artistic expression, have the power to make people care. Stories have the ability to change people’s lives.

But to write a great story, a life-changing story, don’t just write about what your characters did, said, and saw. Ask yourself, “Where do I fit in to this story? What is my personal connection to this story?”

Robert Frost said this:

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader. Robert Frost

If you can connect your personal story to the story you’re writing, you will not only be more motivated to finish your story, you might just be able to change the lives of your readers.

Next Step: Write Your Best Story

No matter how good your idea, writing a story or a book can be a long difficult process. How do you create an outline, come up with a great plot, and then actually finish it?

My new book The Write Structure will help. You’ll learn how to take your idea and structure a strong plot around it. Then you’ll be guided through the exact process I’ve used to write dozens of short stories and over fifteen books.

By Joe Bunting


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Fear Thesaurus Entry: Leading

Debilitating fears are a problem for everyone, an unfortunate part of the human experience. Whether they’re a result of learned behavior as a child, are related to a mental illness, or stem from a past wounding event, these fears influence a character’s behaviors, habits, beliefs, and personality traits. The compulsion to avoid what they fear will drive characters away from certain people, events, and situations and hold them back in life. 

In your story, this primary fear (or group of fears) will constantly challenge the goal the character is pursuing, tempting them to retreat, settle, and give up on what they want most. Because this fear must be addressed for them to achieve success, balance, and fulfillment, it plays a pivotal part in both character arc and the overall story.

This thesaurus explores the various fears that might be plaguing your character. Use it to understand and utilize fears to fully develop your characters and steer them through their story arc.

A Fear of Leading

Leading is not easy. It means being responsible and accountable, making decisions that will have a wider impact, and facing scrutinization for certain actions taken. This fear can cause characters to avoid stepping forward when asked (or needed), resent having this role thrust upon them, and even affect those already in a leadership role.

What It Looks Like
Resistance to being in charge
Avoiding making a final decision
Not wanting to be responsible in bigger ways
Not wanting to speak out or speak one’s mind
Letting others decide
Being risk-adverse
Pointing out one’s flaws and lack of suitability to others
Self-sabotage (to prove to others they aren’t leadership material)
Avoiding conflict and arguments
Bringing on a partner to co-lead
Obsessing about one’s missteps and mistakes
Indecisiveness and hesitation
Asking someone else to pass on bad news
Avoiding being the one to make hard decisions (and instead passing the buck or putting it to a vote)
Pulling back or hiding out in stressful times
Trying to avoid public speaking (preferring email and other “silent” ways of communicating, or having someone else make the speeches)
Being prone to over-analyzing rather than decisiveness
Wanting to keep things smaller and less complicated due to doubts of being able to handle something bigger
Wanting to stick to what’s known rather than innovate and experiment
Setting smaller goals because they are easier to achieve
Feeling not up to a challenge
Resisting or minimizing growth (of a movement, a business, a community) to keep things manageable
Pushing people away
Finding reasons to stay in the comfort zone rather than ask, What’s next?
Seeing the drawbacks, not the potential
Feeling one’s knowledge is inadequate and that can’t be changed
Viewing failures or lackluster progress as proof of one’s inability to lead
Focusing on what could go wrong, not what could go right
Worrying about the repercussions
Pretending things are okay when they are not
The character becoming prickly in situations where they don’t know the answer

Common Internal Struggles
Wanting to hide from responsibility, but feeling cowardly to want that
Wanting to make things better, but only seeing one’s own shortcomings
Believing leading would be a disaster (if the character hasn’t taken on the role yet)
Wanting to do right by others but fearing one’s efforts will only disappoint
Feeling unworthy of the belief others have in their abilities
Feeling like an impostor
A desire to go back to simpler times
Taking criticism to heart
The misbelief that they are only capable of so much, rather than see personal shortcomings as temporary and subject to change
Over-focusing on mistakes and failures rather than successes
Believing successes are due to luck more than skill
Having good ideas but not wanting to be blamed if something goes wrong

Flaws That May Emerge
Addictive, Defensive, Disorganized, Evasive, Humorless, Impatient, Inattentive, Indecisive, Insecure, Irresponsible, Jealous, Nervous, Oversensitive, Perfectionist, Pessimistic, Uncommunicative, Withdrawn, Workaholic, Worrywart

Hindrances and Disruptions to the Character’s Life
Holding back great ideas out of the fear of being singled out and asked to lead
Suffering with a less-than-ideal status quo
Being unhappy in a follower role
Being stuck with bad leaders and situations that don’t improve
Feeling like they are living beneath their potential
Having to put up with poor leadership because they are unwilling to step forward
Leading, but with a fear-based mindset that catastrophizes rather than see limitless potential
Being pessimistic about the future
Feeling cowardly for not having the courage to step forward

Scenarios That Might Awaken This Fear
Being asked to take something over
A survival situation where the character is the best suited to lead
Being the oldest in an emergency, so siblings look to the character to lead
Being promoted at work
Being asked to be in charge of a project, committee, event, etc.
When others come to the character in dire need of help
Needing leadership experience to round out college applications
A death in the family that makes the character a successor
Knowing by not stepping up, greater harm will come.



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Spinning a Yarn out of History: How to Craft a Plot from your Historical Obsession

By E. C. Ambrose

Some of the most compelling fiction arises out of the writer’s engagement with a narrow aspect of history.  It might be an event with an exciting impact on the people involved or the future of nations.  Many authors come to historical fiction because of a personal connection to a distant time and place, and their writing explores the experiences of people who lived in that milieu.  My obsession is early technology, and my latest novel was sparked by a footnote.

So how do you transform a passion for history into a compelling narrative?  

Begin by framing your concept: the specific niche in history you’d like to write into, and why it excites you. Are you most excited about the setting, the event, the people, or perhaps the transformation around one of those elements? Freewriting about your enthusiasm can hone your focus.  Capture this excitement in a brief statement to guide the choices you make as you brainstorm narrative ideas. If you’re developing a counterfactual or supernatural story, be sure to integrate that direction.

I organize my ideas using a spreadsheet for a timeline, characters, specific locations, scene ideas, etc.  You may prefer a notebook with dividers, or some other format.  The earlier you can settle on a system, the easier it will be to exploit your notes, both historical and fictional.

Now that you know where (and when) to begin, consider how to build a story about that concept.  Here are a few questions to guide you.

1. Where is the most striking conflict in this concept?

What is at stake?  A battle might be life or death for the soldiers on the field. It might be existential for the future of the region or intensely personal for the groom who tends the warhorses. 

Each of these levels can make an engaging narrative, and will suggest the character(s) involved as well as the breadth of the story.  A larger, more complicated conflict signals the need for a larger structure to fully reveal it. If you’d like to craft a short story instead, look for a more intimate view into the conflict and explore that impact.  Incorporating several layers of conflict adds richness, and shows why this character is invested in this particular conflict. That helps the reader to develop a rooting interest in what happens to them.

2. Who has the most to gain or lose in your concept? 

This suggests possible characters. To tell the complete story of the battle, you may need characters who have a top-down view like generals or nobility, as well as participants on the battlefield.  These affected characters may not all have a narrative perspective in the work, but the protagonist’s encounters with them will reveal new insights.  What additional layers of internal or personal conflict will these characters contribute because of who they are, the roles they play, or their own background?  Characters with opposing views illuminate the history in a more three-dimensional way.  Creating a cast list of the people most impacted, and how they relate to each other can help you imagine scenes and personal moments to build your plot.

Whose stories dominate the current narrative around the history and whose stories haven’t been told? Are you the right author to reveal lesser-known narratives? If you can respectfully present a new perspective, especially on a familiar or perennial historical moment, that can help to set your work apart.

3. What aspects of the milieu are most critical for readers to understand the concept and story? 

How can you reveal those aspects in the most engaging way?  Lectures, backstory and summary are the bane of historical narratives.  Instead, look for ways to embed historical details and context into scenes, through what characters experience, do, or understand. Deliver information through action or discovery, using sensory details to show the setting.  As your reader experiences scenes alongside your characters, they will absorb the historical backdrop those characters inhabit without needing lengthy passages of exposition. My spreadsheet includes a column for brainstorming how to deliver the historical context my reader will need.

In particular, avoid explanatory dialog in which characters simply tell one another the information you want the reader to have.  Instead, consider conflicts and opposing characters.  Can they withhold, discover or argue about the information instead of simply delivering it?

4. What expectations will readers already have about this concept? 

Reader expectations can enhance or distract from your story. For instance, readers of a Titanic novel are aware the ship will sink, and that creates added tension. Which of the characters will survive and how?  If your work contradicts reader expectations, either because it’s a counterfactual or fantastical narrative, or because those expectations are flawed, you’ll need to carefully frame the contradictions to draw the reader closer rather than losing their trust because the author appears to have their facts wrong.

As these questions spark ideas for scenes, add those to your notes. Look for ways to increase the conflicts and raise the stakes through arranging those scenes for maximum impact. I use notecards, dealing out possible story and character arcs until I arrive at the most compelling version, or know what I need to brainstorm next.  Spinning your historical grist into these narrative elements should deliver plenty of material to weave your concept into a story.


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Fear Thesaurus Entry: Failure

Debilitating fears are a problem for everyone, an unfortunate part of the human experience. Whether they’re a result of learned behavior as a child, are related to a mental illness, or stem from a past wounding event, these fears influence a character’s behaviors, habits, beliefs, and personality traits. The compulsion to avoid what they fear will drive characters away from certain people, events, and situations and hold them back in life. 

In your story, this primary fear (or group of fears) will constantly challenge the goal the character is pursuing, tempting them to retreat, settle, and give up on what they want most. Because this fear must be addressed for them to achieve success, balance, and fulfillment, it plays a pivotal part in both character arc and the overall story.

This thesaurus explores the various fears that might be plaguing your character. Use it to understand and utilize fears to fully develop your characters and steer them through their story arc.

Fear of Failure

What It Looks Like
Being content with the status quo
Taking a follower role; letting others lead
The character not doing their best
Apathy or laziness
Shutting down a co-worker’s new idea before it can be adopted
Finding faults in potential love interests
Ending a romantic relationship when it starts to get serious
Turning down new projects or opportunities
Doing something reckless or ill-advised the night before an important test or interview—e.g., staying up all night drinking, then falling asleep and missing the appointment
Procrastinating on a school or work assignment
Not finishing projects
Blaming others when a failure occurs
Projecting an image that encourages low expectations from others
Preoccupation with minor tasks (instead of focusing on the important ones necessary to succeed)
An inability to analyze past failures and learn from them
Being perceived as inflexible or lazy
Making excuses for underachieving
Manipulating others to avoid having to take on certain duties
Perfectionism; obsessing so much over making things perfect that the work never gets done and the end product is sabotaged

Common Internal Struggles
The character doubting their abilities or intelligence
The character being certain of their own failure when they’re entirely capable of winning
Worrying that failure will make others think less of the character
Worrying about disappointing others
Envisioning a desired future but doubting that it will ever come to be
Past failures replaying in the character’s head on a loop
Struggling with shame
Wanting to take on certain projects or opportunities but being too scared to try
Creating internal arguments against an appealing but risky opportunity

Flaws That May Emerge
Apathetic, Cautious, Cowardly, Cynical, Defensive, Devious, Evasive, Flaky, Forgetful, Frivolous, Humorless, Hypocritical, Indecisive, Inflexible, Inhibited, Insecure, Irrational, Irresponsible, Manipulative, Mischievous, Nervous, Perfectionist, Rebellious, Reckless, Self-Destructive, Self-Indulgent, Stubborn, Temperamental, Uncooperative, Withdrawn

Hindrances and Disruptions to the Character’s Life
Missing out on opportunities that the character would be good at or enjoy
Being looked down on by others (for a lack of ambition or ability)
Arguing with parents and family members who call the character out for not trying hard enough
The character being limited in what they’re able to achieve in life
Being unfulfilled
Being unable to succeed professionally
Being unable to maintain a meaningful and healthy romantic relationship

Scenarios That Might Awaken This Fear
Being assigned a high-profile work project
The character’s work partner falls ill, leaving the character to handle things on their own
Being asked to join a committee or volunteer group
Being asked out by someone the character likes
A romantic relationship escalating to a new level (the other person saying I love you or suggesting they move in together)
A negative influence speaking doubt and failure to the character, echoing their own thoughts
Being introduced to a scenario similar to the one that caused the character’s fear of failure
Experiencing a failure—real or perceived—that reinforces the character’s fear (their marriage falling apart, their child dropping out of school, etc.)
Being pitted against someone who is superior and is sure to win
Being rejected by a potential love interest.



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When to Kill a Character

Well, Valentine’s Day is in the rearview, so it’s time to move on to a less lovey-dovey topic: killing people. Fictional people, of course!

Let’s face it, some of our characters have to die. Sure, we may have spent hours (days, weeks, decades?) shaping them, planning their backstory, filling their hearts with hopes and dreams. But in the end, it just isn’t their time to shine.


That deer crosses the icy road at the wrong time.

The cable hoisting a plate glass window to the third story breaks.

Or the psycho with the ax chooses your character like he’s Pikachu.

Tragic, right?

But here’s the thing: when it comes to killing, there’s a time and place.

We don’t kill because the scene needs some spice.
We don’t kill because we’ve spotted a plot hole, and killing a character seals it off.
We don’t kill when it’s the easy way out. (Bring on the suffering!)
We don’t randomly kill someone to show readers how bad our baddie is.

And most of all, we don’t kill 1) when the death serves no purpose or 2) if readers aren’t invested in the character. So, make sure the death pushes the story forward in some way and readers have a soft spot for the target (Rue from Hunger Games, for example) before you snuff them out. Emotional currency is king.

I know, I know, you’ve got a sad now, like I smashed your ice cream cone on the ground. So here’s when you can kill:


Sometimes our characters must hit rock bottom or lose everything before they can find inner strength. Taking away their safety net can trigger devolution or evolution and support their arc’s trajectory.


Sometimes, there is a cost to holding to a belief or following a certain path, and death may be necessary to fully underscore the weight of the story’s theme. Sometimes, there is no justice. Evil triumphs instead of good. Safety is an illusion. Love means sacrifice, or finding one’s purpose in life may mean surrendering to it. Think about your theme and if this death will support the underlying meaning of the story.


Stakes can be primal, and it needs to be clear to everyone, including readers, when failure means death. If you go this route, invest time into the sacrificial character. Give them goals, needs, and people they would do anything for. Most of all, make readers care about them so their death has impact.


Some people deserve to die. They take risks, fail to heed advice, or are just plain toxic and awful. To show the cause and effect of their actions or provide a satisfying death scene for readers, take the character out in a way that makes sense, is ironic, or rings of poetic justice.

See? Lots of good options for killing. Challenge yourself to make it count so it serves the story in some way.

If you’d like to grab this “When to Kill a Character” checklist to save and print, just go here.

How do you decide when to kill a character? Who was it, and why did you do it?



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The Measure of a Character

By Christina Delay

One of my favorite characters of all time is Star Trek’s lovable android, Data. If you aren’t familiar with The Next Generation, and Data in particular, the most important thing you need to understand is Data is an android with a life mission of becoming more human. He’s the Pinocchio of space, but with better decision-making skills.

While rewatching the series for the tenth time—because of course we need to indoctrinate our oldest patootie into this world—we came across the episode titled “The Measure of a Man.” If you haven’t seen this episode, or if it’s been a while, please take a few minutes to watch this clip.

The crux of the episode is this—what (or who) qualifies as sentient life? And it made me wonder about my own characters. At what point do they become ‘sentient’?

There are tons of character interview questions for authors to get to know their characters. My deep, dark secret? Character interviews have never ever worked for me. At least, they’ve never helped make my characters seem sentient.

But what if we applied Star Fleet’s criteria for sentient life to our characters and judged them under the same microscope that Data was judged in “The Measure of a Man?” Will doing so help us understand the core of our characters better? And if so, do our characters measure up?


The first criteria that sentient life must meet is intelligence. Does the being possess the “ability to learn, to understand, and to cope with new situations?”

I mean, yes, we can force our characters to learn, to understand, and to cope with new situations. We are their creators, after all. But at what point do our characters become organically intelligent? In other words, when do our characters begin to tell us, their creator, if a certain decision or action is within character for them?

In the past, it has taken me a long time to get to this point with my characters. I have to live with them and immerse myself in their world for a while. Korrina, the main character in my Siren’s Call series, took years to develop because I, the creator, had a different idea of who she should be than who she truly was. (And she is nothing if not stubborn.) My idea of who she should be blocked her true self from coming out.

Once I let Korrina be her snarky, acts-now-apologizes-later self, she became organically intelligent. She was able to learn and to understand new, big concepts (such as the existence of mythological beings and that she’s a Siren with a magic object attached to her soul), as well as cope with new situations in ways that were realistic, believable, and unique to her character. It is her intelligence that adds shape to her character, as well as her ability to learn from her mistakes that makes her seem sentient.


My critique partner, Julie Glover, is an absolute whiz when it comes to crafting characters who appear self-aware. One of her main characters in SHARING HUNTER, Chloe, is so self-aware that she occasionally jumps into conversations Julie and I have with each other.

Dr. Maddox, in the Star Trek episode we’re referencing, claims that self-awareness is achieved when “You are conscious of your existence and your actions. You are aware of yourself and your own ego.

Are our characters capable of becoming self-aware?

I argue, yes, they are.

When our characters do something surprising or different than we had planned, our characters become self-aware.

When our characters speak in a way that is totally foreign to how we, the author, processes the world, they are self-aware.

When Julie Glover’s main character, Chloe, suggests that she and her best friend Rachel share a boyfriend the last semester of high school, she doesn’t just suggest it. She knows Rachel won’t go for this idea unless she sets the situation up perfectly, orchestrates the slow leak of idea building upon idea, and uses phrases like “that smokin’ hot piece of boy-bacon won’t last long in the high school meat market.”

However, she also realizes that if she comes on too strong, Rachel will balk and the idea will be over before it has a chance, “for Twain’s sake.”

The way Chloe masterminds her sharing-a-boyfriend scheme is just so…Chloe. (And if you haven’t read SHARING HUNTER yet, you really must.)


This one is, I believe, the hardest criteria for our characters to meet. Do our fictional characters experience true consciousness?

Consciousness is defined as “the quality or state of being aware especially of something within oneself.”

In Data’s example, that is the question that was left unanswered. It was up to the court to decide if Data met the requirement of consciousness in even the smallest measure. Is Data a machine, programmed to answer an infinite number of questions, or does he have consciousness—is he capable of original thought?

So I will follow Star Trek’s example. What do you think?

Are our characters derived from our own subconscious, meaning that the questions they pose and the answers they find are actually from deep inside our own brains? Or do these characters speak for themselves, with thoughts and ideas that belong to them?

It’s an interesting concept to ponder. What is sentient consciousness? What is life?

And do your characters have it?

Our best characters don’t simply occupy the page but come to life—for us and for our readers. They possess intelligence, feel self-aware, and seem to be, or perhaps are, conscious.

Consider these traits as you write characters your readers will connect with, and use these traits to help your readers feel that your characters are almost as real as their own selves.

Live long and prosper.


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Introducing…The Fear Thesaurus!

Fear is an undeniable part of the human experience, for both real and fictional people. At its most basic, it warns our characters of potential danger and encourages them to take actions and make specific choices that will keep them safe. While unpleasant, it’s an important warning system meant to protect them from harm. But the system breaks down when a fear grows to the point of becoming overwhelming and crippling.

Debilitating fears play an important role in story and character arc, so we’ve decided to delve into this topic for our next thesaurus at Writers Helping Writers. Not just any fears, though—the virulent ones that stymie characters and derail them from their goals and dreams. To help you write your character’s greatest fear realistically, we’ll be exploring the following aspects for each entry:

What It Looks Like. Fears look different for each character based on a number of personal factors, so we’ll be providing a variety of manifestations for you to consider. Know your character’s personality, their sensitivities, and their personal boundaries—things they’re not willing to do because it will be triggering. Being intimately familiar with your character will give you a good idea of how their fear will manifest in various areas of life.

Common Internal Struggles. Fear will cause the character to doubt, obsess, and worry—many times, to an unhealthy degree. If they recognize that their preoccupation borders on the irrational or that it’s making certain desirable things impossible, that knowledge will war with their need for safety, generating internal conflict. The way they deal with it (or don’t deal with it) will have consequences that will impact their forward progress, so this is an important aspect of fear to think about.

Flaws That May Emerge. As your character tries to avoid what they fear, they may undergo a personality shift. A fear of commitment may cause the character to become superficial in their relationships and conversations. The character who is afraid of rejection may become abrasive, uncooperative, or dishonest—flaws that will keep people from getting close enough for a possible rejection to sting. Someone who is scared of losing control can become incredibly controlling and fussy. These traits are effective at protecting the character, but they will cause a myriad of other problems that then will have to be addressed.

Hindrances and Disruptions to the Character’s Life. If your character has a debilitating fear, you’ll need to show it clearly to readers through the context of their current story—no expository paragraphs or info dumps. An effective way to do this is by showing how the fear impacts the various areas of the character’s life. In this field, we’ll offer ideas on the minor inconveniences and major disruptions a fear can create.

Scenarios That Might Awaken This Fear. This is another way you can clearly show your character’s fear—by introducing situations that will trigger them. But they’re also helpful for providing opportunities for growth. As your character moves through their story toward their goal, their fear will block them. For them to achieve their objective, at some point, they’ll have to confront their fear and put it in its rightful place. Knowing which scenarios will trigger their fears will allow you to build those important growth opportunities into the story.

Fear is such a vital part of your character’s arc and their story. Our hope for this thesaurus is that it will provide insight and guidance for this important element. The first entry can be found here!



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The Hero’s Journey Climax: 3 Key Principles to Write the Ordeal Scene

Writing a Hero’s Journey climax isn’t easy. Even when you outline it properly, you might struggle to put the right words on the paper.

If you understand what makes a great Hero’s Journey climax, however, you can defeat this daunting task easier.

In this article, you’ll learn what the Hero’s Journey climax, otherwise known as the Ordeal, is—and why it is so important.

You’ll also learn writing tips that can help you write this well: how to raise the stakes and maintain the action without losing the heroic arc that your protagonist has learned along the way.

Understanding A Strong Hero’s Journey Climax

As a judge of several writing contests, I’ve read many stories filled with action, violence, shouting, and assorted conflict. While a few of these stories pulled off their hero’s journey climaxes, most of them bombarded me with noise, gore, curses, and even sexual activity—all while abandoning their protagonist’s true journey.

When that happens, you can count your reader out.

Here’s how to write your story’s climax and keep your reader excitedly turning pages.

The Hero’s Journey (Recap)

Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is a theory exploring a timeless, mythical story structure. Following a hero as they flee their everyday life, the hero’s central conflict involves a quest for justice and rebirth that must come from defeating an evil force, usually called the Shadow.

This entire journey has been condensed into Christopher Vogler’s 12 Steps of the Hero’s Journey, an outline of story elements and the series of events leading from the beginning to the climactic event (the moment when the hero either achieves their goal or is defeated).

Prior to the climatic event, or the Hero’s Journey Ordeal, there’s an Approach to the Inmost Cave. Here, before the hero performs a big, decisive action, there is a brief pause. During this time the author establishes three key things:

  1. The villain guarding the goal is really, really nasty
  2. The cost of losing (known as stakes) are extremely high
  3. The task that must be completed in order to achieve victory

Once this “calm before the storm” has occured, you are free to send your hero unto the breach so they can face the tests ahead.

Let’s talk about how to do just that!

Hero’s Journey Step 8: The Ordeal (the Climax)

In Hero’s Journey-speak, the climax of the story is known as the Ordeal.

The Ordeal is a complicated and nearly-impossible task that your hero must accomplish in order to achieve their goal. Accomplishing it, however, cannot end the story, but merely reveal that the goal itself does not satisfy your hero’s deepest need. But more on that later.

An easy way to think of the Ordeal is as an action sequence, but this may not always be the case. It could be a test of character, like in The Queen’s Gambit. It could be a test of wit and wisdom, as in WandaVision. And it can be a test of loyalty, as in Pride and Prejudice. 

But most often it is, in fact, a test of strength, strategy, and skill.

There is a “storming of the castle,” so to speak, where your hero must face a task that is greater than anything they have encountered so far. It’s also likely your hero comes face to face with the villainous Shadow in this scene.

From 30,000 feet, though, remember that the goal of the Ordeal scene is to have your hero obtain the Goal of the quest.

“ If you want to write a great Hero’s Journey climax, make sure you show how the hero obtains their Goal.

This usually involves rescuing someone, acquiring a treasure or weapon, or fulfilling some other task (like destroying the One Ring of Sauron, à la The Lord of the Rings). 

However, the act of doing so much reveal something about the Goal, the world it lives in, and/or the hero themselves that leads to dissatisfaction or fails to resolve the issues facing the story in a complete way.

3 Key Principles in a Hero’s Journey Climax (Ordeal)

The Ordeal is a lengthy scene, filled with many beats, and each beat must be carefully designed to maximize its impact. This is the moment your reader has been waiting for, after all!

How do you write it so it is irresistibly good? “ A Hero’s Journey climax (or Ordeal) includes three key principles. Learn how to write them in this article.

1. Focus on what got you here: Desire

It’s easy to screw this up. When we plan and write a story, we spend a lot of time building up toward the exciting climactic event. So when we get there, it’s easy to overdo it with physical details as we attempt to take the movie playing in our heads and put it down on paper.

Unfortunately, the same movie will never play in your reader’s mind. There might not be a movie playing at all.

Instead, when readers confront pages of physical description and noise (whether they’re depictions of fistfights, gun battles, sexual intimacy, or shouted opinions), they instinctively recoil.

This is especially true if the bombast isn’t earned, but thrust too quickly or emphatically into the story.

This is natural. We avoid conflict, especially conflict that we can’t comprehend or establish ourselves in, even as observers. It is imperative that your reader understands every piece of your story’s action, and that they care about the outcome of each punch, jump, kiss, or insult.

That’s why you need to focus on what got you here: Your protagonist’s desire.

And along with that desire (for their want and need), is their fear. What do they have to lose? Why is success so important to them?

Each moment of action must be filtered through the protagonist’s journey of hope and fear. Each step forward or retreat backward must come with hope, disappointment, terror, anticipation, belief, despair . . . all the emotions that accompany an active protagonist.

A great example can be found in George Lucas’s epic space fantasy, Star Wars. 

The final battle between the Rebellion and the Empire is ultimately a loud, bombastic explosion of lasers and engines screaming across the screen. But there are two elements infusing it with incredible emotion: Friendship and the Force.

First, Luke is fighting not just for the Rebellion, but for his friends. Leia, Chewbacca, and C-3PO are on Yavin-4, the planet about to be obliterated by the Death Star. And his best friend from home, Biggs, gets killed in the fight.

Then to add to it, Luke seems to know that computers and technology alone cannot win the battle for him. After all, they are fighting a massive machine (the Death Star) and a small machine (Darth Vader); clearly the Empire has the upper hand when it comes to dehumanizing control.

The scene, and his character, takes a massive turn when Luke listens to the voice of his master, speaking through the mystical energy field called the Force, instructing him to trust in it and use it.

Luke does, and this is what gives Star Wars’ climactic moment its most powerful punch. Luke doesn’t just desire to beat the Empire; he desires for his life to have meaning. The Force gives him that meaning that he deeply seeks.

2. Use beats of quiet contemplation or conversation

Another mistake authors make with their story climaxes is to load them with nonstop action.

Again, this may be a result of “writing the movie in your head,” as we hope to create a scene of pulse-pounding excitement, and write one blindingly exhausting scene after another.

But this isn’t how the human mind processes things. It also doesn’t allow much room for your hero to process how the stakes (and their dreams) are changing in the moment. Human beings are constantly evaluating and strategizing, and you need little moments of quiet thought or peaceful conversation to punctuate the sound and the fury of your story climax.

More movies do this than you might immediately realize. Rewatch your favorite action movie and you’ll notice throughout the climactic action scenes just how often the story pauses for characters to think, reflect, and reorient themselves.

The Hunger Games excels at this.

Partially, author Suzanne Collins is at an advantage, since the Ordeal could include all of the “Games.” Yet the Games aren’t packed with wall-to-wall violence. Take the relationship between Katniss and Rue.

Neither come from wealth or privilege. District 12 is hardly a paradise, and from what Katniss learns from Rue, neither is District 11. With an ordinary world in common, the two form a friendship which seems based on love and respect for life. It’s these quiet, beautiful moments that make Rue’s death so gut-wrenching. They are also why her death is such a critical moment in both the plot and Katniss’s character development.

So add in a few moment for your characters to catch their breath and connect in the midst of the chaos. Your reader will probably need to do the same, too!

3. Don’t give the hero what they want

One final trick that will make your climax unbelievably thrilling is to withhold the very thing the scene promises to deliver: The Goal.

This isn’t just meant to mess with your reader. It’s to reflect a painful reality of life: That what we want is often deeply unsatisfying, or at least not so easily won.

There are two ways to do this.

First, you can simply have the Goal be taken away. Destroy the MacGuffin. Kill off the character. Have the Shadow, or villain, hide the Goal or protect it in a more ultimate way.

Or secondly, and perhaps more meaningfully, let the hero obtain the Goal, only to feel a deep and hollow disappointment.

So often we orient our lives toward some physical goal, like money, fame, sex, or treasure, only to obtain that goal and find ourselves feeling emptier than ever before. We realize that no matter how much we believe we will be fulfilled by this “thing,” that no thing can ever fulfill as deeply as we’d hope.

“Want to create a gripping climax? Give your hero a win-but-lose ending: there’s some success, but there’s also failure—or even the success itself isn’t as satisfying as expected.

That’s why your hero must have something in addition to their object of desire: your hero must have an internal need.

Internal needs take the form of validation, acceptance, peace with oneself, spiritual harmony, reconciliation, forgiveness, acceptance of death, emotional/spiritual rebirth, and more. These needs are what will ultimately drive your Hero’s Journey forward, because heroic journeys aren’t just about getting prizes like weapons, money, or “peace.”

They’re about peace within, and the peace all human beings long for in a world filled with so much injustice and suffering.

Such a story is the epic saga of Harry Potter.

This series is filled with several MacGuffin goals that J.K. Rowling sends her cast of characters out to find, but all of them point to the deeper problem lurking under the surface: Voldermort.

This is why Harry Potter will begin one of his adventures thinking he wants a magical object, like the Sorcerer’s Stone, but soon learns that such a thing won’t ultimately help him satisfy his deepest needs.

When Harry seeks to acquire the Sorcerer’s Stone in order to prevent Voldemort from regenerating. Yet when he looks in the Mirror of Erised (that’s Desire if you weren’t reading this in a mirror), Harry realizes that he doesn’t want a magic rock. He wants his family back. But because Voldemort destroyed it, he can never have what he truly wants.

What a powerful message to package into a children’s book! Yet this is the reality of life, and great writers use their stories’ climaxes to reflect it.

If you do this too, your story will also ripple with unfathomable power. Readers will gasp, but they won’t give up. They’ll have to keep reading, because what happens to the hero will say something about the readers’ lives as well.

That’s the kind of story we all want to write.

Ordeal/Climax: Action of the Heart

No matter what kind of climactic Ordeal your story requires, never forget that the most important action must occur in your protagonist’s heart.

It can be so easy to compose physical imagery and believe it will thrill our readers. But without the necessary action of the heart—the action of wanting, hoping, fearing, disbelieving, and more—the physical action will fall painfully flat, leaving your reader disappointed.

Don’t fall leave your reader wanting. Deliver an incredible reading experience by nailing your story’s Ordeal.

What are your favorite climax scenes from stories you enjoy? What do you love about those scenes? Let us know in the comments.

By David Safford


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6 Cheats to “Tell” Well (When It’s Warranted)

By September C. Fawkes

Most of us are familiar with the “Show, don’t Tell” rule. In short, it’s more effective to dramatize the story than to simply tell what happened. Nonetheless, almost every story needs at least some telling. It can help keep the pacing tight, relay background information, and enhance tone, among other things. Here’s more on when breaking the rule can work.  So how do we tell well? Here are six cheats to help you.

1. Appeal to the Senses

Good showing appeals to the senses. Basically, we have to appeal to the senses to really show a story. There is no reason moments of telling can’t appeal to the senses in a similar way. Appealing to sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch can strengthen your telling just as it does with showing. It’s just that with telling, it’s usually brief, or relayed “in passing.” This example appeals to senses despite it being a telling summary:

We drove through Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, stopping to cool the engine in towns where people moved with arthritic slowness and spoke in thick strangled tongues . . . At night we slept in boggy rooms where headlight beams crawled up and down the walls and mosquitoes sang in our ears, incessant as the tires whining on the highway outside. – This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff

2. Use Concrete Metaphors and Similes

Some telling doesn’t lend itself to the senses very easily, because of the subject matter that needs to be told. In cases like that, you can try tying in a concrete comparison to suggest a sense. This example tells about a telepathic and emotional connection using comparisons:

At night awake in bed, he’d remember her presence. How their minds had been connected, ethereal like spider webs. How just her being there brought a sense of comfort, like a childhood blanket he hadn’t realized he’d still had.

3. Sprinkle in Details

Just as you use detail to make your showing great, you can and often should include detail in passages of telling. Mention a red leather jacket here or a specific cologne there. Of course, you won’t be including as much detail as you would with showing, but detail makes telling more realistic. One key to making this work is to pick the right details, as opposed to generic ones.

Their mom had always stressed the importance of eating dinner as a family, of stir fry nights and cloth napkins on laps, of hands held in prayer and laughter pealing off travertine, and even of the occasional green bean food fight.

4. Elevate Your Writing Style

You can also make telling stronger by making it more literary. Elevate the prose with smart word choices and by paying attention to rhythm and sound. Again, you can bring in similes and metaphors, or better yet, extended metaphors. Basically, you are finding a way to make what you are telling particularly pleasing and poetic.

From Crossed by Ally Condie:

In the night, it feels like we’re running fast over the back of some kind of enormous animal, sprinting over its spines and through patches of tall, thin, gold grass that now glimmers like silver fur in the moonlight.

The air is desert cold, a sharp, thin cold that tricks you into thinking you aren’t thirsty, because breathing is like drinking in ice.

5. Bump up the Tone and Voice

Unfortunately, the poetic approach won’t work with everything—it likely won’t work in a comedic passage or an angry one. Instead, bump up the tone. Pull in the narrative voice or let the character’s voice bleed into the narrative at the deepest level. Channel the emotion of the narrator or character and write your telling in ways that reinforce that. For help, check out my previous post on WHW.  

From The Book Thief by Markus Zusak:

Earlier, kids had been playing hopscotch there, on the street that looked like oil-stained pages. When I arrived, I could still hear the echoes. The feet tapping the road. The children-voices laughing, and the smiles like salt, but decaying fast.

Then, bombs.

This time everything was too late. The sirens. The cuckoo shrieks on the radio. All too late.


Is that what glued them down like that?

Of course not.

Let’s not be stupid.

It probably had more to do with the hurled bombs, thrown down by humans hiding in the clouds.

6. Create Tension, Even if Only on a Small Scale

Good tension will keep a reader invested, even through telling. See if you can include tension when telling. It can be tension that lasts only for a sentence, or, better yet, promises of conflict yet to come.

From Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:

The Dursleys had everything they ever wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it.

They didn’t think they could bear it if anyone found out about the Potters.


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