Monthly Archives: August 2022

Use Conflict to Target a Character’s Soft Spots

Conflict is a key story ingredient, one we need a lot of, but this doesn’t mean quantity is better than quality. Fiction isn’t a video game; waves of bad guys with guns won’t keep readers tuned in for long. They expect to see a variety of conflict, including meaningful problems that deepen the story, raise the stakes, advance the plot, and provide opportunities for character development.

This last one is especially important, as it’s how a beloved character responds to adversity that really draws readers in.

The best way to reveal characterization and development is to use conflict to target our character’s soft spots. When we take aim at the things our character cares most about, trigger their fears or insecurities, or smack them right in the ego, they’ll react in a way that reveals their true selves, and that’s the person readers will connect to.

So, how do we find the right problems and challenges that will produce the response we’re looking for?

It’s true, there is no end to the ways you can challenge your character. And I don’t know about you, but sometimes having too much choice can be paralyzing.

Something Becca and I did to help with this was to create categories for conflict by looking at the theme that a clash would produce.

We covered some of these categories (and the scenarios that go with each), in The Conflict Thesaurus, Volume 1:

Relationship Friction
Duty & Responsibility
Failures & Mistakes
Moral Dilemmas & Temptations
Increased Pressure & Ticking Clocks
No-Win Scenarios

Let’s look at each category’s superpowers so you can better decide what type of conflict serves your story and will challenge characters in the way you need most.

Dangers and Threats

This is a versatile form of conflict: a hazard or menace that represents direct harm to the character or the people they care about (and may be responsible for). Introducing a danger or threat can mess with your character’s mental state, pulling up their deepest fears and even leading to panic if others they love are at risk.

Danger can originate from other people, the environment, a location, or even from within the character themselves. For someone struggling with an addiction, an inability to gauge risk or seek help could lead to a hospitalization or death. A person consumed with guilt over past mistakes might become self-destructive, taking on an adversary or challenge far beyond their abilities because they believe that only self-punishment or self-sacrifice can balance the scales.

Another terrific place to find danger is in the setting. Look at where your character is, and the natural dangers lurking in the area: will the rain-soaked ground where your adventurers are hiding give way, or will a poisonous centipede skitter into a character’s sleeping bag on a camping trip? Will that neighbor show up before your character has time to clean up a murder scene? Depending on what you need for the story, threats or dangers can inconvenience, create delays, ruin carefully laid plans, or worse.

Ego-Related Conflicts

In the real world, people tend to shy away from situations where they could be embarrassed because they worry about what others think and don’t like to be judged. Insecurities magnify mistakes in their minds, especially if their egos have been hurt by criticism or similar blunders in the past.  

Because well-built characters will have similar psychological drivers, they’ll struggle with some insecurities, too. Being excluded, discredited, blamed, or minimized will hurt them, even if they strive not to show it. 

Ego-related challenges stir up internal conflict and trigger sensitivities that are hard to hide, so the character may respond by pulling back and isolating themselves, exploding with anger, or replying with barbed honesty that only makes things worse.

Consider Fiona, our protagonist who has not visited her hometown in quite a while. Things are becoming serious with her boyfriend, however, so she books a flight. She’s nervous, because her parents have some odd ideas about the world, but she knows Drew is the one, and it’s time to introduce him to her family. 

Fiona and Drew arrive as her parents are having an after-dinner glass of port. At first, everything goes as expected. They’re overjoyed at the surprise visit and they fawn over Drew, asking about his job, family, interests—basically ticking all the boxes. But as one glass of port turns into several, Fiona’s dad begins to rant a bit about world events until, in a pin-drop moment, he floats a full-on, dark net alien conspiracy theory.  

Imagine Fiona’s embarrassment and how she might try to salvage the evening. Maybe she laughs it off, pretending it’s a joke. Or she tells Drew that her dad’s teasing him to see how he’ll react. But the more Fiona tries to minimize the damage, the louder and more verbal her father gets. Soon he’s targeting Fiona, criticizing her for being naive, living in a dream world, and not acknowledging the indisputable evidence that an alien force is pulling the puppet strings of the human race. As her father rages, humiliation washes over her. The love of her life is bearing witness to this lunacy. What must Drew think of her parents…and her?

Ego-related conflict–such as suffering a humiliation like Fiona–strikes deep. It will hurt and lead to internal struggles regarding self-esteem, so if your character is traversing a change arc, depending on how they handle the situation, it can help them move forward, or set them back.

A Loss of Control

In the real world, the need to control outcomes control steers decision-making. We may invest in a university degree to secure a higher-paying job, or buy a house in a school district that ensures our children get a quality education. We put fuel in the car so we don’t run out, clean scraped knees so they don’t get infected, and choose politeness over honesty to avoid drama. In other words, we live according to the rules of cause and effect. 

But does life give two crab apples about cause and effect? Nope. While we’re playing the odds, it stands up and says, “Hold my beer.” It’s indisputable and somewhat horrifying: control is only an illusion. At any moment, something unexpected can happen that undoes all our careful planning. 

A loss of control in the real world can be devastating because we think we should have seen what was coming—anticipated it and had an escape plan ready, so when we hit a character with a complication they can’t stop or prevent, it messes them up, too.

Conflicts that dispel the myth of control will reveal characterization in the protagonist’s lowest moment. Imagine a character whose spouse succumbs to a heart attack while camping. In the days that follow, does our grieving character angrily push people away, causing cracks to surface in those relationships? Does he sink into the quicksand of denial and refuse to acknowledge what happened? Or will he set aside his pain to help his children and other family members cope with their heartbreaking loss? 

A loss of control will also give your readers a queasy-familiar sensation because they too have experienced moments where they thought they had a handle on things but didn’t. So if you want pull readers in or create empathy for a character, this is a great way to do it.

Losing an Advantage

One of the worst things we can do to a character is cause them to lose hope. After all, conflict’s sharp sword has already jabbed them relentlessly throughout the story. They’ve fought, sacrificed, and clawed their way forward, and then finally, their hard work starts to pay off. They gain something they need, the world starts to support them, or they pull ahead of the competition. 

So naturally, because we’re evil, we take their hard-won advantage away. 

Losing an advantage is a versatile type of conflict that can be especially helpful at specific times, so it should be wielded strategically. For example, not every character rushes out the door when the trumpet of adventure sounds. Instead, they cling to their favorite saggy, cat-clawed chair, because even if the living room of life isn’t great right now, it’s what they know, and that makes it safe. It’s in their comfort zone.

But if we let our characters stay where they are, the story is as good as dead. Taking away something they deem vital, like a position of authority, a trusted ally, or cherished relationship, can convince them to stumble through that first story door.

This type of conflict can also test a character’s commitment. What happens when they lose the one thing that’s been motivating them to continue? If their lead witness in a trial is murdered, or their benefactor withdraws support, or an adoption falls through, will they forge ahead or throw in the towel? 

Power Struggles

If there’s one thing we know about our characters, it’s that at some point, they’re going to clash. And why is no mystery. Each member of our story’s cast has their own goals, agendas, needs, and beliefs, and those don’t always play nicely with the goals, agendas, needs, and beliefs of others. When there’s too much friction, a power struggle ensues. 

This often happens in relationships where characters don’t have equal status, such as a police officer and suspect, boss and employee, or teacher and student. It can occur when the person with less power tries to level the playing field or unseat the other party. Conflict will also arise when it’s perceived that one person is using their position unfairly. If your character is on the receiving end of a power play—say, they’ve been frivolously sued by a disgruntled customer, falsely accused by a rival, or passed over for promotion because of nepotism—it will trigger their moral sense of right and wrong, leading to a battle royale.

One of the best places to highlight a power struggle is within a dialogue exchange between characters with different goals. If one party wants information the other doesn’t want to share, a beautiful tug-of-war can unfold, complete with verbal jabs, veiled threats, and insults. 

Miscellaneous Challenges

Conflict is multifaceted, and like most things in life, not every scenario can be filed neatly into a particular box. If you’re searching for conflict that provides a unique challenge for your character or complicates their situation in ways you might not have considered, this is the category for you. Maybe your character is in the wrong place at the wrong time, they have been mistaken for someone else, or a dire circumstance forces them to blindly trust a stranger. Oh, the possibilities! 



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20 Romance Story Ideas

A few notes:

  • I’ll do my best to keep these suggestions PG-13, but the genre DOES call for a bit of intimacy.
  • Fair warning: my brain is a little odd, so these will not be your usual romance plots.
  • Expect some gender-swapping.
  • Speaking of gender, I’m writing these with the intent that you can do anything with the gender of any character in the prompt. Keep that in mind.
  • Have fun! When it comes to romance, a sense of humor is always a good idea.

20 Romance Story Ideas

  1. 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.
  2. Two dirt-poor art students survive by sharing a nasty little apartment above a bodega. They struggle through four years, barely making ends meet, comforting one another through tragedies and triumph, but never openly admit how they feel about each other…until they graduate, and one of them gets a job in another city. Is it too late to confess their love?
  3. 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.
  4. Ever heard of Balkan Sworn Virgins? Let’s take that concept further. Unspecified ancient times; matriarchal society. Only a queen may ascend to the throne, and only daughters have been born to the royal family for generations—but to everyone’s amazement, this royal couple had a son. To avoid some unpleasant relative taking over, the prince must become a princess in appearance, dress, and behavior—which makes things REALLY awkward because “she” has been betrothed to a neighboring prince before he—er, she—was born.
  5. She’s a nurse trying to work her way through both her massive student debt and the everyday living expenses of Boston. Desperate for cash, she takes a job as a model for a late-night sculpting workshop, and initially doesn’t question why the workshop organizer keeps paying her more than agreed. Or keeps insisting on ordering delivery so she goes home with food. Or keeps making sure she gets the job even though several other people are trying for it. Initially, she doesn’t question anything; when she finally does, how will she handle this attention? Is it adorable or terrifying?
  6. Horticulture…in space! It’s “the future,” and humans are in communication with an interdimensional alien species—but the only way they CAN communicate is telepathically via a certain type of plant. Elizabeth, the top human horticulturist, has been navigating these odd waters with the alien’s top horticulturist for the past ten years. Whether she admits it or not, this being she’s never seen is her closest friend and confidante. When the door between dimensions finally opens and she meets her counterpart, she’s in for two surprises: one, he’s tall, green, and gorgeous; and two, he thinks they’ve been courting all this time—and expects her to drop everything and marry him at once. How does she respond?
  7. 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?
  8. Yalena used to breed greyhounds; now, she rescues them. But one of the most powerful magnates in the racing industry takes issue with her efforts, and sends a professional saboteur to infiltrate her grassroots organization to undermine it from within. Unfortunately, that saboteur quickly finds Yalena’s spirit and determination irresistible (not to mention her perky smile and gorgeous eyes). Failure isn’t an option; what’s a formerly heartless corporate terrorist to do?
  9. He’s a cop—one of the good ones—and when an undercover bust went bad ten years ago, his wife and small child were killed. He swore he’d never love again. Then his old partner retires, only to be replaced by a wide-eyed, spunky rookie, whose seemingly impossible innocence and joie de vivre remind him life is worth living again. This could only end in disaster…right? Dare he make the first move?
  10. She’s working her way to the top the only way a woman can in this business: by being absolutely ruthless, heartless, and six times as tough as the men. But when one of those men, an underling, begins to soften her heart, she panics. Will she take their relationship off the books? Or take the “safe” path and send him away?

More Story Ideas

  1. 80% of Soviet males born in 1923 didn’t survive World War II. Describe a young Russian widow, alone now on her family’s farm, who finds love again in the most unexpected of places: the ostler hired to care for the horses.
  2. Fun fact: There was a remarkable cat in World War II named Unsinkable Sam, who survived the sinking of not one, not two, but THREE vessels in the war. No, I’m not making this up. This is so marvelous that we’re going to go in two different directions with it: First, write from the perspective of Sam the magical cat, whose job is overseeing burgeoning romance among humans. Describe his frustration over the fact that every time he’s just about got the right couple together, SOMEBODY has to go and sink the boat. Again.
  3. Now, write from the perspective of Martha, the widow who adopts Sam after the war. This kitty (the animal, not the woman) has been through a lot, and Martha takes him to the local vet, who happens to be single, lonely, and continually inventing reasons for her to bring the cat back in for more appointments. (“I need you to bring the cat in, Mrs. Smith. There’s a possibility he contracted Saline Fever/Gooshy Madness/Purr Dementia/The Whiskered Moist.”)
  4. After a horrible car accident, Charlene struggles through years of physical therapy to regain her mobility. Her PT (physical therapist) is a young man she initially assumes is married, which is upsetting because she falls in love with him. Describe her reaction the day she realizes she was wrong.
  5. Fantasy time! The werewolves and vampires (all of whom are, naturally, ridiculously sexy) have been at war for centuries. Unfortunately, the crown vampire prince and the chief werewolf’s daughter have been meeting in secret to fight and show off and act out their people’s aggression. In the process, their little rivalry turns into something a lot more heated.
  6. The Aztec warrior prince Matlal can’t be beaten. By the time he’s twenty, he’s stronger, faster, and a better fighter than anyone in his kingdom, and one might say it’s given him a big head. When he first encounters Chinese explorers (China very likely reached South America in the 1500s, just FYI), he thinks these strangers are just another chance for him to prove his prowess…and REALLY does not expect the diminutive captain to somehow spin him around and beat him most thoroughly via martial arts. Bad: the captain is short and looks weak. Even worse: the captain is a woman. What happens next?
  7. For her graduate thesis, a young woman attending the University of Cape Town is doing a study on the folklore of Anansi the trickster and how he shaped various cultures throughout western Africa. Exhausted and overworked, even she can’t help but notice that the professor seems too interested in what she finds…and more than that, seems to resemble the subject of her research a little too closely for comfort. Against all reason, she suspects he might be THE Anansi—which is more than a little terrifying. Is he playing with her, or is he actually falling in love? And even if he is, would she dare respond?
  8. There are many ancient tales about love and desire in Hindu mythology. Write from the perspective of young adults in modern-day Dehli who’ve only met online, and are convinced they are the reincarnation of ill-fated lovers, Moomal and Mahendra (spellings vary). They believe they’re supposed to be together, but equally afraid a misunderstanding will lead to more tragedy and death. Remember, they’ve never met: write out one of their instant messenger conversations as they try to figure out what they ought to do.
  9. There’s an ancient Blackfoot legend about Feather Woman and the Morning Star. Let’s mess with that a bit. One day, the Morning Star fell in love with a young secretary working in Detroit. But there’s a problem; in order to come to earth and express his love, he has to pass a test: he has to show up on her doorstep without his powers, perhaps even without clothes, and convince her to take him in. How does THAT conversation go?
  10. It’s 1700s provincial France, and sixteen-year-old Beau is a clever young man who’s too curious for his own good. One day, he decides to go poking around the abandoned castle-that-you-should-never-go-near, and in the process, disturbs the hideous female creature who lives there. She captures him… and promptly explains that to break her curse, he must fall in love with her. In exchange, she promises tons of gold for Beau’s family. Like a business arrangement, right? Write what happens next.

Do any of these story ideas get you in the storytelling mood? Let us know in the comments.

By Ruthanne Reid


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Use a Character’s Career to Support Your Story’s Theme

Successful stories are often ones whose elements are employed subtly. You may not be able to say exactly why they work, and as a reader, you probably don’t care; you just like the feeling of rightness that settles in as you read.

Theme is one of those important elements that are quietly working in the background of a strong story. This central idea, pulled deliberately or subconsciously from the author’s individual worldview, acts as an anchoring thread that connects the other elements and creates a sense of cohesion. But writing theme into a story can be tricky. If you’re too obvious, you risk whacking people over the head with it, and your story becomes preachy. If you’re too subtle, readers may not pick up on the message at all.

So how do we incorporate theme into our story with just the right amount of touch? One surprisingly effective way is to use the character’s job.

The movie Up in the Air expertly explores the theme of isolation, and it’s done largely through protagonist Ryan’s occupation as a Career Transition Counselor: corporations hire him to fire their employees for them. He travels 270 days a year, which leaves him very little time to connect with others, and he loves it. He loves it so much that when a young upstart introduces new video technology that would allow Ryan to fire people virtually from the comfort of his own home office, he sets about to dismantle her idea before it dismantles his entire way of life.

Ryan’s job highlights the theme of isolation on a number of levels. 

First, the job itself: he fires people for a living. He is essentially the agent of isolation, forcibly removing people from the jobs that have provided them with satisfaction, purpose, and their work community. These people quickly unravel and lose their moorings, as we see in so many of the exit interviews he conducts.

Secondly, his career underscores Ryan’s own isolation. Because he’s never home, his apartment is sterile and completely without personality; the hotel rooms he stays in while working are more welcoming. And the get-in-get-out nature of the job ensures that he doesn’t have time to make meaningful connections on the road, either.

Ryan states in the opening monologue that he likes his carefree lifestyle and thinks it’s working for him. But the additional touchpoints via his job keep quietly reminding viewers of his isolated existence. And in the end, when he realizes that he’s no longer satisfied with his choices, those same touchpoints beautifully contrast his former viewpoint—once again highlighting the theme.

How can we use a character’s job to explore the important ideas in our own stories?

Identify Your Theme

Authors can arrive at their theme a number of ways. Sometimes, they know from the very beginning which idea is going to play a part in their story. Others begin blindly, with no theme in mind, only to see it emerging subconsciously as they draft. Either method works; once you’ve identified your theme, you either build it in when planning or backtrack once the first draft is finished to incorporate it more firmly into the story. 

Choose a Job for Your Character That Relates to That Theme

Then it becomes a simple matter of choosing a career that allows you to shine a light on your central idea. For instance, if obstacles is a theme in your story, your protagonist could be a truck driver or outdoor guide who encounters physical roadblocks in their day-to-day life. Or they might be a therapist whose patients are constantly dealing with emotional or mental barricades. Careers like these will offer many opportunities for that theme to be revisited in ways that make sense for the story itself.

It should also be noted that it doesn’t have to be the main character’s career that highlights the story’s theme. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas deals largely with the idea of innocence, but Bruno, the nine-year-old protagonist, is too young to hold a job. His father, however, is not. His occupation as the commandant of Auschwitz provides many chances to highlight the concept of innocence—as it relates to the boy himself but also to the inhabitants of the concentration camp in Bruno’s backyard. 

Experiment with Contrast

Because theme should be subtle, some careers may be too obvious. A nun highlighting the theme of purity or a slave in a story about enslavement may be too “on the nose.” These very well may work, but if you’d rather go with something more covert, consider a purposeful contrast. The CEO of a Fortune 500 company can be free in the most literal sense while being enslaved to obligations, public perception, or the fear of losing his money. Purity could just as poignantly be explored through its lack in the life of a prostitute, assassin, or con artist. Contrast can be very effective, and there are so many jobs that could work; to brainstorm possibilities for your story, check out our book, The Occupation Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Jobs, Vocations, and Careers.

A Caveat

This method of tying the theme to an occupation can work most of the time—but not if your project calls for a specific career. If you’ve written a story about a treasure hunter, for example, then you already know your character’s occupation and you’ll need to find other ways to flesh out the theme. But most of the time, as in real life, your character has career options. Finding one that ties in to your theme is a great way to pull multiple elements together and give readers the sense of Aaahhhh that comes from a cohesive and satisfying story.



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Small Focus. Big Creativity.

For the past two months, we’ve been in a small village in the middle of France. I imagined there would be writing galore, with wine and cheese raining down, to the backdrop of vineyards and chateaus.

There was wine. There was cheese. There was beautiful scenery. There were also two patooties who needed entertainment. In other words, the writing wasn’t happening.

Not wholly unexpected but I did find myself frustrated that I had gotten so far from my writing routine. (I mean, not too frustrated. I was in France!) Instead of wallowing, I chose to keep my creativity healthy and engaged so that when I could get back to a routine, my creative energy wasn’t atrophied.


By focusing small.

Break From Brain Noise

To focus small, we have to first break an addictive bad habit.

Brain noise.

In a world that is constantly connected with news and updates twenty-four-seven, it’s way too easy to fill our heads with noisy information. Sure, most of it is important, but is it important right now?

In our small part of France, we rarely saw people on their phones. Not at dinner, not at lunch, not while driving a car, not while sitting at a park, not while hanging out with friends. The phone stayed in the bag or the pocket. EVEN THE TEENAGERS. Likewise, I never saw a single person with a laptop at a cafe.

That had an impact, and I found myself noticing how often my hand tracked into my purse to check my phone. Even if it was just for a second or two, it was enough to break my focus from what was happening. It disengaged me from the food I was enjoying, or the live music that was rocking, or the conversation I was eavesdropping.

It took me out of the present and flooded my brain with extra noise. Noise that drowns creativity.

Focus Small to Feed Creativity

Many studies have been conducted on the power of awe, discovery, and adventure on creativity. Personal experience supports these studies, but overwhelmingly the connecting thread that ties all these energy sources for creativity is the small moments.

Creativity isn’t found in the news or on social media and it isn’t found on expensive trips or sightseeing excursions.

Instead, creativity is found when you, the creative, focus small.

I’m not talking about goals here—have big goals. I am talking about immersing yourself in the present moments and actively seeking awe, discovery, and adventure within the “normal”.

In other words, those rare moments when we allow our brains to declutter, to be silent, are the moments that creativity reigns supreme.



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Not Fitting In

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 health condition, 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. Please note that this isn’t a self-diagnosis tool. Fears are common in the real world, and while we may at times share similar tendencies as characters, the entry below is for fiction writing purposes only.
Fear of Not Fitting In

As social creatures, we all have a basic human need to be loved and accepted by others. This requires us to be able to fit in with the people around us. When your character is unable to do this or they worry about failing in this area, their need to be accepted—in general or by a specific group—can become an obsession.

What It Looks Like
The character allowing people to mistreat them if it means being part of the group
Using self-deprecating humor
Sharing personal accomplishments to impress others
Hiding ideas or beliefs that wouldn’t be popular with the group
The character changing their personal habits (clothing, food preferences, the music they listen to, etc.) to fit in
Over-preparing to be sure everything is perfect
Mimicking the actions, speech patterns, and habits of others
Struggling to say no
Telling people what they want to hear
Laughing or smiling at things the character normally wouldn’t approve of
Putting others down if doing so pleases the group
The character being pressured into doing things they don’t agree with
Seeking out like-minded individuals
Being a loner
Being quiet, withdrawn, and content to stay in the background
Proactively rejecting others before they can reject the character

Common Internal Struggles
The character wanting to be true to themselves but also wanting to be liked by others
The character losing sight of who they really are and what they believe
Worrying excessively about what others think
The character constantly analyzing themselves (their appearance, their responses, etc.) and being disappointed
Ignoring their own needs and wellbeing
The character disliking how the group treats them (putting them at the bottom of the pecking order, mistreating them, etc.) but not wanting to be alone
Living in a constant state of uncertainty—of being alone, doing something wrong, being laughed at—and hating it

Flaws That May Emerge
Apathetic, Callous, Catty, Dishonest, Disloyal, Evasive, Frivolous, Hypocritical, Insecure, Needy, Obsessive, Oversensitive, Perfectionist, Subservient, Timid, Unethical, Weak-Willed, Worrywart

Hindrances and Disruptions to the Character’s Life
Losing any sense of personal identity
Being a slave to the whims and demands of the group
The character struggling to think for themselves
The character’s needs going unmet because they’ve put the needs of others before their own
Being taken advantage of
Toxic relationships being normalized for the character
Gaining a reputation for being inauthentic or dishonest
Living a lonely life (because it’s too risky to try and be accepted by others)

Scenarios That Might Awaken This Fear
Having to start over in a new place (a new school, job, city, etc.)
Attending a party or gathering where friend groups are already established and the character doesn’t know anyone
The character being criticized by someone influential within their group
Witnessing someone being shunned, belittled, or ostracized by others
Having to sit alone (at lunch, church, a work seminar, etc.)
Seeing a loner become targeted because they have no group to protect them.

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Why a Strong Plot Requires a Significant Goal

By September C. Fawkes

Many say plot begins with conflict. But you can’t have conflict if you don’t have an antagonistic force. And you can’t have an antagonistic force, unless your protagonist has a goal, a want; opposition doesn’t exist until it’s in the way of something. This is why plot truly begins with a want or goal.

At any given moment, your protagonist should almost always have a want that manifests in a concrete goal. Even if the want is something abstract, such as, “I want to be loved by others,” it needs to be tied to something visually attainable. Perhaps the character believes that if she throws the biggest, best summer party anyone has ever attended, her neighbors will adore her. An abstract want has now become a concrete goal. And the audience now knows what success looks like: an outstanding summer party.

The concept sounds so simple, that many newer writers overlook or even dismiss the idea. But a clear goal is critical to a strong plot, not only because it essentially is what starts plot, but because if there isn’t a goal, the audience can’t measure if what happens is progress or a setback. If nothing is trying to be attained, then the events don’t really matter. The audience is just watching stuff happen. Or, perhaps as the Cheshire Cat says, if you don’t know where you want to go, then which way you go doesn’t really matter.

The goal helps provide context to the plot, by orienting the audience to a desired outcome. When the goal is to throw an outstanding summer party, then managing to book the biggest local band becomes a success while rainclouds become a setback.

Some writers are resistant to including goals because they have a restrictive view of what a goal must look like and the kind of protagonist needed to reach it, but not all goals are lofty, and not all protagonists are go-getters.


These are related to gaining something. Often, these are more aspirational. The protagonist may want an award, treasure, a significant other, or a career. They may also simply want a meal. These goals are more associated with the character having a hope.


Some plots are about stopping something (the antagonistic force) to avoid a negative outcome. It could be a meteor about to hit Earth, or bandits robbing travelers, or an illness that promises death. The goal may be to prevent the consequences from happening or to stop problems currently happening or to minimize potential damage. These goals are more associated with the character having a fear.


Sometimes the goal is to keep things the way they are, or on the path they are currently going. When something disrupts that (an antagonistic force), the protagonist strives to re-establish an equilibrium. These goals can be more associated with hope or fear, depending on the story’s angle. (Note: the tricky thing with these is that if there aren’t big disruptions and obstacles to overcome, the story can feel too passive.)

To some degree, one may argue that these all overlap. After all, isn’t thwarting a supervillain a type of aspiration? And when the protagonist is striving to keep things the way they are, aren’t they avoiding negative consequences? Nonetheless, the categories can be useful in better understanding plots and characters. Ariel trying to become human in The Little Mermaid is much different than Batman trying to stop the Joker from destroying Gotham.

Goals of obtaining often feature go-getter protagonists who are innately motivated, whereas reluctant heroes often have goals of maintaining—they act in the desire of going back to not having to act.

But just including a goal isn’t enough—a goal really only matters when achieving (or not achieving) it carries significant consequences. Who cares about a successful summer party if it doesn’t change anything? For a goal to be meaningful, it needs to have stakes—potential consequences—connected to it. For example, if our character succeeds in throwing her outstanding summer party, perhaps she’ll finally be able to form deep relationships in her community, and if her party turns into a disaster, perhaps others will alienate her even more. These are significant consequences because they change the character’s “world.”

Luckily, even the simplest goals can become significant with the right stakes. The goal to obtain a drink of water can be just as effective (if not more effective) as the goal to become a famous musician, if the character is at risk of dying from dehydration. To make a goal more powerful, raise the stakes tied to it. This is also how to get the most reluctant of protagonists to act—anyone will act when the stakes get big enough.

While a protagonist’s goal can evolve or change, or they can have multiple goals through a story, if you want a strong plot, make sure your protagonist has a goal with significant stakes.


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3 Tricks to Reel Your Reader in With Flashbacks

We oftentimes hear the word flashback and we begin to think of all the don’ts associated with them. Don’t use them too early. Don’t let them go on too long. Don’t include too many. The list goes on and on. Flashbacks get a bad rap because they’re oftentimes misunderstood in terms of how to use them. If used intentionally and with deliberate purpose, flashbacks can reel your reader in, transforming their understanding of your character and transforming the way your character’s journey evolves. Let’s talk through four ways flashbacks can achieve these wonderful ends without drawing any sort of negative attention via all the don’ts we’ve come to know all too well.

1. Flashbacks can give rise to emotional attachment to facets of the character’s ordinary world.

If you’ve sent your character away from their normal world somewhat early in your story, flashbacks can work like a gauge for where your protagonist is emotionally inside their new world versus when they were in their ordinary world. When they arrive to a new setting, they will encounter new faces, places, objects, and other unfamiliar things. Consider how you can bridge elements about these new things to elements from the ordinary world to evoke a sense of longing. For example, if the character settles in for the night in a strange room, maybe there’s a mirror hanging in a spot similar to where their favorite picture of them and their best friend is back home. Recalling that picture can be a gateway into a small flashback that lets us glean that friendship, and how being away from it makes the protagonist feel. Think of this as a sliding scale. We might expect more of these types of flashbacks closer to when the protagonist enters the new world, signaling their reluctance to be comfortable in the new world. But as time goes on, the flashbacks signal old attachments are fewer and further between to suggest growth and a “letting go” of the ordinary world.

2. Flashbacks can give rise to an aha about something in the ordinary world.

Time and distance away from the ordinary world can afford your protagonist an aha as they look back. Piggybacking on the point above, you can use new faces, new places, new objects, and other unfamiliar things to show a shift in their perspective. Maybe a new character has the same hair color as your protagonist’s friend back in the ordinary world. Only this new character is always upbeat and encouraging and eager to help your protagonist, which gives rise to the realization that the friend back in the ordinary world actually isn’t the friend your protagonist once thought they were. Or maybe your character visits a wonderful place in the new world and realizes that in their ordinary world, they didn’t take risks or explore enough. The dichotomy of the old and the new can evoke a realization and mark inner growth for your character.

3. Flashbacks can be tools to gradually reveal a character’s hidden past if they’re not yet ready to face it.

In books where the protagonist has trauma buried in their past, it makes sense that we may choose to unroll that past as the front story increases their confidence and comfort to do so. In other words, flashbacks can be like you handing the reader (and the character) puzzle pieces of the protagonist’s past. Little by little, the reader gradually understands the traumatic event that created the character they meet on page one. And to honor the nature of trauma and the authenticity of a healing journey, we can deliberately select flashback snippets that build—almost like a plot all their own—to a full reveal. Some of the most masterful examples of this are HEART IN A BODY IN THE WORLD by Deb Caletti and WALK TWO MOONS by Sharon Creech.

Flashbacks Should be Written Tightly

Because we effectively stop the front story for them, they risk pulling down tension and they cause the reader to start forgetting what was going on pre-flashback. As I often tell clients, get in and get out. Consider showing us only what we absolutely need to see and build the flashback around one snapshot of emotional punch and plot reveal. Flashbacks can be a small as one sentence. And while you might expect I’m going to say wait to show flashbacks, I’m going to say the opposite. Don’t wait to start sprinkling in those mini-flashbacks. The one-liners that pique curiosity and start giving shape to why you started your novel where you did. Those clues that keep your reader engaged as they piece together your character’s past and how your front story is going to address it.

Flashbacks Should be Logically-Timed

It helps to have a concrete thing the reader can point to that kicks off the timing of the flashback. For example, your character may walk down a gravel path as they approach the front door of their new foster family, and the sound evokes a memory of driving down a gravel road, singing alongside the father they lost. Connect the flashback so the narrator isn’t manipulating their timing strictly for tension’s sake, but rather doling them out in a way that feels intentional.

Carefully Plan Flashbacks

Any time we choose to unroll a character’s past through flashbacks, we must do so with solid reasoning that goes beyond setting up a twist for the sake of shock factor. As I mentioned above, books with trauma have grounds to utilize this technique because we can assume characters have been too traumatized to give their full backstory to us up front. But if you withhold past memories in an effort to keep the reader’s attention, chances are it will backfire.

Each Flashback Should Show Something New

If we have multiple flashbacks showing us how much your protagonist loved their pet lizard, the flashbacks flatten the plot arc. They’re interchangeable since they’re more or less the same. But if each flashback shows something more secretive, or something harder for the protagonist to face, or something higher in terms of what your character values, the sequence of flashbacks create an arc all their own.

Flashbacks Should Not be Your Only Connection to Your Character’s Past

We should still see hints of the flashback inside the front story itself. We may not know what caused the character’s wounds, but we see the scars. The past we don’t yet fully know should drive their behavior, their choices, their interactions, and their dialogue. As the writer, you know the backstory and so you can craft clue drops that let us puzzle our way along until we get the full story.



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The Dreaded Synopsis

By Michelle Barker

Many authors would rather write a whole new novel than cram the one they’ve already written into a five-hundred-word summary. If I wanted to write a short story, I would have written one. Right?

The reason we hate writing synopses is because they’re hard. The reason they’re hard is because, more than any other tool available to us, they show us what’s wrong with the novel we’ve labored over for months, if not years.

The synopsis is the equivalent of a house inspector—that man or woman who walks around with a clipboard and goes through the house you thought you were ready to sell, pointing out all the structural issues you either didn’t know about or pretended weren’t a problem: roof damage, termites, a saggy bearing wall, you name it. You can do all the fancy writing in the world. If there’s something fundamentally wrong with your novel, it will come out in the synopsis.

            That’s why we hate them.

            That’s why most agents ask for one.

Reading a synopsis is the quickest way to know if a novel will work or not. It’s also the surest way to find out if the author knows what they’re doing when it comes to things like structure, causality, story arc and characterization—you know, those critical developmental issues you hoped wouldn’t matter.

            Guess what? They do.

If your plot is anecdotal, it will show up in the synopsis. If your protagonist doesn’t have a goal that they’re actively pursuing throughout the story; if there are no stakes, a weak antagonist, a plot that’s bursting with too much superficial business and no depth—yup, the synopsis will reveal all of that.

If you, the author, are willing to see it, the synopsis will be that heart-sinking moment of truth where you can no longer deny that this house is not ready to sell, not by a long-shot. It needs help. It might even need to be razed to the ground.

Too extreme, you say? Well. Most published authors I know (myself included) have had to do it on numerous occasions. If you believe John Green, he does it with every one of his first drafts, throws out ninety percent, right down to the foundation, and starts over.

What do most new authors do? Close their eyes and send out the query as is, along with that stinky synopsis, hoping no one will notice.

            They’ll notice.

If you wonder why your novel is getting rejected time and again, now you know. Even if the premise is great—which it may well be—if you can’t execute it because of developmental issues, forget it. No one will ask to read it.

This is harsh. It’s not what writers want to hear. But it’s the truth.

So…what to do about it?


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How to Write Better By Following This One, Simple Rule

Out of curiosity, I recently Googled “how to write better.” You should try it. I got a list of great resources that would help any writer improve their writing skills.However, as I read each of the articles, something began to gnaw at me. Something was missing in the excellent advice these well-respected writers were giving on how to write better. A core rule had been left out.

This article is about that missing rule.

Write Better in Just 7 Tips?

It’s difficult to teach someone how to write better in one article. There are an infinite number of ways to write better. Some talk about using active voice instead of passive voice. Others focus on eliminating run-on sentences or sentence structures.

Still others might zero in on narrative writing style. Can you share them all in a seven easy tips? No.

On top of that, the “best advice” often contradicts the work of the greatest writers in history.

For example, one tip in the articles I read said to “avoid writing that calls attention to itself.” Sure, that’s probably a good rule. However, what about James Joyce? What about Ernest Hemingway? or Virginia Woolf? or Shakespeare, for goodness sakes? What about the hundreds of great writers who did the exact opposite, wrote in such a way as to draw all attention to their words?

The reality is that much of the advice on how to write better is based on the preferences of the person giving the advice.

What do you do if you prefer to write in another writing style? Does that make you a bad writer?

Perhaps we need a better rule on how to write better.

A Guiding Principle to Better Writing

Instead of seven, or ten, or a thousand tips on how to write better, how about just one:

Above all, be interesting.

Doesn’t this rule intuitively make sense? Because if your writing is interesting, it covers a multitude of writing sins.

If your writing is interesting, it doesn’t matter if you’re fond of purple prose (Faulkner was), or if you have bad grammar (E.L. James did), or if you’re writing is full of clichés, or if you write in sentences that are long and complicated (Shakespeare did).

If your writing is interesting, your fans will learn to love your purple prose, your editors will correct your bad grammar, not to mention cut your clichés, and your readers will bear with your complex sentences.

Why? Because your writing will be worth it.

What ISN’T Interesting?

What does that really mean though? How do you write something that’s interesting? To answer that, let’s talk about what’s not interesting:

Writing That Makes You Feel Stupid

While most readers appreciate a challenge when they read, very few of us want to have to look to our dictionary every other word or spend twenty minutes trying to figure out what one sentence means. Do you enjoy reading complicated legal documents and instruction manuals? Yeah, me neither. So don’t write that way.

Want to learn to write with more simple elegance? Check out our article, Write Poetically, Write Simply.

Writing That’s Too Familiar

Would you rather have a shiny, new iPhone or the same old phone that you’ve been using the last three years? Most people would say they want the new phone, right?

This is why clichés can be a problem, because you’ve seen phrases like “catch you later” and “labor of love” so many times that they lose their meaning, and thus weaken your writing.

Want to eradicate clichés from your writing? Read Clichés? Not In My Backyard! for more.

Writing That Makes You Wonder if the Author Is Stupid

As I mentioned, your writing can still be interesting if you have bad grammar and misused words. After all, Twilight was incredibly successful despite Stephenie Meyers’ numerous grammatical mistakes. However, too many mistakes can make a good story impossible to read. Either learn your grammar rules or hire a fantastic professional editor.

Want to become better at grammar? Check out our tutorial Grammar 101.

What Makes Writing Interesting?

Here are just a few things that make writing interesting:

  • Humor
  • Sex
  • Surprise
  • Awe
  • Romance
  • Secrets
  • Conflict
  • Sacrifice
  • Virtuosity (like an amazing guitarist or saxophone player, we like writers who are virtuosos with words)
  • Rhyme
  • Rhythm
  • Ourselves (we all think we’re the most important person in the world)

I’m sure you could think of dozens of others, and we’ve covered many of them on The Write Practice. However, no matter how much advice about writing you read, your core rule as a writer: above all, be interesting.

When You Write, Ask, “What Is Interesting About This?”

Whether you’re writing an essay for school, an email, a blog post, or a novel, ask yourself, “What is interesting about this? How can I present this subject in a way that’s more interesting?”

Because if you succeed at being more interesting, you will have succeeded at writing better.

How about you? What do you find interesting as a reader? Tell us in the comments.

by Joe Bunting


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Fear Thesaurus Entry: A Loved One Dying

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 health condition, 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. Please note that this isn’t a self-diagnosis tool. Fears are common in the real world, and while we may at times share similar tendencies as characters, the entry below is for fiction writing purposes only.

Fear of a Loved One Dying

At some point, everyone loses a loved one. It’s an inevitable part of life. We all worry about it to a certain extent, but for some characters, the fear of someone close to them dying can take over their life. Sometimes it’s rooted in the character not wanting to see their loved one suffer, but it can also be centered on uncertainty about death itself, the character’s ability to cope on their own, or how their life will change with their beloved no longer in it.

What It Looks Like
Being overprotective of a loved one’s health
Refusing to talk about the possibility of a loved one’s death (even if it’s likely to happen)
Being morbidly obsessed with death or funereal trappings, such as Victorian death masks and portraits
Limiting a child’s freedom and independence to keep them safe—not allowing them to drive, stay out late, or visit new places, for instance
Being obsessed with germs and sanitation
Forcing family members to take part in health crazes that promote longevity
Holding onto things as they are instead of allowing people and situations to evolve
Having panic attacks when thinking about the death of a loved one
Refusing to make contingency plans for a loved one’s death (not buying life insurance or making a will, etc.)
Refusing to accept a loved one’s illness or terminal diagnosis
Visiting psychics to gain insight into a loved one’s well-being and future
Investing in extensive security measures to keep family members safe

Common Internal Struggles
Obsessing about a loved one’s death and what it would mean for the character
Wanting to hold on tightly to a child while also knowing they need freedom to grow
Letting anxiety and fear control decision-making
Fearing the passage of time despite recognizing its inevitability
Knowing their fears are irrational but being unable to overcome them
Worrying constantly about worst-case scenarios despite knowing they’re unlikely to occur
Understanding that death is a part of life but being unable to accept it
Wanting to control a loved one (to keep them safe) but fearing it will drive them away

Flaws That May Emerge
Controlling, Fanatical, Fussy, Gullible, Irrational, Melodramatic, Morbid, Needy, Nervous, Obsessive, Paranoid, Possessive, Superstitious, Worrywart

Hindrances and Disruptions to the Character’s Life
The character’s neediness pushing loved ones away
Losing sleep from worry and anxiety
The character neglecting their own self-care because they’re so consumed with the health of others
Being plagued with worry and unable to enjoy life when the loved one is away
Being unable to watch the news or participate in social media because the stories about people losing loved ones are too upsetting
The character’s relationship with their children deteriorating because the kids are tired of being smothered and not trusted

Scenarios That Might Awaken This Fear
A close friend unexpectedly losing a family member
Seeing a TV show or movie in which the character loses a spouse or child
A mass shooting or natural disaster resulting in extensive loss of life
A loved one having a near-death experience
A loved one becoming terminally ill or being diagnosed with a debilitating disease
Discovering that a child has been engaging in risky behaviors (racing their car, skydiving, driving under the influence, etc.)



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