Monthly Archives: August 2022

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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Need Conflict? Just Let Your Characters Talk

Story conflict has many purposes. It provides opportunities for failure and growth, elevates what’s at stake, and escalates emotion for the character and readers. We also know that our stories will need many instances of conflict, both at the story (macro) and scene (micro) level. But how do we know what kinds to add to the mix? 

First and foremost, conflict must further the story. There are lots of interesting and compelling scenarios that we authors might like to pursue. But, as with every aspect of storytelling, we must separate ourselves from the process to make sure we’re not projecting ourselves—our interests and desires—onto the character and the story. Sure, we might want to write a drunken brawl scene, but would that scenario be likely for our protagonist? Will it reveal something about the character, like a weakness or need, or is it just there to “spice up” a boring scene? 

The best way to incorporate convincing conflict scenarios into a story is to pull them organically from the elements that are already there. Conflict is lurking all around your characters and the story world, so grab a stick and start poking to see what shakes loose. 

Start With the Story’s Cast 

Where does most of our conflict come from in real life? That’s right: other people. Loved ones, extended family, roommates, co-workers, neighbors, friends, complete strangers—each one can cause us grief on a number of levels. The same is true for our characters. Anyone interacting with them is a potential source for trouble. 

This is why planning your story’s cast ahead of time can be so beneficial. Think about what kinds of people might have crossed swords with your character at some point, will rub him the wrong way, or have goals that are in opposition to his own. Think about which traits might get under your character’s skin. What attitudes or morals will be difficult for him to accept? 

Then—you guessed it—build characters with those traits, habits, histories, and goals into the story. If each character stays true to form, tensions will inevitably rise. Not a planner? Not a problem. When you need a reasonable conflict scenario that will provide a certain outcome, consider who in the character’s life you could use to make that happen. This handy directory of adversaries might provide inspiration in this area. 

Let Your Characters Talk 

Once you’ve assembled your cast, just let them talk, and conflict is sure to follow. Dialogue is a great troublemaker because it can cause minor, surface-level tension or set the ball rolling for something huge, like the end of a relationship or a global clash. You’re already including it in your story, so make it do double duty and use it to initiate problems for your character. Here are just a few conversational techniques you can use to generate conflict in a scene.

Unintentional Clashes 

So much of conflict is unintentional—meaning, the person causing the problem isn’t trying to ruffle feathers. Often, it comes down to basic personality quirks, such as someone who is always interrupting, a tactless party who unknowingly causes offense, or a chronic multitasker who doesn’t listen carefully and makes your character feel undervalued. Of course, any of these irritations can be applied to the protagonist instead of the other party, and you get the same result. 

Enough of these slight aggravations can add up throughout one conversation (or over the course of many) and lead to explosions. When a character loses control of their emotions, they are much more apt to speak their mind, cut the other person down, or reveal information they meant to hold back. And what do all of these responses lead to? More conflict. 

Confrontational Communicators 

Purposeful conflict in dialogue can be subtle or overt, depending on the situation and the goal being pursued. The character may be looking to manipulate an exchange to achieve a specific outcome, inflame everyone’s emotions, damage a reputation, or completely eviscerate an enemy with words. Characters who are purposely looking to cause trouble in a conversation might…

  • Make a threat or say something to intimidate
  • Deploy insults, sarcasm, and belittlement
  • Manipulate the conversation toward a topic or away from one 
  • Shift the focus to someone else to put them in the hot seat 
  • Purposely ask about something that will make the other person uncomfortable 
  • Deceive the other party through lies, omissions, and exaggerations
  • Bring up a sensitive topic to provoke an emotional reaction 
  • Reveal a secret, stance, or mistake to damage a rival’s standing in the group 
  • Ask questions the character knows the other person can’t answer, making them look bad
  • Call the protagonist out (for a mistake, something they said or did, etc.) to steal their self- esteem 
  • Deliberately provoke an argument
  • Make insinuations (about someone’s loyalty, capabilities, etc.) to sow doubt
  • Make a derogatory statement and pass it off as a joke
  • Suggest disloyalty if the other party doesn’t agree, which forces them to do just that 

When two or more characters are battling it out in conversation, each is seeking the upper hand. The exchange may appear respectful if others are watching or a certain level of decorum must be observed. In these cases, it may not be what the characters say as much as how they say it, or what doublespeak or innuendo they can safely deploy to score a hit that will go over someone’s head. When a comment does leave a mark, show it by using body language, facial tics, and vocal shifts to reveal the character’s waning level of emotional restraint. 

Opposing Motivations 

One of the main drivers for conflict in dialogue is that the parties involved don’t always have the same purposes. One person might be trying to connect with the protagonist while the protagonist only wants to gain information. One may be seeking to protect a secret while the other is trying to bring it to light. Another person might be pursuing a conversation because they want to show off their knowledge while the other participant only wants to prove their own rightness. 

Motivation plays a huge part in conflict development at all story levels because conflict typically arises when characters don’t get what they want. So when you’re planning your protagonist’s conversations, consider what they’re after. What are they hoping to achieve through that discussion? Then pit them against someone whose goal is in opposition to theirs



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The 6 Elements of Fiction

Much of writing is instinctual, born of exposure to good stories and a lot of practice. However, there are some tools every writer needs to make their story professional and effective. Grammar and spelling are the obvious ones, but today, I’m talking about the key elements of fiction: character, plot, setting, point of view, theme, and style.

The First Element of Fiction: Character

In many ways, characters are the foundation for the entire work. Is there conflict? That’s going to involve the emotional and mental condition of your characters. Have you chosen a point of view? That’s you following specific characters as you tell the story. Your characters are the people through whom your reader experiences the tale, and the trick is to make those fictional characters feel completely real through character development.

  • You’ll need to know their backstory. This doesn’t mean your reader needs to know it, but your understanding of your character’s history is crucial for how and why your character responds to things.
  • You’ll need at least a rudimentary grasp of psychology. You and I have both read books which annoyed us because the characters just didn’t feel “real.” Often, this is because basic psychology was ignored, and the characters behaved in a way that made no sense for human beings.
  • You’ll need to understand the power of the character arc. Your character should not be the same at the end of the story as in the beginning. They change, and their growth is a key aspect of your story’s momentum.

If your characters are flat, your readers will have trouble empathizing. But if your characters feel real and relatable, then your readers will eat your story up. Understanding what your characters do and say (and how other characters respond to them) helps to paint the fullest possible picture of your fictional creation.

The Second Element of Fiction: Plot

One small aside: plenty of fiction writers would start this list with plot, not character. Both are fine. Your characters live inside your plot, but your plot revolves around your characters. I just put plot second in this list because when I write, my plot follows my characters, rather than the other way around. If you do it differently, there’s nothing to fear: you’re still right! (I could say “write,” but you might click the back button.)

Plot is like a blueprint. Your plot, its connections, and its structure determine the way you shape your story. It includes the order in which your characters face things. It’s the organized structure, the thing that will end up in an outline on Wikipedia (with spoiler alerts, of course).

The Six Stages of Plot

  1. Exposition or introduction, which establishes characters and setting.
  2. The inciting Incident is an event in a story that throws the main character into a challenging situation, upsetting the status quo and beginning the story’s movement, either in a positive way or negative.
  3. Rising action, which reveals the conflict. Now that your characters are established (along with some sense of what their “normal” looks like), you throw in the wrench and raise the stakes.
  4. The rising action builds to a dilemma, the moment a character is put in a situation where they have to make an impossible choice.
  5. Now comes the climax, also known as the turning point. This should be the greatest moment of tension in your story; everything is critical, with emotion and interest peaked. This is make-or-break, the moment when things matter the most.
  6. Finally, we have resolution (or what Joe likes to call the denouement). Don’t let the word fool you: this ending isn’t necessarily happy or sad. It means everything has been solved, and your conclusion arrives at the place where all the events of the plot have strongly led. It feels final, or at least, final enough that the reader can put the book down without flipping back through the pages to see if they missed something. Again, this doesn’t require a happy ending. It does require a satisfying one, even if you mean to continue in a sequel. If you’ve left any knots still tied, you’d better have a good reason why—and better make sure your reader has a clue that the answers are coming soon.

Before we move on, I want to circle back and remind you that you need conflict in your story. A lot of authors struggle with this since conflict is by nature deeply uncomfortable. However, every really good story has some kind of conflict—even if that conflict is purely an internal struggle with a heavy emotion.

Extra: If you want to dive deeper into writing an effective plot, take a look at Joe’s book The Write Structure.

Every really good story has some kind of conflict.

The Third Element of Fiction: Setting

Setting is one of my personal favorite elements. This includes the physical location (real or invented) and the social environment of the story (including chronology, culture, institutions, etc.).

I love setting because, in many ways, it’s like a character. No, your setting doesn’t have feelings, but your characters are forced to interact with it everywhere they go and in everything they do. Your setting actually develops who your characters are.

How setting impacts characters

It determines, among other things:

  • The skills they’ve developed to survive
  • The tools they’ll have (weapons, money, clothing, transportation)
  • The cultural norms for communication (speech, body language, and relative rules for communication between genders, classes, and more)
  • The presuppositions your character brings into the story (religion, psychology, philosophy, educational assumptions, all of which have a lot to do with the way your characters respond to stimuli)

When designing your setting, it’s a good idea to have some idea how it all works. What’s the weather like? How does the economy function? Do they use money? Where does pancake batter come fruom?

Are you copying a historical culture? (And if you are, I highly advise looking for something that isn’t European. Mix it up! The world is a glorious patchwork of variety.)

Your characters have to swim through this world, so have fun with this. Creating your setting (also known as world-building) can be one of the most exciting parts of writing.

The Fourth Element of Fiction: Point-of-View

Point of View is a fun and tricky tool to work with. POV determines things like tense and how much the reader gets to see. There’s first-person (I, my), second-person (you, your), and third-person/narrator (she, hers). There’s present tense (I see/she sees), past tense, (I saw/she saw), and even that cockamamie future tense nobody uses (I will see/she will see).

It’s the combination of these things that create an effective POV. So how do you choose?

It all depends on (1) the particular feel you’re going for and (2) how much your reader needs to see.

Questions to ask when choosing point of view

  • What feel are you going for? There’s a reason different genres use different POVs.
    • Urban fantasy, for example, is almost always first-person past-tense, because they’re going for the feel of a person telling you an exciting thing that happened. There’s an intimate, immediate feel that goes with this close-up-and-personal viewpoint, like seeing the fist come right for your face.
    • On the other hand, literary fiction usually uses third-person. The reason is simple: literary fiction usually has a much broader scope than urban fantasy and so needs to be able to take the reader to a bird’s-eye view, usually seeing through multiple characters. The pace is often a little slower, but the impact can be deeply powerful, and tends to explore consequences.
  • How much does your reader need to see?
    • Is it essential that the reader sees things happening outside your protagonist’s point of view? Do they need to see things your protagonist does not see, or hear things your protagonist does not hear? Then you need third-person POV.
    • Do you actually need the reader to discover things at the same pace as your protagonist? Do you want your reader to waffle and rage with your protagonist, seeking for answers? Then first-person might be better.

Variety is the spice of life, and you have the joy of mixing and matching as you need.

  • Want third-person present tense? (She turns and sees him, and wonders if unexpected encounters can stop one’s heart.)
  • Want first-person past tense? (I turned and saw him, and found myself wondering if unexpected encounters could stop my heart.)
  • Want second-person future tense? (You will turn and see him, and you will wonder if the unexpected encounter will stop your heart.)

The Fifth Element of Fiction: Theme

Theme is a hidden element, but incredibly important: in essence, theme is what your story is REALLY about.

The plot is the outward details, e.g., “A son stands to inherit his father’s vast business empire, but only if he can prove himself to be a responsible adult by the age of 25.” Theme would be what it’s really about, e.g., “Growing up requires choices.” Or, “‘Family’ means more than wealth.” If you’re really good, you can even use a one-word theme, like love, truth, adulthood, etc.

Yes, all fictional books have themes, even if it wasn’t intentional. Even authors who aren’t aware of theme use it—personal beliefs on how the world works (or should work) always flavor the story.

The tricky thing about theme is it should rarely be bluntly stated in your work; the moment you do, your work slides into the “preachy” category. Of course, sometimes, you want folks to know what the purpose is up front, but if you can manage to make it subtle—to get that point across without ever frankly stating it—your readers will actually take it to heart a lot more deeply.

Think about it. Simply reading about something like statistics on autism might make you think, but entering into the story of a character struggling with it (such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime) can do a lot more to help you really feel and understand the challenges and cultural barriers faced.  Effective stories are written by authors who knew the theme. What’s yours?

Examples of theme

  • My first book, The Sundered, is about growing up and realizing you’ve been lied to.
  • My first novelette, The Christmas Dragon, carries the theme that running away doesn’t solve problems.
  • My second novelette, Strings, is about the choice—and cost—of heroism.

However, in all three books, I do what I can to make sure that readers don’t feel “moralized” at. Instead, I want the reader to emotionally arrive at these conclusions alongside the protagonists.

Effective stories are written by authors who know their theme. What’s yours? (Need help choosing one? Check this out: When Choosing Themes, Write What You Don’t Know.)

By the way, this “theme” concept has some nifty corollaries. A symbol, for example, shows up to represent individual details within the story (e.g., glass breaking at the moment a friendship fails), and a motif is a narrative element that shows up repeatedly throughout the tale (e.g., “Quote the Raven, ‘Nevermore’”). Read more here: The Difference Between Symbol and Motif.

The Sixth Element of Fiction: Style

Style is awesome. It is needed. Style is the thing that makes your work stand out from everybody else’s, because in essence, it’s your “voice.”

You develop style by working on technique. Your syntax, word choices, and tone all contribute to this. Your style can demonstrate not only your voice as a writer, but is crucial to indicating details about your story and characters. Style shows accent and dialect, character intelligence and observation; it shows the underlying humor or drama of your piece. Your style is your unique flavor, and developing it will not only take your entire writing career, but is also one of the most rewarding activities as a writer.

Developing your writing style takes work; there are no short-cuts for this, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.

  • Read a lot. The more variety you pour into yourself, the more ingredients you’ll have to cook with as you develop your style. Read books from different countries, different genders, different cultures. Read everything and learn as you go.
  • Write a lot. No writing is ever wasted. Practice, practice, and practice some more—and spend time reading your work out loud. (That last step can be embarrassing, but it’s really helpful.)
  • Listen. Listen to people. Listen to conversations. Tone is a crucial component of style, and you’ll need to learn how to convey that in your work—but you can’t convey it if you don’t know what it sounds like.

Final Thoughts on the Six Elements of Fiction

I know what you’re thinking: this seems like a lot. And you’re right, it is; however, if you’re an avid reader, I think you’ll find you’re already familiar with most of these concepts. The great stories you know and love all use them, and if you are passionate about your story, incorporating theme will not be as hard as it might seem.

You can do this. Now go and start writing!

Have you considered the six elements of fiction in your story? Which one is the first you consider when you start a story? Let us know in the comments below.

by Ruthanne Reid


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An Antagonist vs a Villain: What’s the Difference?

By Neil Chase

What’s the difference between an antagonist and a villain? We often see these terms used interchangeably, but there’s a big difference between them, and you need to know which is the right one for your story.

What Is an Antagonist?

In literature and film, an antagonist is a character or force that actively works against the protagonist or main character. Think of them as a roadblock with a clear purpose and well-defined reasons for their choices and actions.

The antagonist may be an institutional force, such as an oppressive government, or an individual, such as a villainous mentor or a romantic rival. Antagonists can also be nature itself, such as in the case of a severe drought or a hungry animal.

In addition to providing conflict and tension, antagonists also help to create a stronger sense of empathy for the protagonist by highlighting their strength and determination in the face of adversity. And while they may cause difficulties for the story’s protagonist, they are not necessarily bad people. Antagonists play an essential role in making a story more memorable.

What Is a Villain?

A villain is an amoral or evil character with little to no regard for the general welfare of others. They are driven by ambition, greed, lust, or a desire for power or revenge.

Whatever their reason, villains typically use underhanded methods to try to achieve their goals. This might include deception, trickery, or violence.

While villainous characters can seem simplistic, they can be complex and even sympathetic if written well. In some stories, the villain might be the only one who understands the true nature of the conflict. This can make for a captivating and thought-provoking story.

Are All Villains the Antagonist of a Story?

Villains are a great addition to a story. Thanks to their lack of morals and self-serving attitudes, they immediately add conflict, tension, and suspense. But not all villains are created equal.

In some stories, the villain is the clear-cut antagonist, standing in opposition to the protagonist and working to foil their plans. In others, however, the lines are more blurred. The villain may not be an active force opposing the hero; instead, they may simply have their own goals and motivations in parallel with that of the hero.

Are All Antagonists the Villain of a Story?

In any good story, there is typically a protagonist and an antagonist. The protagonist is the main character of the story, while the antagonist is the opposing force. They provide conflict and help to drive the story forward. However, not all antagonists are villainous. In some cases, the antagonist may simply disagree with the protagonist or pose a challenge. They might even share the same goal, but have different methods to reach it.

In conclusion, while antagonists and villains are cut from the same cloth, they aren’t necessarily the same. To clarify, here are some popular examples of each.

A Character Who Is an Antagonist and a Villain

Hans Gruber in Die Hard is a classic villain, who is also the main antagonist to the hero, John McLane. Hans is an evil character intent on harming others for his own benefit. He is strongly motivated by greed – he wants the money in the Nakatomi Plaza vault, and he’ll stop at nothing to get it.

A Character Who Is an Antagonist But Not a Villain

Samuel Gerard in The Fugitive is a textbook antagonist. He works in direct opposition to Richard Kimble’s attempt to escape, and spends the entirety of the story tracking him down, because it’s his job. It’s not personal and he has no ulterior motives. He’s simply really good at what he does, and he’s been tasked with bringing a known fugitive to justice. He’s not a villain. There are not evil intentions to what he does, but he is the primary antagonistic force preventing Richard from achieving his goal of finding the real killer.

A Character Who Is a Villain But Not an Antagonist

In American Psycho, Patrick Bateman is not only a terrifying serial killer but the protagonist. He is clearly evil and motivated to harm others, but the main antagonist working against him is Donald Kimball, a police detective and a good man, simply trying to solve a case.

Who is your favorite Villain or Antagonist? Why?


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