Monthly Archives: January 2023

Originalizing Your Story Idea

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about differentiation—how we can make our stories stand out from all the others. Customers are being more careful with their money, which means they’re very likely buying fewer books. With the estimated 1,000,000+ books being published each year, ours need something to set them apart, something that will jump off the shelf and grab a potential buyer’s attention. 

But how do we elevate our ideas? I took a good look at some books that grabbed me straight off and continue to stand out in my mind as incredibly memorable. Here are some methods those authors used to originalize their story ideas and turn them into something truly groundbreaking and never-before-seen.

Rule-Breaking Genre

This is where we take the rules of our specific genre and either tweak them or rewrite them altogether. A good example of this, love it or hate it, is the Twilight series. Meyers threw the old vampire rules out the window and invented her own: undead creatures that can live in daylight and have sparkly skin, for crying out loud. One of the reasons this series did so well was because she took a popular genre that had gotten a little tired and rejuvenated the whole concept.

Ilsa Bick did a similar something with her Ashes trilogy. Her zombies weren’t created by a biological weapon or an accident in the lab; they were the result of an EMP attack that scrambled the brains of everyone between the age of puberty and roughly 30 years old. And if you got bit by a zombie, you didn’t turn into one. You just got eaten. Still terrifying. These changes created an interesting post-apocalyptic dynamic.

So if you write in a genre where certain rules apply, start over. See which ones you can revamp (remembering to explore the new rules from every angle and plan them out for consistency) to switch things up for your story.

Spliced Genres

Sometimes you don’t have to reinvent the genre; instead, you can combine more than one of them to create something new. One of my favorite reads of all time is Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book, which is part futuristic time travel and part historical fiction during the Black Plague. Another is a book called Berserker, which takes place in the 1880s American West but features a family of Viking descendants with supernatural powers granted by the Norse gods.

When these authors were done writing their stories, I bet they felt like the chef who first combined strawberries and chocolate or mac and cheese. Eureka! Something new and amazing.

Upside-Down Preconceived Ideas

I find this in stories based on ideas that go against cultural norms. In Neal Shusterman’s Scythe books, technological advancement has virtually eliminated death, leading to an overpopulation problem. So certain individuals called scythes are tasked with culling the herd. This practice—abhorrent in the real world—is unilaterally viewed as necessary in Shusterman’s society.

Minority Report does the same thing with the notion of people being innocent until proven guilty. The author turns that idea around in his created world, making it a good idea (in the beginning, at least) to arrest people before they can commit a crime. 

These stories are compelling simply because they make readers think. They get them seeing things from a different perspective. Keep in mind that it doesn’t always have to be a good idea that’s villainized. You can also take something historically considered to be unethical and turn it into something good. Robin Hood’s philosophy of robbing the rich to give to the poor is an example of this.

Unorthodox Characters

This is by no means a new idea, but it’s so important that it bears repeating. Characters are the heart of any story, and they’re primarily responsible for pulling readers in. So we want them to be relatable and well-rounded. But it also helps if they’re a little unexpected.

Stephen King does this masterfully (along with pretty much everything else) with his Holly Gibney character. She suffers from OCD, a sensory processing disorder, and is somewhere on the autism spectrum—not the kind of person you’d expect to find doing detective work and running a private investigation firm. But some of the qualities stemming from her disabilities make her really good at what she does. And we love her because of the idiosyncrasies that make her unique.

Distinctive Voice

One specific way to make your characters stand out is through their voice. It’s easy to get drawn into a story when the protagonist or narrator has an intriguing way about them. Take the first few lines from Franny Billingsley’s Chime:

I’ve confessed to everything and I’d like to be hanged. Now, if you please.

I don’t mean to be difficult, but I can’t bear to tell my story. I can’t relive those memories—the touch of the Dead Hand, the smell of eel, the gulp and swallow of the swamp…

This character’s voice doesn’t sound like others I’ve read. It’s not just the word choice and style that are pleasing to the ear. It’s what her words say about her as a person. For one thing, she starts off with a confession. What kind of person does that? And secondly, she says she can’t bear to tell her story, but you know that’s exactly what she’s going to do for the next few hundred pages. This is a person I’d like to spend some time getting to know, and it’s largely because of her unique and interesting voice. This can be hard to get right, but it’s worth the time and energy to really get to know your character and figure out how they should sound so you can write them consistently from page one.

Unexpected Villain

Sometimes, we get sucked into a story because the stakes are so high, we’re not sure how the characters could emerge unscathed. One of the best ways to ensure high stakes is with a terrifying villain—preferably one we haven’t seen a bajillion times. Some of the most daunting antagonists in literature weren’t megalomaniac bad guys or power-hungry organizations. Consider, instead, a xenomorph that bleeds acid and lays its eggs in its victim’s stomachs (Alien series), a mentally unstable fan (Misery), spores from an asteroid belt that fall from the sky like rain and devour organic material (Dragonriders of Pern series), or a psycho with serious mommy issues (Psycho).

Like settings, villains are highly plot-driven. Your character’s overall goal will help determine who your antagonist is, because who’s going to keep him or her from getting what they want? The villain. But, again, you have choices. Don’t settle for simple or cardboard antagonists. They should be as nuanced as the rest of the cast, with motivations, wounding events, fears, and missing human needs that drive them to do what they do. 

Surprise Resolution

Some stories are memorable because of the surprising way in which the main conflict is resolved. The movie World War Z, in many ways, is just another zombie tale. From start to finish, viewers are asking themselves the age-old zombie-genre question: how will the good guys survive? But the solution in this story is an unexpected one: “vaccinate” the healthy population with pathogens that the enemy can sense, making the humans undesirable hosts for the zombie virus. Instead of destroying the undead or avoiding them, humankind learns to live among them in plain sight. 

This method works best if you’ve got a story with seemingly insurmountable stakes, so keep that in mind if you want to employ it.

Surprise Foundation

This one, imo, is the most interesting method because it’s so hard to pull off. It’s similar to the Surprise Resolution in that it has a twist at the end, but the twist doesn’t resolve the conflict. Instead, it explains, with remarkable clarity, something foundational about the entire story.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a book that’s just made of awesomeness, about a teenage girl in Prague being raised by demons. Karou eventually falls in love with an angel, which is problematic, as you can guess. But it becomes more complicated when we learn that in her past life, Karou was a demon. She was killed because of her forbidden romance with the same angel, but her soul was saved and reincarnated as a human by her demon guardians. With that revelation, everything about the story clicks into place. Multiple questions are answered simultaneously in the most satisfying way possible.

This method is all about the twist reveal. But as with any element of writing, it can become overused. The Sixth Sense rocked everyone’s world, but it triggered an avalanche of stories where the main character turns out to be dead. So your big reveal should not only be sufficiently twisty, it needs to be specific to your story so as not to become clichéd. In any case, if the surprise is used as a gimmick rather than one that ties naturally into the overall story, it’s not going to work. Use this method with caution, and plan it carefully.

Any of these methods can be used to freshen up a blasé story idea. Use them in tandem or focus on just one, but don’t sacrifice your plot line or characters in the process. The story has to come first. Use the methods to enhance your idea, and you just might end up with something no one has ever seen before.



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Build Suspense With Secrets

Have you wondered what makes a book unputdownable? What techniques or tricks an author employs to make sure you read that next word, sentence, paragraph, page?

One of the most effective ways to do this is by building suspense. All genres have suspense…or at least should.

Suspense is reader glue. Conflict, questions, secrets, surprises, and action are the lifeblood of suspense. Suspense happens when dramatic questions or secrets trap the reader’s attention and makes them want to know what happens next.

Our job is to sprinkle secrets out like wayfinding points to get readers to ask questions…without them realizing we are doing it.

Be Careful: Gimmicks vs Suspense

The last thing we want to do is be gimmicky with our writing. There is a difference between withholding information and having genuine secrets. If you must withhold information, you must have a compelling reason. This reason must be more than to simply surprise or shock the reader.

Angela Ackerman asks three questions when planning story secrets:

  1. Does this secret enhance the plotline, or distract from it?
  2. Does this secret align with the character’s moral code?
  3. Does this secret send a message about the character’s personality that meshes with how I want readers to think about him or her?

When using secrets to build suspense, you must make sure that:

  • The secret is integral to the plot.
  • The secret is true to the character.
  • Your character must have a necessary or indispensable reason for keeping the secret.
  • The tension is not increased by giving the reader the information upfront.

If you cannot check these four criteria off, you may be better off giving your reader the information, and building suspense through other secrets and questions.

Remember: readers are smart. Treat them as such.

How Do You Want Readers to Feel When They Learn a Secret?

  • Surprise. In other words, you don’t want them to see it coming. (Hello, Snape.)
  • Understanding. When the reader learns the secret, it should make total sense. We want our readers to have a WOW and DUH experience. (The Sixth Sense, I’m looking at you.)
  • Satisfaction. The reveal should emotionally satisfy the reader—whether that emotion is revenge, a giant I-told-you-so/I-knew-it, character redemption, or they-had-it-coming. (The Good Place, is actually the bad place.)

Types of Secrets in Fiction + Examples

There are two types of secrets in fiction. Author Secrets, which are the story twists and surprises that you, the author, intentionally keep from the reader and reveal based on your plot. And Character Secrets, which are secrets characters keep from other characters, usually traced back to that character’s morality or original wound. These secrets may or may not also be kept from the reader.

Author Secrets:

  • Directly tell the danger/stakes at the beginning, but no more. That’s what the rest of the book is for….
    • QUEST FOR A MAID, Frances Mary Hendry

When I was nine years old, I hid under a table and heard my sister kill a king.

  • I mean, those are high stakes right? After this bomb of a first line, the author just goes into the story of Meg, the precocious little sister and the toothache that led her to witness this horrific event.
  • The devil’s in the details…the important ones that is. These are little hints that, once your final reveal comes to light, all come bubbling back to the surface. These are the secrets that, on second read-through, readers will pick up on.

Perhaps Harry had eaten a bit too much, because he had a very strange dream. He was wearing Professor Quirrell’s turban, which kept talking to him, telling him he must transfer to Slytherin at once, because it was his destiny. … He rolled over and fell asleep again, and when he woke the next day, he didn’t remember the dream at all.

Plant: Something thumped against my head. I looked around, up, down—and picked up a raisin. Where did that come from? Grief rolled through me, tight and tense and tinted with guilt. Raisins would be forever connected to Narfi, my troubled friend who’d tried to protect me from the Sons. And they’d killed him for it. I closed my hand around the shriveled fruit and got to my feet.

  • Our main character believes her friend Narfi is dead—never to be seen again. But as more raisins appear in her path (more plants), she—and us—perk up. Something else is going on, and we’ll have to keep reading to figure out what.
  • Chekhov’s Gun: ‘If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act.’ This device doesn’t have to be a literal gun, but if you include a significant detail in the beginning, and spend time describing it, the item or idea must be used by the end of the story.

But gradually — like a telescope being focused — I began to realize I was watching something clinging to one of the mooring ropes on the ship’s stern. It reminded me of a picture I once had seen of a sloth, an animal that hangs upside down upon jungle vines. But this — I gradually perceived — was a man. He appeared to be shimmying himself from the dock up to the Seahawk. Even as I realized what I was seeing, he boarded the ship and was gone.

In this example, our main character is witnessing a stowaway steal onto a ship in the beginning of the story. She’s too naive to understand what she saw and it quickly slips her mind. The detail is small, and not much thought is given to it in the story BUT our reader ears have perked up, and we’re now—on a sublevel—searching the story for this mysterious man and when he might show up again.

  • Misdirection

“It was Snape,” Ron was explaining, “Hermione and I saw him. He was cursing your broomstick, muttering, he wouldn’t take his eyes off you.”

“Rubbish,” said Hagrid, who hadn’t heard a word of what had gone on next to him in the stands. “Why would Snape do somethin’ like that?”

Whether your story’s secret is something that is only known to the author, the character, or between certain characters, secrets are one of the key ingredients of building suspense, and therefore, crafting a story readers cannot put down.



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Fear Thesaurus Entry: Criticism

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 Criticism

No one likes to be criticized, but for some people, it can be very intimidating and even demoralizing, leading to an avoidance of any kind of well-intended feedback or critique. A fear like this can also be linked to a fear of rejection. It might be generalized, affecting many areas of life, or be localized to one person or environment.

What It Looks Like
Hesitancy to share their work 
Double- and triple-checking completed tasks
Striving for perfection
Conforming to societal norms
Being highly self-disciplined
The character being very hard on themselves
Asking a lot of questions before starting a new project
Going above and beyond what was asked
Choosing words carefully
Compensating for a perceived inferiority by bragging, exaggerating, etc.
Repeatedly apologizing for perceived wrongdoing
Seeking approval and validation 
Being uncomfortable in new environments and activities
Procrastinating or missing deadlines
Never taking initiative
Preferring to be alone
Avoiding risks
Becoming defensive when advice is offered
Avoiding people who might offer feedback
Reading criticism into every instance where advice is given
Taking things personally
Misreading people’s intentions—believing that someone is on a power trip when they’re only trying to help
Not taking advantage of opportunities where criticism is likely
Being unable to differentiate between constructive feedback that should be ignored

Common Internal Struggles
The character always feeling on edge, afraid of making a mistake
Having ideas to share but being too afraid of they not being received
Feeling like a failure
Struggling with low self-esteem
Believing they are inferior or worth less than their peers
Feeling inadequate or incapable
Becoming obsessed with negative feedback
Believing people are waiting for them to make a mistake
Being ashamed of a part of themselves (a physical characteristic, a weakness, etc.)

Flaws That May Emerge
Antisocial, Defensive, Evasive, Haughty, Inhibited, Insecure, Jealous, Know-It-All, Nervous, Perfectionist, Pretentious, Timid, Verbose

Hindrances and Disruptions to the Character’s Life
The character stagnating because they’re unable to accept feedback
Being limited professionally because of an unwillingness to change
Never being able to truly express themselves
Giving up a passion because of criticism in that area
Gaining a reputation for being easily offended, uncooperative, or uninterested in self-improvement
Living with relationship friction due to the character misreading a spouse or parent’s intentions or character (accusing them of being overly critical or believing the other person thinks poorly of the character, etc.)
A lack of self-awareness keeping the character from growing and improving

Scenarios That Might Awaken This Fear
Having to change jobs and start over with a new supervisor
Being put in a situation where the character or their skills are on display
Being assigned a job that is beyond the character’s abilities (being set up to fail)
Being rejected (in an interview, on a date, when sharing an idea, etc.)
Being paired with someone whose performance is always lauded
Receiving harsh criticism from a trusted individual
The character’s skills being brushed aside or devalued
Encountering a loved one whose desire to help looks a lot like criticism.



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