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
Exposition or introduction, which establishes characters and setting.
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.
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.
The rising action builds to a dilemma, the moment a character is put in a situation where they have to make an impossible choice.
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.
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.
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.
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.
How intimately do you know the blank, virginal screen?
Do you have a love-hate relationship with it?
On the one hand are many writing options, waiting to unfold.
On the other, a dread of the unknown that freezes your fingers.
And always, that vast, nagging question: what shall I write about?
You’re surrounded by brilliant writing ideas waiting only for you to grab them and transform them into riveting pieces.
Whether you write a blog, fiction, or non-fiction, inspiration is all around you. Here are some ways to make your daily life an endless source of writing ideas.
1. Mix Up Topics
Interesting things happen when you choose a topic you care deeply about, and then combine it with something completely outside your experience.
For example, perhaps you are pro-life, with strong opinions about abortion. Let’s combine that with something you know absolutely nothing about. Say, motorcycles.
You could write a book about the member of a motorcycle gang whose girlfriend is pregnant. She doesn’t want the baby; he already visualizes it developing in her womb.
When the baby is born, she disappears into the smog, and the biker is determined to raise the child himself. He wants his son to experience the world as he never had the opportunity to do. So he sets off on a journey across the country with his toddler.
This can be a heartwarming novel, a hopeless tragedy, or even a comedy. It’s up to you. The possibilities are endless, even within this one scenario.
2. Be a News Hog
The news offers exciting possibilities.
Make a habit of reading about what’s going on around you, especially the slice-of-life articles. You can build on these stories, making them your own.
Some ways of doing that are:
Imagine where the story could go next, and create a new ending of your own.
Imagine alternative beginnings to the story. What could be the background of the characters involved?
Change one major detail in the story. How would it impact the story? What new possibilities would that create?
Last week I read about two burglars who broke into a private residence and stole jewelry worth thousands of dollars. Did they get away with it?
They were quickly apprehended because one of the felons was caught staring straight into the house’s security camera, revealing his unmasked face.
This seems to be an open-and-shut case. And yet, it made me wonder…
The burglars were obviously experienced. They broke into the house without a problem, and they searched it systematically for valuable goods. It was clearly not their first job.
So what caused the rookie mistake of not wearing face masks?
Could it be that the burglar caught on camera was distracted as he was making his preparations for the robbery, and so forgot to cover his face? What could have distracted him? Was it a subliminal desire to quit this dark line of work?
What made him go into house-breaking in the first place? And how did he feel when he looked directly into the camera, and probably realized he was in trouble? Why not try to deactivate the camera or find out where it was transmitting to?
Don’t get me wrong.
The true answers to these questions are probably boring: he was becoming overconfident after a long run of successful jobs and forgot to cover his face, or some such thing.
But the possible answers are much more interesting. I can almost feel the conspiracy thickening around this man.
Or maybe it’s a comedy of errors?
What would you make of his circumstances?
3. Capture Your Dreams
Dreams can be a fertile ground for inspiration. They are the essence of imagination run amok.
Your sleeping mind thinks up ideas that your waking mind might reject before you’ve even had a chance to register them.
These ideas can be precious writing material.
Your dreams are a gold mine, but so are other people’s dreams. When friends, family and strangers tell you about their dreams, that’s your chance to listen carefully.
A friend of mine received the inspiration for her entire novel from a dream her husband had. (Her story wasn’t based on his dream, but relied on the unreal atmosphere it created.)
Children’s dreams, in particular, are rich and free of filters. For example, your son’s dream about purple, diesel-drinking plants may inspire you to write the environmentally sympathetic version of The Day of the Triffids. How cool is that?
4. What If?
This is probably my favorite question ever. I turn to it whenever I’m out of ideas.
What if time travel were possible? Where would my character go?
What if three sisters decided to assassinate a tyrannical African despot? How would they do it?
What if my husband decided that we should buy a motorhome and live on the roads for a year?
Put together a long list of what-ifs.
There’s nothing more liberating for the imagination than that little two-word phrase.
5. Journaling—The Straight Way
Keeping a journal of your thoughts, feelings and experiences can help you capture great ideas from your own life.
Are you a storyteller? Do you want to be a storyteller?
If you’re interested in writing flash fiction, short stories, or novels, then you’re going to need lots of ideas, especially if you want to write professionally.
Some of us have too many ideas; others don’t have enough ideas. Maybe we have a solid idea for a story, but something’s missing. We need to spice it up by adding subplots or characters. Maybe the setting or story world isn’t rich enough. Perhaps your story lacks theme.
Story starters are a great way to get ideas for writing stories, but they can also be used to generate ideas for improving stories that are already in the works.
Today, I’d like to share twenty-five story starters. You can use these story starters to inspire a new story or to breathe new life into a story you’re already working on. Use them to write whatever you want — flash fiction, short stories, or a novel.
We all know about conspiracy theorists. They believe the moon landing was a farce. Come up with a new conspiracy that theorists rally around. The public thinks they’re crazy, but are they?
The world is run by politicians, but sometimes, ordinary people get caught up in political drama and intrigue. What happens when a bike messenger, a restaurant server, and a daycare teacher get unwillingly drawn into the affairs of state?
Technology has developed at a splitting speed over the past century. Before we know it, every house will be equipped with a robot and a virtual reality system. But what happens when a couple of kids venture into the wrong area of the virtual reality and get stuck there?
Witnesses to crimes can find themselves in grave danger, which is why there are protection programs for such persons. But what if the witness decided to join forces with the prime suspect? What does the witness get in exchange for false testimony that acquits a terrible criminal?
Take a look at the world we live in. In some places, life is pretty good. But in other places, life is difficult for most people, especially where there’s a lot of inequality, poverty, and oppression. What if an oppressive culture used war or the media to spread itself around the globe? What would that look like, and would we ever overcome it?
After a family moves into a new house, one of the kids looks for a hiding place to stash some secret belongings and discovers a panel at the back of a closet. Assuming it leads to the attic, the kid removes the panel only to find a window that looks into a world populated with magic and monsters.
Two politicians are in a heated race to win a critical election (governor, president, etc.) and through negative campaigning have become arch enemies. But their kids go to the same college and have fallen in love. What happens when the relationship is revealed in the media?
All the evidence in a brutal, premeditated murder points to one primary suspect, including footage from security cameras. The problem is that there’s no motive, and the alleged killer insists on his or her innocence. Who committed this heinous crime?
While working on a more fuel-efficient space shuttle that will transport tourists to and from the moon, one engineer stumbles into a way to make faster-than-light (FTL) engines a reality.
A stranger comes to a small town that hasn’t seen a new resident since the town’s youngest child was born sixteen years ago. The stranger rarely leaves his or her formerly abandoned home except to buy groceries and strange supplies from the local home improvement store, and the townspeople think something’s not right.
Step back in time hundreds — or perhaps thousands — of years. The leader of a small tribe is butting heads with the tribe’s healer. Meanwhile, a powerful neighboring tribe is infiltrating their territory.
Inspired by Jurassic Park, a biological engineer is committed to recreating dinosaurs. While researching ancient dinosaurs, the scientist stumbles into evidence that fire-breathing dragons once soared over the land and decides to recreate those instead.
While representing an accused killer, the attorney falls in love with the client, partially because he or she believes the accused is innocent.
Teenagers love to rebel and experiment. But what happens when one teenager’s antics end up on video and go viral? Bullying and humiliation ensue.
After working hard for decades, the main character has finally managed to retire and purchase a condo on a small, tropical island, where he or she intends to write a novel. But strange things start happening — things go missing, there are creepy noises, and our character feels like he or she is constantly being watched.
For centuries, humans have wondered if we are alone in the universe. The answer finally comes when aliens arrive. But it’s a time when tensions are high between the nations of Earth. Will humanity unite, or will some nations form an alliance with the aliens?
A young couple believes their fairy tale has finally come true and they will live happily ever after. They are recently married, have good jobs, just bought a home, and there’s a baby on the way. But the fairy tale seems to unravel as secrets and lies begin to surface.
When a foreign operative embedded in the CIA disappears with loads of government secrets, all hell breaks loose. But is this operative truly a foreign spy, or is it a citizen intent on blowing the cover off of government corruption?
A mid-sized tourist plane crashes on a remote deserted island, killing all but a handful of survivors. Rescue is on the way until a devastating storm arises, barring access to the island. Now these urbanites must learn to live off the land and with each other.
After serving a ten-year sentence for a heinous crime she didn’t commit, a former college student gets a new identity and becomes a private investigator intent on exonerating herself.
A group of teenagers spends a summer day on a scavenger hunt in the woods just outside of town. When they reconvene to name the winner of the hunt, one of them doesn’t show up and cannot be found.
When a kid finds out both parents are out of work and the family might have to move in with the grandparents, he or she decides to solve the problem by starting the modern version of a lemonade stand — an online enterprise.
One couple’s nasty divorce leaves their two young children in the custody of their grandparents. Will the couple put aside their differences to get their children back?
Dreams come true when a foster child is finally adopted. But the child’s new family is filled with secrets, and he or she begins to suspect that it wasn’t a chance adoption after all.
The main character receives a strange inheritance from an unknown deceased relative: a key ring with no keys on it. Unusual events occur whenever the key ring is present.
Have you ever used story starters or writing prompts? Where do you find inspiration for writing fiction? Share your thoughts and experiences by leaving a comment, and keep writing.
Writing fiction with paranormal elements can be tricky, especially in a modern setting. You want your readers to suspend their disbelief and just go with the story. You don’t want them to roll their eyes because the concept of your paranormal world is too far-fetched. Today we’re talking with paranormal romance writer M MacKinnon to get her take on writing paranormal fiction.
How to Write Paranormal Fiction
Paranormal elements in a story should be necessary and seem natural within the confines of the setting and plot. The paranormal should fit in because it feels right and makes sense for the plot of the story, not because you’re trying to jump on a popular trend.
Paranormal fiction is a genre I fell in love with at a young age, so I was super excited to talk with this month’s interviewee to discuss how she developed her paranormal romance series, The Highland Spirits Series.
M MacKinnon is the author of The Comyn’s Curse, a paranormal romance set in Scotland. She began her writing career with Downton Abbey fanfiction. Eventually, she found The Write Practice and completed the first draft of her novel in our 100 Day Book course last year. The Comyn’s Curse is out in select bookstores and online merchants as of today.
You can get in touch with M MacKinnon via her website (where she offers a free short story for signing up for her email list), Facebook, or Twitter.
Now let’s dive into MacKinnon’s paranormal world!
Congratulations on the release of your first novel, The Comyn’s Curse! Tell me a little about the book and the series it opens.
I had no idea what paranormal romance is. After my first stay (a month) in Inverness, Scotland, I came home with a driving urge to write something about the magic of the Scottish Highlands. I did some research on legends and found the legend of the handless ghost who is said to haunt Rait Castle, near Nairn.
Something about the one paragraph synopsis (it was all I could find anywhere) called to me, and I became quite irate on behalf of the ghost. She had no name and in some tales wasn’t even a woman! So I decided to write her story, give her a name and a romance, and draw a parallel between the woman who had lived and died in 1442 and a fictional American girl from New Jersey, who is her descendant.
The book is my love affair with Scotland, its history and mysteries.
Part way through the plotting of The Comyn’s Curse, I knew that there would have to be more—the story just had to continue. So I decided to make it a trilogy and dedicate the next two novels to Aubrey’s two best friends who had supported her through her travails.
The second features her friend Kate, a police detective, and the third is about her friend Colleen, a nurse. Each will have a real legend from the past, each will involve the girls traveling to Scotland and finding love in the Highlands, and each will have a mystery and danger beyond the ghost story. The Piper’s Warning, Kate’s story, is in second-draft phase, and The Healer’s Legacy, Colleen’s tale, is plotted and about three chapters in.
I’m glad I made the decision, because I love my characters, including my ghosts, and I want to do right by them.
The novel takes place primarily in Scotland. I know you visited the country to do research. Can you talk about your research process a bit?
I really didn’t start my research until I came home, because the idea for the story didn’t come until then, but I was able to incorporate a lot of information gleaned as a tourist and quite a bit from the books I bought while there. I’m a huge history nut, and I tend to haunt bookstores. (See what I did there?)
My research on Rait, a ruined hall castle outside Nairn, came about first through a Facebook group called “Save Rait Castle”. When we went back last August for our second visit, I went first to the members of that group, who are passionate about the preservation of what’s left of the castle, and asked if anyone would be willing to guide my husband and me on a pilgrimage to the castle.
We met a wonderful Scottish gentleman named Victor Cameron, who has an acknowledgment in the book, got to know him, and spent an amazing day touring the castle I had written about for almost four months! A truly emotional experience. In fact, I stood in the doorway of the castle and cried.
If you couldn’t have visited, how would you have gone about researching?
I would have had to rely on the library and my bookstores, as well as social media sites like the one I found. I probably wouldn’t have written a book based in Scotland, though, if I hadn’t been there to experience its magic.
The Comyn’s Curse is a paranormal romance novel that has a backdrop containing real places and current events. How do you weave paranormal elements into a modern story? What techniques do you use to walk that fine line between a reader’s suspended disbelief and being too far-fetched?
Well, I knew I needed to have a modern romance in order to make the story click, and I wanted to make the life (or afterlife) of my ghost a bit more pleasant than history did, so I decided to create a parallel between the two main characters in the book, with Aubrey, my protagonist, unknowingly being the descendant of the Rait Castle ghost. The curse was created in order to give a reason for the ghost to be hanging around, with Aubrey being the solution she has sought for almost seven hundred years.
I had both my modern protagonist and her ultimate love interest come together in a purely normal way, but then find that each was descended from one of the lovers of the past. The paths of both couples intersected at key points in the book.
What made you decide to include paranormal elements in this story? Did you want to go in that direction from the start?
Yes, the story started with the real legend of the ghost with no hands. I couldn’t find any more than a paragraph on her, anywhere, but something about her fate called to me and I felt I had to give her a better life (or afterlife) than she had received in that one paragraph.
Even the castle is forgotten by many Scots who live very near it; they’d never heard of Rait Castle in the book store at the local Inverness mall! It just seemed wrong. I’ve righted history, and I think the ghost is very grateful.
Need a writing prompt for your next paranormal story? Look for an obscure legend and give it new life.
Do you like to stay within paranormal canon, or make up your own ‘rules’ for your paranormal elements?
Well, funny you should ask! The first (and only!) time I pitched the book was to a young agent who told me that she didn’t think my book was paranormal romance at all, and she should know because she dealt primarily with that genre.
I was fairly devastated because I suddenly felt “genre-less,” but other authors told me to stick with my own thoughts on my own story, and fortunately I did. I was somewhat relieved to see in the Kirkus review that my work was a “pleasing cross-genre novel” that had “something for everyone.” It explained a lot.
That’s tough to hear that from an agent. Did you think of cutting the paranormal elements to make it “fit” better in a genre?
No, I was never going to give up my ghost! I just felt that it was my fault that I hadn’t sold the concept in a pitch which lasted five minutes. The whole idea of trying to sell a book which includes history, romance, ghosts, and conspiracy in a few minutes was daunting, and frankly, I thought it was ridiculous.
What I did think about was how to find the genre in which the story fit best, and as I said to that agent, “well, it has ghosts, and romance, doesn’t it? How can that not be paranormal?”
She had no answer, which was fine with me.
Is there anything about writing the paranormal that was more difficult than sticking to reality?
No, since the paranormal part of the story was actually real history, that was the easiest part. Making it fit the modern era was a bit more difficult, but as soon as I met Aubrey, my protagonist, everything fell into place. It just seemed right.
You also have some espionage and mystery thrown in there. Can you talk about your plotting process?
I decided fairly early in the plotting that I would have not only the parallel stories of the past and present romances, but a mystery as well, because . . . well, I love mysteries. So I researched Brexit and invented a villain who was conspiring to undermine the new surge toward a second referendum for Scottish independence in the wake of Brexit.
I decided to structure the novel into “books” or parts, each beginning with a short piece from 1442, then two modern chapters, a modern “conspiracy” chapter from the POV [point of view] of the antagonist, and then two more modern chapters. The three stories parallel each other until the end, when they all come together in a climactic series of events.
What’s one thing you’ve struggled with in your writing and how did you overcome it?
I think the main struggles have been with the mechanics faced by beginning authors, such as head-hopping, show don’t tell, and over-use of proper English. (I was an English major, and the idea of not using semicolons when two independent clauses are put together was very difficult to overcome at first!)
I also tend to edit as I go, rather than just writing and then going back to it later, which can cause thesaurus headaches and insomnia as I lie there rewriting in the darkness, but I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. I suspect it’s just my style.
Any other advice you’d like to give aspiring writers out there?
Any chance you have to join a writer’s group like The Write Practice, any courses like 100 Day Book or NaNoWriMo, DO IT! Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t have it in you, or that your story shouldn’t be told. Find a good editor and be accepting of his/her advice—there’s a reason they’re in that business.
My most fervent advice is to find other authors and share, critique and allow yourself to be critiqued. The more you help others with their writing, the more they’ll invest in yours, and everybody wins! I’ve made some amazing friends doing this, and I don’t think I’d be looking at the launch of my first novel in a three book series without them.
What’s next for you?
After the launch of The Comyn’s Curse, I’ll refine and submit The Piper’s Warning, probably this summer. While that is going on I’ll dive back in head first to The Healer’s Legacy.
I have a YA fantasy novel, Slither, which is five chapters in and waiting patiently on the shelf for this Scottish stuff to be finished (I haven’t the heart to tell those characters that it may never be finished), and I fully intend to get back to that at some point.
I do think that fantasy and paranormal romance are my forte, but I’ll be staying in that genre, but I love mystery and may someday write a thriller too. Who knows? It’s part of the joy of writing, isn’t it?
Your Turn to Write Paranormal Fiction
Not sure where to start writing paranormal fiction? Try taking an obscure legend or myth and turning it into the basis for your next story. Be sure to make the paranormal elements necessary to the story, so that without them, it couldn’t work as it does.
Who knows—your paranormal story might just send you traveling the world!
M MacKinnon would like to thank Meghan McKeever of New York Book Editors and DartFrog Books for their support in getting her work into readers’ hands. The Comyn’s Curse is available now on Kindle and in paperback. And stay tuned for the remaining books in the series!
How do you keep paranormal fiction elements “realistic” enough for your readers? Let me know in the comments!
This post from December 2016, has been re-edited and re-published in April, 2019.
Broad and Narrow Genres
Since the proliferation of Creative Writing courses in universities in the Anglo world, much has been written and said about “genre” in writing.
Creative Writing contrasts with Nonfiction Writing in the broader sense. The former is the sort of writing that novelists, short story writers and poets employ. Nonfiction includes traditional biographical works, academic texts, journalism, and books on a diverse range of subjects, such as food (recipes), self-help and memoir.
Within fiction, there is a breakdown into specific genres: science fiction, romance, historical fiction, mystery, horror, detective stories, action, fantasy and adventure.
Literary Fiction and Commercial Fiction
Literary fiction can be distinguished from commercial fiction, the latter referring to popular “genre” writing that publishers hope to sell to a wide readership. Literary fiction is best defined by contrast with commercial fiction. In the book trade, it is seen as having greater literary merit, focusing on depth of character and a concern with style.
Many writers today are writing for commercial reasons, to be published or self-published in books, eBooks, or online, as quickly as possible. Literary fiction attracts writers who are experimenting with form and interested in lyrical expression and often dark and emotive themes.
The term “creative writing” is more appropriate as an umbrella term for writing that employs fictional devices. This distinguishes it from academic writing, which endeavours to present factual or argumentative texts in an objective framework. Journalistic writing, too, is based on the principal goal of providing factual information to the public, although there will be some overlap with fiction in its use of devices, such as dialogue and narration.
Non-Fiction includes traditional biographical works, academic texts, journalism, and books on a diverse range of subjects, such as food (recipes), self help and memoir.
Truman Capote’s nonfiction work In Cold Blood (1966 ) is looked on as the forerunner of this genre in modern times. It is also the ultimate true crime novel. Based on painstaking research and interviews, Capote used the story of the cold-blooded killing of a family in rural Kansas, and his investigation of the crime, as the plot for his novel. It is written brilliantly, employing all the techniques of the best fictional writing: strong characterisation, realistic sounding dialogue, vivid imagery, and narrative suspense, without wavering from the facts. Apart, perhaps from the ending, where he improvises a little; endings are often difficult for this type of factually based writing.
One of the first attempts at a creative nonfiction novel in Australia was Poppy by Drusilla Modjeska (Penguin 1990), in which the author recounts her mother’s life. It is well told but lacks the dramatic, page-turning aspect of plot-driven fiction. A past master at this subjective type of writing is Helen Garner, whose The First Stone is now a classic, as well as a cause of ongoing controversy for student discussion in Creative Writing Courses in Australian universities.
Modern Memoir has taken on a slightly different aspect within this recent context. It refers to first person narration that focuses on a particular aspect or period of a person’s life. Memoir “sticks to the facts” but employs creative devices, such as narrative drive, strong characterisation, vivid dialogue, and dramatised events.
The best memoirs focus on a universal issue or concern that the author illustrates via personal experience.
It differs from fiction, wherein connections are concealed behind invented characters, settings and names. Many writers are wary of “treading on the toes” of living relatives and friends when they recount true events. It is easier and less constricting to create, rather than to recount the facts.
Lee Gutkind, an American author, is looked on as the Godfather of Creative Nonfiction today. He is the editor of a Creative Non-fiction journal and the author of Keep It Real: Everything You Need to Know About Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction.
Of course, with fiction, there is a breakdown of genres within the broad genre: science fiction, romance, historical fiction, mystery, horror, detective stories, action, fantasy and adventure.
Here is a more exhaustive list of possible genres from Cathy Yardley’s blog: Rock Your Writing.
Action/Adventure — stories including epic journeys, lots of conflict, high stakes, some violence. Erotica — stories of sexual exploration. Fantasy — stories usually involving magic, other worlds, mythological/mystical figures. Horror — stories that invoke fear. Literary Fiction — stories with a focus on the quality of the prose over the narrative arc. Mystery — stories that involve solving a crime, usually a murder. Thriller/Suspense — stories of high tension that can involve either action or mystery. Romance — stories about love/intimacy. Sci-fi — stories usually involving technology, aliens, science-related alternative worlds. Westerns — stories taking place in America’s “Old West,” often with focus on justice. Women’s fiction — stories about women experiencing emotional growth. Primary emotion: hope.
Let’s take a look at some influential science fiction female leads and see how we can use them in our writing. Here’s some strong, complex creations … None of them scream, faint or need rescuing. They’re the ones getting the job done. These 9 are my personal trail-blazers of female science fiction. Let’s go!
1) Princess Leia
We had already seen earlier in Star Wars that Leia could handle herself. The way she dealt with Vader and Tarkin after she was captured showed us that. But it was when Han Solo and Luke came to rescue her that Leia became so much more than a conventional damsel in distress. By taking over what had been seen as the male role, rescuing herself and generally wise-cracking her way out of trouble, she created a whole new type of character.
Write Tip: Change the action around! Get your characters doing what nobody (even the other characters) expects. If you can get the reader wondering ‘Where did that come from?’, you’re halfway there.
2) Ellen Ripley
The ultimate case of the quiet one, a by-the-book member of the crew … Yet she turned out to be the baddest of the bunch. She could fight if she had to, but that wasn’t what she was all about. Ripley had heart, integrity. A woman who could rise to challenges and one-line with the best of them.
Ripley displayed a range of emotion beyond a science fiction action hero. Ripley wasn’t snappily dressed, or the Hollywood idea of a conventional female character when she first appeared but that didn’t matter … In fact, this added to her appeal. She was anyone who saw wrong and wanted to sort it.
Write Tip: A character’s journey can start with the triggering of an emotion. It creates empathy with the reader or viewer; everyone relates to them. Identify a strong one and probe it with a sharp stick.
3) Sarah Connor
Sarah had a journey too, from timid waitress to protector, to fugitive soldier. Events, as they had with Ripley, changed her. While learning you’re the mother to the leader of the resistance in the future would be enough to change anyone, Sarah handles it.
If the movie had been made in earlier days, Sarah would be screaming and fainting and waiting for rescue. Instead, she proved she could do whatever was needed to keep the people she loved safe. And while she was about it, she showed us that just about anyone could do it too, if they ever had to.
Write Tip: What doesn’t kill a character makes them adapt. Give them a logical reason to change, a vision of what could be if they do.
Science Fiction Was Never The Same Again
Thanks to these three, the world of science fiction would never be the same. It was as if the genre had cottoned on to what a lot of people knew to be true. Real women could be the focus of a story! Not just one-dimensional eye candy or a motivator for men.
These women were strong and capable. They were in control, and they did it all with a witty reposte, just to remind you that they had the answer and they weren’t afraid to lead the way. They weren’t just female versions of the male action hero with martial arts and big guns (although they could do that as well). No, they had backstory, baggage. It made them human, believable, even aspirational.
Let’s take a quick look at a few more …
4) Sarah Jane Smith
Doctor Who companion, nosy journalist and one of the first to use her wits and intuition over muscle and firepower. As well as being totally fearless, she was one of the team, redefining the role from that of helpless decoration to one of strong equal. And doing it with an opinion.
Write Tip: Every partnership has a hero and a trusty sidekick, two parts of a whole character. Why not give the sidekick the real power (the hero need never know)?
5) Dana Scully
She was the rational sceptic to Mulder’s excitable believer, the woman of science, sent to debunk and explain. Probably the greatest reason for the show’s success, her dogged determination to find an explanation left you wondering just where the truth ended. Although not averse to action, she proved that you could be just as effective with a computer or a test tube.
Writers tip: Every story needs a basis infact, once you convince the reader that you know what you’re talking about, they’ll follow your fiction.
6) Olivia Dunham
Another intelligent one, with the baggage that made her the ideal choice to investigate the fringes. Like Scully, the quiet voice of calm when it’s all going crazy. Reserved but with purpose and empathy, unmoved by the revelations unfolding before her. And she had a double in an alternative universe, which is pretty cool.
Write Tip: Once you’ve got your fact out of the way, always remember; nothing has to be true, but everything has to sound true.
7) Andorra Pett
Andorra who? I hear you ask. Well, she’s my creation, my contribution to the genre. Andorra’s an amateur detective for the space age. She’s a person more on the thinking side of things, independent and initially unaware of how clever she is. Out of her depth at the start, as Andorra’s story progresses, she learns so much about herself. What’s more, in the process, as have so many before her, she changes. She finds the strength to survive and the courage to grow.
Write Tip: Never be afraid to take your character (and your reader) out of their comfort zone. Their reactions might surprise both of you.
8) Kaylee Frye
An engineer, and why not? Women can do anything. Resourceful and yet naïve; dependable and vulnerable, all at once. As well as keeping Serenity running; she was the glue that held the crew together, loved by everyone. To top it all, she knew what a Crazy Ivan was!
Write Tip: Having engineers or other specialists in your cast gives you the ability to impart backstory in conversation, even in the middle of the action. A few short sentences between characters is so much better than pages of boring facts.
9) Kathryn Janeway
Starship commander and breaker of rules. In the same way that a man had to do what a man had to do, it was her job to keep everyone together and get them home. If the means justified the end, she was willing to try it. Sometimes emotional, sometimes calm, always adaptable, like any good commander.
Write Tip: You need a focal point, a constant. It can be part of your setting, a place or an object. Or it could be a dependable character, a rock in an ocean of uncertainty.
By Bonnie Randall Part of the How They Do It Series
JH: You can learn just as much from a bad book as a good book. Stephen King said “Unless you read, you do not have the tools to write.”
Books that whisk us deeply into a story, have characters who become dear friends, or use language in such a way that leaves us breathless, are powerful tools for writers, because those elements are replicable and take our fiction to higher, deeper, and more meaningful levels.
What, though, about fiction that doesn’t move you in any sort of positive way? Can writing lessons be gleaned from these pieces also?
I am currently reading a novel that has me turning pages—but not in a good way. I am so frustrated from waiting for the reveal of the ‘Big Bad Secret’ the heroine is withholding that I am thumbing through and skimming just to get to the place where she coughs it up. The suspense is not working for me at all, and partly it’s because of the ambiguity surrounding whatever this secret is; there are no clear clues or indicators, and what is presented is vague.
Also, there has yet to be a clear reason why the character is being cagey about her secret in the first place. Additionally, while the character herself is being indirect, the plot keeps getting >thisclose< to revealing The Big Bad…and then being thwarted by convenient twists.
To add to the frustration, there are also interludes which come in the form of handwritten letters from one character to another—and said letters are heavily implied to be written by the heroine with the secret, and yet (I cheated) actually end up being written by the hero when all is said and done.
This does not feel like author cleverness to me, but instead like author trickery; it is one thing to not trust an unreliable character, but quite another to not be able to trust an unreliable author. The take-aways from this reading experience for me are:
1. When employing the device of the ‘Big, Bad Secret’, strike a good balance that leaves your pacing on the side of suspense rather than frustration—and always have a good reason why your character is keeping their secret under wraps in the first place.
2. If you are going to use an ambiguous POV, make sure you do not leave your reader feeling tricked. There needs to be at least one Easter Egg in each ambiguous passage that raises doubt—and maybe even makes it fun—for the reader to wonder “Is this really Character X? Or could this be Character Y who is thinking / doing / saying these things?”
Now: How about you?Have you read a book that was a real miss for you, yet was still able to impart some good learning?
Please share whatever that book taught you to do (or not do), but do not reveal the title. (Because jeez…what if it’s one of my books?!) Seriously, we don’t want to book-bash, and besides: one reader’s trash is another reader’s treasure; the book I am referring to here, for example, has far more positive reviews than negative, and is selling rather hotly too (which begs the question—what the heck do I know, anyway?!)
Whether you’re wondering what happens next in your story, want to write your first novel, or are about to start on the next instalment of your long-running series, there are always times when you’ll need inspiration. And it is often surprisingly close by.
‘Be observant,’ said the dramatist, Lajos Egri, ‘and you will be forced to admit that the world is an inexhaustible pastry shop and you are permitted to choose from the delicacies the tastiest bits for yourself.’
It’s that easy.
Except it’s not.
It’s difficult to suddenly ‘be observant.’ You don’t have time to sit around looking at things. You have to pick up the kids, get to the supermarket, make dinner, finish off that last game of solitaire. And you have to write!
Hemingway noted that it was difficult to be observant, but he also recognized its importance for writers. Being observant, he said in his 1935 Esquire article, Monologue to the Maestro, takes practice. ‘You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice.’
You don’t have to memorize every object in a room. There are simpler ways to get inspiration for your writing from observing the world around you. It can start with your morning shower.
Try to use all five senses next time you take a shower. Notice how the water falls, how it splashes and goes off at different angles. How would you describe the soap smell? Does the warm water taste different from a cold glassful? Does the water feel warmer on your face than on your back or legs? And listen to the sound of the spray and how being in the shower can distort other sounds?
As your characters go about their everyday routines, try to pick similar moments in your day to gather details you can use in your writing.
Eating is another good opportunity to practice these kinds of observational skills. How do you hold your cutlery? How do you cut the food? Do you pile it all on the back of the fork or scoop it up? Stop just before you take a bite. Look closely at the texture, the shape and colors. Notice any aromas. Then, when you put that morsel in your mouth, take a moment to taste it before you bite. When you do bite, does it make a noise? Does it crunch? Do your teeth clack together? Does the food taste different when you start to chew? What kind of flavors are released?
After a while, you can start to make notes of your observations. Wherever you are, somewhere new or somewhere familiar, take time to look around and enjoy what author David Mitchell called ‘free gifts’ in a recent interview with the LA Times.
‘When I go to a place I get a number of free gifts … I’ll get five decent sentences … about the place; they’re textual photographs. If you get these free gifts, use them in the text, use them in the prose, use them in descriptions. Put them in and they’re lovely little things to find on the forest footpath of the story, of the book.’
If you do that, you too could become wonderfully eloquent when giving a simple piece of advice.
You don’t even have to go somewhere new to get your five sentences. Try to write a few lines about the room you’re in right now. Look around, in all the corners, under the furniture, to see if you can find something you’ve never noticed before. Or find new ways to describe how the seat feels under you.
It’s not only the external world that can provide inspiration. There is often a whole conversation going in inside your mind. It can be worth taking a moment to stop and listen in.
This is especially useful if you’re writing from a first person point of view.
Try to observe how thoughts arise in your mind. What are your thoughts like? Do you think in words? Do they come in complete sentences? Maybe you think in images. How could you translate them to the page?
Don’t try to change your thoughts. Your thoughts are not good or bad, they’re just thoughts. Sit there and listen. That too takes practice.
Look for moments of conflict in your own thoughts too. When you consider having another coffee, for example. Or should you write one more page first? Try to listen to that to and fro as your mind tries to rationalize the best choice:
‘I’ll get a coffee first, that’ll give me the boost I need to write this next page.’
‘Yeah, but if I write the page first, the coffee could be a nice reward.’
Try to observe this whole thought process and see if you can introduce that into your writing to make your characters’ internal conversation and inner struggles seem more realistic.
Sometimes, when you’re lacking inspiration, it only takes a sentence or two to give you that spark, to set you off again. And those couple of sentences can be right in front of you now. Just take a look.
Where do you look for to get inspiration on those difficult days? Do you have sources of inspiration that never fail? What other tips do you have to fill those blank pages?
Every month, I look at the many different aspects of fiction—character development, plot, story structure, etc.—and offer advice and tips to help you work through the problems in your novel.
I have adapted many of the concepts you’ll see here from proven techniques used in modern psychotherapy. Hence: Fiction Therapy.
Observational walking is one of my favourite ways to de-stress and free my mind so I can focus in on my creative writing without distracting thoughts.
I also find it helps me if I am feeling a bit stuck, or just not sure how best to proceed with a story.
I am lucky that I live in the west of Ireland in the countryside and near the sea, so there are plenty of peaceful walks.
However, I have done this on city walks and in parks, so don’t let your surroundings stop you using this powerful tool.
Observational walking is a form of meditation and is not complicated.
You are simply walking at a pace where you can be aware of sounds and can carefully observe your surroundings.
A SLOWER PACE
The pace might be considerably slower than your usual walking pace, so if you do a daily exercise walk you can do some observational walking as a warm up or slow down stage.
The key is being aware; listening and observing.
Listen for the sounds as you walk, whether that be birds singing, dogs barking, children playing, traffic, chatter.
It doesn’t matter, just listen and be aware without judging the sounds and without thinking about them.
THAT WANDERING MIND
If you find your mind begins to wonder about the source of the sounds, or other distracting thoughts then simply focus on your breath for a moment.
Each time you are distracted return to focusing on your own breath.
It doesn’t matter if you are distracted, or if your thoughts run away – you can return to focusing on observing your breath at any time.
This will provide the empty spaces in your thoughts and allow your inner creativity to emerge.
As you walk along let the sounds and sights you see come to you – rather than look around for them.
Again without judging or thinking – just quietly observing.
Observing your surroundings clears a space in your mind for creative writing ideas – it also means you remember a great deal more.
The most trivial observation can grow into something much, much bigger.
This morning, for example, I noticed a woman stepping on a crack in the pavement. If I wanted to develop this further it might go as follows:
Mary walked quickly. She mustn’t have been superstitious, or else she didn’t notice a crack in the pavement. She didn’t slow down, and she didn’t step around it.
Jack noticed it. Jack also noticed the small metal square embedded in the dirt. He snatched it up and dropped it into his briefcase before Mary had even walked the short distance to the edge of the footpath.
Okay so it’s not amazing but it is something. – a germ of an idea.
An idea that could be developed in a multitude of ways.
Creative writing activities such as observational walking clear the mind for ideas.
You can create anything. Even from a simple crack in the pavements like I did.
Or perhaps a strangely shaped cloud, or even a name carved in a tree or even oyster-beds in a bay.
In this newly created space in your mind ideas are allowed to form and emerge.
When you have a new idea always ask yourself what if? Here are some examples:
One morning while I was out walking my dog paused to stare at a trampled trail leading to a hole in a field. I knew it was a fox hole having seen plenty of foxes in the area on previous occasions. But…what if it wasn’t a fox hole…
The hole had been made by someone desperately trying to escape from something.
If it was a portal to another realm.
A shortcut to a children’s hiding place
Once you slow down and pay attention to your surroundings you will start to see a lot more than grass or footpaths.
There is a whole world out there ready to hand you ideas on a plate all you need to do is stop for a moment and take a look.
‘Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.’
The underworld is perhaps the most important motif in mythology and literature – tied up with ideas about life, the afterlife, belief, culture, storytelling, and the psyche, it’s the setting of humanity’s reckoning with the ephemeral nature of mortality.
As writers, we can use the motif of the underworld in two aspects:
The underworld as world of adventure
The underworld as world of the dead
Why write the underworld?
Create an internal or external site for the change your character undergoes, and the wisdom they extract from their experiences in the story.
Explore your character’s unconscious, and how the archetypes of the collective unconscious manifest in their life.
Explore your character’s reaction to the unknown in themselves or in the world.
Explore your characters’ reaction to the nature of death, and to the idea of their own death.
Explore your characters’ relationships with the dead (both those they knew in life, and those they did not).
Create an “underground” “sub-culture” that resists or subverts the ways of the ordinary world.
Remove the character from the home world in order to challenge and change them.
Develop the rules, customs, and aims of your story culture; in particular, how their perception of death shapes their perception of life.
Explore the boundaries of the upper world.
Deepen your story world by portraying its inverted, mirror, or dark side.
Tap into a rich literary tradition.
When to write the underworld?
The underworld as world of adventure is usually entered soon after the character begins their engagement in the story. In the Hero’s Journey, this is in response to the Call to Adventure, when the character crosses the Threshold of Adventure and leaves the Ordinary World behind. The rest of the story takes place in this symbolic underworld, until the character crosses the Threshold once again and returns home.
A literal descent into the underworld is likely to take place much later in the story. In the Odyssey, the voyage to the land of the dead happens in Book 11, almost halfway into the 24-book poem.
A journey to the world of the dead is best undertaken when the character reaches a mental, emotional, or physical standstill in the story. Their work with the world of the living has progressed as far as it can, and in order to seek deeper truths, uncover secrets about themselves or their world, or achieve greater mastery, they need to overcome more difficult challenges.
A journey to the world of the dead is the ultimate challenge a character can overcome, which is why those who succeed in returning are revered in myths around the world. You can prepare your character for the journey by having them first undergo adventures that take them to locations symbolic of the underworld.
In the One Page Novel, the character enters the World of Adventure in the Quest, and emerges back into the Ordinary World in the Power (thus the two stages can be plotted as mirror opposites). However, a literal trip to the world of the dead might best be undertaken when the character is deeper in the underworld, particularly during the Shift and Defeat. The Shift suggests an overturning or inversion, and no location better symbolises a sense of loss and Defeat than the depths of Hell.
How to prepare for the Underworld?
In order to be ready for the underworld as World of Adventure, the character must acknowledge and respond to the Call to Adventure. This may be either…
An external motivator (something or someone else), or,
An internal motivator (the character themselves),
and their response may be…
Willing (they are convinced of the need to respond), or,
Unwilling (they are forced to respond).
In order to prepare to enter the underworld as World of the Dead, the character should be at a point in the story where…
They have experience of previous symbolic descents to the underworld.
They have tried their mental and physical powers and have achieved some success.
They have a very strong motivation for undertaking the journey, and this motivation manifests both internally and externally.
Additionally, the character may prepare in the same way they would when entering any dangerous situation. They may…
Pack essentials such as food, drink, clothes, shelter, power supplies, etc.
Bring protection such as bodyguards, talismans, or powerful creatures.
Leave instructions behind with a trusted companion as to what should be done if they haven’t returned by a set date, as Inanna does in Sumerian myth.
Complete a mini quest to win or collect a protective item, as Aeneas, who was told to obtain the golden bough.
Settle their affairs, such as their duties to their people, or their responsibilities to their dependants.
Say goodbye to loved ones.
What to do in the Underworld?
The character’s task(s) in the underworld may be to:
Try to bring a loved one back to the world of the living.
Commune with a loved one or a stranger who has died in order to:
Discover arcane or forbidden knowledge.
Learn a secret about themselves.
Parlay or plead with the gods on behalf of their world.
Retrieve a valuable item or creature (perhaps as part of a mini quest).
Sacrifice themselves or someone else, perhaps as replacement for one of the dead.
The Underworld as World of Adventure
In the Hero’s Journey, this is the world that the character enters by crossing the Threshold of Adventure. In The One Page Novel, this is the new world of the Quest. In opposition to the World of Adventure is the Ordinary World which is the familiar home that the character leaves behind (Stasis), and usually returns to at the end of the story (Resolution). The Ordinary World is the world of light, while the World of Adventure (being in the underworld) is characteristed by increasing darkness.
The World of Adventure is a conceptual story space, meaning it may not be an actual location in the story, but simply the part of the story where the character encounters new and complicated:
But often it’s easier for writers (especially within the constraints of genre) to turn the World of Adventure into an external location, and to physically remove the character to the new World. This also allows you to set up the important contrast and tension between the Ordinary World and the World of Adventure.
Leaving home to start university/boarding school
Starting a job at a new company
Moving to an unfamiliar location
Meeting someone in a strange neighbourhood
Setting off to discover an unkown part of the world
If you’re using a plot formula, identify the stages that belong to the World of Adventure/the Underworld.
What physical location symbolises the Underworld of Adventure in your story?
In this clip, Joseph Campbell describes a diagram which represents the self as a circle, intersected by a line representing the Threshold of Consciousness.
The Threshold of Adventure – that is, the symbolic division between the upper and lower worlds that the character crosses – is also the Threshold of Consciousness. In this sense, any descent into the underworld requires the character to face the fears and insecurities in their psyche. The story is the process of bringing to light the shadow self that has been relegated to the individual’s or the society’s unconscious, and integrating this shadow back into the whole.
Loss of consciousness is sometimes an initiatory act that mimics a symbolic death, and for this reason it can be a meaningful element of a ritual that allows passage to the underworld.
What has the character been unwilling to accept about themselves?
What has the character’s society been unwilling to accept about themselves?
How does the character commune with their subconscious?
Dissent & Descent
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.
– Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost
When something is secret, illicit or illegal, we tend to use language such as:
Under the counter
On the down-low
In contrast, we use language denoting “up” or “high” to express moral superiority:
Uprisings are put down, people who follow alternative ways of life are said to be part of sub-culture, and desires which contradict our social persona are relegated to the sub-conscious. Clearly there is a link between dissent and descent, and many writers have enjoyed the practice of overturning this order and making the underworld the site of life and light rather than death and darkness; chief among them, William Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Blake not only penned his own hellish proverbs and undermined the word of the Bible, he also reinterpreted the work of one of the greatest English poets (and perhaps of all poets) when he wrote:
Note. The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.
What is the accepted social order in your world?
Who goes against the social order? Who has been forced “underground”?
How are the inhabitants of the underworld morally superior?
Note: I’m dying to deconstruct this section, but I’ll leave that pleasure to you…
The Underworld as World of the Dead
While the World of Adventure is a story space, the World of the Dead is a physical location, although it can be either an internal or an external landscape. The World of the Dead is often the setting of the afterlife – the place where souls “live” after the body dies. But it can also be populated by characters who are spiritually “dead”, or who have been exiled, or who have chosen exile from the Ordinary World for various reasons.
In this sense, you can use a symbolic World of the Dead in your story without reference to a spiritual or paranormal explanation.
A distinction may be drawn between the underworld and the wasteland motifs in literature, where the underworld involves a willing descent and a quest to an existing location – usually to bring back some vital wisdom from the dead – while the wasteland often descends upon the character because of a (perceived) misdeed and transforms the world around them.
The prototype for the wasteland motif is the story of the Fisher King, whose ailing causes the land to become barren.The worlds of post-apocalyptic fiction, no-man’s-land in war fiction, haunted locations in ghost fiction, and corrupt corporations in crime fiction are common equivalents of the wasteland in modern literature. For the underworld journey (katabasis), at least for the Western literary tradition, the prototype is in Homer’s Odyssey.
The difference is subtle, and as a writer you’re welcome to ignore it, however…
If your characters spend most of the story in the “underworld”;
If your characters don’t journey to the world of the dead, but instead…
Their ordinary world transforms into the world of the dead;
and if the appearance of the world of the dead is linked to a character’s misdeeds,
… then you might want to consider developing the wasteland motif as distinct from the underworld.
Types of Literary Underworld
THE URBAN UNDERWORLD: One popular use of the World of the Dead is as a “criminal underworld”, occupying the dark and dingy corners of a city. But it’s important to remember that, while society may regard its inhabitants as criminals, from another point of view the inhabitants may very well be a group of marginalised, disenfranchised, misfit characters living in their own “ordinary world”.
The urban underworld may also be the home of unusual or supernatural people or creatures who have been forced “underground”. As such they may use sewers, underground/subway tunnels, basements, bunkers, or other subterranean urban structures.
The opium den in The Man With the Twisted Lip
Knockturn Alley in the Harry Potter series
London Below in Neverwhere
THE HEAVENLY UNDERWORLD: There may be some debate about whether this is really an underworld at all, because worthy, long-suffering, “good” characters are often seen ascending to a higher plane in the sky. This is usually depicted as the celestial abode of the “good” gods – such as the Olympians, and the Asgardians, and of course the unified deity of the monotheistic religions.
However, not all descents underground are dark, grim, or hellish. Many cultures imagined subterranean worlds of light. In Zoroastrian scripture, the king Yima, in order to avoid a cataclysm, creates an underground city or Vara lit by artificial light. In shamanic journeys, the shaman descends through a hole in the ground and emerges into a bright, sometimes watery underworld. In Ancient Egyptian mythology, the daily journey of the sun god, Ra, briefly brings light even to those grim nether regions of the Duat.
While for most characters the Heavenly Underworld is the end goal, for some it may represent boredom, being cut off from those they love, or a sense of unworthiness.
Avalon in the King Arthur legends
The Undying Lands (Valinor) in Lord of the Rings
Note: These examples are across the water rather than under the land, perhaps because the former represents a journey of hope and immortality, whereas the latter is more readily associated with death and burial.
THE HELLISH UNDERWORLD: Many religions foresee a painful end for those who don’t obey the rules, and the “hellish underworld” is where they end up. This is a world of eternal, sometimes fiery torment for wrong-doers. Often, each sinner’s punishment is tailored to them.
Hell in Paradise Lost
Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings
The Horcrux Cave in the Harry Potter series
THE GRIM UNDERWORLD: This is one of the most common literary underworlds because it offers a real chance of a “life”, though nothing on the scale of the Ordinary World. Sometimes the Grim Underworld is an adjunct to the Hellish one, and may be depicted as limbo or purgatory. Characters in this world may have unfinished business which they need to complete before transitioning on to another state.
But in other mythologies, such as in the Akkadian underworld, Kur, there is no final judgement, and the dead exist forever, with nothing to eat but dust.
The world of the dead in His Dark Materials
Pandaemonium in Paradise Lost
The underworld in Homer’s Odyssey
The land of the dead in The Earthsea Cycle
THE UNCANNY UNDERWORLD: Elements of the underworld are often inversions of the ordinary world. Sometimes these inversions overturn expectations, sometimes they subvert the traditions of the world of the living, and sometimes they literally turn things upside down. This can be useful for comical effect, but it can also impart an unsettling feeling.
The German word, unheimlich, is usually translated as “uncanny”, but also means, “unhomely”. This is particularly apt for the character who leaves their home world and travels to an underworld which bears the characteristics of a familiar setting, but in a way which renders them strange and disturbing.
Wonderland in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
The house in House of Leaves
Why do you want your characters to spend time in the underworld?
What do your characters need to accomplish in the underworld?
Which type of underworld, or combination of underworlds, is best suited to…
Your character’s aim?
Your story world?
Looking at depictions of the underworld of the dead in mythical and literary texts, it’s clear to see that they have been created by the living, and for the living.
For example, some myths stress the importance of the judgement of the soul, clearly in order to encourage people to live well and do good while they’re alive.
Others emphasise the harsh living conditions that are only alleviated by material wealth and proper burial in the upper world, perhaps to uphold the status of the rich, or of a worldly priesthood.
For yet other cultures the key is to bear many children and keep up a line of descendants, and so they teach people how their dead ancestors suffer without regular libations and offerings.
What is the most important social aim in your story world? Survival? Creation? Procreation? The accumulation of wealth?
What belief about the afterlife could uphold this aim and motivate the living to live accordingly?
Which type of underworld would be best suited to promote this social aim?
The Descent to the Underworld (katabasis)
First—hell is not so far underground—
My hair gets tangled in the roots of trees
& I can just make out the crunch of footsteps,
The pop of acorns falling, or the chime
Of a shovel squaring a fresh grave or turning
Up the tulip bulbs for separation.
“Katabasis” is the name given to the journey down to the underworld, or to the entire underworld adventure. The monomyth or “Hero’s Journey” presents the mythemes that may be encountered in a katabatic narrative, whether in the World of Adventure, or the World of the Dead, or both.
Broadly speaking, a journey to the underworld of the dead may include the following episodes:
Deciding to make the journey.
Searching for the entrance to the underworld.
Entering the underworld.
Meeting the guide to the underworld.
Paying the price for crossing.
Learning about the organisation of the underworld.
Meeting the souls of the dead.
Meeting the rulers of the underworld.
Obtaining the prize.
Journeying up out of the underworld…
And succeeding in returning to the ordinary world…
Or failing and remaining in the underworld forever.
A night-sea journey (in the “belly of the whale”) may also be a part of the katabasis, or it may be a separate episode.
The Entrance to the Underworld
The gates of hell are open night and day;
Smooth the descent, and easy is the way:
But to return, and view the cheerful skies,
In this the task and mighty labour lies.
– from Dryden’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid
The entrance to the world of the dead is often a conduit underground. Depending on the story, and the purpose of the katabasis, the entrance may be nearby, in a familiar location, or at the ends of the earth or sea. It may also be in plain sight, or hidden and accessible only to a few.
Alice, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, falls down a rabbit hole.
Professor Lidenbrock in Journey to the Centre of the Earth, finds a passage through an Icelandic volcano.
Percy Jackson, in The Lightning Thief, travels down an elevator in DOA (Dead On Arrival) Studios, Los Angeles.
Possible real or symbolic entrances to the underworld:
An adit/mine shaft
A tunnel/underground passage
The roots of a tree
A hole in the ground
An underground/metro/subway station
The purpose of a physical gateway to the world of the dead is to distinguish the katabatic journey from the usual method of entry – through death. However, it could also be possible to transport the character when they are unconscious, or dreaming.
Is the entrance to the underworld hidden or in the open? Why?
Is the existence of the entrance known to all or only a few? What are the consequences for those who know, and those who don’t?
Is the character reluctant to enter? Why or why not?
The Guide to the Underworld (psychopomp)
At the Threshold of Adventure, a figure conversant with the ways of the underworld will appear to guide the character. This figure is often an animal or a therianthrope, but may also be human or divine. Sometimes the guide is an aspect of the traveller themselves, such as their soul, or anima/animus, as is the case in His Dark Materials when the children meet their personal death.
The guide may also be someone the character knew in life, in person or by reputation, as with Dante’s guides, Beatrice and Virgil.
Some mythological guides are:
Hermes/Mercury – ancient Greek/Roman messenger
Azrael – Jewish & Islamic angel of death
Anubis – ancient Egyptian god of the dead & embalming
The Grim Reaper – human personification of death
The guide may point out and describe…
The organisation of the underworld
The various divisions of the underworld
The souls of the famous, or infamous dead
The rulers of the underworld
The rules that govern the underworld
Who knows enough about the underworld to guide your character?
What are their feelings towards each other?
How good is the guide? What do they reveal, and what do they hide?
It’s also a common motif for the passage to the underworld to require a price of entry. In Ancient Egypt, people were buried with valuable objects for this very purpose, and in Ancient Greece, it was customary to place a coin in the dead person’s mouth or on their lips specifically to pay Charon, the ferryman of Hades.
There may also be a non-monetary price on knowledge from the underworld, famously in the form of the Faustian “bargain with the devil”, but also in prayers or offerings to the gods, or in the exchange of news or promises with the dead. For example, in order to speak to the dead, Odysseus pours libations on the ground, and vows to sacrifice animals when he returns home. In return for the wisdom of the runes, Odin gives up one of his eyes.
In some cases, the price may be even heavier, as a life for a life.
What is the price for entering the underworld?
How willing is the character to pay it?
How do they try to bargain?
The Rules of the Underworld
Do not put on clean clothes,
Lest the (dead) heroes will come forth like enemies;
Do not anoint thyself with the good oil of the vessel,
Lest at its smell they will crowd about thee.
Do not throw the throw-stick in the nether world,
Lest they who were struck down by the throw-stick will surround thee;
Do not carry a staff in thy hand,
Lest the shades will flutter all about thee.
Often the underworld will have its own special laws that are not governed by the logic of the ordinary world.
One rule that holds in the underworld of the Persephone myth is that anyone who eats the food of the underworld is doomed to remain there for eternity. Another rule is that only those who have died are allowed in, and that no one is allowed out. Obvious, in a sense, and the crux of the katabatic character’s conflict, but their ability to succeed in their task and return to the world of the living will depend on their finding a loophole, or a compromise in the rules that govern the underworld.
In the World of Adventure, the character will often enter into a new society with different laws, priorities, and expectations than their home world, and their task will be first of all to learn the ways of the new world, and then to gain proficiency in them, and finally to synthesise them with the old world view.
What rules can make the character’s work more difficult?
How can the character bend or break the rules to get what they need?
What are the consequences of bending or breaking the rules?
The Geography of the Underworld
Thetis baptized her mortal son in Styx;
A mortal mother would on Lethe fix.
– from Don Juan (IV,4) by Lord Byron
Descriptions of the world of the dead often emphasise its vastness. If it is to contain the souls of every person who has ever died, the underworld needs to be much larger than the world of the living. This makes the underworld inherently suited to epic poetry. Even so, most writers feel the need to place some sort of order and division on the underworld.
In designing your underworld, you might consider…
LEVELS: Dante famously divides his inferno into nine concentric circles, each one featuring a different sin and its punishment. This allows him to deal systematically with the dead.
GATES: In the myth of Inanna’s descent, the Sumerian underworld has seven gates, and at each gate the traveller is stripped of a possession. This repetition is a way of showing the difficulty of the task, and of distancing the character from the world of the living.
LANDSCAPE: In Greek/Roman mythology, the River Styx formed the boundary of the underworld, and the dead were ferried across it by the boatman, Charon. Using natural features mirrors the ordinary world and makes the underworld feel uncanny.
CITIES: Milton, in Paradise Lost, describes the creation of Pandaemonium, the capital city of Hell. Again, this gives the reader an ordinary world order they understand, and which they can easily compare and contrast to their own.
The Inhabitants of the Underworld
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?
– from A Supermarket in California by Allen Ginsberg
In populating your underworld, you might consider…
THE GUARDS: often ferocious, mythical creatures wait at the gates of the underworld, such as the three-headed dog Cerberus in Greek mythology, or the Cŵn Annwn, or hounds of hell of Celtic myth. The lion-hippopotamus-crocodile Ammit of Ancient Egyptian belief fed on the souls of those who failed the judgement of Anubis. These terrifying creatures can safeguard the treasures of the underworld, and attest to the powers of those who can get past them.
THE BOATMAN (or FERRYMAN): Charon, the boatman who ferried the souls of the dead across the River Styx in Hades, is one of the best-known inhabitants of the underworld. Perhaps the idea of a chthonic river is particularly evocative? Or maybe it’s the story of the ferryman himself?
THE UNNAMED, UNNUMBERED DEAD: with such a vast number of departed souls, the most difficult task may be describing the sheer extent of the crowd in the underworld. This may impart a sense of awe, helplessness, or insignificance. On the other hand, it may also spur a character on to escape back to the ordinary world.
THE FAMED OR FAMILIAR DEAD: creating the contrast between the vast crowd of souls and the few who are recognisable and important to the katabatic character can be a way to heighten the emotional impact of the journey. It can also work to comic effect, depending on the exchange!
THE RULERS: They may be monarchs, military leaders, political leaders, or any character who mirrors or mocks the power structure of the ordinary world. The underworld is sometimes governed by a sibling of the ruler of the world of the living, to emphasise the opposition, but also the close bond that ties the two worlds together, as is the case with Hades and Zeus (Pluto and Jupiter), and Ereshkigal and Inanna.
THE RULERS’ CONSORT: Many chthonic gods and goddesses choose consorts from the world of the living. This can develop their own backstory, as well as serving the usual mythical function of explaining various seasonal phenomena.
THE JUDGES: The judges are sometimes the rulers themselves, but sometimes a separate deity or entity is chosen to judge the souls of the dead and find them worthy or unworthy to move on. This judgement is a great source of suspense, and can reveal a lot about the society, as previously discussed.
The Communion with the Dead (nekyia)
O, that it were possible we might
But hold some two days’ conference with the dead!
– from The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster
Talking to the dead is one of the chief concerns of katabatic travellers. We all have at least one person we long to meet again, but communion in the underworld usually comes with its own challenges.
In the Odyssey, Odysseus must hold the souls back from feeding on his blood offering, until after he has learned what he needs from Tiresias.
In the Aeneid, Aeneas tries to embrace his mother, only to discover that she is no more than a shade.
There is a sense of urgency caused by the difficulty of maintaining communication, and staying alive in an environment meant for the dead. And no matter how long the character spends with their loved ones in the world of the dead, it is never enough…
The communion with the dead can also be a way for the character to uncover messages from their own subconscious, especially in discovering knowledge or resources that they already possess but are consciously unaware of. This is often the revelation that allows the character to rise up out of the underworld in the Power.
The Return from the Underworld (anabasis)
This lyre lark is for the birds, said Orpheus
It’s enough to send you bats
Let’s stay down here, Eurydice, dear
And we’ll have a bunch of screaming brats
– from The Lyre of Orpheus by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Characters who manage to navigate the underworld successfully, and complete the task for which they made the journey, eventually emerge back into the ordinary world, in a real or symbolic resurrection. However, sometimes the return journey is even more difficult than the entry, since escaping the world of the dead is not the natural way of things.
In the monomyth, Joseph Campbell describes several mythical events that might occur:
Refusal of the return – the character may decide to stay in the underworld rather than returning to the ordinary world bearing the elixir of life.
The magic flight – the character may be magically transported up out of the underworld, often pursued by a supernatural being who wants to keep them trapped. In response, the character may jettison items to try to slow the pursuit.
Rescue from without – the character may be saved by another supernatural being, or by someone from the ordinary world who “pulls them up” and out of the underworld.
Nor is the character’s work done when they are back in the ordinary world. Their task is then to disseminate the knowledge that they have brought back from the dead, in order to help improve their society. In terms of their own life, they will often take some time to adjust to the ordinary world, which has not only changed while they were away, but which has also shifted due the new perspective they’ve gained through their katabasis.
It’s not unusual for a character to fail to integrate the teachings of the underworld. And so begins the journey anew…