A novel has hundreds of pages to get you involved in the characters’ lives and to transform you to another world, all to leave you with a great ending that you’re thinking about weeks—maybe even years—later.
In a short story, you have to do all that in a few pages. It’s no wonder most of the “new” writers I know would rather write novels. Short stories may be small, but they are mighty. (Not to mention they are a great way to keep up a writing habit.)
Chances are your favorite author started their writing career by writing short stories. Big names and favorite writers like Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, Shirley Jackson, Louisa May Alcott, and Sylvia Plath are all short story writers.
I’ve talked about coming up with ideas, plotting, and some key elements of short stories. Now it’s time to stop dilly-dallying and get to writing. This article covers three successful short story tips and strategies to write a short story.
Evolving My Short Story Writing Process
I’m going to be honest: I do not use the same writing process for every story I write. And I really don’t think my fellow short story writers do either.
Each story feels different. There is a different inspiration. There are different life circumstances. There are different writerly moods.
In the introduction to American Gods, Neil Gaiman quotes Gene Wolfe, who told him,
“You never learn how to write a novel. You only learn to write the novel you’re on.”
This goes double for short stories, I think. I’ve never written two the same way. Sometimes I outline, sometimes I don’t, and sometimes I fall somewhere in between. Sometimes I don’t have anything but a first line; sometimes nothing but a character.
That said, there are three basic strategies to get those words on the paper. Over time, you’ll develop your favorites, mash up different strategies, and probably invent your own. Everyone’s creative writing process is different.
Whether you’re new to writing short stories, or are a veteran and just want to mix it up, here are three ways to get you started writing a short story:
Not every short story writer’s process will be the same. Here are three writing strategies to help you write a short story.
Writers who consider themselves “pantsters” vs. plotters don’t know much about the direction of their story before they start writing. They like to write by the “seat of their pants” and follow their characters where they go.
Sit down. Write the story. Do not stop writing the story. Do not do research. Do not take a break. Write the story from beginning to end, as fast as you can.
This method seems the easiest, but it can take some work later down the line. This is the most likely to end up lacking structure. It’s also the most likely to make the writer feel like their muse is riding along with them.
When I write this way, it’s because of a random idea that pops into my head, not because of writing prompts or anything like that. These stories are never written during my blocked-out writing time. They’re highly inconvenient little beasts, but oh, so satisfying. This is why pantsers pants—for this feeling.
If you write this way, be prepared for heavy edits. But don’t worry too much if this is your preferred way to write.
Story structure comes more naturally the more you practice it and the editing won’t be as daunting after you’ve got a couple of dozen stories under your belt.
For Plotters: A Mixture of Snowflake and Structure
Plotters know everything that happens in their story before they start the writing process. They have an extensive outline.
The basic idea is to write a few sentences telling the whole story. (Six sentences to be exact, though you could start with eighteen if you wanted to have two sentences for each step.) These six sentences are essentially the story outline. Then you expand those sentences into paragraphs, and then those paragraphs into pages.
There’s a formula for this that will help you identify a series of events that drives the plot:
Sentence 1: The setup. Give the reader a single character and a setting.
Sentence 2: Things get weird. Something happens to the character that’s out of the norm.
Sentence 3: Things get worse. The situation escalates.
Sentence 4: Things get even worse. The situation gets even worse.
Sentences 5: The climax. Your character changes their approach and solves the problem.
Sentence 6: The wrapup. Shows the reader the new “normal” for the character.
Want to see this in action?
Sentence 1: On Christmas Eve in London, an aging miser goes home to an empty house.
Sentence 2: His dead business partner shows up and tells him he will be visited by three ghosts.
Sentence 3: The first ghost shows him his happy past and how his happiness was ruined by selfishness.
Sentence 4: The second ghost shows him the present, and he softens slightly but doesn’t think there’s anything he can do about it.
Sentence 5: The third ghost shows him the future, and he realizes he has to change his ways or he will die alone.
Sentence 6: He wakes up on Christmas Day a changed man, determined to help those around him.
I’m sure you figured out this is Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, which is a little long (around 30,000 words, I think) to be considered a short story, but it works anyway.
Why? Because these six sentences are the six elements of plot and the basic elements of story structure. You could do this for every type of writing, every book, and every short story (and I encourage you to try it).
The basics are here. The next step is to expand on these sentences and make them into six paragraphs and then six pages.
With each iteration, more information, backstory, description, and dialogue are added until it is a complete story.
Note: If you are looking to be a flash fiction writer, this method, in my experience works best. Since flash is so short, you don’t have much room at all to add anything. Getting that six-sentence outline and expanding it into about six paragraphs will get you a tight piece of flash fiction with all the elements of story in there.
For Plansters: The What If Question
Plantsers are people who do a little outlining, but mainly like to write by the seat of their pants.
I talked extensively about the value of using the “What if?” question when writing in a previous article.
The What If question is my all-time favorite way of producing short stories. It’s got the spontaneity of pantsing, but gives a bit of structure to the writing process so editing isn’t such a mess.
In summary, this method employs a question-and-answer session to solve the story’s problems. What if X happened to this character? Then A would happen. And then B would happen. And ultimately C would happen.
In the case of old Scrooge, it would go something like this:
X: What if a ghost visited this old miser and said he was going to be visited by a whole group of other ghosts to teach him a lesson?
A: He wouldn’t listen to what the first ghost was trying to teach him.
B: He would kind of get the point with the second ghost, but still think he’s not at fault.
C: He would realize he’d better be nicer to people or literally no one is going to care when he dies.
I’ve listed three short story tips to go about the process of physically writing a short story, but one of the most important parts of the process of writing any type of story is to get feedback in writing communities.
As you develop your creative writing skills, you’ll write more compelling stories (and maybe even get some published!). But you can’t develop your skills in a vacuum; you need fellow writers to help you along by giving you feedback and support.
Successful authors rely on writing communities, and you should too.
Find Your Short Story Writing Process
These are just three of the countless ways you can write a short story. Not only is each writer different, but each story is different.
I can guarantee that as you move through your writing career, you’ll hone your own process. And probably come across times where your own process just doesn’t work and you have to develop some other way of doing the same thing.
Short stories are a great way to experiment with the writing process, as well as experiment with structure, voice, style, tone, pretty much anything that goes into writing.
If you have no idea what your writing process is as of yet, I encourage you to try one (or all three!) of the above methods. Let’s get writing!
What short story tips help you write short stories? Let us know in the comments.
When you think about the key elements of storytelling, characters and plot immediately come to mind, but what about the setting? Do you view it as 1) a vital story component, or 2) just the place where story events happen?
If you picked 1, nice job. If you picked 2, no worries. Go here, scroll down, and buckle in. Reading through these setting articles will transform the way you view the setting.
The setting tied to each scene carries a lot of storytelling weight because it had the power to touch and amplify anything to do with characters, events, and emotion. Used correctly, a location can characterize the story’s cast, steer the plot, evoke emotions and mood, create windows to allow for active backstory sharing, provide conflict and challenges, and act as a mirror for what the protagonist needs most, reinforcing his motivation at every step.
When it comes down to it, the setting is storytelling magic. What other element can do so much to enhance a story?
Here are five mistakes with settings that can drain power from your story.
1) Treating The Setting Like Stage Dressing
Each setting holds great power, deepening the action as it unfolds and characterizing the story’s cast during the scene. If we only use a few words to summarize the location, it can really impact the reader’s ability to connect with the characters and what’s happening. Vivid, concrete details not only help readers feel like they’re right there, planting specific description and symbolism within the setting also adds layers to the story itself.
2) Focusing On Only One Sense
Another common struggle for writers is choosing to describe through a single sense, specifically sight. While we rely heavily on this sense in real life, our world is multisensory, and our job as writers is to make our fictional landscape as rich and realistic as the real thing.
We want to make each scene come alive for readers so they feel like they are right there next to the protagonist, experiencing the moment as he or she does. This means including sounds which add realism, smells which trigger the reader’s emotional memories and help create “shared experiences,” tastes that allow for unique exploration, and textures that will shed light on what’s important to the character through their emotional state.
Textures are especially critical to include, as a point of view character must directly interact with the setting to bring it about, and every action in the story should have purpose. What they touch should have a “why” attached to it, revealing the POV character’s mindset, and showing, rather than telling, readers what’s really important in the scene.
3) Over-Describing Or Describing The Wrong Things
Sometimes in our enthusiasm to draw readers into the scene, we go a little crazy when it comes to describing. Trying to convey every feature, every angle, every facet of the setting will not only smash the pace flat, it will likely cause the reader to skim. And, if they skim, they are missing all that great description you’ve worked so hard to include. So, to avoid over-describing or focusing on the wrong details, try to make each bit of description earn the right to be included.
It isn’t just about showing the scene—the weather, the lighting, the colors and shapes—it’s also about offering detail that does double duty somehow. Ask yourself, is the detail I want to include doing something more than showing the reader where the characters are? Is it also characterizing, evoking mood, reminding the POV character of his goal and why he wants it so bad? Is this detail creating a challenge in some way, standing between the character and his goal? Is it helping to convey his emotional state, or does it symbolize something important within the context of the story?
Setting description should always be adding to the scene, revealing more about the characters as it helps to push the story forward.
4) Not taking Advantage of POV & Emotion Filters
Another area that can water down the effect of setting description is a very distanced narrative where every detail is explained, rather than shown through the emotional filter of the POV character. A character who is anxious is going to view the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of any given setting differently than a character who is excited, or disappointed, or even filled with gratitude.
Being able to filter the character’s world through their senses and emotions helps to pull the reader close to the character, and creates a deeper understanding of who they are, laying the groundwork for empathy.
5) Choosing A Setting That Is Convenient Rather Than Meaningful
Because the setting can steer the story, evoke emotion, remind the hero or heroine of missing needs and create a window into past pain, we need to get specific when we choose a location. Three questions to ask ourselves as we hunt for the perfect place is 1) what is the outcome of this scene, 2) how can I use the setting to generate conflict and tension (good or bad) to really amp up what is about to take place, and 3), how can I create an emotional value in this setting?
Emotional values—settings which mean something to one or more characters– are especially important. For example, imagine a character who is about to be interviewed for an important job. He’s confident because he’s got the skills they need, and the experience this company covets. His potential employer decides on an informal lunch interview, and our character is eager to impress. A restaurant setting makes sense…but why would we choose just any old restaurant for this scene to take place? Instead, let’s pick the very same restaurant where our character proposed to his girlfriend two years earlier and was rejected. By having this interview take place in this particular restaurant, we have created an emotional value—it represents something to the character: rejection.
Choosing this restaurant will put our character off balance, and the echoes of his past failure will be with him during the interview. This will almost certainly affect his behavior, creating tension and conflict. Will he get the job? Will he blow the interview? The outcome is now uncertain. Take the time to choose the best location for each scene, because the storytelling currency will be well worth the effort!
The setting is a powerful component to storytelling, but only if we fully activate it. So when you choose a setting, consider carefully how the right location can amp up the tension and point the reader’s attention to the very things you want them to notice, be it a symbol in your setting, your character’s behavior because the setting is activating their emotions somehow, or a danger or obstacle tied to the setting that’s about to challenge your character and disrupt their progress to their goal.
I had one of those English Literature teachers who’d bellow ‘To know a word is to define a word!’ This means I always look first at the dictionary. Here’s what it says about mystery:
A novel, play, or film dealing with a puzzling crime, especially a murder.
“the 1920s murder mystery, The Ghost Train”
This is an okay definition. Whilst mystery typically involves a crime – Agatha Christie is STILL the queen of the genre – it’s the ‘puzzling’ nature that is most important.
Typically there will be a BIG REVEAL at the end when the person BEHIND IT ALL is unveiled. Mysteries tend to be cerebral on this basis.
Here’s what the dictionary says about this one:
A literary or film genre concerned with arousing feelings of horror.
“a horror film”
In other words, we want to be SCARED by Horror. That tracks! So far, so good.
Horrors tend to lay out the potential threat from the beginning: a creature, a serial killer, a haunted house, etc. This means in a Horror we are principally VOYEURS. We sign up to watch terrible things happen to people.
In certain subgenres, this is obvious. So-called ‘torture porn’ movies like the SAW franchise invite us to witness murder and mayhem in ever-increasingly spattering ways.
But even in less grotesquely flamboyant horror, the story will relate to a cultural, base fear most of us have.
Fears for our children (especially them dying); fears of being taken away/sent into a hell-like place; fears of being out of control; about sex, rape, pregnancy or other violations; of being eaten alive, being dismembered, or burned alive.
What’s more, these types of story feel unstable and make us worry FOR the characters in it … And yes, maybe even freak out when said characters are attacked and/or killed. This is why groups of characters picked off one by one can be so popular in horror stories.
A novel, play, or film with an exciting plot, typically involving crime or espionage.
“a tense thriller about a diamond heist that goes badly wrong”
This is less illuminating. After all, mystery can involve crime or espionage too … Plus there’s lots of thrillers that do neither of these things. Now what??
Wait! The keyword in this definition is ‘exciting’. As the name ‘thriller’ suggests, our story just needs to THRILL. This usually happens with some kind of deadline as a ‘race against time’: a chase, if you will.
In contrast to Horror, the Thriller invites the viewer to put themselves in the protagonist’s place. The story will ask, ‘What would YOU do?’.
*Something* is happening – but the characters in the center often don’t know exactly what and/or why. They will chase after this mystery in order to solve it – whether it’s a conspiracy, a supernatural occurrence, an abduction, or something else.
Thrillers typically relate to a more intellectual fear most of us have, such as our children being kidnapped; of abduction/being held hostage; of living in an unsafe home; having our identities stolen; being watched or persecuted in some way; of authorities who cannot be trusted, such as governments, teachers, or medical staff. This is why the lone protagonist in a Thriller is so popular.
So what’s the breakdown here?
A Mystery needs a BIG REVEAL of whom is BEHIND IT ALL (usually at the ending, but not always)
Mysteries tend to be puzzles that need to be solved
Horrors often focus on groups of people, picked off one by one
Thrillers don’t tend to be Horrors (since Horrors lay out the threat from the beginning)
In a Thriller, we sign up for the CHASE
Thrillers often focus on lone protagonists who are ‘up against it’
Thrillers tend to be ‘races against time’
Mysteries may be Thrillers as well, or they may not
A Big Question
I believe we can decide what our novels are by asking one BIG question …
‘… Do I want to keep my antagonist hidden until the ending or not?’
If you don’t want to keep the antagonist hidden, you’re probably writing a horror. This is because you need to establish the threat from the outset.
If you DO want to keep your antagonist hidden for that BIG REVEAL, then you’re probably writing a mystery or thriller.
(Of course this will depend on the story, we’re talking generalizations here … but from my work with writers, it’s surprising how often this question works!).
Learn the Conventions
So, if you’re writing a Horror, obviously your novel needs to be scary. A good way of studying the conventions of Horror is by considering why your favorite Horror novels scared *you*.
In my case, Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill scared me so much it took me a whopping three weeks to read it because I kept getting creeped out!
The story of a washed-up rock star who buys a ghost on the internet he then can’t get rid of, the threat in Heart-Shaped Box is established early on. Hill piles of dread by the ton, making even the smallest moments seem frightening. As the chapters build towards a bloody, crescendo ending, we can’t be sure anyone will get out alive.
If you’re writing a thriller or mystery, it’s slightly different. Personally, I favor mystery elements in Thriller (if not a full-blown mystery) because I love twists. This may – or may not – feed your BIG REVEAL, it’s up to you.
But if you’re hiding your antagonist’s true intentions, you need to be careful. One of the biggest issues B2W sees when writers try this is they hold the antagonist back BUT don’t replace that role function with another. This then means there’s a big fat hole where ‘nothing happens’.
Devices such as red herrings, misdirection, working theories, a stooge antagonist, etc. will help you write a satisfying plot AND compelling characters in your thriller or mystery.
In other words, stuff that **stands in for the perp** … ’til we get to the actual perp.
You can do this no matter what genre or type of story you are writing. Immerse yourself in the mystery genre via mystery novels, movies, & police procedurals to guide you.
As a writer of fiction, you want readers to open your book and become so absorbed they can’t put it down. It helps to be aware that so much of what happens when a reader picks up a book takes place in the subconscious mind. Readers don’t realize that it’s happening, and many writers don’t pay attention to it either.
One of those largely subconscious mechanisms is story pacing.
Story pacing is often ignored as an aspect of learning how to craft a really great story. A lot of writers don’t give it much thought, yet it’s a critically important writing technique and quite exciting to learn about.
In this post, we’ll cover story pacing in detail, and I’ll provide some crucial areas for you to work on in your books—to open up some doors you didn’t even know existed.
Story Pacing Opened My Eyes
One of the primary ways we learn how to craft story is from reading a ton of books, especially in our target genre. I’ve been an avid reader of suspense fiction for as long as I can remember, and it’s been a huge boost to my writing abilities.
So when I started writing thrillers, I felt fairly confident about my skills. I knew I had an exciting storyline, with intriguing plot points supported by well-developed characters and plenty of action.
That’s why I was so surprised when my mentor took a look at one of my stories and said: “It’s not a thriller.”
He told me I had all the right stuff for a thriller, but the pacing was off. After he showed me the same techniques that I’ll share with you in this article, I was able to give the story a better sense of urgency, shaping it into a solid thriller.
With the help of this post, you can do the same with your stories.
What is Story Pacing?
You may be thinking that story pacing is simply the tempo at which your story unfolds. True enough, on the surface. But the deeper reality is that pacing is the art of keeping readers engaged in your story and not letting them out. It’s what pulls them through to the end.
Here’s another way to think about it. In a ThrillerFest panel discussion on the topic of pacing, Lee Child said:
“Every book you’ve ever read has a timeline; it starts somewhere and finishes somewhere. Pacing is how you manage that timeline.”
He goes on to talk about how he writes the slow parts fast and the fast parts slow. Meaning he operates like a photo editor reporting on a tidal wave. The editor shows the wave coming in at a tremendous pace and then slows down the tape as it crashes into the seawall to intensify the impact and examine it in greater detail.
As writers, we have the ability to speed and slow the rate at which our readers consume a story. You can learn those techniques and master the art of pacing by structuring your story according to genre.
Pacing is Inextricably Connected With Genre
Being clear about genre is really critical to the reader’s enjoyment of your story.
To make my point, I’ll tell you about this little trick my husband likes to pull on me. Sometimes when we stop at a gas station, he’ll disappear inside and come out with a large cup and offer me the straw. Though I never know what to expect, I can’t help but form some kind of preconceived anticipation.
So maybe I’m thinking root beer or Dr. Pepper. I take a drink and—Yuck! That’s awful! What is it? And he might say it’s Squirt. Well, I like Squirt, but since it’s not what my taste buds were expecting, it disappointed.
It’s the same with genre.
Readers start a story with certain expectations, they want a particular type of reading experience. That’s why genres exist. To help readers make good choices about what they want to read.
Pacing is dependent on genre and genre springs from pacing. Like the chicken and the egg, you can’t really separate them. The genre you choose to write will dictate the story pacing and the way you pace your book will determine the genre.
If a reader picks up a thriller and the story doesn’t have fast pacing like a thriller should, they’ll put the book down or finish it in disgust and never go back to that writer’s work. Same with a cozy mystery or a slow-burn psychological suspense.
And the reader won’t even consciously register what was wrong with it. They’ll just know it disappointed.
Pacing in Mysteries, Thrillers, and Suspense
Let’s think of a story’s pacing like a theme park ride. When you visit a theme park, you know the kind of rides you want to experience. The ferris wheel is fun and so is the Tilt-a-Whirl, but they move at different paces. Story pacing is like that, too.
Use this analogy to take a closer look at how the pacing differs in thrillers, suspense stories, and mysteries. Each genre is a joy to read, but the experience each provides is unique.
Thrillers are roller coaster rides. You get in and strap down and then the coaster pulls slowly out of the station and starts chugging up that first hill. This is like character development, grounding the reader in the setting, and building the suspense.
By the time your reader is solidly inside the viewpoint character’s head and has learned to care about that character, we’ve reached the top of that first big drop and we plummet ahead on a wild ride of twists and turns with an occasional breather while the story builds to another thrilling drop.
Thrillers are made of fast-paced scenes.
Mysteries are more like the funhouse. They’re designed to surprise, challenge, and amuse with puzzles to solve and riddles to unravel. They’re more interactive than a thrill ride, inviting readers to participate in working out the clues.
We may have to work our way through a revolving tunnel or cross a crazy obstacle course. And there may be spurts of fast-paced activity, but the overall tone of the ride doesn’t have the frenetic qualities of a roller coaster.
Mysteries move at a moderate pace.
We might liken suspense stories to the spooky rides where you ride on a track through a series of dark and mysterious passages, accompanied by scary music and lots of atmosphere.
Some of these rides are slow, drawing out the suspense, giving you time to worry and wonder about what’s coming next. Other rides move more quickly, giving you less time to recover from the unexpected each time you turn the corner.
Suspense stories vary in pace and run the gamut.
Pacing Influences the Reader’s Experience
As with most aspects of good fiction writing, intentional story pacing provides a quality reading experience. Proper pacing allows us to control what the reader thinks and feels. We do that in obvious ways, not so obvious ways, and some really subconscious ways. As I mentioned before, a lot of pacing is effectively a subconscious control system.
We’re going to look at the nuts and bolts of pacing, but unless you realize their purpose and understand the end goal, you won’t get full value from using these tools.
The way the page looks—sentence and paragraph structure, punctuation, amount of white space—sends signals to the reader about how to consume the story. Page appearance is important in pacing a book correctly.
So, before we dig into the specifics, we need to cover an absolutely key component of successful pacing.
Form Follows Content
If you’re wondering how to structure your sentences and paragraphs, look at your content. What’s going on in the story?
What is the character thinking or feeling in that moment? What should the reader be experiencing? These are what will tell you how long or short to make your sentences, paragraphs, and scenes.
In general, longer sentences promote slow-burn suspense while shorter sentences can create a frantic feeling of panic. But the number one rule to remember in story pacing is this: form must follow content.
This means that what’s happening in the story should be reflected in the way it looks on the page.
If there’s a fight scene, or some kind of fast-paced action going on, the sentences and paragraphs should be short, clipped, and surrounded by white space. If your character is arriving in a new setting and taking it in, these descriptive passages will be slower, with longer sentences and paragraphs.
Flashbacks also slow the pace as you pull the reader from the active voice of the story into a more introspective vein.
Ask yourself what’s happening, and make your form fit your content.
Some people, when they hear the term pacing, think it means fast. And in suspense fiction, that’s often what readers want. But there’s nothing wrong with an occasional slow-paced scene if that’s what the content calls for.
Good pacing is about choosing the appropriate speed to advance your reader through the plot. And that’s dictated by the genre, tone, and events of the story. “ Story pacing is about choosing the appropriate speed to advance your reader through the plot. And that’s dictated by the genre, tone, and events of the story. Tweet thisTweet
Feel free to throw out the rules of grammar if they get in the way of pacing and presenting the story. Fiction writing doesn’t always require full, grammatically correct sentences. Those rules exist to serve the story, and the story exists to serve the reader. Our job, as writers, is to serve the reader in the best way we know how. And sometimes that means breaking the rules.
Now let’s dive into the specific techniques used in pacing. We’ll look at four big ideas:
Scene and chapter structure
The way you structure a scene’s sentences sends a message to the reader, usually on a subconscious level, about how fast to read. And the content of the scene will dictate the form.
Longer sentences, with lots of detail, tend to slow the pace and that’s perfect, if that’s what the content requires. Short, staccato sentences—even sentence fragments or single-word sentences with lots of white space in between—convey a fast pace. Machine gun dialogue—those terse conversations say, during a car chase—does the same thing. It speeds the pace.
Often, when there is physical movement in the story, the sentences will be shorter and when things are stationary, they’ll be longer. But that’s a generalization. Always base form on content. That’s really the only rule. Your job is to tell a story, and all the little pieces you use to do so should follow that story.
How pacing works in sentence structure
The energy of a sentence is in its kernel, subject + verb:
The woman screamed.
Sometimes you’ll need to include an object and indirect object:
The woman screamed obscenities at the burglar.
But keep in mind that any clauses you add will drain some of the energy:
The woman screamed obscenities at the burglar, cursing him for tracking mud on her Persian carpet, berating him for breaking the window.
Remember, that’s okay if it’s called for by the content. What’s going on, and how do you want the reader to feel about it? Also, be aware of rhythm. In your sentence lengths and structure, you’re setting up a cadence which conveys a certain kind of tone.
The best way to learn the structures, rhythms, and cadences of well-written scenes is to read a lot and seriously study those who have mastered your genre’s story pacing.
Action is content. If you’re writing an action scene, you can often get away with less detail and shorter sentences. Content calls for them.
But two people sitting and talking doesn’t usually qualify as action. For moments like this, to keep the reader tucked into the story, you need to use more rich, sensory details that spark emotions and opinions. Which means longer sentences.
This doesn’t mean that if the pace of the story is fast you need to leave details out. Remember, you must tell the story—everything the reader needs to get the full experience. But if the pace is fast, you must deliver the information in a more clear, concise fashion.
Are you picking up on the major theme of pacing? Content drives everything. “ Content drives the pace of your story—content drives everything. Tweet thisTweet
When a reader opens a book and sees a lot of black on the page—long blocks of text—that sends a message that it should be consumed at a leisurely pace. Short paragraphs with lots of white space around them signals a fast-moving page-turner.
It encourages fast reading.
The way you structure sentences and paragraphs will influence your reader’s breathing and physical state to some extent. Even when not reading out loud, we tend to breathe in conjunction with the words on the page, and faster breathing leads to a faster heart rate.
Lots of short, punchy paragraphs literally make your book a page-turner because your reader’s eye devours them and quickly moves on. Yet, in some cases, a long, run-on sentence can leave your reader breathless, since there’s no place to pause and take a breath.
Normally-paced text varies in paragraph length. It might go from a four-line paragraph to a three-line paragraph, then five lines followed by two, and so on. About ninety percent of most books, except for climactic scenes, run along in this sort of pattern. It’s interesting to the eye and doesn’t contain lengthy, intimidating paragraphs.
This will vary by genre. Literary works will tend toward longer paragraphs, while genres such as action adventure and thrillers contain only sixty to sixty-five percent “normal” story pacing. This utilizes a lot more white space and shorter sentences and paragraphs.
Use the power of the paragraph. Especially with faster-paced fiction. Hit the return key as often as necessary. Set short, punchy sentences apart for greater impact when the situation calls for it. This is a powerful technique.
How pacing works in paragraph structure
To further explore how paragraph structure affects reader experience, let’s take an excerpt from the thriller-paced short story Kowalski’s In Love by James Rollins. In this first example, I took the liberty of restructuring the paragraphs to reflect normal pacing:
Now, see how it appeared in the published version:
Do you see how the shorter paragraphs facilitate a faster pace? Notice how they give more impact to the short sentences, which stand alone in their own paragraphs.
Scene and Chapter Structure
When you write, your scenes and chapters should drive the story forward and accomplish story objectives. Where you break them should not be random, but based on content.
You should be aware, however, that readers can bog down if the chapters are too long. Most readers are comfortable with chapter lengths between 2,000 and 2,500 words. Shawn Coyne, editor and author of The Story Grid, calls these “potato chip” chapters because they’re short enough to encourage readers to indulge in just one more before turning out the light.
And then, just one more…
It’s also useful to vary the lengths of your sentences, paragraphs, and scenes to avoid falling into a monotonous pattern. It’s important to realize that readers have an instinctive sense of story pacing, and when the pacing is congruent with the content, it feels right. If something is out of sync, they’ll sense that, too.
For example, years ago, when I read Connie Willis’s WWII time travel book, Blackout, I grew increasingly uncomfortable as I neared the end. Something was wrong. The pacing was off, and I realized my instincts were on target as the book came to an abrupt end—in the middle of the story.
The publishers had decided the book was too long and their solution was to chop it into two parts without any warning to the reader. I, along with thousands of other readers, was not pleased.
You want to do all you can to give readers confidence in your storytelling abilities. When they feel like they’re in good hands, readers will settle into a story and stick with it. Putting in the effort to get the pacing right will pay dividends in gaining reader trust.
Remember, the function of pacing is to pull the reader through the book to the very end. Cliffhangers are a vital part of that process and consist of scene and chapter endings and the openings that follow.
Cliffhangers don’t just occur at the end of a chapter where you decide to stop writing. They happen when you make the effort to build something compelling into that ending. Effective cliffhangers keep readers from putting the book down, bridge the gaps between chapters and scenes, and provide momentum.
Like links in a chain, the cliffhanger doesn’t stand alone. It connects to the next opening and incorporates techniques used in deep POV to ground the reader in the new setting and character, creating a seamless progression through the story.
Lots of factors enter into your reader’s experience with your book. Some of them are out of your control. Is she tired? Hungry? Just a had a fight with her husband? There’s nothing you can do about any of those things.
But you should do your best to take control of the things you can. Like the way your story looks on the page. This has a tremendous influence on your reader, though most of it happens on a subconscious level.
To get a better idea of what I mean, let’s look at an example from Dean Koontz’s thriller The Whispering Room:
Do you see how these terse, tight paragraphs of dialogue convey tension and move quickly like machine gun fire? This makes for a fast pace and the form follows what’s happening in the scene, a rapid back-and-forth conflict.
Now let’s examine another example, this one from Bloodline by James Rollins:
The concise sentences and paragraphs communicate tension to the reader and encourage a rapid reading, eating up the page, leading to faster page flips. They are direct and sparse, hiding nothing of the bleakness of the scene.
Here’s a contrasting example from Jeffery Deaver’s novel The Blue Nowhere:
Deaver could easily have broken this block into multiple paragraphs. Why didn’t he?
I think he did it this way because the long, unbroken paragraph mimics the droning on and on of the little girl. It also reflects the viewpoint character’s blasé attitude about murder, burying it in a pile of words as if it’s something of little significance, highlighting its trivial aspect as just part of a game.
Remember to think about what’s happening in the story and how you can use all your skills to communicate that to the reader. It’s not just the words you use, but how you arrange them on the page that affects the way your reader will experience the story.
Improving Your Story Pacing Skills
The first step in mastering pacing is awareness. Once you become aware of the subconscious signals you’re sending your readers, you can practice and improve.
However, the best way to control the pace of a story is from your own subconscious, the back brain, the creative part. Not from the critical front brain. So how does that happen?
It’s important to keep learning, studying, practicing, and polishing your skills as a writer. But to make those skills really useful, they need to be internalized and become a natural part of your writing process.
Musicians practice scales and fingering exercises. Basketball players run drills on passing, dribbling, and shooting. Dancers spend hours at the barre, practicing the basic moves. They do these things so that the techniques are available to them in concert, in the middle of a championship game, or on the stage.
We make muscle memory by repeating the proper movements until they become automatic.
For writers, this involves reading first for pleasure. And then, when you’ve found a book that grabbed you and pulled you all the way to the end, go back and study it.
Analyze and practice until you’ve internalized the skill and it becomes second nature. The first step is awareness, then comes practice. Do these things on a regular basis and eventually, the techniques and information will pass from the front of your brain into the back of your brain and become automatic.
How about you? Did you learn something new you can apply right now to your writing? Tell us about it in the comments.
Today’s storytelling exercise is an excerpt from my book, Story Drills, which is filled with fiction-writing exercises that impart basic techniques of storytelling. Today’s exercise is from chapter forty-five. It’s called “Three Acts.” Enjoy!
The three-act structure is one of the simplest and most effective ways to outline or analyze a story and its structure. The three acts are as follows:
In the first act, the plot and characters are established, and we learn what the central conflict is. It’s roughly 25 percent of the story, but this is a guideline, not a rule.
The second act is the longest of the three acts, usually about 50 percent of the narrative. In the second act, the story builds up to a climax in which the conflict hits a boiling point.
Finally, the third act resolves the conflict. The third act is usually about 25 percent of the story.
Choose five stories you’ve read, and break them into three-act structures by identifying the setup, conflict, and resolution for each one. Summarize each act in just a few sentences.
Create five story premises, and quickly draft three-act outlines for each one. Use a single sentence to describe each of the three acts. A couple of examples are provided below.
Act I: A natural disaster is impending.
Act II: The natural disaster claims the lives of half of Earth’s population. The other half struggles to survive.
Act III: Earth’s survivors rebuild.
Act I: A teenager from a prestigious family falls in love with someone from the wrong side of the tracks.
Act II: The couple tries to hide their relationship, but eventually they are outed.
Act III: The teenager is forced to choose between love and access to the family’s wealth and support.
Why do you suppose the three-act structure is universally applicable to almost all forms of storytelling? Would it be possible to write a story with no setup, or with the setup at the end or in the middle? What happens if the three acts are rearranged? Can any of the acts be left out of a story?
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.
Today I’d like to share an excerpt from Story Drills: Fiction Writing Exercises, which helps beginning to intermediate storytellers develop fiction writing skills. This exercise is from chapter sixty, and it’s called “Tone and Mood.” Enjoy!
Tone and Mood
Tone and mood give a story a sense of atmosphere—how a story feels—its emotional sensibility.
Atmosphere is often established through a story’s setting: An old abandoned Victorian mansion beneath a full moon on a windy night can elicit a dark and creepy atmosphere. However, tone and mood can also come from the characters. A clumsy, awkward character can evoke a humorous tone for a story. And events can shape a story’s tone and mood; consider the difference in tone between a story about a star athlete making it to the big leagues versus a story about the effects of war on a combat veteran.
Tone and mood may also be driven by a story’s genre. For example, the identifying feature of horror is that it’s scary. Romance is romantic. Any genre can be infused with comedy, although there is little humor in a tragedy. An adventure story can be lighthearted or terrifying; a science-fiction story can be thrilling or cerebral; a mystery can be grim or gritty, or both.
One author might use a consistent tone throughout all of their works. Another might use different tones for different projects. And some authors use multiple tones in a single story: A suspenseful scene can follow a funny scene, or a tense scene can follow a sad scene. The tone can even change within a scene: A light or casual moment can turn grave in an instant. A changing tone affects the rhythm of a story, giving it emotional and atmospheric cadence.
Sometimes tone and mood develop naturally from the story’s characters, plot, and setting. Other times, tone and mood might be unclear, and it’s up to us, as authors, to establish a story’s emotional atmosphere.
Create a simple outline of about five chapters from a novel you’ve read, and then write a couple of sentences describing the tone throughout these chapters. Then scan through the text, and mark any changes in tone. When you’re done, review the story’s structure through the lens of tone. What is the overall tone? Can you detect a pattern? How do the tone and mood change as the story builds up to its climax, or do they remain static?
Choose two descriptive words for how your story will feel—its tone and mood. Here are a few examples: lighthearted and adventurous, dark and humorous, or mysterious and contemplative. Create a quick sketch for a story, including at least three characters, a setting, and a one-paragraph summary of the plot. Be sure to include details about how the tone and mood will be established. For example, a dark and humorous story might be set in a mortuary with a fumbling, silly protagonist.
What effect does tone have on readers? Can tone and mood be used to strengthen a story’s characters, plot, or theme? What are some ways authors can communicate a story’s tone and mood throughout the narrative? How is tone related to genre, or are they related? What happens when the tone and genre are contrasted (humor within a horror story)? Do you prefer stories with a consistent tone and mood throughout, or do you prefer a story that takes you on an emotional ride, moving through a range of tones and moods?
Some writers know what their ending will be right from the start. Others discover it in the course of writing the story, because even if you have an outline, things change. You get a better idea, or a character becomes more interesting than you expected. But not knowing how to end a story in a way that satisfies you (or an editor) is why many people abandon stories. What keeps going wrong?
Even well-known writers abandon stories sometimes—the feel for the story disappears, or something else seems more urgent.
Some stories are more like exercises—and don’t aim to be polished, finished works.
But if you have stories that you feel are interesting and well-executed (up until the end) and this keeps happening, let’s look at a few things you can do to break that no-ending barrier.
Identify the Problem, Then Troubleshoot:
You got through all the things you wanted to do in the story or novel, and now there’s nothing left to say.
A fairly common problem in writing stories is that the conflict isn’t visible enough. In fact, sometimes it’s hard to identify a conflict, because the focus has been on character.
Look at what your character had to face in the course of the story and ask why and how and what changed because of it.
Heighten the difficulties and their implications.
You got to the big climactic scene and you haven’t a clue what to do now. What should happen?
Sometimes you can’t figure out what to do because nothing was really in jeopardy. You’ve given the main character a problem, and you’ve got to the point where the problem drives the action, but what you don’t have is how this matters to the character.
Stop worrying about action and imagine the emotional components that brought your protagonist here. What does this conflict do to your character’s way of life?
The ending is in line with the conflict, it all makes sense, but it doesn’t have a punch.
You’ve avoided doing anything risky or unpredictable, so it’s no surprise that the ending is soft. I’m afraid you’ve got to shake things up completely in order to make this come alive—and the first thing to do is to… change the main character. You might have been coasting here because you haven’t forced yourself to actually imagine someone with different needs from your own.
Imagine someone totally unlike you, who wouldn’t make the same choices you would make.
In the first big branch of the story, force your character to choose a dramatically different path from the one you gave him or her. Surprise yourself by figuring out why someone would do that different thing.
Everyone says: very nicely written, nice story; sorry but we’ll pass.
This is similar to the above, only this time the story is good but forgettable—when they put it down they really don’t have anything to hold on to.
Shake up your story.
For example, about one-third of the way in, have a catastrophe happen—it can be personal or atmospheric, small or large, but what it does is create a background problem that your foreground problem has to play itself against. This automatically ramps up your story, and it forces you to reconcile both large and small issues at the end.
No one believes the ending. Which is weird, because it actually happened.
Never think that what actually happened makes for a convincing story. You’ve trapped yourself here by falling prey to determinism. The story doesn’t work because there was no free will.
Go back one or two decisions in the plot, and change it. Whatever actually happened before you get to the end, change it.
Make yourself think about what’s going on and why; then write what that character would cause or do.
Another way to handle this is to switch the characters—have “what actually happened” happen to someone who wasn’t there. That should force you to rethink the narrative arc.
You can’t get a good last line.
What was your story’s opening line? Go back and look at it for a while. Where does that first line suggest the story is going?
In some cases, the first line or paragraph contains the idea for the last line. (This is especially true for short stories.)
In other cases, you should pick up on a metaphor or image that mattered to your protagonist in the course of the book.
How to End a Story: More Tips and Tricks
Most of the time, you’ll figure out how to end a story. But what if you have a solid story but no good ideas on how to wrap it up? Nothing works in your head or on paper; you’re stymied. Are there any tricks that can help?
Return to a Backup Point
If you just can’t get it to work, go back a few paragraphs or even a page, throw that out, and start again.
Try not to re-read the part you’re about to abandon. You may have written yourself into a corner. (This can also work if you’ve stopped in the middle of a story, rather than the end.)
It can help to start in the middle of a paragraph, or in the middle of a piece of dialogue—someplace where you can pick up on the action or dialogue. Then see where it goes. You may find that the new version takes you in a slightly different direction.
Write past the End
If you know what you want to do, but somehow it just doesn’t feel like an ending (too abrupt, too inconclusive, etc.), then just assume that really isn’t the ending.
Keep going. See where it really stops. You can try different directions: what happened next, how a character viewed what happened next; what unexpected consequences resulted, etc. Picture characters or setting a week later, a year later, a decade later—does that suggest anything?
Work on Your Closing Line
If you’re stuck trying to get that last paragraph or that last, brilliant line, maybe you can pick up on a symbol or image you’ve used in the story. It can be a tree, a place, a song, a sound—something you may have used without thinking about it too much.
Or it’s something you can go back and develop (and you may find that it adds resonance, too, to the story you’ve already written). Use a recurring image to develop the character’s epiphany or the resolution of the story.
You can also use circularity to bring your story neatly to a close. If you opened with a character driving, for instance, to his/her plot device, you can close with a car scene and some enlightenment that goes with it.
In Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, both the first dramatic scene and the closing scene of the novel involve children flying kites: different children under vastly different circumstances.
Add an Aftermath
You can conclude with general consequences after the conflict is over—the world is better; the world is worse.
You can even demonstrate how easily the world got past the private tragedy in a story. In Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” after the grueling experience of Gregor Samsa’s transformation resulted in his death, the family is rejuvenated. The ending contrasts the new sense of life they now have, outside the constricted apartment where Gregor lived his insect life. They begin to see their futures again, symbolized by the health and vitality of their daughter (her actions are in contrast with their son’s rigid insect body): “And it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and excellent intentions that at the end of their journey their daughter sprang to her feet first and stretched her young body.”
Change Some Choices
Finally, be aware that stories that refuse to end properly may reflect a problem earlier in the story. Perhaps you went in the wrong direction and now the concept is falling apart. Perhaps your character needs to do something different, or the big conflict is the wrong conflict. You may have chosen the wrong point of view, the wrong voice, the wrong central character. What can you change about the story itself that would make you interested in it? What annoys you about the story? Remove it.
Don’t Know How to End Your Story? Keep Thinking!
Maybe you won’t always know your ending right from the start, but if you approach it thoughtfully, you’ll find it.
Short stories were once the training grounds for the best writers in the world. Writers like Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, and Stephen King learned the craft of writing through short stories before they published their first novels. Even though short stories have gone out of favor, they are still the best way for writers to learn the craft quickly.
In this free tutorial, you will learn why short stories are important for aspiring writers, how to write a short story, and how to submit your short stories to magazines and get them published.
Ten Steps to Publishing Short Stories
This effective tutorial will be conveniently delivered to your email inbox in ten manageable chunks. You’ll also get links to helpful resources and professional services. Here are the topics we’ll cover:
Everyone needs a little kick in the pants every once in a while. If you want to write but have been struggling with the discipline to do it, this tutorial will help by providing practical challenges given with a dose of inspiration.
Thousands of literary magazines exist today to publish up and coming writers like you. This tutorial will help you discover those magazines and submit your short stories the right way so you can get published sooner.
A woman in Poughkeepsie plucks your debut novel off the shelf. Okay, fine. It doesn’t have to be Poughkeepsie. It can be anywhere—Marietta, Springfield, Sedona—wherever. The town doesn’t matter because your debut novel flew off the shelves in every big and small town across America. Mostly because of one big thing. You pulled off the killer plot twist.
Now everyone who reads your book thinks they’re your biggest fan. That lady in Poughkeepsie? You’re about to become her favorite author. And she’s going to hand your book to her best friend and tell her in an urgent and serious whisper, “You have to read this. I still can’t believe the ending.”
Sound too good to be true? It’s not. Because the secret to pulling off the most memorable plot twist since Psycho isn’t a magic spell. It’s the unreliable narrator.
What is An Unreliable Narrator?
Put simply, an unreliable narrator is a character who lies. Sure, sometimes he lies because he has something to hide. But the lie isn’t always deliberate. Sometimes he just doesn’t know the whole story. So how can he explain it right? Sometimes he’s too crazy (American Psycho) or too tired (Fight Club) or too drugged (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) to see the full story as it unfolds. But one thing is for sure. Regardless of the reason for his failure, the unreliable narrator’s story is not what it appears to be. And here’s the secret: it’s the gaps in his tale that leave space for the twist.
How Unreliable Narrators Set You Up for a Plot Twist
In life, we brush shoulders with killers and liars, psychos and saints. We don’t always know a killer or liar when we meet one. Maybe he’s just limping Linus from 2A who hides an unlikely amount of antifreeze under his kitchen sink. Or maybe it’s that mom who rolls her kids to the park in the double stroller. What is she really drinking from that flower printed water bottle?
Life creates a multitude of untrustworthy characters who blend with the crowd. The best fiction does too.
You’ve guessed it. Unreliable narrators feature in so many twisted plots precisely because of what they hide. It’s those missing pieces, the parts of the story they hold back, that feature in the big reveal at the end. And that big reveal? The one where we learned what really happened? It changes how we understand the whole story, doesn’t it? Hence the perfect plot twist.
Ready to see them in action?
How to Instigate Your Own Plot Twist (Two Iconic Examples)
Pi from Life of Pi is a character who keeps you guessing. His story of ship wreck and survival at sea isn’t the first of his fantastical tales. But even though his stories are tough to believe, you find that you want to. Since you don’t want to believe what you already know, you become a willing participant in the deception. So the twist surprises you all the same.
Pi is an example of The Embellisher, an unreliable narrator who tells tall tales for fun. But The Embellisher isn’t the only type of unreliable narrator. Verbal Kint from The Usual Suspects uses deliberate deception to trick you in one of the most memorable plot twists in modern storytelling.
Verbal is a Self-Preservationist, an unreliable narrator who lies to save himself. He’s the only survivor of a boat explosion. How he came to be on that boat is a mystery that investigators are determined to extract from him. Verbal’s tale twists many times before the final reveal. Surprise, in this case, is built on deception.
These are just two examples of unreliable narrators. But in 7 Unreliable Narrators to Twist Your Plot I reveal the techniques behind the Self-Preservationist and more. In this article, you’ll get seven character types to wow your biggest fans.
And that lady in Poughkeepsie? She doesn’t need to know you learned it here.