Pacing and Momentum in Revision


One of the elements I like to focus on when I revise is pacing. Pacing is the manipulation of momentum and time in a piece of writing and how the characters and reader experience it. Pacing influences how time and events unfold in the rise and fall of action, how characters move in scene, and the effects of time on the story itself. When we control pacing, we also control tension. If you want to create tension, look at your pacing.

A lack of momentum or lack of control over the momentum is not uncommon in the constructive phase of writing. The writing may feel tight and consistent: the scenes playing out in our heads seem to match what is happening on the page. “Consistent” is the problem: the action may be playing out at the same rate of speed and emotional pitch in spite of the kind of action occurring. This creates a flat dramatic experience for the reader.

Narrative momentum is not merely speed in action: momentum is the forward progressive force of the shapely dramatic arc of your story. It is what pulls the reader through your story with increasing power and velocity. It is the physics of narrative. It is essentially what compels the reader to read the next sentence, to turn the page.

There are many ways to control pacing and create a sense of fluid, dramatic movement, create and release tension, and contribute to momentum. If we were to illustrate momentum it would look more like a sinuous line instead of straight one.

Protracted action through summary, description, backstory, flashback (analepsis), flashforward (prolepsis), and foreshadowing all serve different purposes, but in terms of pacing, they ease up on acceleration and slow things down. And yet, you also can create tension and a sense of urgency with these slower devices by permitting the reader to experience the sensory aspects of the story and the characters’ emotions through description and action–of setting, character actions, thoughts, feelings, emotions. This is when we can indulge in telling along with the showing. We can draw out the action with a line, paragraphs, or pages. However, meander too much into protracted action and risk losing the reader in a thread of backstory or extended sensory experience, when instead what we want is to compel the reader through the story.

Rapid, staccato events, dialogue, and scenes will accelerate the sense of time in your story. Minimal descriptions, transitions, and dialogue tags compress time and create a sense of urgency. They ratchet up the tension and suspense. In contrast, extended incidents and dialogue slow things down, permit character and story development through more internal means, and give the reader more time to take in the story world and the characters.

Structural changes on the sentence and word-level have great effect on pacing. The use of active voice and strong, active verbs, concrete nouns, unambiguous sentences, and shortened paragraphs all contribute to velocity. The limited and deliberate use of implication, symbolism, metaphor, alliteration, and rhyme also influence pacing and create or stall momentum.

Switching the setting, the characters within it, and even the character perspective will increase the pacing because the reader is required to pay attention to what’s going on around them in the story. But don’t make it so convoluted that they neglect to turn the page. The unexpected and unanticipated is part of what keeps readers reading.

I’d love to know what aspects of revision you like to get into. Let me know or ask me about an aspect or issue. Revision is my favorite part of writing—it’s what I do most. 🙂


April has a Master’s in Ethics from Yale University and studied Philosophy and Theology as a post-graduate scholar at Cambridge University. Her fiction has appeared in many literary magazines and has been nominated for the 2015 Best of the Net Anthology as well as the 2017 Pushcart Prize. She is the Associate Editor for Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine and Press and the Founder and Editor of Women Who Flash Their Lit. Find out more about April here, visit her website, and catch up with her online.

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Posted in Pacing, Resident Writing Coach, Revision and Editing, Uncategorized | 16 Comments

Character Motivation Entry: Catching the Bad Guy/Girl

What does your character want? This is an important question to answer because it determines what your protagonist hopes to achieve by the story’s end. If the goal, or outer motivation, is written well, readers will identify fairly quickly what the overall story goal’s going to be and they’ll know what to root for. But how do you know what outer motivation to choose?

If you read enough books, you’ll see the same goals being used for different characters in new scenarios. Through this thesaurus, we’d like to explore these common outer motivations so you can see your options and what those goals might look like on a deeper level.


Courtesy: Pixabay

Character’s Goal (Outer Motivation): Catching the Bad Guy/Girl

Forms This Might Take:

  • Catching a killer before he strikes again
  • Stopping the terrorist before his bomb goes off
  • Identifying a kidnapper so his victims can be freed
  • Catching a ring of car or bank thieves
  • Figuring out who’s running a trafficking ring
  • Finding the person responsible for someone’s murder
  • Stopping a serial killer or rapist
  • Identifying the leak in one’s department
  • Stopping a megalomaniac or cult leader from killing a large number of people
  • Figuring out who the double agent is and stopping him/her from selling secrets to the enemy
  • Stopping an assassin from completing his mission

Human Need Driving the Goal (Inner Motivation): safety and security

How the Character May Prepare for This Goal

  • Traveling to places where the guilty party might be found
  • Enlisting like-minded people for his team
  • Gathering evidence
  • Interviewing witnesses and the victim’s family members and friends
  • Employing experts in their fields (profilers, private investigators, biographers, etc.)
  • Calling in favors for things that need to be done quickly
  • Going over an uncooperative boss’s head
  • Coming up with a short list of suspects
  • Inspecting associated crime scenes
  • Pouring over files, looking for connections
  • Putting together a timeline of events
  • Viewing all others with suspicion
  • Putting out fires along the way (defusing one of the terrorist’s bombs, saving an escaped victim, etc.)
  • Breaking the rules to get what one needs (breaking into someone’s apartment, ordering an illegal wiretap, roughing up a suspect for information)
  • Holding back information one doesn’t want to get out
  • Staking out a suspect’s home or place of business

Possible Sacrifices or Costs Associated With This Goal

  • Losing the respect of one’s superiors when one goes against the chain of command
  • Slipping down the corporate or political ladder due to pissing off the wrong people
  • Strained family relations due to working long work hours
  • Becoming so obsessed with finding the perpetrator that one’s health suffers (eating poorly, not sleeping enough, etc.)
  • Getting emotionally or physically involved with a witness, suspect, or one’s partner, and ruining one’s personal relationships as a result
  • One’s family being threatened by the perpetrator or his cronies
  • Being injured or killed in the line of duty
  • Losing one’s job due to one’s obsession or an inability to follow rules and the chain of command
  • Becoming addicted to substances to help one keep going (caffeine, nicotine, sleeping pills, illegal drugs, alcohol, etc.)
  • Bankrupting oneself from personally financing the case
  • Making stupid mistakes due to fear, paranoia, pride, lack of sleep, acting hastily, etc. that results in lives being lost or people suffering

Roadblocks Which Could Prevent This Goal from Being Achieved

  • The perpetrator himself
  • Those who want the perpetrator to remain free
  • Unreliable witnesses
  • Untrustworthy, unethical, or criminal co-workers
  • Political pressure being applied from higher up
  • Incompetent or lazy partners
  • Bureaucratic red tape
  • The hero’s personal demons (addiction, fatal flaws, doubts, fears, etc.)
  • The hero’s loved one ones who don’t want to see him hurt or who resent him putting the family at risk
  • Unhinged loved ones of the victim
  • Outdated or faulty equipment
  • Budgetary constraints
  • Emotional entanglements between the hero and people involved in the case

Talents & Skills That Will Help the Character Achieve This Goal:

Possible Fallout For the Protagonist if This Goal Is Not Met:

  • People dying or being injured
  • A lack of confidence in himself
  • Extreme guilt and self-loathing
  • Losing his job
  • Being injured or losing his life
  • The perpetrator killing his loved ones
  • Other criminals are encouraged to continue taking advantage of others
  • Society feels less safe and more anxious
  • Grieving loved ones of the victim may try to take matters into their own hands through vigilantism

Clichés to Avoid: 

  • The detective falling in love with the main suspect who he believes is innocent but is actually guilty
  • The police officer and her partner becoming sexually involved
  • The investigator’s boss being in on the plot and thwarting his efforts
  • Kick-butt characters (government agents, police officers, etc.) who are virtually indestructible

Click here for a list of our current entries for this thesaurus, along with a master post containing information on the individual fields.



Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Read More Fiction (A New Year’s Resolution for Writers)


Are we too late for New Year’s resolutions? I hope not, because there’s one I urge every writer to make.

Read more fiction.

It should be easy for us, right? Here, we’re all story lovers. But I mentor a lot of authors and you wouldn’t believe the number who tell me they make a deliberate point of not reading other fiction. I ask their reasons, and the answers have a certain logic:

  • They don’t want to be influenced by other writers or inadvertently copy an idea, character, or plot situation.
  • They need to spend the time writing because they’re struggling to fit enough hours in.

But when I’m critiquing their work, I frequently see problems that could be solved by studying the fiction of others. Here’s the short list of the usual suspects:

Boring Exposition. All stories need a lot of set-up, especially at the beginning. Too much and the reader wonders if you’ll ever get cracking with the action. Too little and the characters’ actions can look random and unbelievable. You’ve got a gigantic iceberg of background information and you have to figure out how much of it to show. The easiest way to learn this is to notice how it is done in other books. (For more tips on how to craft a powerful set-up, check out Becca’s recent post on the topic.)


Courtesy: Pixabay

Failing to Give Readers What They Want. This comes down to questions of genre. Now I know a lot of us kick against the idea of categories. After all, we’re creatives. We don’t tick boxes; we invent the boxes. But all books have certain types of readers whose tastes fall into broad categories. I see a lot of writers who struggle to develop their plot events. Rather than just stab in the dark, it really helps to know the kind of thing your reader might be expecting. It might be a hint of mystery, the suggestion of a ghost, a focus on interiority, an emphasis on relationships, a sense of political pressures, a social issue, etc. Or they might want a bomb blast by page five. If we know what our readers enjoyed in other books, we can use our ideas to please them. And we’ll also spot what other ingredients we need to add.

Dialogue Issues. Many writers find this tricky. They either include no dialogue at all and write the entire book in their general narrative voice, or they switch gears completely and write dialogue scenes that are a list of who said what, with the narration disappearing altogether as though we have switched from a novel to a radio play. Or they might write scenes with too many characters. Movies can easily handle dialogue scenes with a lot of people, but in prose it’s hard to marshall them all in the reader’s mind. Of course, there are many novels that do all these things deliberately and successfully, but the writers are fully aware of the effects they are creating. My number one tip for authors struggling to make dialogue expressive and interesting is to read novels and notice how the dialogue is woven into the prose, how the speech and the description work together, how nuance and subtext are created.

Writing that Falls Flat. We want to know how to write so the reader is swept away. Prose in fiction is not just a set of explanations (John did this, then this, then this). Prose is the very texture of the experience. Your word choice creates the mood. Your sentence structure can quicken the reader’s pulse, or lull. Prose is music, lighting, aroma. It’s even something less definable that goes straight to our wiring. Look at this description by Graham Greene of the sound of a person being shot:

a thud like a gloved hand striking a door.

Not all fiction has to aspire to poetry, of course. But many writers are unaware of how much richness they could add if they used their prose sensitively. The best way to learn this is by reading.

We get writing lessons from everywhere!

Nowadays we have a lot of narrative media and we absorb lessons from them all, without even intending to. TV, films, music videos and adverts all use the power of story and are great for teaching us certain basics. From all these we can learn the essentials of structure: beginning, middle and end, how to use twists. They teach us how to create characters that will grab the reader’s attention and a piece of their heart. But some of the story essentials, such as dialogue, don’t translate to prose at all. And prose has certain unique qualities we can only learn from reading.

So this year, when you’re figuring out how to enhance your writing craft, make a little time to read fiction. Read books you like – and also books outside your comfort zone. Figure out what bores you, excites you, or sets your teeth on edge. You’ll learn just as much as you will from craft books. Give yourself a bit of pleasure – and improve your writing at the same time.


Roz published nearly a dozen novels and achieved sales of more than 4 million copies – and nobody saw her name because she was a ghostwriter. A writing coach, editor, and mentor for more than 20 years with award-winning authors among her clients, she has a book series for writers, Nail Your Novel, a blog, and teaches creative writing masterclasses for The Guardian newspaper in London. Find out more about Roz here and catch up with her on social media.

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Posted in Dialogue, Openings, Resident Writing Coach | 21 Comments

Character Motivation Entry: Seeking Out One’s Biological Roots

What does your character want? This is an important question to answer because it determines what your protagonist hopes to achieve by the story’s end. If the goal, or outer motivation, is written well, readers will identify fairly quickly what the overall story goal’s going to be and they’ll know what to root for. But how do you know what outer motivation to choose?

Seeking Out One's Biological RootsIf you read enough books, you’ll see the same goals being used for different characters in new scenarios. Through this thesaurus, we’d like to explore these common outer motivations so you can see your options and what those goals might look like on a deeper level.

Character’s Goal (Outer Motivation): Seeking Out One’s Biological Roots

Forms This Might Take:

  • Tracking down one’s birth parents
  • Connecting with a half-sibling that one has just discovered
  • Returning to an orphanage in one’s country of origin in hopes of uncovering one’s past
  • Searching for the family one was kidnapped from
  • Trying to find biological relatives (if one’s birth parents were killed)
  • Seeking connection with maternal or paternal grandparents if one was abandoned by parents
  • Trying to find surviving family members long after a war or violent event scattered the family across the globe
  • Seeking out one’s relatives after being rescued as an child refugee by aid workers and taken elsewhere

Human Need Driving the Goal (Inner Motivation): love and belonging

How the Character May Prepare for This Goal

  • Request access to one’s birth records (once one turns eighteen)
  • Ask one’s adoptive parents for details
  • Research the laws surrounding adoption at the time to understand the information hurdles ahead
  • Interview those involved in one’s adoption
  • Return to the city, town, and hospital where one was born and ask for records
  • Return to a foster home where one was before the adoption was finalized
  • Seek advice online from other adoptees in one’s situation (forums, support groups, websites)
  • Reach out to organizations that help adult children reconnect with birth families
  • Reach out to organizations that deal with refugee placement (if applicable)
  • Track down one’s family name if one knows it, searching for others with the same name
  • Get a job or put in extra hours to save up for a trip to return to one’s country of birth
  • Hire a lawyer to help facilitate access to one’s records (especially if they are in another country)
  • Look for police reports of local kidnappings, abuse or child abandonment (if this is a factor)
  • Hire a private investigator
  • Learn a foreign language or hire a translator (if there’s a language barrier)
  • Make a list of phone numbers and addresses of possible relatives to visit and interview
  • Start contacting possible leads and set up meetings if one is able

Possible Sacrifices or Costs Associated With This Goal

  • Becoming obsessed to the point it strains relationships with one’s adopted family
  • Losing one’s job because one is always needing time off to travel and investigate leads
  • Losing one’s sense of self and identity as one digs deeper into one’s past
  • Friendships that become strained because one is no longer working to maintain them
  • Draining one’s finances to pay for information, travel, and professional services (lawyer, etc.)
  • Reopening old wounds of rejection and abandonment as one uncovers information that may be hard to take
  • Discovering a past history that is difficult (that one’s parent is a serial killer, that one was part of a human trafficking ring, etc.)

Roadblocks Which Could Prevent This Goal from Being Achieved

  • Ineffective lawyers, investigators, and advocates
  • A fire or other disaster that destroyed one’s records
  • A lack of record keeping at the time (especially in the case of civil unrest)
  • Discovering the adoption was off the books and so documents are false
  • Discovering information that doesn’t mesh with what one’s parents were told
  • Language barriers
  • People who don’t want to talk for fear of repercussions
  • Finding relatives that are unhelpful (fearing inheritance issues, who are hurt by the discovery etc.)
  • Discovering leads have died because much time has passed
  • Discovering a cover up by the state because of some sort of wrongdoing
  • Running out of money for bribes (if needed)
  • Running into dangerous people determined to see one does not succeed (criminals, people involved in a past war crime, etc.)
  • Having to travel to dangerous areas to obtain information

Talents & Skills That Will Help the Character Achieve This Goal:

Possible Fallout For the Protagonist if This Goal Is Not Met:

  • Feeling incomplete because one doesn’t know one’s roots
  • Low self worth and doubt at not knowing why one was given up
  • Guilt that one should have tried harder or did more (in the case where the adoption was not the biological parent’s choice)
  • Having a lot of debt and nothing to show for it
  • Not knowing one’s medical history and running into possible complications as a result

Clichés to Avoid:

  • A “pauper to prince” scenario, where one discovers one is actually royalty and was adopted out for safety reasons (heir to a fortune, one’s enemies seeking out one’s children and killing them, etc.)

Click here for a list of our current entries for this thesaurus, along with a master post containing information on the individual fields.

Image 1: Foundry @ Pixabay


Posted in Uncategorized | 16 Comments

Tips for Weaving Romance into Your Novel

cs-lakinRomance is a part of life, and so it should also play some part in our novels—if we intend for our characters to mirror real life. Even if you don’t write in the romance genre, don’t be too quick to dismiss adding the element of romance to your story.

However, just slapping a few romantic moments into a scene or developing a romantic interest to add flavor may not help your story. In fact, it could even sabotage it.

Depending on your genre and plot, your story structure is going to vary. As will the role romance plays in your novel. And this is important to understand.

Romance Threads Need to Serve a Clear Purpose

Most novels have one engine that drives the story. There is one primary focus or plot the protagonist is involved with. The hero is chasing a visible goal, which is reached or not at the climax of the book. That main goal is not centered on a romantic relationship developing.

Romance, then, is a component of such a story.

If you are writing in any genre other than romance, it’s important to understand the purpose romance can serve in a story.

In most strong story structures, a romance character is either by the hero’s side from the start, acting as an ally or mirror character (who may turn rival), or she’s the “reward” at the end for the hero coming into his true essence and reaching his goal (and, of course, you can reverse the genders here).

Beware of Misdirection

When romance threads don’t follow either of these structures, they usually don’t work well.

Inserting a random romance element partway through a novel to add conflict can cause confusion because it might send the wrong message—that your story is veering in a new direction.

marsFor example, let’s say you are writing a story about a mission to Mars.  The clear plot goal for the hero (and his cast of characters) is to find a way to establish a base and start growing for because earth is dying. This is the basic premise behind the movie Red Planet.

Your hero may have a clear attraction to the female captain, and while that’s palpable to readers, that attraction merely forms the basis for allied support in the story. As the characters meet with obstacles and disasters, and tension ramps toward the climax, there might be moments when the two characters get closer, maybe even seem to be falling in love, with a hint (or more than a hint) at the end that they may get together.

But if partway through the story, the focus shifts to their relationship and the perils and joys of their blooming love, the primary plot will suffer. This applies to romantic entanglements with your secondary characters as well.

Your Chosen Genre Is a Promise to Your Reader

You make a promise to your reader when you establish your story line and genre. If your back-cover copy describes your story as a sci-fi thriller about a mission to Mars, you aren’t targeting romance readers. Those readers aren’t expecting a romance focus. They will be annoyed to see their exciting thriller turn into a romance novel.

So a romance character in non-romance genres can play a strong part, along with other ally or antagonist characters. She might betray the hero and cause him grief. Or she might provide that strong faith in him that keeps him going when all seems lost.

So, just as with the others in your cast of characters, a romance character will either help or hinder the hero in his effort to reach the goal.

We See This in Stories All the Time

We’ve all seen plenty of movies that start off showing the hero going through a divorce or having “failed” in his love relationship. In Outbreak, we see virologist Sam Daniels estranged from his ex-wife Roberta. The crisis of the outbreak throws them together, and as they face the difficult challenges together, their relationship is healed by the end of the movie. He “saves the day and wins the girl.”

This story structure is very common—and that’s because it works. No doubt you can think of a number of movies that follow this basic structure. Another that comes to mind is National Treasure—Book of Secrets, in which Ben Gates’s divorced parents, still fuming and hostile toward each other over a trivial past incident, make up at the end.

booklove2This plot element featuring secondary characters adds humor and tension and problems to the story. But it doesn’t distract or veer the story onto the wrong track. All the bits involving the romance serve the purpose of impacting and affecting Ben’s attempt to reach his goal.

Note, of course, that there is a gradual progression through the entire story, as each incident makes the two characters work through their issues until they get to a place of harmony. This would be considered a subplot for your story.

If you’d like to see how this might lay out in very specific terms, I’ve created a helpful chart that you can download here. It shows how you can layer in just about any subplot over the ten key foundational scenes for a novel.

If you keep this in mind—that any element in a novel, including a romance one—must “orbit” around the premise and plot, helping or hindering the hero in his attempt to reach his goal, you won’t go wrong.

Adding in romance elements can greatly enhance a novel—if done correctly.

In my next post for Writers Helping Writers, I’ll explore what defines a romance novel and how that structure works—and how you can layer romance scenes in over those ten primary ones.

What romance component do you have in your novel—or are thinking of adding? Can you think of any novels or movies that use this typical structure of having the hero “win the girl” in the end as a reward for reaching his goal?

cs-lakin_framedC. S. Lakin is an award-winning novelist, writing instructor, and professional copyeditor who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her award-winning blog for writers, Live Write Thrive, provides deep writing instruction and posts on industry trends. In addition to sixteen novels, Lakin also publishes writing craft books in the series The Writer’s Toolbox, and you can get a copy of Writing the
Heart of Your Story and other free ebooks when you join her Novel Writing Fast Track email group. Find out more about Lakin here and connect with her on social media.

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Posted in Basic Human Needs, Characters, Emotion, Motivation, Pacing, Plotting, Resident Writing Coach, Romance, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 6 Comments

Happy New Year! Start 2017 Right By Jumping On 3 Important Tasks

A new year is turning, and we couldn’t be more excited to see what 2017 holds for each and every one of you. A big part of making 2017 our year is getting into the right mindset to create, and to do that, we should all turn our minds to a few housekeeping items.  (This is a reposting from last year that is an excellent reminder of how to start the year right.)

Housekeeping Task #1:

Back up your work.

back upI know, it’s obvious. And yet…do you? I mean we all know the danger of not backing up work, but let’s face it, computer crashes happen to OTHER people, right? Um, no. It can and probably WILL happen to you at some point. So, yep, back your work up. Now’s the perfect time to do it.

Housekeeping Task #2:

Do some weeding.

Weeding? Um, Angela…it’s winter. The only weeds outside are curled up in their death throes under the snow.

weedsBear with me…I promise it isn’t the eggnog talking. The overgrown gardens we need to turn our attention to are the word files on our computers.

Think about it…just how many versions of the same story do you have on your computer? How many blog posts, revisions of query letters, pitches, story notes, character profiles and worksheets…well, you get the idea.

Over the years, this stuff piles up. It becomes a mountain of data. The truth is, we can’t bear to let any of it go, these words of ours. We’re so sure that at some point, we’ll want that 7th revision of chapter 9, absolutely. And even if we finish the novel and move on to another, dang it, maybe that discarded paragraph 3 in that first draft can be used in a new story!

Group therapy time: we need to let some of these old files go. Once we’ve finished revisions on a book, there’s really no reason to keep all the old bits and bobs. So take a look at the scary patch of files and ask yourself, do I really need this? If you truly don’t, give yourself a Christmas gift and purge.

Housekeeping Task #3:

Okay, up until now, we’ve taken some baby steps. You’ve done well. In fact, you’re a freaking rock star. But now…we need to talk about the biggie. I know, you don’t want me to go there, but I have to. It’s the Thing That Must Not Be Named.

Your desk. Your workpace.

trashYes, I know your dirty little secret…those drawers are an episode of Hoarders. Maybe several episodes. You think my desk looks any different? It doesn’t.

Here’s the deal: if we really want to give ourselves a clear mind in January, we need to clean our surroundings. Make our fresh start a TRUE fresh start.

If your desk is a mess, your drawers are filled with God-knows-what, and there’s so much of it you haven’t seen the bottom in a good year or two, it’s time to excavate.

Trust me, you will feel so much better knowing those drawers actually shut like they are supposed to. And it probably won’t kill you to dust. Or empty the trash. So sort, organize and recycle!

Logo-OneStop-For-Writers-mediumAnd here’s a bonus tip for making this your year…check into One Stop For Writers.

Story structure tools, generators unlike anything you’ve seen, a massive description database on emotion, setting, character traits, symbolism, weather and more (13 topics in all), plus a ton of worksheets, templates, tutorials and writing lessons… One Stop For Writers can really give your writing career a boost.

Registration is free, so why not stop by?

Here’s to a fantastic 2017. We hope it is your best year yet!

Happy writing & organizing!

~Angela & Becca

Image 1: HerbieFot @ Pixabay
Image 2: Elizabethmh @ Pixabay
Image 3: Nathan Copely @ Pixabay






Posted in Uncategorized | 15 Comments

Happy Holidays: Our Most Popular 2016 Posts For Writers

top-2016-blog-postsIt’s that time of year where Becca and I sneak off to the liquor cabinet for some adult beverages to drink some rich hot chocolate in front of a roaring fire so we can enjoy some family togetherness and reflect on all the wonders the universe has brought us this year.

We hope that you will all have a wonderful break too. Make time for the little things! Relax, play a few games, drink some nog, eat some bad things. Life should be celebrated.

We’ll be back in 2017, but in the meantime if you get a bit twitchy for some Writers Helping Writers goodness, we’ve put together some of our most popular posts this year.

Top 5 Most Popular Posts

Something strange happens at WHW each year…often our most popular posts are ones from a year or two ago that really resonated, and this year is no exception. Have a peek:

The Four Types of Character Flaws

Understanding Character Wounds: A List of Common Themes

Hidden Emotions: How to Tell Readers What Characters Don’t Want to Show

Planning a Novel: Character Arc In A Nutshell

Struggle With “Show, Don’t Tell”? Try This Ultimate Description Toolkit


Top 5 Posts Written In 2016

And as for the best posts written in 2016, a drum roll please…

Introducing One Stop For Writers’ NEW Structure Tool: Story Maps

35 Posts To Help Writers Elevate Their Craft & Marketing Skills

Grow Reader Empathy By Showing Your Protagonist’s Vulnerable Side

The Emotional Roller Coaster: Why Characters Resist Change

How To Turn Your Setting Into An Obstacle Course


Top 5 Guest Posts This Year

Finally, here are the top guest posts from 2016. We think these articles all deserve an encore, don’t you?

5 Important Ways to Use Symbolism in Your Story

Character Descriptions — Learn From The Pros!

How To Keep Your Story Moving and Character Believable

Writing Patterns Into Fiction: Scene and Sequel

Mastering the Art of a Cliffhanger Chapter Ending

Let’s Work Together To Build Amazing Fiction


Happy holidays on behalf of all of us at Writers Helping Writers and One Stop For Writers.
















Posted in About Us, Basic Human Needs, Character Arc, Character Flaws, Character Traits, Character Wound, Characters, Conflict, Description, Dialogue, Emotion, Emotion Thesaurus Guide, Empathy, Experiments, Fear, Mood and Atmosphere, Motivation, One Stop For Writers, Pacing, Positive & Negative Thesaurus Guides, Setting, Setting Thesaurus Guides, Show Don't Tell, Story Structure, Subtext, Symbolism, Uncategorized, Villains, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 6 Comments

Finding the Sweet Starting Spot for Your Story


img_2794I used to hate writing story openings. I could never find the right spot the first time around. Sometimes, I started too far into the current story, leaving readers scratching their heads and squinting as they tried to figure out what the heck was going on. Other times, I started too early—well before the current story began, and readers yawned as they slogged through backstory dumps or long passages where nothing important was happening.

I know I’m not alone in this; it’s a common problem I see when critiquing first pages. But I’ve found a few tricks for finding that sweet spot so it doesn’t come too early or too far into the story.

First, it’s typically best to begin the story in medias res. I can’t remember who first coined this term in regards to writing, but it’s a gem. When you’re starting a story, you want to begin in medias res—“in the middle.” What this means is that you want to start your story once it’s already underway.

As authors, we’re always worried that our readers aren’t going to understand what we’re trying to show. This is especially true in the beginning, where there’s so much backstory we think is critical to a reader’s understanding. So we back up to a point where that backstory can be revealed. While we think we’re being helpful, this is a real drag for readers, who are forced to slog their way through pages of backstory info dumps that drag the pace and cause their interest to flag. Sometimes we take readers so far into the past that the characters aren’t even the ones in the current story, or they’re significantly different due to age or circumstances. (Hello, prologue—a topic for another blog post, but if you’re looking for tips on how and why prologues can work, check this out.)

Readers pick up a book because they want to get lost in it right away. They want the characters on page one to be the ones they’re going to get invested in and become attached to. This is best achieved if they start reading in the middle of the character’s current story.

And…where would that be? To find that sweet spot, look at your story as a whole and consider the first two parts of it. Blake Snyder (Save the Cat) calls these story parts beats, so I’ll go with that terminology.

The first beat in your story is the set-up. This is where the reader is introduced to your character in his regular world. The purpose of the set-up is to show your character’s normal life, before it’s turned upside down. It’s Bilbo sitting on his doorstep blowing smoke rings, seemingly happy and content until Gandalf shows up. It’s Katniss going about her everyday (albeit sucky) life prior to the reaping. The point of the setup is to show the reader that while the character may seem to be content, something is missing. There’s something about him or his world that needs to be corrected if he’s going to be truly happy and satisfied.

Then something happens that threatens his world. This second beat is called the catalyst, and it requires the character to make a choice that will propel him out of his current world and into a new one. Here are some examples of catalysts from popular stories and movies:

  • Prim’s name is called in the reaping (The Hunger Games)
  • Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle are killed (Star Wars: A New Hope)
  • Elle Woods’ fiancé dumps her (Legally Blonde)
  • Bilbo is left behind when the dwarves leave for their adventure without him (The Hobbit)
  • Harry Potter receives his letter from Hogwarts (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)

According to Snyder, the catalyst should fall roughly 12% into your story. This statistic is a beautiful thing because you can take it as a loose guideline or you can swear by it, whichever fits your style. If you want to go crazy, look at your overall page count, get out your calculator, figure out where 12% is, and get your catalyst as close to that point as you can. If your windpipe is closing off just thinking about that, then eyeball it. Make an educated guess and go from there.

This structure will give you a good idea of where to start your story because if you know the catalyst should start at roughly the 12% point, you’ll know how much set up should come before. Have you got too much? You’ve started too early and need to cull some of that to start your story a little later. Is there not enough set up? You’ve started too late and readers won’t have that necessary view of the character in his regular world. Start a bit earlier.

So, to recap: 1) know your set-up and catalyst, and 2) include enough set up so the catalyst falls roughly 12% into the overall story. If you strive for this, you’ve got a great shot at starting in a place that’s not too early and not too late. You might not get it right the first time, but you’ll be pretty close and will likely avoid having to rewrite the opening multiple times.

screen-shot-2016-12-20-at-10-22-30-amI’ve found this method to work really well for me. If you struggle in this area, give it a shot and see if it helps.

I should also point out that One Stop For Writers has an excellent Story Maps tool that allows you to lay out ALL the major turning points in your story. So if you find structure overall to be tricky, it’s worth checking out.








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Character Motivation Thesaurus Entry: Finding a Lifelong Partner

What does your character want? This is an important question to answer because it determines what your protagonist hopes to achieve by the story’s end. If the goal, or outer motivation, is written well, readers will identify fairly quickly what the overall story goal’s going to be and they’ll know what to root for. But how do you know what outer motivation to choose?

If you read enough books, you’ll see the same goals being used for different characters in new scenarios. Through this thesaurus, we’d like to explore these common outer motivations so you can see your options and what those goals might look like on a deeper level.


Courtesy: Pixabay

Character’s Goal (Outer Motivation): Finding a lifelong partner

Forms This Might Take: One of the most common story goals, this one is fairly straightforward: the protagonist wants to find true, never-ending romantic love.

Human Need Driving the Goal (Inner Motivation): love and belonging

How the Character May Prepare for This Goal

  • Getting into physical shape
  • Ending entangling relationships that are keeping one from finding true love
  • Frequenting places where likely candidates could be found (bars, church, singles mingles, etc.)
  • Joining an online dating site
  • Beefing up one’s online dating profile
  • Grabbing onto any candidate who shows interest
  • Staying in a toxic relationship out of an incorrect belief that it’s true love
  • Conforming to others out of a desire to gain their love; losing one’s  sense of identity
  • Filling up one’s calendar with social activities with opportunities to meet that special someone
  • Analyzing successful relationships to see what factors are involved
  • Making a mental or actual list of the qualities one is looking for in a mate
  • Hiding one’s faults so as not to turn others off
  • Being on one’s “best behavior” when likely candidates are present
  • Adopting a more likable persona that isn’t a reflection of one’s true self
  • Curating a list of likely candidates and narrowing it down to the one that has the most potential
  • Asking family and friends to set one up with possible love interests

Possible Sacrifices or Costs Associated With This Goal

  • Friction with people who are jealous of one’s time (children, old flames, possessive parents, etc.)
  • The consequences of poor decisions made in the attempt to find true love
  • Hobbies, interests, and passions that must be set aside to make time for someone new
  • Achieving less in one’s career or talent due to making a love interest top priority
  • Having less time for oneself
  • Less time with friends and family due to spending more time with someone one is pursuing
  • The pain that results from rejection and making oneself vulnerable
  • Secrets coming to light when they’re shared with a love interest
  • Low esteem resulting from searching for love and never finding it
  • Loss of a measure of power and control

Roadblocks Which Could Prevent This Goal from Being Achieved

  • Selfish people in one’s life
  • Selfish people in the love interest’s life
  • Geographic isolation; living in a distant place where it’s difficult to meet and get to know others
  • A job that requires much travel, making it difficult for one to spend time with others
  • Wounds from the past that cause one to sabotage one’s efforts
  • Character flaws that get in the way (needy, possessive, dishonest, withdrawn, etc.)
  • A disfigurement or abnormality that makes it difficult for people to see past the physical
  • A demanding job that takes up much of one’s time
  • Mental or physical ailments that make it difficult to connect with others
  • Life circumstances that suck up all of one’s time and energy (being caregiver to a disabled person, working multiple jobs to support one’s family, etc.)
  • Other needs competing with this one for importance, such as esteem and recognition that drives one to be the best at a skill or talent, taking time that could be spent developing a relationship

Talents & Skills That Will Help the Character Achieve This Goal:

Possible Fallout For the Protagonist if This Goal Is Not Met:

  • Living life alone
  • Not having children
  • Falling back into toxic relationships that give one  a semblance of love
  • Isolation
  • Becoming selfish and set in one’s ways due to never having to share life with someone else
  • Becoming less inclined over time to make oneself vulnerable to others
  • Blaming oneself for being unable to find love; believing oneself to be unlovable
  • Becoming difficult to love
  • Resentment of others who have what one wants
  • Feeling unfulfilled

Clichés to Avoid: 

  • The character being torn between two love interest choices, one of which is obviously good and the other is obviously bad
  • The character falling in love with someone who solves all his/her problems
  • An inherently evil person standing in the way of the character’s true love (an ex, mother, etc.); plenty of people can get in the way, but these characters should be multi-faceted and realistic, not evil simply for evil’s sake
  • Love at first sight

Click here for a list of our current entries for this thesaurus, along with a master post containing information on the individual fields.

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Thank You For Paying It Forward

Guys, this post is all about you.

And. You. Are. Amazing.

Why? Because of your generous support of us, each year Writers Helping Writers is able to sponsor a charity. With the end of the year approaching, it’s time to pay-it-forward to a truly wonderful organization.

This year, our charity is Room To Read. Their motto? World change starts with educated children. Now, who can argue with that?

rtr_logo_color_smallWe are so pleased to be able to give $1000 to this charity this year.

Unlike many charitable organizations, most of the money raised goes straight toward their programs (84%). The best part? Our donation is matched dollar for dollar. So our $1000 is really $2000 that goes toward encouraging literacy and gender equality in education in developing countries.

We wouldn’t be able to do this if we didn’t sell books, so thank you! For your support, for believing in what we do, and for buying and recommending our resources so we can keep doing it. 

We love you guys! Thanks for partnering with us to put more good in the world. 🙂


Angela & Becca










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