Pulse on Pacing: How Smooth Transitions Keep Your Story Moving

Writing itself is change, and within story structure, transitions are key to keeping things moving.

It isn’t just about getting your character from scene to scene, it’s also is about communicating ideas and making sure there’s a smooth flow from one piece of information to the next.

raceWithout deft transitions, the manuscript flow becomes herky-jerky. Characters seem to leap about in time and space, plot points can get dropped and instead of riding down the flowing river of the writer’s consciousness with a pina colada in hand, the reader is riding shotgun in Monster Truck Crash Rally Death Match with an icy beverage all over their lap.

So how do we kick ass and take names as far as learning to transition well?


The plot and characters should always be in motion. Every action, every thought, every emotion should all draw the reader forward, deeper into the story. As you write, always think movement. Are the stakes rising, are the characters acting? Does each piece of information deepen the reader’s understanding of what is at stake, and what the character must face?

Each sentence should form part of the picture and contribute, naturally lead to the next. I’m not just talking sentence structure here, I’m talking about substance. Every word, phrase and idea must not be wasted. Select each carefully, with intent. This will create a natural and compelling flow.

Transitioning Between Scenes

Not every scene ends with a chapter break, so we need to have a little bag of tricks to get characters from one place to the next. First and foremost, always know where the ending point of your scene is. Every scene should have a natural beginning, middle and end…the end being where the character resolves to take a new action or where he finds himself in worse trouble than at the start. We don’t want those characters taking it easy, no sir. Bring on the hot irons of conflict & consequence!

TIP: When starting a new scene, be quick about anchoring the reader in the setting and let them know who’s viewpoint it is, especially if your book has two or more POV characters. Nothing turns a reader off faster than not knowing where they are, and who is speaking/narrating. A new scene should never feel like Musical Chairs–the reader should always know which POV they are experiencing.

Angela’s Tricksy Bag of, erm, Tricks

Keep a Weather Eye on Your Story

This is an excellent way to show a passage of time and get the character moving. No one can hang out at the park for long on a wintery January morning, not unless hypothermia is on the menu. Ditto with a character noticing how the cloud cover is stealing the sun’s heat, a storm is brewing or how the sun’s position changes as it crosses the sky. When your character takes note, the reader does too. Time is fluid.

–Thinking Ahead

The character’s thought process can easily allow you to skip ahead to a new scene. By letting thoughts (or worries!) drift to a future event (getting off work, meeting up with someone for a date that night, a ball game on the weekend, etc) end the scene, it allows you to jump right into that event in the scene that follows without causing a ripple in the story’s flow.

A Nice Fish Slap to the Face

Remember those high stakes we talked about? Well, action and pressure often leads to mistakes, which leads to nasty, sticky consequences. A great way to transition to a new scene is to show the character having to face the result of his earlier poor choice.

Routine, Routine, Routine 

No matter how wild and crazy things get,  some routines are rarely broken. The responsibilities of school and work, waking up, going to bed, mealtimes…if you need to, you can use these (but don’t slow the pace!) to show a leap forward to a new scene. But remember some routines can be overused (such as starting a chapter with the character waking up). Instead, try showing them start the day brushing their teeth or heading out the door to school or work. Take care that transitions don’t turn into long coffee breaks, either. Each setting choice should contribute directly to story and character development and have meaning, not provide a reason to show a long internalization that probably is not needed anyway.

Tick Tock 

There’s nothing wrong with having a good old-fashioned ticking clock to get a character out of one scene and onto the next one. If your character is on a schedule (and really, who isn’t?) they will be very aware of the time and can easily communicate this through their thoughts, actions or dialogue. No one likes to be late, right? Again, just be careful of not overusing this trick to get in and out of all your scenes.

Changing POV 

Obviously, this is only one to use if you’re using multiple POVs. If you’re at a loss over which POV to use in a scene, it should be told by the person with the most to lose or gain from the action & events of the scene.

Need some more ideas on how to use the world around your characters to transition? Check out The Bookshelf Muse’s Symbolism Entry on The Passage of Time

Image: pixabay
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5 Important Ways to Use Symbolism in Your Story

So many elements go into a truly good book. When we turn that final page with a satisfying sigh, it’s often hard to identify just what made it a success. But many times, symbolism is one of the things that ties the whole work together. Done sloppily, it’s heavy-handed and forced, and turns the reader off. And when it’s done well, symbolism is one of those elements that the reader doesn’t notice; they just recognize that everything worked. It’s an important element, but really hard to do well. That’s why I’m glad to have K.M. Weiland here today. Symbolism is just one element that she tightens the focus on in her latest release: Jane Eyre: Writer’s Digest Annotated Classics. I had the pleasure of reading this arc, and it was so incredibly interesting, seeing a classic analyzed to see what made it a success. It frankly would have scared the poo out of me, being the one to pick apart such an iconic, well-known novel, but Katie totally nailed it. So rather than blather on, I’ll just turn things over to the expert ;).

Symbolism can sometimes be a tough concept for authors to get their heads around. How do we come up with the right symbols in the first place? What should they be symbolic of? And how do we incorporate them into our stories without making them so obvious we lose all their symbolic value?

Symbolism offers one of the richest opportunities for writers to deepen their themes, past just the conscious appreciation of the readers and right into their emotional and subconscious cores. That’s a lot of power right there. And we’d be crazy to leave it on the table.

V8374c_JaneEyre.inddCharlotte Brontë’s classic masterpiece Jane Eyre (which I analyze in-depth in my book Jane Eyre: The Writer’s Digest Annotated Classic) is a wealth of symbolism. You want to know how to do it right? All you have to do is learn at Brontë’s feet. Following are five methods of symbolism she used to enhance every aspect of her story—and which you can use too!

Symbolism Type #1: Small Details

You can include symbolism in even the smallest of your story’s details. The colors your characters wear. The movies they watch. The pictures they use to decorate their apartments. All of these details offer the opportunity for symbolic resonance.

In the first chapter of Brontë’s story, Jane Eyre is reading a book called Bewick’s History of British Birds, which features significantly bleak and desolate descriptions of the English landscape. On the surface, these descriptions have no connection to Jane’s world—except that, of course, they do. Brontë could just as easily have given Jane a cheery romance to read. Instead, she used the bleak descriptions to symbolize Jane’s bleak life as an orphan living with her cruel aunt.

Symbolism Type #2: Motifs

A motif is a repeated design. In a story, a motif is an element repeated throughout the narrative, often to obvious effect. Sometimes, however, it will be used in a less conspicuous way that infiltrates the readers’ subconscious with a web of symbolic cohesion.

The concept of orphanhood is prominent throughout Jane Eyre, most notably in the main character’s own status as a loveless orphan. Indeed, the concept of love and what people have to do to earn it is central to the entire story. Brontë reinforces the obvious aspects of this motif time and again throughout the story. Consider just a few examples:

  • Early on, a servant sings a song about an orphan girl.
  • Adele, the child Jane is hired to look after, is ostensibly an orphan.
  • When Jane encounters the Rivers family, late in the story, she discovers they are newly orphaned themselves, after the death of their father.

Brontë never draws attention to the motif by directly comparing these examples to Jane’s own orphaned state. Rather, she simply allows their presence in the story to reinforce the overall effect.

Symbolism Type #3: Metaphors

Motifs can also be metaphors. Indeed, some of the best symbols in literature are visual metaphors for thematic elements. You may choose to use fire to represent a character with a hot temper. Running water may become a symbol for purification. Illness might represent sin or corruption.

The main metaphoric motif in Jane Eyre is that of birds as symbols for captivity and freedom. Brontë uses the bird metaphor throughout the story to symbolize the relativity of every character and setting in relation to this fundamental theme. Small, plain birds such as sparrows represent Jane. Birds of prey refer to Rochester. And Thornfield—Rochester’s prison and Jane’s sanctuary—is frequently described in terms of a bird’s cage.

Often, strong metaphoric language will emerge naturally while writing a story. In the rewriting, see if you can identify any recurring motifs that crop up. Can you strengthen them to better represent your theme? Try to figure out ways to use different aspects of the same motif to describe varying characters.

Symbolism Type #4: Universal Symbols

Some symbols are ingrained so deeply in our social psyche that they are used in practically every story. The power of these symbols lies in the fact that they will already have been accepted deep into your readers’ subconscious minds. (Their potential weakness, of course, is that their very prevalence can make them seem like clichés.)

Weather is a particularly good example. Thunderstorms are often used as the background for a character’s defeat—or as a contrast to a seeming victory. When Jane accepts Rochester’s proposal, the lightning that strikes a tree in the garden isn’t just a random happening. It’s a portent of the dark revelations that will soon sunder their love.

Symbolism Type #5: Hidden Symbolism

Some types of symbolism will be so deeply buried within your story that your readers may not recognize them at all. Obviously, the value of hidden symbolism is significantly less than that of other types. After all, what good is something if the reader never notices it?

For example, Rochester’s horse is named Mesrour. Very few readers will catch the significance of this: Mesrour is the name of the executioner in Arabian Nights.

Why name the horse this at all? Why not Blackie? Or even O Beauteous One? For starters, both of the latter names would have been a poor use of our Symbolism Type #1. “Mesrour,” even without explanation, enhances the already dark and mysterious tone of the novel. And for those readers who do catch the obscure reference, the symbolism will only be that much stronger.

Symbolism is a delicate dance. But authors can’t afford to overlook it. When choreographed correctly, it can spell the difference between a three-star novel and a five-star novel. Just ask Jane!

K.M. WeilandK.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

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Talents and Skills Thesaurus Entry: Sharpshooting

As writers, we want to make our characters as unique and interesting as possible. One way to do this is to give your character a special skill or talent that sets him apart from other people. This might be something small, like having a green thumb or being good with animals, to a larger and more competitive talent like stock car racing or being an award-winning film producer. 

When choosing a talent or skill, think about the personality of your character, his range of experiences and who his role models might have been. Some talents might be genetically imparted while others are created through exposure (such as a character talented at fixing watches from growing up in his father’s watch shop) or grow out of interest (archery, wakeboarding, or magic). Don’t be afraid to be creative and make sure the skill or talent is something that works with the scope of the story. 

Lego Storm Trooper

Courtesy of William Warby @ Creative Commons

Description: Shooting with incredible precision and accuracy. In most circumstances, this talent is applied to those shooting guns, because advances in modern weaponry makes it easier to hit one’s target. But with a little creative world building and foundational support, there’s no reason that sharpshooting can’t apply to other distance weapons as well:  slingshots, darts, bows, javelins, axes, knives, boomerangs, etc.

Beneficial Strengths or Abilities: a steady hand, good distance vision, being able to remain still for long periods of time

Character Traits Suited for this Skill or Talent: patience, determination, calmness, self-control

Required Resources and Training: Practice is obviously important if one wants to learn to shoot well. Practice perceiving distances, anticipating and planning for the wind, shooting different kinds of targets, shooting in different kinds of light—distance shots are impeded by many unseen, difficult-to-anticipate factors. While natural ability is an asset, consistent practice can make the difference between lucky shots and expert ones.

Associated Stereotypes and Perceptions: assassins, hunters, military personnel, and Olympians. Sharpshooters are often portrayed as very detailed, nit-picky, OCD types who take their ability very seriously. To turn the cliché on its ear, consider adding traits that defy the stereotype: laziness, naiveté, playfulness, sentimentality, etc.

A good example of a sharpshooter who doesn’t run true to form is Private Daniel Jackson from Saving Private Ryan—a gifted sharpshooter who humbly accepts his ability as a God-given gift that enables him to do a necessary job.

Scenarios Where this Skill Might be Useful:

  • when hunting is necessary to one’s survival
  • when the story resolution is dependent upon the hero hitting something very small that’s very far away (think Luke Skywalker vs. The Death Star, just…with sharpshooting skillz instead of mad Jedi skillz)
  • when one would prefer to injure or startle an opponent rather than kill him/her outright
  • in a kill-or-be-killed scenario
  • in a hostage situation
  • at a funhouse carnival midway, when it’s imperative to win a certain prize for a certain someone
  • when playing paintball, dodgeball, or other competitive sports

You can brainstorm other possible Skills and Talents your characters might have by checking out our FULL LIST of this Thesaurus Collection. And for more descriptive help for Setting, Symbolism, Character Traits, Physical Attributes, Emotions, Weather and more, check out our Thesaurus Collections page.

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How To Mine Your Dreams For Story Gold

We’ve all experienced it…the curtain to consciousness opening, and with it, the realization that the best story idea we’ve ever had is carefully unraveling with each passing second into wakefulness. We grab something–anything–and start writing down a the images, thoughts, character tics, plot snippets and world building details before they can escape.

dreamcatcherAfter a shower, a coffee, and if we’re lucky, some form of breakfast that doesn’t have the word “leftover” in it, we sit down to reread our brilliance. And often, the only word to describe what we see is gobbledegook.

It’s disheartening, because we feel that heart flutter, that sense of knowing that a gemstone resides within the clatter of words. But if our dream catcher fails and the images seem no more than disjointed fragments, how can we turn what we’ve collected into something usable?

I’m turning the blog over to author Anthony Metivier, visiting us from Germany, because he’s pondered this very question and has some great ideas to share. Please read on!

FleuronIt’s well known that if you want to consistently remember your dreams, you need to write them down each and every morning.

This practice used to be a pain back in the day of pen and pencil, especially if you slept with another person.

Today it’s as simple as iPhone and the Plain Text app syncing the words to Dropbox faster than you can thumb them in.

With that problem solved, the question is: how do you get the dream material you’ve recorded into the form of a narrative, a compelling story that people will actually want to read?

A lot depends on exactly how you dream, but it seems to me that irrespective of whether you see narrative shards or full blown scenarios, all dreams serve the same function as Tarot cards spread out on a table before the interpreter’s eye.

As Doktor Freud once taught us, dreams provide the basis for association and the more dreams you have, the more associations to the dream you can make. Recent advances in psychology have worked to demonstrate that dreams probably have no meaning, but that doesn’t suggest that dreams can’t be interpreted and mined for narrative treasure.

Thus, imagine the following scenario:

You wake up and write down everything you can remember from the cinema of your sleep. Because you’ve been practicing “dream writing” for awhile now, the dreams tend to blossom large in your mind and you have no difficulties capturing full portraits of your night time activity.

Instead of looking for a story within the dream itself (which is also a perfectly reasonable and wonderful thing to do if the material is present), look at the dream you’ve written down and its images and let your mind free associate. You might come up with a completely new story or find yourself reflecting on something from your past. It could be something for yesterday, last year or a decade ago.

Using the most prominent association that comes to your mind, examine it for the following characteristics of compelling narrative:

  • Does it involve a driving desire that is in conflict with a critical need (like wanting a home with a white picket fence but needing to be a better parent before that house can have any authentic value and serve as a home)?
  • Does it involve being trapped or imprisoned in a particular social situation (job, family, etc.)?
  • Is there a dilemma in which many options offer themselves as possible solutions without any of them being particularly desirable?
  • Has a crisis forced you or someone in the association to take action?
  • Did the action lead to some kind of confrontation?
  • Did any sense of self-revelation or a better understanding of the self emerge?
  • Was there a resolution?

Although the disconnected fragments of a dream may not contain these elements, the episodes our dreams sunder in our minds for association often will. Exploit these and then combine them with the intense imagery of your dreams to make narrative magic.

To give you a case study, during a recent trip to Athens I dreamed of a pregnant woman with a butterfly tattoo on her cheek getting out of prison. She approached a throbbing wall made of human bones and flesh, behind which a dragon was spouting flames. She gave birth to her child and held it up to the wall, which immediately disintegrated into pieces.

When I woke up, I wrote the dream down and immediately started associating it with whatever came to mind. After a few seconds, I arrived upon the Berlin Wall and started to think about a futuristic alternative world in which people are kept out of East Berlin instead of being trapped in it.

I had also recently seen my girlfriend buy a lottery ticket, something that shocked me because I never would have suspected she was a gambler. For whatever reason this came to mind during the free-association, it gave me the idea of having some kind of lottery involved in how people get into this new version of East Berlin.

The next step was to take the scenario and answer each of the questions given

The result:

A basic sketch for a visually intense novel I drafted over the next two weeks tentatively called Electville. Using nothing more than my dreams, random associations and my iPhone, I crafted the basis for what would become a rich first draft, most of which was also drafted in bed upon awakening.

The sexiest part of this kind of practice is that it builds what you might call a self-interfering feedback loop. What I mean is that you create one novel-sized plot from a dream and then continue dreaming while working on the novel and still writing down your dreams on a daily basis. Although it doesn’t seem to provide more dreams that richen the novel drafting process, it does seem to compound the intensity of the dreams so that the idea-generating aspect get more and more intense and the depth of the outlines and sketches that emerge become a treasure trove for future exploration.

Even if unused (as most of our ideas ultimately must be), these outlines and sketches are like the gold coins in a pile you never spend because you always have enough to sustain yourself from the surface. And yet those coins you do pick from would never be so evident to your fingers and agile in your imagination if it weren’t for the unspent coins supporting them from below.

This I have learned from making dreams the horde of gold that supports of all my fiction.

AnthonyAnthony Metivier is the author of Lucas Park and the Download of Doom, How to Remember Your Dreams and founder of the Magnetic Memory Method, a 21st century approach to the Memory Palace Method that makes memorizing foreign language vocabulary, poetry, and the names of the important people you meet easy, elegant, effective and fun.

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Character Skills and Talents: Promotion

As writers, we want to make our characters as unique and interesting as possible. One way to do this is to give your character a special skill or talent that sets him apart from other people. This might be something small, like having a green thumb or being good with animals, to a larger and more competitive talent like stock car racing or being an award-winning film producer. 

When choosing a talent or skill, think about the personality of your character, his range of experiences and who his role models might have been. Some talents might be genetically imparted while others are created through exposure (such as a character talented at fixing watches from growing up in his father’s watch shop) or grow out of interest (archery, wakeboarding, or magic). Don’t be afraid to be creative and make sure the skill or talent is something that works with the scope of the story. 

PromoterDescription: a person who uses enthusiasm, product knowledge, and compelling reasoning to sway an audience to invest in a product, brand or service. A promoter drums up business and sales, raising awareness and facilitating discoverability. To do this, they effectively utilize different forms of communication: in person events, one-on-one solicitation (such as a phone call or door-to-door selling), written communication (emails, letters and advertisements), as well as virtually using social media. 

Beneficial Strengths or Abilities: A good promoter has strong hygiene, dresses appropriately for interacting with one’s audience, is well spoken and has strong product knowledge. Knowing how to read people and their moods well and be able to juggle multiple action items at one time are both important. Having a strong sense of presence, good manners and posture, a pleasing sense of humor and being genuine are all strong qualities that will help a promoter succeed at getting the word out about one’s message. The most important aspects in promoting is the desire to help the audience and believing in what one is selling, as that passion will come through to others. Understanding preferred forms of communication (in person, online, email, phone, etc.) of one’s audience and being well versed in these methods allows the promoter to be effective when getting his or her message across.

Character Traits Suited for this Skill or Talent: Extroverted, Passionate, Genuine, Outgoing, Enthusiastic, Focused, Hard Working, Shrewd, Intelligent, Organized, Friendly, Courteous, Confident, Creative, Persuasive (in the short term: deceptiveness, questionable ethics and manipulative deceitfulness may all be of benefit, but in the long term, the truth will come out.)

Required Resources and Training: Public speaking, working as a team, researching the market and competing products, understanding how ads work and psychology behind decision-making, looking at things from the audience’s view to what they need and want so one can best slant promotion to fit these needs, being well versed in online etiquette and social media

Associated Stereotypes and Perceptions:

  • that promoters are pushy and refuse to take no for an answer*
  • they talk more than they listen*
  • they are motivated by “what’s in it for me” instead of “what’s best for the audience/customer”*
  • they use social media poorly by shouting “promotional white noise” instead of engaging with people*
  • they do what they are told by employers, even if they morally disagree *

(*note, many “perceptions” are actually “misconceptions,” simply because of the tendency to judge all promoters by the actions of a few)

Scenarios Where this Skill Might be Useful:

  • a career in sales
  • job interviews
  • working on a political campaign
  • working in advertizing
  • being one’s own advocate

Resources for Further Information:

A few things to know about being a Promo Girl

The Art of Shameless Self-promotion

Promoting Your Product or Service

You can brainstorm other possible Skills and Talents your characters might have by checking out our FULL LIST of this Thesaurus Collection. And for more descriptive help for Setting, Symbolism, Character Traits, Physical Attributes, Emotions, Weather and more, check out our Thesaurus Collections page.

photo credit: Andrew Stawarz via photopin cc

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3 Steps to Taking Your Character Further and Deeper With…Anger?

We all know how hard it is to write emotion: understanding what a character is feeling exactly, and to what degree, and then showing it to readers. And of course, that’s just the tip of the challenge. What makes it truly difficult is that whatever body language, thoughts and actions we use MUST be ones that fit each individual’s personality seamlessly.

Emotional description is not one size fits all. This means that while Kara might throw a mug at the head of her deadbeat husband as he wanders in at six am loaded to the gills, Barbara will not. Her anger is a slow simmer that lasts, displayed through burnt toast and undercooked eggs, of phone messages that are not passed on, of leaving the gas tank near empty at every opportunity.

M J Bush is with us today, shedding insight on one of the most volatile emotions of them all: ANGER. On the outside, it seems like such a cardinal, easily identifiable emotion, but there are many forms it can take. Which is right for your character?


The page was crawling with them. Characters of every stripe had gathered to mutiny:

“We’re angry! And you’re not getting our anger right! It’s an outrage!”

“I’d never sulk like that!”

“I’m far more refined than that display.”

“Come down here and I’ll show you the punch I’d throw!”

Do you ever fear being that author, the one getting emotions so wrong on the page that your characters actually come alive and mutiny?

anger2I’m going to be frank for a moment. When I started researching this article, I thought it would be fairly easy to categorize what types of anger came most often to different personalities. I even had some ideas already drawn up.

The idea was to help us write our characters more convincingly. You can show the typical reaction in your character to establish consistency, and then push them into another type of anger that would be just as human, just as true, but showing a different facet of their personality.

But the sheer number of nuances makes that categorization impossible unless I write a book on it. So instead, I’ll try to enable you to figure things out.

Step One: When your character is angry, how does it usually manifest? Here’s a short list of possibilities:






































Remember, it’s nuances we’re looking for here. Every word has its own meaning. Ire is tightly controlled. Rage is out of control. Cranky is a passing mood based on self; grouchy is a bit more lasting and focused on others.

It’s fine to have a few “normal” types of anger. Your character should have multiple facets.

Step Two: Now, how can you push them to react with a different anger? What would take them further? What would make a certified hothead react with sullenness or barely registered annoyance?

It’s a hard-hitting tactic to make your readers rally behind a character or commiserate with him. Consider this line from The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss:

There are three things all wise men fear: the sea in storm, a night with no moon, and the anger of a gentle man.

The contrast between the normal gentleness and the fear-inducing anger is memorable. It can make a reader want to cheer for him standing up to whatever outrage forced him to abandon his gentleness.

For another example, consider a sensitive soul that has long used irritability to protect and isolate himself. Vex him with a puzzle, a character he can’t understand, especially if he’s used to labeling people, and he’ll have to move out of his isolated comfort zone to interact.

The bottom line is this: get your character to act “out of character” in a way that isn’t actually out of character when the motives are examined. It’s good for the story and the characterization.

Step Three: Figure out how he’ll react after the anger has faded. Or if it does at all.

How does it change him, even if he doesn’t stay angry? What emotions does he go through? How do the other characters react? How does it change the relationships?

Does he learn a lesson, or something about himself?

Anger Tells a Story All its Own. Go Use It.

Don’t worry about your characters staging a mutiny. Just make sure you give them solid reasons to act the way they do, and then have them react to how they acted.

You’ve got a good head on your shoulders. You can do this. Here are the steps once more:

Identify his normal anger.

Figure out how to push him beyond that.

And show him reacting to that difference.

It goes for guys and girls, protagonists, antagonists, and supporting characters. You can apply it to any character the story calls for.

Because that’s what it’s all about:

Your story.

MJMJ Bush is The Analytical Creative. Her writing advice steps back to take in the whole picture, then dives in to grab the pearls of usable detail. She’s the founder of Writingeekery.com and a full time fiction coach, editor, and writer.

P.S. Take the first step (it’s an easy one!) and tell us what your character’s typical anger is in a comment.


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Feedback Please! How Are We Doing?

Hi everyone! Just a quickie post today, asking for a bit of feedback. It’s been over six months since we transferred hosting sites and became Writers Helping Writers, so I wanted to do a check in:

How are we doing?

WHW blog buttonOur goal is to build a space that offers writers help, information and tools that can’t be found elsewhere. Becca and I want to support all writers, both with bettering their craft, and helping them navigate the marketing and the business end of being an author.

To do this right, we need your help.

If you don’t mind, take a minute to let us know what you really need to help you succeed as a writer or author. Is there a tool you’d like to see, a Thesaurus Collection you wish we’d create, or topics you want us to cover? If so, please tell us!

Also, don’t be afraid to make suggestions on how we can improve our website, and our current writerly offerings. We appreciate the time you spend with us, and want to make it as easy and enjoyable as possible. Becca and I are all about learning and improvement, so if there’s something we can be doing better, just shout it out. :)

UPDATE: More Books Releasing in Spring 2015

One of the most common questions we get via email is: what’s next? 

Here’s the scoop:  Becca and I are hard at work creating two new volumes that will encompass The Setting Thesaurus Collection. While we’ve posted quite a few setting choices here, we know there are a lot of “holes” in the range of locations available. And while we can’t create an entry for every type of setting, we’d like to double or triple our current location choices to give you all a really good selection of Contemporary Settings to choose from. Setting is incredibly important, and choosing the right one adds deeper meaning to the story through symbolism and motifs, pulls readers in through sensory detail and creates great opportunities to actively characterize your hero. We are super excited to be writing these books!

Becca and I may also release a third volume that will tackle Speculative Fiction Settings (think Horror, Paranormal, Sci-fi, Fantasy…that sort of thing) if we feel there is enough interest. As you can imagine, the research and time needed to write these books is pretty intense, so we want to make sure we’re focused on a topic that serves a broad audience. (So if you would be interested in a setting book for these genres, let us know!)

TIPPY-TIP: If you’d like to be on an email notification list for when we have a solid date for book releases, just fill this email request form out if you haven’t already! Don’t worry, we won’t spam you…that’s not how we roll.

So…onward to the comment section!

  • How can we better help you succeed as writers and authors?
  • What would you like to see here at Writers Helping Writers?
  • What types of tools/articles/webinar topics would you like to see us tackle?
  • What are your biggest writing or marketing struggles?
  • And most importantly, is Writers Helping Writers living up to its name?

We’d love to hear from you!

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

pensiveOne of the struggles that comes with writing is when a character feels  vulnerable  and so tries to hide their emotions as a result.  Fear of emotional pain, a lack of trust in others, instinct, or protecting one’s reputation are all reasons he or she might repress what’s going on inside them. After all, people do this in real life, and so it makes sense that our characters will too.  Protecting oneself from feeling exposed is as normal as it gets.

But where does that leave writers who STILL have to show these hidden emotions to the reader (and possibly other characters in the scene)?

The answer is a “TELL”– a subtle, bodily response or micro gesture that a character has little or no control over.

No matter how hard we try, our bodies are emotional mirrors, and can give our true feelings away.  We can force hands to unknot, fake nonchalance, smile when we don’t mean it and lie as needed. However, to the trained eye, TELLS will leak through: a rushed voice. An off-pitch laugh. Hands that fiddle and smooth.  Self-soothing touches to comfort.  Sweating.

For a story to have emotional range, our characters will naturally hide what they feel at some point, and when they do, the writer must be ready. Readers will be primed for an emotional response by the scene’s build up, and will be on the lookout for a character’s body language cues and tells.

Here is a list of possible TELLS that will convey to readers that more is going on with your Protagonist than it seems:

  • A voice that breaks, drops or raises in pitch; a change in speech patterns
  • Micro hesitations (delayed speech, throat clearing, slow reaction time) showing a lack of commitment
  • A forced smile, laugh or verbally agreeing/disagreeing in a way that does not seem genuine
  • Cancelling gestures (smiling but stepping back; saying No but reaching out, etc.)
  • Hands that fiddle with items, clothing and jewellery
  • Stiff posture and movements; remaining TOO still and composed
  • Rushing (the flight instinct kicking in) or making excuses to leave or avoid a situation
  • A lack of eye contact; purposefully ignoring someone or something
  • Closed body posture (body shielding, arms crossing chest, using the hair to hide the face, etc.)
  • Sweating or trembling, a tautness in the muscles or jaw line
  • Smaller gestures of the emotion ‘leaking out’ (see The Emotion Thesaurus for ideas that match each emotion)
  • Growing inanimate and contributing less to conversation
  • Verbal responses that seem to have double meanings; sarcasm
  • Attempting to intimidate others into dropping a subject
    Overreacting  to something said or done in jest
  • Increasing one’s personal space ( withdrawing from a group, sitting alone, etc.)
  • Tightness around the eyes or mouth (belying the strain of keeping emotion under wraps)
  • Hiding one’s hands in some way

Sometimes a writer can let the character’s true thoughts leak out and this can help  show the reader what’s really being felt. But this only works if the character happens to be the Point Of View Character. The rest of the time, it comes down to micro body language and body tells that are hard, if not impossible, to control.

Have you used any of these tells to show the reader or other characters in the scene that something is wrong? What tells do you notice most in real life as you read the body language of those around you? (These real life interactions can be gold mines for fresh body language cues to apply to your characters!)

TIP: For more inspiration on body language that will convey specific emotions, flip through The Emotion Thesaurus.

TIP 2.0: Becca has a great post on Hidden Emotions as well, and how “Acting Normal” might be the go-to expressive that gets hidden emotions across to the reader, while potentially leaving other characters in the dark.

Original posting
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Posted in Character Traits, Characters, Description, Dialogue, Emotion, fear, Flaws, lessons, Uncategorized | 25 Comments

Talents and Skills Entry: Photographic Memory

As writers, we want to make our characters as unique and interesting as possible. One way to do this is to give your character a special skill or talent that sets him apart from other people. This might be something small, like having a green thumb or being good with animals, to a larger and more competitive talent like stock car racing or being an award-winning film producer. 

When choosing a talent or skill, think about the personality of your character, his range of experiences and who his role models might have been. Some talents might be genetically imparted while others are created through exposure (such as a character talented at fixing watches from growing up in his father’s watch shop) or grow out of interest (archery, wakeboarding, or magic). Don’t be afraid to be creative and make sure the skill or talent is something that works with the scope of the story. 



Now where was that stupid joker…

Description: People with photographic (also called eidetic) memories can recall with great accuracy objects, text, images, and scenes seen for a brief period of time. It is debated whether true photographic memories exist. While there are people with incredible recall, the extent to which this ability is often portrayed in movies and books is definitely beyond the norm.

Beneficial Strengths or Abilities: intense focus

Character Traits Suited for this Skill or Talent: observant, alert

Required Resources and Training: Because photographic memories in the truest sense aren’t believed to exist, creative liberty can be taken as to how the ability forms and whether or not it can be honed. You might cite genetics, brain injury, the effects of medication, electrocution, or any number of other possibilities to explain your character’s gift.

However, it’s pretty well accepted that everyone’s memory can be improved. For tips on how your character can hone his gift, see the Resources below.

Associated Stereotypes and Perceptions: Geniuses and savants are often portrayed as having photographic memories. Good cops and detectives also have near-perfect recall of details. The perception about photographic memories is that people with this gift can perfectly recall everything they’ve ever seen, even in moments when they weren’t particularly paying attention. They often describe their brains as being “cluttered.”

Scenarios Where this Skill Might be Useful:

  • in a society where there is no written word or way of recording events
  • witnessing pivotal events in history and being able to go forward in time and accurately report them
  • when someone has lied about an important event
  • to succeed in school
  • when one must recall facts, statistics, and exact numbers
  • in a debate or argument

Resources for Further Information:

The Mind Palace Technique for Improving Memory

Memory Techniques

You can brainstorm other possible Skills and Talents your characters might have by checking out our FULL LIST of this Thesaurus Collection. And for more descriptive help for Setting, Symbolism, Character Traits, Physical Attributes, Emotions, Weather and more, check out our Thesaurus Collections page.

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Cookies and Layers

Well, it’s summertime (as you know), and I’m having a blast with my two littles. Which is, of course, what summer is all about. As I’m sure you also know, summer is also about cookies. Oh yes, indeedy, it is. And since summer is also about sharing (who knew summer was so awesome?), I’m sharing my favorite 7-Layer Cookie recipe below, followed by a popular post from the past. Originally, I published this post in the fall, when I made a connection between cooking soup and adding layers to a story. But it’s too freaking hot for soup. Hence the cookies. Enjoy!


Image Courtesy of Meal Makeover Moms @ Creative Commons


1/2 cup margarine

1 cup graham cracker crumbs

1 cup flaked coconut

8 ounces peanut butter bits (some people use butterscotch bits, but I prefer peanut butter)

8 ounces chocolate chips

1/2 cup chopped nuts

1 can sweetened condensed milk

Directions: Melt margarine and put in a 13×9 pan. Sprinkle graham cracker crumbs over the margarine. Continue with the rest of the ingredients, sprinkling them one layer at a time, and finishing with the milk. Bake at 350º for 20-25 minutes.

So…what does this recipe have to do with writing a story? Well, the first draft of a story is usually pretty plain, like the graham cracker crust on this cookie. But once you start revising, you add the layers that flesh out the story and make it thicker, three-dimensional. There are a lot of things you could add to achieve this goal. Here are a few on my current revision list…

1. Subplots. These secondary plot lines add complexity and girth and are almost always directly tied-in to the main plot line. A romance that complicates the main character’s objective (The Hunger Games); a mystery that is solved at a pivotal point in the story (Saving Private Ryan); a friendship that spurs the mc on in her quest to reach her goal (Wither). Each subplot should have its own complete and smooth story arc. Keep this in mind when editing.

2. Theme. Some writers start with theme. Others figure it out along the way. Still others have the entire first draft done before they realize what the theme is (hello, me). However you do it, it’s crucial to at some point identify your story’s main theme so you can touch on it from start to finish. Think of your theme as a secondary subplot, one that needs a full arc from beginning to end. Revisit it frequently to add depth.

3. Character Renovations. Without fail, I get all the way through my first draft and realize that my main character is missing something. I hate that. But that’s what the revision process is for, no? To increase depth, add an endearing quirk, uncommon trait, or a fatal flaw to be overcome. For maximum impact, make the trait one that either helps or hinders the character’s ability to achieve his or her overall goal. For more information on fleshing out characters, definitely check out The Negative Trait Thesaurus and The Positive Trait Thesaurus on our Bookstore page.

4. Meaningful RepetitionsThese include anything that is repeated throughout the story and, ideally, grows or changes with the story. Symbols and metaphors are good examples. Common phrases or sayings. Meaningful objectsSettings also apply: a favorite hang-out, the place your character goes when she needs downtime, a location that has specific significance or emotional importance. These repeated pieces are like touchstones for the reader, connecting them with the characters and embedding the reader more firmly into the story with each repetition.

What have I missed? What are some areas you like to focus on when adding layers to a story during the revision process?

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