Goal-Oriented Storytelling: Attachment

Imagine you’re playing your first game of Scrabble with a friend. You haven’t been taught the rules of the game, but you know the general idea is to make words and place them on the game board. Your friend gives you letter tiles and tells you to take your turn. Looking at your letters, you might make the word you think of first or search for a word you find pleasing, but you’re unlikely to choose the word and placement with the highest score. Perhaps you’ll have a great afternoon, but you can’t expect to win the game.

Storytelling is like this. Of course, winning in storytelling is very subjective, but most fiction writers want their stories to be well received by readers. That’s their win condition. To help writers get a win, I created the ANTS framework. Instead of focusing on what goes into a story (like characters, plots, and settings), ANTS is a model for what should result from it. While no one can calculate exactly how a story will score, using this framework is like knowing that in Scrabble, longer words score higher, less frequent letters score higher, and words placed on colored squares score higher. With ANTS, you can strategize.

The acronym stands for the combined factors that typically result in a reader-approved story: AttachmentNoveltyTension, and Satisfaction. I’ll be discussing each one in a four-part series of posts at Writers Helping Writers, starting today with the first one.

Want to know how to hook readers and get them really attached to your story?

Attachment represents how much your readers care about the elements in a story. If they hang on to every word because they desperately want to see the main character succeed or the love birds get together, you’ve created high attachment. While any element of the story could earn attachment, characters are by far the biggest source. That’s why the vast majority of stories have one or more main characters for readers to bond with.

On its own, attachment improves readers’ enjoyment and gives them a reason to continue. However, it’s also a prerequisite for another ANTS effect I’ll describe later: tension. If you’re reading a book and you think the protagonist should die in a garbage fire, you won’t care that they might lose their job. Until your story earns attachment, you can’t expect readers to sit on the edge of their seats. Conversely, the more attachment readers have to elements of your story, the more emotionally powerful your story becomes.

Just with those basics, your strategy when storytelling might change. Instructional text on characterization usually emphasizes creating complex characters with deep motivations, what we call a “well-developed character.” While this is great advice, it can obscure what’s most critical from a goal-oriented standpoint: that your protagonist is liked. After reading conventional writing instruction, many new writers become so focused on creating character flaws and characters arcs that their protagonists put off readers. This deprives the whole story of a solid foundation.

For our purposes, a likable character is one that readers latch onto. If your main character is a jerk, but readers laugh at their quips and want to see them become a better person, you’ve created a likable character. Now let’s say you want to make your protagonist well-liked by a general audience. Here’s what you might give your character to help meet that goal:

  • Selflessness: Moral values play a big role in likability. While what’s considered moral varies from culture to culture, it’s difficult to go wrong with a character who puts others’ needs before their own. This can come in many forms, from doing essential but thankless work, to giving up a meal for someone who needs it more.
  • Sympathetic problems: It’s easy for readers to get attached to characters who deserve better in life than what they’re getting. When characters have hardships that feel genuine and are no fault of their own, they become the underdog everyone cheers for.
  • Novelty: Portraying your characters as funny, fresh, or intriguing will make them more likable to readers. But be careful. If you put too much emphasis on a simple gimmick, you might end up with an annoying character.
  • Strengths and flaws: In general, a character with no strengths is unpleasant, and a character with no flaws is insufferable. The safest bet for a new writer is to create a character with mostly positive traits but one noticeable flaw that can be addressed with a character arc.

If you’re aiming for readers of a specific group, such as school-aged black girls or middle-aged white men, you have another option. You can create a character they’ll identify with. When people read about characters with traits they associate with themselves, they project themselves onto that character. Attachment quickly follows. The basic technique is to create a character of the right demographic with relatable or admirable personality traits. These characters don’t need flaws to be liked by many members of the target demographic, but giving them flaws and other likable characteristics will still widen their appeal.

How do you know if you’ve succeeded? Thankfully, ANTS isn’t that difficult to measure. Ask your readers questions like these:

  • Did you sympathize with the protagonist?
  • Did you want the protagonist to succeed?
  • Did the protagonist’s arc feel compelling?

Because interpretations of characters are so individual, I recommend asking at least three readers before making judgments based on the answers.

Overall, the biggest challenge of attachment is how long it takes. People need to get to know characters before caring about them. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get to know someone while they’re running for their life or fighting off an ambush. This is why so many story openings alternate between the action and the main character. The writer might have a prologue to introduce the big threat, then dedicate the first chapter to a personal moment for the main character, then go back to the big threat again. This dual plot structure offers many benefits, but if you can open your story with a compelling conflict that also helps readers understand your main character, that’s even better.

The good news is that with enough time, readers may not only care about the characters but also about the places in the story. Attachment is also the most enduring effect in ANTS. Once your story has earned attachment, it can carry readers through any boring or unpleasant patches your muddlesome middle might harbor.

Even though attachment takes time to build and tension isn’t as effective without attachment, you can still entertain your readers immediately. Next time I’ll describe the fastest ANTS effect: novelty.

Chris Winkle is the editor-in-chief of Mythcreants, an online magazine dedicated to fantasy and science fiction storytelling. You can read more of her articles on writing or listen to her talk about stories on The Mythcreant Podcast.

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Also, if you have been around the blog this last 10 days or so, you would have seen our Advent Calendar for Writers event. This is to celebrate you, and all writers, so we hope you will check it out. Leaders in our industry have joined us to create an incredible giveaway of writing prizes that will give you a leg up toward your writing goals. The total prize value is in the $2000 range, so please enter! We’d love you to win something that can help your writing career.

The last day to enter is Dec 19th, so it’s not too late. All the prizes to date are listed here in this post, along with the links to each giveaway.


Posted in Character Arc, Character Flaws, Characters, Motivation, Plotting, Uncategorized, Writing Craft | 7 Comments

Occupation Thesaurus Entry: Fundraiser

Jobs are as important for our characters as they are for real people. A character’s career might be their dream job or one they’ve chosen due to necessity. In your story, they might be trying to get that job or are already working in the field. Whatever the situation, as with any defining aspect for your character, you’ll need to do the proper research to be able to write that career knowledgeably.

Enter the Occupation Thesaurus. Here, you’ll find important background information on a variety of career options for your character. In addition to the basics, we’ll also be covering related info that relates to character arc and story planning, such as sources of conflict (internal and external) and how the job might impact basic human needs, thereby affecting the character’s goals. It’s our hope that this thesaurus will share some of your research burden while also giving you ideas about your character’s occupation that you might not have considered before.

Occupation: Fundraiser

Overview: Fundraisers are hired by businesses, organizations, and non-profits to raise money on their behalf. Their job duties can include organizing fundraising campaigns and events, training volunteers, using social media to raise money, contacting potential donors or sponsors, writing grants, creating promotional materials, and keeping records of donor information.

Because they have to decide which approach and events will work best for each client, fundraisers must be familiar with the various options and be able to evaluate what has worked in the past. Their success depends largely on their dealings with people, so fundraisers must have excellent people skills and be able to network effectively. Fundraisers may be freelance or work for a consulting firm.

Necessary Training: Some clients and firms prefer that their fundraisers have a bachelor’s degree—preferably in business, public relations, public administration or a similar area—while others are more interested in a potential fundraiser’s experience. Internships and volunteer work can give fundraisers the practice they need to develop necessary skills in this field.

Useful Skills, Talents, or Abilities: A knack for making money, charm, empathy, exceptional memory, gaining the trust of others, good listening skills, hospitality, multitasking, promotion, reading people, writing

Helpful Character Traits:

POSITIVE: Adaptable, analytical, calm, charming, cooperative, courteous, creative, diplomatic, efficient, empathetic, enthusiastic, extroverted, generous, hospitable, idealistic, imaginative, industrious, meticulous, optimistic, organized, passionate, patient, persistent, persuasive, professional, resourceful, responsible

Sources of Friction: A big event flopping, donors promising money and not following through, failing to meet a campaign goal, clients who don’t clearly communicate their goals, clients with unrealistic expectations, micro-managing clients, taking on a client whose cause is socially unacceptable and will make fundraising difficult, secrets from a client’s or business’s past becoming public during a campaign, a venue or vendor for a scheduled event falling through at the last minute, a computer or hard drive crashing and taking one’s records with it, a fall from grace that makes networking difficult, a hardship for a big sponsor that causes them to cut their charitable giving, an injury or illness that makes it difficult for one to do one’s job, difficult or incompetent volunteers, delegating an important job to a volunteer who doesn’t follow through, learning that a large portion of the funds one has raised are going to the business owner rather than to those who need it, missing evening and weekend time with family due to work obligations, frequent travel causing trouble at home

People They Might Interact With: nonprofit and business owners, administrative staff, volunteers, other fundraisers and bosses at a consulting firm, vendors, venue staff, potential donors, high-profile donors (celebrities, millionaires, etc.), philanthropists

How This Occupation Might Impact One’s Basic Needs:

  • Self-Actualization: Fundraisers are often passionate about their work and the good they’re able to do. Those who are unable to work with their preferred organizations or are assigned to clients they don’t respect may feel they’re not living up to their true potential.
  • Esteem and Recognition: If a fundraiser’s failure or shortcomings keep a worthwhile organization from receiving much-needed funds, she may begin to doubt her abilities. Esteem can also be impacted if the fundraiser is influenced by wealthy or glamorous individuals and finds herself lacking.
  • Love and Belonging: A fundraiser’s passion to help others may drive her to work too hard, putting a strain on family relationships or making romantic opportunities difficult.
  • Safety and Security: If the client has high-profile or radical enemies who don’t want them to succeed, these people may seek to sabotage fundraising efforts, catching your character in the crossfire.

Common Work-Related Settings: Airport, art gallery, ballroom, big city street, black-tie event, boardroom, community center, elevator, golf course, gymnasium, hotel room, limousine, museum, newsroom, office cubicle, parking garage, parking lot, performing arts theater, public restroom, upscale hotel lobby, waiting room, winery,  yacht

Twisting the Fictional Stereotype: Fictional fundraisers are typically associated with glitzy events for wealthy clients. But even small businesses and non-profits need money, and fundraisers need to start somewhere. What if your character started out raising funds for a local charity or cause—maybe a no-kill shelter, a health clinic, or after-school program for kids?

Visit the other Occupations in our collection HERE.

Also, if you have been around the blog this last 10 days or so, you would have seen our Advent Calendar for Writers event. This is to celebrate you, and all writers, so we hope you will check it out. Leaders in our industry have joined us to create an incredible giveaway of writing prizes that will give you a leg up toward your writing goals. The total prize value is in the $2000 range, so please enter! We’d love you to win something that can help your writing career.

The last day to enter is Dec 19th, so it’s not too late. All the prizes to date are listed here in this post, along with the links to each giveaway.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

How Writers Are Part of a Humanitarian Chain

As we head toward the end of the year, I find myself thinking more about what writers do and the opportunity that arises every time we settle our fingers on the keyboard. Beyond the words and flow of the story lies something meaningful: the ability to be a voice–a powerful voice–that reaches through the page to influence readers to think deeper about the world, the people in it, and how their own actions might make life better for everyone.

Without the written word, how many causes would fail to draw champions to lead the charge for change? How many marginalized people would continue to be unfairly treated and sidelined? How many environmental concerns would not be on anyone’s radar? Words have power. Our thoughts, observations, and the ideas we share with readers have power. As writers, we can bring light to the minds of others, and that’s pretty special.

Don’t get me wrong, we have work to do (so much work!) but what a privilege that we can touch on sensitive topics through story and evoke an emotional response in readers that may lead to reflection, open-mindedness, and maybe (just maybe!) change. Every day I reflect on what an honor it is to be a writer. I admire the courage of those writers who speak out about what they believe to be right even when it is not always popular (or safe) for them to do so.

All people can be caretakers. Each of us can choose to be part of a chain that lifts those around us up.

In my mind, the writing community is a shining example of this. Each day I see you guys working together to share knowledge, advise, discuss, and give your time to helping other writers succeed. It’s just brilliant! So I wanted to take a second to thank you for doing that. Everyone is busy, their lives packed with responsibilities and commitments, yet I know you make time for others. It’s a pretty beautiful thing to see this on a daily basis, and it’s why I love being part of the writing world.

A few more things to mention…

While on the topic of thank yous, Becca and I need to also pass on our appreciation for supporting us and our books so we can keep doing what we love: being part of this chain. You may not realize it, but your support of our books help in a much bigger way; each year we take a portion of our earnings and donate it to a specific charity. This year you have helped us donate $1000 to Doctors Without Borders, so thank you! (To find out more about the incredible work they do, just visit this link.)

Also, if you have been around the blog this last 10 days or so, you would have seen our Advent Calendar for Writers event. This is to celebrate you, and all writers, so we hope you will check it out. Leaders in our industry have joined us to create an incredible giveaway of writing prizes that will give you a leg up toward your writing goals. The total prize value is in the $2000 range, so please enter! We’d love you to win something that can help your writing career.

The last day to enter is Dec 19th, so it’s not too late. All the prizes to date are listed here in this post, along with the links to each giveaway.

Guest post alert!

Finally, I wanted to pass on a link to a post of mine on character relationships over at Mythcreants: Taking Character Relationships to the Next Level. (This is like a mini master class on relationships, based on a tool we’ll be creating for One Stop for Writers, so please check it out.)

Happy Thursday to all!


Posted in Focus, Motivational, Reader Feedback, Uncategorized, Writer's Attitude | 4 Comments

Rules? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Rules


After we’ve been writing for a while, we’ve heard our share of writing rules. Sometimes we’re taught to avoid certain techniques, like prologues. Or we might be told that some storytelling approaches are too risky, such as using second-person point of view.

We might struggle with the balance between following the rules and stifling our voice. Or we might fear we can’t write the story we want to write because it doesn’t “fit” what’s expected.

However, for every rule, we can probably think of an exception that managed to break the rule—successfully. So what “lesson” should we really take away about writing rules?

Should We Ignore the Exceptions or Try to Learn from Them?

For many writers and editors, the lesson has usually been to ignore the exceptions: “Just because so-and-so got away with it, doesn’t mean anyone else can.” We might assume they succeeded just because they’re a big-name author or they caught a bit of lucky lightning in a bottle.

But if we look closer, we can often learn from the exceptions:

  • Yes, grammar rules are important, but if we know the rules well enough, we’ll know how and when to break them on purpose for voice, style, character, dialect, etc.
  • Yes, good writing is important, but good storytelling—an often nebulous concept that includes voice/style, pacing/narrative drive, premise, character goals, conflict, etc.—can overcome the weaknesses of bad writing.
  • Yes, a strong plot is important, but an engaging voice can keep readers entertained enough to turn pages, even when not much is happening in the story.
  • Yes, readers’ emotional experience is important, often focusing on a reader’s connection to a character, but other story aspects—the premise, situations, messages, etc.—can create an emotional experience for readers as well.

Exceptions Can Be Exceptional

I’m currently reading The Fifth Season, a Hugo Award-winning dystopian/apocalyptic fantasy by N. K. Jemisin. This story is amazing despite—or possibly because of—how many “rules” she breaks with her writing. (Read the prologue and first chapter with Amazon’s Look Inside feature.)

For a few examples, The Fifth Season starts with not only a prologue, but a long prologue—with seven scenes/snippets in several different settings and POVs—much of which isn’t in media res, such as these lines:

Here is a land.

It is ordinary, as lands go. Mountains and plateaus and canyons and river deltas, the usual.

The author even emphasizes how much readers aren’t meant to connect to the characters yet, saying the specifics, including this character’s appearance and emotional state, are irrelevant:

None of these places or people matter, by the way. I simply point them out for context.

But here is a man who will matter a great deal.

You can imagine how he looks, for now. You may also imagine what he’s thinking.

Then the first chapter’s opening line takes another character from the prologue and flips their POV for the rest of the book from third person to second person:

You are she. She is you.

However, the other characters’ chapters remain in third person, so readers need to adjust to second-person POV and back every chapter. The technique shouldn’t work. It should be too jarring, too disruptive to the reader’s experience.

None of these choices should work, given the “rules” we know. And yet, considering this story’s well-deserved awards, they do.

How Do Exceptions Successfully Break the Rules?

Rather than focus on the rules a story breaks, we can instead pay attention to what makes the exceptions work. What do they get right—so right that they overcome the usual problems?

Many point to Twilight’s storytelling strengths as the reason it succeeded despite the weakness of the writing itself. In the case of The Fifth Season, I’d point to the voice, premise, worldbuilding, and overall writing quality as reasons why it succeeds “despite.”

The very first line:

Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.

More interesting than the end of the world? What could that possibly be? We’re hooked.

The last lines of the prologue similarly grab readers’ attention:

This is the way the world ends.
For the last time.

For the last time? *shivers*

In other words, the main lesson we might take away from exceptions—and how they get away with breaking the rules when we can’t—is this: Our writing must have more strengths than weaknesses.

If our writing is strong enough, we can break the rules. If we can’t successfully break the rules that make sense for our story to break, maybe the problem isn’t the rule. Maybe we just haven’t yet strengthened our writing enough to make the rule-breaking work, and we need to try again. *smile*

Do you have any questions or insights about writing rules—or breaking them?



After muttering writing advice in tongues, Jami decided to put her talent for making up stuff to good use. Fueled by chocolate, she creates writing resources and writes award-winning paranormal romance stories where normal need not apply. Just ask her family—and zombie cat. Find out more about Jami here, hang out with her on social media, or visit her website and Goodreads profile.
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Before you go…

Have you checked out our Advent Calendar For Writers Giveaway? There’s a ton of prizes to be won that total about $2000.

Enter by Dec 19th, and good luck!

Posted in Pacing, Plotting, Point of View, Uncategorized, Voice, Writing Craft | 24 Comments

A New Thesaurus Book is Coming…And We Need Your Help!

Can I tell you a secret?

There’s a book that Becca and I have wanted to work on for a long time now, but it seemed like it was never a good time. Always we had another Thesaurus book to get to first, and then another. But last year, after completing our most comprehensive (and challenging) book to date, The Emotional Wound Thesaurus, we decided that it was time to take on our special project.

And so we did.

It’s finished. Edited. Proofed. The cover is done (it’s fantastic!) and the manuscript is heading to the formatter.

Now it’s time to look ahead to release, and with that, ask all our lovely fans if they might be willing to help us in the new year. And so…would you like to be part of our Street Team?

If you’ve followed us for awhile, you’ll know that there’s something special about this book because we’ve not said a word on what it’s about. Not one word.

That probably sounds…crazy, right? Who in their right mind says nothing about the book they are creating right up until release?

(Well, us. But we promise, there’s a good reason for doing so!)

*whispers* This will be a big book.

Maybe the biggest book we’ve written?

And we are all about the surprise. Want to be part of it?

If so, we’d love for you to join our Street Team!

If you’re interested, leave your contact details HERE IN THIS FORM and we’ll be in touch. This release will be in February 2019, so don’t worry, we won’t be asking you to give up any family time during the holiday. Our launches are fun and easy, I promise.

We’re SO excited, and are hoping this thesaurus book is exactly what you need. 🙂

Thank you!

~ Angela & Becca

Posted in About Us, Uncategorized | 27 Comments

Top Gifts For Writers: 2018 Edition

It’s that time again! Shopping for people can be crazy-making, except when it comes to writers. Then it’s  a super fun time, because there are just so many neat, fun, thoughtful gifts we can pass on to our writing friends…or put on our own wish lists! So without further ado, here are some of the fabulous finds I have unearthed…enjoy!

An Edgar Alan Poe vinyl clock  (Around $30 US)

Okay, not going to lie–made from records, these clocks are unbelievable. Becca and I purchased one of these and can’t wait for our recipient to see it! Whatever your writer friend is “into,” you’ll find a clock to suit. Like this Wonder Woman one. Or The Wizard of Oz. The Nightmare before Christmas. Scarface. Star Wars. Walking Dead. The Hobbit. Get lost in vinyl glory, friends!

The writing t-shirt classics

You knew there’s be a shirt on this list. There’s always a shirt. The only ingredient missing from this one is Ugly Crying, but Insanity is 120%, so I think that covers it.

I also found some other cool writerly T-shirts here, here, here, and this great one for deadlines here.

Portable laptop desk ($35 US)

Anyone else carry their laptop to the couch or take it to bed? *tries to count all the hands raised and gives up*

Yeah, I thought so. I’m betting too that stifness and neck kinks are probably also on the menu then. A desk like this would save your posture, and you could use it to create a standing desk too.

Jane Austen coasters ($35 US)

Are you like me and you have about 3-4 glasses on your desk at any given time? If so, coasters are a sanity saver when it comes to condensation and coffee rings. Or maybe you just want to proclaim your love of books when company comes over.

If Jane isn’t your cuppa, try these classic horror novel coasters. Either way, hurray for book love!

Glasses for writers ($10 US)

Speaking of beverage containers, we writers do like our adult beverages, don’t we? And well, maybe a few of us have a book boyfriend of seven. Or  GoT’s The Mother of Dragons wine glass is more our speed. Beer drinker? Maybe you like GoTs, you Drink And Know Things. But Harry Potter fans may rather wish to Swear They Are Up To No Good, or proclaim Magic over Muggles with this HP Cauldron Mug.

One Stop for Writers

A few years ago, Becca and I decided to do something crazy with Lee Powell, the creator of Scrivener for Windows: build a website that houses the custom tools and resources that writers really needed. I’m proud to say that we’ve helped thousands of writers so far and are on the cusp of releasing a Character Building Tool that will revolutionize how people build characters and plan their arc, so if you’ve been wanting to test drive a subscription, or wish to gift one to a friend, now’s a great time. We have gift certificates!

Mouse pad hand warmer ($10 US)

Okay, I live in Canada and it gets COLD here in the winter, y’all. My fingers are icicles some days and something like this heated mouse pad could be a lifesaver for that mouse hand. Plus, Owls!


A journal that BEGS to be written in ($20 US)

Can you imagine how this would feel in your hands? What it would be like to open the cover and see the blanket of white patiently waiting for your imagination to fill it?

Beautiful journals cannot be resisted. This is an especially good choice for someone struggling with writer’s block or if they are questioning themselves (as we writers often do). The pages will lure the writer in, a siren song to create.

Bookends ($100 US)

A little pricier, but I had to add this one because my son made me an incredible desk lamp out of pipe, and these bookshelves remind me of it. I have had so many compliments on my lamp (and requests to convince my son to sell them!), so if you like the style, this would be a beautiful addition to any writer’s desk!

A pewter talisman for poets and writers ($20 US)

Bards, the poets and writers of old, were celebrated in Celtic culture, bringing story to people all over by paper and tongue. This talisman is not only a beautiful nod to past roots, it’s a great reminder of our creative purpose!

A writing craft book or three

Becca and I are big believers of self-education. Many years ago we took an entire year off of writing and did nothing but read and discuss writing books. Wow, did that ever help us deepen our knowledge of craft! We have many favorites, which you can find HERE, but of special note would be Lisa Cron’s Story Genius, Don Maass’ The Emotional Craft of Story, and James Scott Bell’s Write From The Middle.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention our own books, which many of you have welcomed onto your bookshelves.  I hope that if you are considering a gift for a friend, or need help with developing your description yourself, you’ll give one of our bestselling volumes a try. 🙂

Need more ideas? Check out last year’s gift list!

Oh, and before you go…

Don’t forget to enter our amazing Advent Calendar For Writers Giveaway.

We have almost $2000 worth of prizes up for grabs!

(Ends December 19th.)

Posted in About Us, Buying Books, One Stop For Writers, Software and Services, Stocking Stuffers, Tools and Resources, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Resources | 1 Comment

Beginnings and Backstory


You will find writers who argue that there should be no backstory at all in your first chapters. Why not? Because, by definition, backstory is what has happened before your narrative opens, and you want to establish the action first, get the readers locked in on that.

This is, on the surface, sound advice. These days we do not have the leisure time, a la Dickens, to set the stage and do a ton of narrative summary up front. Or, a la Michener, begin with the protozoa of the pre-Cambrian earth and record their evolutionary development into the Texans of today.

I am a firm believer in beginning with action (which doesn’t mean, necessarily, car chases or gun fights). The best openings, IMO, show a character in motion. And further, manifesting a “disturbance” to their ordinary world.

I tell writing students, “Act first, explain later.” A big mistake in many manuscripts is that chapter one carries too much exposition. The writer thinks the reader has to know a bunch of character background to understand the action. Mistake. Readers will wait a long time for the explanations when there’s a character in motion, facing a disturbance.

However, I am a strong advocate of strategic backstory in the opening. I say strategic because you do have a strategy in your opening, one above all—bond your character with the reader.

Creating reader empathy is vital in engaging them throughout your fiction novel

Without that character bonding, readers are not going to care about the action, at least not as much as they should. Backstory, properly used, helps you get them into the character so there is an emotional connection. Fiction, above all, should create an emotional experience.

I also stress properly used. That means marbled within the action, not standing alone demanding to be read.

The guys who do this really well also happen to be two of the bestselling novelists of our time, King and Koontz. You think that’s just a coincidence?

So here’s the simple “rule.” Start with action. Let’s see a character in motion, doing something. Make sure there’s some trouble, even minor, on the page (disturbance) and then you can give us bite-sized bits, or several paragraphs (if you write them well!) of backstory.

An early Koontz (when he was using the pseudonym Leigh Nichols) is Twilight.It opens with a mother and her six-year-old son at a shopping mall (after an opening line that portends trouble, of course). On page one Koontz drops this in:

To Christine, Joey sometimes seemed to be a little old man in a six-year-old boy’s small body. Occasionally he said the most amazingly grown-up things, and he usually had the patience of an adult, and he was often wiser than his years.

But at other times, especially when he asked where his daddy was or why his daddy had gone away––or even when he didn’t ask but just stood there with the question shimmering in his eyes––he looked so innocent, fragile, so heartbreakingly vulnerable that she just had to grab him and hug him.

Koontz bonds us with this Lead through sympathy. We don’t know why the boy’s father isn’t there, but we don’t have to know right away, do we? In this way Koontz also creates a little mystery which makes us want to keep on reading. 

Now, a word of warning when writing in first person POV. It’s much easier for the narrator to give us a backstory dump. But the “rule” remains the same: act first, explain later. To see how it’s done, check out the opening chapter of Harlan Coben’s Gone for Good,which begins:

Three days before her death, my mother told me – these weren’t her last words, but they were pretty close – that my brother was still alive.

We then cut to the mother’s funeral, and the narrator, Will Klein, leaving the house to walk through his old neighborhood. He has a specific place he’s going, the place where a terrible murder happened years before. Along the way he describes the setting and drops in some backstory, especially about one night when his big brother explained the “facts of life” to him from a ninth grader’s perspective. It’s a warm, human bit that creates sympathy. But Coben weaves it in with the action, which is about the narrator getting to the murder spot. That happens on the very next page. Very little time is lost to backstory.

Some time ago I interviewed Laura Caldwell, author of the Izzy McNeil series. She told me the following:

“I wish I’d known how to weave in background information instead of dumping it in big chunks. It’s still something I struggle with, although I think I’ve improved a lot. It’s a skill that has to constantly be refined so the background information which gets delivered reads and feels organic right at that point in the story.”

Good point from Laura.

Here’s an example from my legal thriller, Try Dying. Chapter 1 is about a bizarre death. Chapter 2 opens with the narrator in action, facing opposition (disturbance). A hugely successful lawyer named Barton Walbert. It’s a deposition. About four paragraphs in:

I was a pup compared to Walbert. He was fifty-three and in his prime. At thirty-four, I was just hitting my stride. But the arrogance of youth is a good thing for trial lawyers. Like the young gun who comes to town looking for the aging outlaw, wanting to test the best, I was loaded and ready. 

I wanted to slip in the age and the attitude. Then I got back to the action.

Striking the right backstory balance in your first few pages, isn’t easy. Here are a few final tips for finding that happy medium:

1. Take a look at your opening chapters. Highlight all backstory.

2. Take out anything that does not contribute to some emotional connection with the character. Move other material to a later chapter.

3. If your beginning has no backstory and it’s lacking that important reader-character bonding element, write up some of your protagonist’s history in a separate document, free form. Look for anything that gives us empathy or sympathy for the character. Then take some of that and put it in, a little at a time, in the opening chapter.


Jim is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, Plot & Structure, and numerous thrillers, including, Romeo’s Rules, Try Dying and Don’t Leave Me. His popular books on fiction craft can be found here. His thrillers have been called “heart-whamming” (Publishers Weekly) and can be browsed here. Find out more about Jim on our Resident Writing Coach page, and connect with him online.


Before you go…

Have you checked out our Advent Calendar For Writers Giveaway? There’s a ton of prizes to be won that total about $2000.

Enter by Dec 19th, and good luck!

Posted in Characters, Editing Tips, Empathy, Openings, Uncategorized | 12 Comments

An Unbelievable “Advent Calendar For Writers” Giveaway!

Who doesn’t love a good Advent Calendar? I mean, it’s the perfect lead up to the holiday…tiny windows filled with chocolate treats that ramp up our anticipation. Of course, now you can find calendars for all sorts of things: wine, tea, spices, beef jerky…so we thought, why not create an Advent Calendar for Writers?

We reached out to some of the biggest writing community supporters and together are bringing you a windfall of help: writing & marketing courses, editing packages, craft books, subscriptions to powerful tools and resources, and more!

14 Days. 14 Advent windows. 14 Amazing prizes with a combined value of almost $2000!

And now that all the Advent windows are open, just click each link below to enter for that prize!

This event runs from Dec 1st to the 19th and winners will be drawn on the 20th. (Make sure to read the terms and conditions for each rafflecopter giveaway as to choose winners and award prizes, we do need to collect some personal information.)

Huge gratitude to the kind contributors involved in this giveaway.

The best part of the writing community is how people support one another and we’re all excited to see writers succeed. As you enter these draws and each contributor is revealed, take a moment to get to know those who may be new to you. Everyone involved has a big heart for writers. 🙂

Good luck to all. Sharing this giveaway with others is greatly appreciated. 🙂

Posted in About Us, Contests | 41 Comments

Critiques 4 U

Ahhh, it’s the happy time again.

*cue the Peanuts Christmas soundtrack*

Because I’m easily overwhelmed and like to get out ahead of things, my decorating is done and I did most of my shopping online yesterday. Next comes the wrapping, but in the meantime, I’m taking a break to do some reading, which means it’s time for a critique contest!



If you’re working on a first page (in any genre except erotica) and would like some objective feedback, please leave a comment. Any comment :). As long as the email address associated with your WordPress account/comment profile is up-to-date, I’ll be able to contact you if your first page is chosen. Just please know that if I’m unable to get in touch with you through that address, you’ll have to forfeit your win.

Two caveats:

▪    Please be sure your first page is ready to go so I can critique it before next month’s contest rolls around. If it needs some work and you won’t be able to get it to me right away, let me ask that you plan on entering the next contest, once any necessary tweaking has been taken care of.

▪    I’d like to be able to use portions of winning submissions as illustrations in an upcoming presentation I’m creating on first pages. By entering the Critiques 4 U contest, you’ll be granting permission for me to use small writing samples only (no author names or book titles will be used).

Three commenters’ names will be randomly drawn and posted tomorrow. If you win, you can email me your first page and I’ll offer my feedback. Best of luck!

Posted in Uncategorized | 31 Comments

Cyber Monday Starts Now! 50% off One Stop for Writers

Hi everyone! This time of year can be a bit stressful with the holidays approaching, so we thought we’d pass along a nice discount for our 6-month plan.

Right now, grab it at 50% off and dig into all the fantastic, one-of-a-kind resources at One Stop for Writers for the next six months for only $25!

One Stop for Writers® is our sister site, a project that Becca, myself, and Lee Powell, the creator of Scrivener for Windows have built over the last few years. If you are a fan of our Thesaurus books, you might be interested to know they are all at One Stop, along with many more: 14 Thesauruses in all, creating the largest description database available online for writers. But that’s just one aspect of our site, so feel free to find out more of what we offer.

To take advantage of this early Cyber Monday deal…

Sign up (or sign in) and visit the My Subscription page

Enter the code CYBERMONDAY into the coupon code box.

Follow the prompts and select the 6-Month plan

A one-time 50% discount will be applied to your next invoice. Easy-peasy!

If you are looking for something to change the writing game, stop by and see if One Stop for Writers fits your plan for stronger storytelling. We’ve helped thousands of writers and would love to help you, too.

When Cyber Monday ends, so does this offer, so act fast!

Happy writing!


Posted in One Stop For Writers, Past Events, Uncategorized | Leave a comment