Improve Your Novel Writing: 11 Tips For Newbies

Writing a novel is flipping difficult. It often takes years to complete your first novel (and even more years after that to write a good one). You heard that right — writers’ first books are usually a hot mess. That is because, as untested authors, we don’t yet know how to write a book. 

On average, most writers pursuing traditional publication write four novels prior to getting a literary agent. In other words, it takes most writers writing a few books to get the hang of things. 

If you are reading this, you are likely curious about how you can shorten your learning curve and write a better book more quickly. Let’s talk about the eleven ways you can improve your novel-writing skills today. 

1. Acknowledge That You Don’t Know Everything and Your Writing Isn’t Perfect

One surefire sign of a newbie writer is thinking your writing is perfection. Nothing anyone can say is applicable because if they have a critique, it means they don’t understand your story. (And not that your story needs improving — certainly not that!) 

I was there, friends. Once upon a time, I thought my books were the next NY Times bestsellers and ready for publication — often after completing the first draft. 

As I’ve said many times before on my YouTube channel, iWriterly: first drafts are not final drafts. According to Terry Pratchet: “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”

Therefore, be open-minded to the fact that while you might have a lot of great elements within your story, you have many drafts ahead of you to polish your story and get it ready for the eyes of readers. 

2. Research How to Write a Good Book

As newbie writers, we can’t hope to figure out how to write a book on our own. Or, at least, most of us can’t. Therefore, you will want to do some research to learn about how to write a good book. (HINT: It’s about more than just grammar!) For example, some topics you might want to research include:

Here are a few resources you could check out: 

  • Nonfiction books about how to write a novel
  • Free articles and blogs
  • YouTube: iWriterly, for example, is in a niche called AuthorTube where aspiring and published authors talk about how to write books
  • Online courses (Writers Helping Writers has a list of recommendations in the Online Learning Centers section of their Resources for Writers page)
  • Formal education at a college or university 
  • Fiction books by the greats in your genre

Keep in mind that many of these options are free. You don’t have to immediately pull out your wallet. However, if you are going to pay for a product or service, always research whether or not the person teaching the course has applicable experience and is an expert in their field. 

3. Consider Outlining Your Book before You Write It 

(One Stop for Writers Story Maps)

If you haven’t yet heard of plotters and pantsers (or architects and gardeners), allow me to enlighten you. A plotter (also called an “architect”) is a writer who plans out their story prior to writing it. A pantser (someone who “flies by the seat of their pants” — also called a “gardener”) is someone who doesn’t plan prior to writing. They write and see where their muse takes them.

There is no right or wrong way to go about writing. However, a pantser has a lot more work to do in the editing phase because they didn’t plan out anything in advance, such as big plot beats. Therefore, consider checking out things like beat sheets or different types of plot structure prior to writing your book. (Save the Cat! Writes a Novel and Jami Gold’s blog have a lot of beat sheets writers use.) You don’t need to plan out your novel in advance, but it might be worth jotting down the big plot points you want to reach at certain places in your story. 

4. Work with Critique Partners and Beta Readers 

Critique partners and beta readers provide feedback on unpublished manuscripts. However, their roles are slightly different.

  • Critique partners are writers who provide feedback on your work, usually by request (to exchange chapters or full manuscripts).
  • Beta readers are people who read your manuscript as a reader first (rather than a writer). Most of the time, beta readers are not writers.

Without outside feedback, we can’t improve the stories. This is due to a writer’s blindness to our own story’s flaws from being too close to it. We can see it so perfectly in our heads, but it doesn’t necessarily translate well onto the page. It’s the job of a good critique partner and/or beta reader to read a story and provide feedback and suggestions for areas of improvement — thereby helping us make the best story possible. 

For more information on finding critique partners or beta readers, check out Critique Circle or look for local groups via the blogs for different genres, such as SCBWI or RWA.

5. Be Open to Critiques/Feedback on Your Work

It’s not just about getting feedback from critique partners and beta readers. If you are not open to making changes to your story, then getting feedback is a pointless exercise. Do your best to look at your story objectively and listen to what critique partners and beta readers are saying. 

6. Look Closely at Your Weakest Points

Did your critique partners and beta readers seem to have a consensus about what aspects of your writing could be improved? Those are most likely your “weak spots” as a writer.

For me, I’ve always struggled with info-dumps. Most recently, I’ve struggled with too much internalization (vs. dramatization). Simply knowing where you aren’t strong as a writer is helpful so you can teach yourself to spot the issues — perhaps even before you make them. 

Listen to what the consensus is for feedback. There is always the outlier — one critique partner or beta reader who has a completely different take on your story — but if there is a consensus, pay close attention to it. It more than likely is an issue you will want to address.

7. Edit the Book on Your Own MANY Times

As I mentioned earlier, the first draft isn’t the final draft. Most authors edit their books dozens of times before it gets to the version you see on the bookshelf. Personally, I edit my manuscript two to five times (front to back) by myself before sharing it with critique partners. After that, I work with critique partners and beta readers through many drafts (and self-edit in between).

Consider working with more critique partners and beta readers after you have edited your book and implemented the previous round of feedback. Ideally, you will want to work with them on several drafts of the book. The exact number of times beta readers and critique partners read the manuscript is going to be up to you and them. 

8. Brush up On Grammar

While good grammar doesn’t make a good story, bad grammar can pull readers out of one. As such, you will want to be able to write with proper punctuation, sentence structure, spelling, and so on. 

9. Read Books by the Greats within Your Genre

Dissect the books you love. Try to determine what it is you enjoyed about them and what that author excels at. In addition, think about ways you can emulate (or perhaps imitate) some of those skills in your own writing (without plagiarizing!!). 

10. Write Often to Sharpen Your Skills

According to Malcolm Gladwell, it takes 10,000 hours (or approximately 10 years) of practice to become an expert. While you don’t necessarily need to be writing books for 10 years before you are deemed “ready,” you do need to put in the time to practice your writing skills in order to become a better writer. 

11. Write the Next Book 

Going along with our previous point, the best way to be a better author is to write many books. That is because the more books you write, the better you will get at it. 

From my experience, writing a book isn’t something you can teach. Sure, you can learn the principles of writing a good book or learn how other authors write theirs. But you must learn how you as an author operate through the process. How you do it is going to be different from other people’s process. Therefore, the only way to glean that knowledge is through experience. 

Happy writing, friends!

Meg LaTorre

Resident Writing Coach

Meg LaTorre is a writer, YouTuber (iWriterly), creator of the free query critique platform, Query Hack, co-host of the Publishable show, blogger, and she formerly worked at a literary agency. She also has a background in magazine publishing, medical/technical writing, and journalism. To learn more about Meg, visit her website, follow her on Twitter and Instagram, sign up for her monthly newsletter, and subscribe to her YouTube channel, iWriterly.
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Posted in Critique Groups, Critiquing & Critiques, Grammar, Pacing, Plotting, Reader Feedback, Reading, Resident Writing Coach, Revision and Editing, Story Structure, Uncategorized, Voice, Writing Craft | 15 Comments

Surprising Your Readers in Every Scene

Often we think of surprising audiences with large twists and turns, with thrilling midpoints or shocking losses, but bringing surprise into smaller story pieces, like interactions and beats, can sometimes be equally satisfying in their own way.

They also hook and reel in readers, which is always a plus.

Recently, I’ve been re-reading Story by Robert McKee, and in it, he talks about the importance of “the gap.” The gap is that space between what the character expects to happen and what actually does happen. Sounds simple and obvious, right?

But many writers don’t consider how to fully utilize this on the small scale. Every character wants something pretty much all of the time. They may be hungry, so they go to a drive-through, expecting to order. She may be going to a friend’s house to tell them she just got engaged, expecting to share that excitement. He might be wanting to ace a test for college.

Everyone wants something, and most people will be taking some form of action to get it. As your character takes that action, think about what they expect, then consider how the result could be different. Maybe your character is trying to order at the drive-through, but no one is responding (a result different than expected), so then what do they do? They take an escalating action. Maybe they raise their voice at the microphone, once, then twice. Suddenly, someone comes on . . . who sounds like they are dying. Now the character needs to think about and take another action, which has another expectation, which could offer another gap.

But not all gaps need to be that drastic. Maybe your character shows up at her friend’s house and rings the doorbell, expecting to be let in, like usual. But when her friend opens the door, she blocks the way, and it looks like she’s been crying–an unexpected result. Or maybe your character shows up to the testing center, but as he sits down, realizes it’s actually an open book test . . . and he didn’t bring his.

If you pay attention to successful films, this sort of thing happens all the time. 

Take a look at this scene from Disney’s Frozen, where Anna, Kristoff, and Sven meet Olaf. Watch for the gap between a character’s expectation and the result. 

It happens over and over again, almost every line: the North Mountain is higher up than Anna expects, the snowy setting is more beautiful than she expects, they hear a voice they don’t expect, and find a live snowman, which they don’t expect. Look at this exchange:

[After some talking, Anna gives Olaf a carrot nose . . . which she accidentally pushes in too far so it’s out the back of his head] <–unexpected

Anna: Oh, I’m sorry! Are you okay? 

Olaf: Are you kidding me? I . . . am wonderful! I’ve always wanted a nose! It’s so cute. It’s like a little baby unicorn. <–unexpected

[Anna smashes the back of the carrot in, so his nose is way bigger] <–unexpected, for Olaf

Olaf: Oh. I love it even more! <–unexpected

Olaf: Alright, so let’s start this thing over. Hi, everyone. I’m Olaf, and I like warm hugs! <–unexpected

Anna: [in recognition] Olaf? That’s right! Olaf. <–unexpected, for Olaf

Olaf: And you are . . . ?

Anna: I’m Anna.

Olaf: And who’s the funky looking donkey over there? <–unexpected

Anna: That’s Sven.

Olaf: Uh-huh, and who’s the reindeer? <–unexpected

Anna: . . . Sven. <–unexpected, for Olaf

Olaf: Oh, okay, make things easier for me. <–unexpected (in subtext)

[Sven tries to eat Olaf’s carrot nose] <–unexpected, for Olaf

Olaf: Ah, look at him trying to kiss my nose! I like you too! <–unexpected

. . . and the scene goes on with this. 

You’ll notice that the gap isn’t just about the viewpoint character. Every character wants something, even Sven, who wants a carrot (and he doesn’t get the result he wants when Olaf reacts). There can also be a gap with the audience and what they expect. Often this is the same as the viewpoint character, but those two things can deviate.

Sure, sometimes the characters do get what they want or expect, and sometimes that’s necessary for progression, but you’ll notice scenes and interactions are much more interesting, even entertaining, if reality doesn’t meet expectation most of the time. If you can turn and twist even beats, the audience will be surprised and thrilled on the small scale over and over again.

To do this, it’s important to remember a few things:

– The unexpected result should usually be more powerful in some way than the expected.

– If it’s less powerful than what is expected, it should quickly be followed up by something new and surprising.

– Often the unexpected leads to a form of escalation. Notice how even Olaf wanting introductions creates a sort of rising action, up until he confuses both of the guys as “Sven” and the real Sven tries to bite his nose. In other situations, a sense of risk might escalate, as the character takes more and more actions to try to get what she wants.

– If it doesn’t lead to escalation, it should probably lead to the character having to take a different action. 

So when working on a scene, consider what each of your characters want, what the audience wants, and how you can deliver something different to surprise them, then look at how their reactions could open up another gap. 

September C. Fawkes

Resident Writing Coach

September C. Fawkes has worked as an assistant to a New York Times bestselling author and writing instructor, and now does freelance editing at She has published poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction articles, and her award-winning writing tips have appeared in classrooms, conferences, and on Grammar Girl. Visit her at for more writing tips, and find her on
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Posted in Action Scenes, Characters, Dialogue, Emotion, Motivation, Pacing, Reader Interest, Reading, Resident Writing Coach, Show Don't Tell, Subtext, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 11 Comments

Conflict Thesaurus Entry: Family Secrets Being Revealed

Conflict is very often the magic sauce for generating tension and turning a ho-hum story into one that rivets readers. As such, every scene should contain a struggle of some kind. Maybe it’s an internal tug-of-war having to do with difficult decisions, morals, or temptations. Or it possibly could come from an external source—other characters, unfortunate circumstances, or the force of nature itself.

It’s our hope that this thesaurus will help you come up with meaningful and fitting conflict options for your stories. Think about what your character wants and how best to block them, then choose a source of conflict that will ramp up the tension in each scene.

Conflict: Family Secrets Being Revealed

Category: Failures and mistakes, relationship friction, duty and responsibilities, moral dilemmas and temptation, losing an advantage, ego, miscellaneous challenges

A parent’s extra-marital affair is uncovered
Discovering the existence of half siblings (say at the reading of a will or when someone shows up at the door claiming to be related)
Finding out a crime was covered up (someone was paid off, a family member was “sent away to school” to avoid consequences, etc.)
A family member is outed for drug abuse, alcoholism, or a gambling habit
Discovering a family member has a fetish or unconventional sexual preferences
A hidden pregnancy
Discovering one’s ancestors were war criminals, racists, or supported such things
Discovering ties to the occult
Finding out one is adopted (or a sibling is)
A discovery that the family’s wealth, property, or power was obtained illegally or through immoral means
The truth coming out about a family business (that it’s almost bankrupt, that it was won in a poker game, that it was built on deceit or through the hard work of others, etc.)
The discovery of a forced marriage
Uncovering the source of a feud
Family abuse coming out into the open (physical, emotional, or sexual)
Finding out that mental illness or another disease runs in the family
Finding out an ability runs in the family (psychic sensitivities, a gift that has always been suppressed or hidden for safety, etc.)

Minor Complications:
Strained relationships
Awkwardness now that another’s secret is out in the open
Family members taking sides
Family members pressuring others to let it go to keep the status quo
Needing someone to talk to but having no one due to broken trust
Unwanted publicity if word gets out
Guilt trips to stay quiet
The burden of knowledge erasing their innocence and changing how they view family

Potentially Disastrous Results:
Investigations, litigation, or other actions being taken against the family or one of its members
Having to course correct (pull the family out of debt, cover something up, make reparations for a family misdeed, pay blackmail)
Having one’s reputation destroyed due to a family member’s transgression
Losing one’s power, a position, or an opportunity because of “guilt by association”
Being ostracized or maligned because they refuse to look the other way or help keep the family’s secret

Possible Internal Struggles (Inner Conflict):
Struggling with disillusionment; feeling like one’s life has been a lie
Love, anger, and disappointment facing off when a role model’s unsavory secret is revealed
Relief at having answers yet feeling anger at being kept in the dark
Feeling adrift from one’s family after trust was broken
Feeling betrayed yet still loving the one who caused the emotional harm
Being torn between keeping quiet and speaking out
Wanting to run away and knowing that doing so will make things worse

People Who Could Be Negatively Affected: family members, people who were victimized by someone in the family, the person(s) responsible for the transgression should word leak out, anyone whose reputation could be damaged due to their association with the one at the heart of the matter

Resulting Emotions: anger, appalled, betrayed, bitterness, conflicted, confusion, connectedness, contempt, denial, devastation, disappointment, disbelief, disgust, disillusionment, embarrassment, empathy, grief, guilt, hatred, horror, humiliation, hurt, loneliness, nostalgia, panic, paranoia, rage, regret, relief, remorse, resentment, schadenfreude, scorn, self-pity, shame, shock, tormented, uncertainty, vengeful, vindicated, vulnerability, worry, worthlessness

Personality Flaws that May Make the Situation Worse: abrasive, addictive, confrontational, cowardly, extravagant, forgetful, gossipy, gullible, insecure, irrational, irresponsible, jealous, judgmental, martyr, perfectionist, rebellious, reckless, self-destructive, tactless, vindictive, violent

Positive Outcomes: 
If the secret reveals a truth the character has always suspected, there can be relief in knowing
The discovery that a condition or struggle they have is shared by another may lead to feeling validated
Once a past wound comes out in full, there is the opportunity for everyone involved to begin to heal
If information has been kept from a character, having access to it means they can make informed choices moving forward, regaining control
Once a person knows about a past wrong they can step up and work to make things right again
Once a secret is out, it steals the power of those trying to use it to control the behavior of others

If you’re interested in other conflict options, you can find them here.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Saving your Story from Predictability

I had the rare and luscious experience this weekend of cracking open a book and it being so awesome that I flew right through it. The Deceivers is about a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who’s tapped to attend Vale Hall, a secret academy for con artists.

The character’s situation was compelling and the writing flawless, so I was sucked in right away. But at the back of my mind, doubts fluttered—suspicions that this book would end up like every other book in the Secret Academy subgenre.

Please don’t let her end up falling for her mark and becoming part of another love triangle.

Please don’t tell me that the hunky Vale student she’s falling for is playing her, that she’s actually his mark.

Please don’t turn the well-intentioned, father-figure principal who’s running the whole show into a morally bankrupt egomaniac who’s been playing everyone.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these scenarios. The problem is that you see them in almost every book of this genre. After a while, they become cliché and begin to sound like every other story in that section of the library. Not exactly what we’re going for as authors.

Predictability is a problem for many readers. It’s why genres explode onto the scene for a while, but eventually fade out (dystopian, anyone?), because pretty soon, every book in that category sounds the same. Part of the magic in reading a new book is not knowing what’s going to happen. If readers can figure that out without really trying, chances are, the book isn’t going to hold them captive.

I was pleasantly surprised that the afore-mentioned book rose above the predictable outcomes. I was committed all the way through because I didn’t know what was going to happen and I couldn’t wait to see how things resolved. This is what we want for our readers: engagement, excitement, and an appreciation for a well-written, never-before-seen story.

So how do we give that to them? How do we avoid writing a story that’s predictable?

Read Within Your Genre to Identify Common Tropes

To a certain degree, genres have to be similar. People who read in a genre read those particular books because they’re appealing. Readers who pick up horror stories want to be scared; romance aficionados like the tension between the protagonist and his or her love interest; historical fiction readers enjoy stories about characters from a different age and long-ago settings. So some of the common elements within genres are necessary; they’re what make those books those kinds of books.

What we want to avoid are rinse-and-repeat scenarios surrounding the story’s main conflict or its resolution (like the ones I mentioned earlier).

To do this, we have to know what those same-old-same-old scenarios are, and the best way to do that is to read lots and lots of books within your story’s genre. TVTropes has a listing of literary genres and popular examples of books in those categories to help you flesh out your reading list. (Or, for something on the lighter side, check out these tongue-in-cheek Story Tropes Bingo Cards.)

As you read, make a list of the common scenarios and story resolutions you see in those books. Which ones keep cropping up? Which ones feel too easy, as if the author is just following someone else’s formula? Which ones were you able to predict while reading? Write those suckers down so you can think past the easy solutions and come up with something unique that will set your story apart from the others.

Read Outside Your Genre to Explore Other Conflict Scenarios and Their Outcomes

Once you’ve identified what to avoid, you’ve got to figure out conflict sources and resolutions to use instead. The best way to do that is to read outside of your genre. I know, I know, I just told you to check out books like yours. But if that’s all you read, you’re only going to see what everyone else in your genre is doing, and you’re likely going to end up using the same formula.

To make your story unique, look to other genres. What kinds of conflict scenarios are happening in those books? What other sources of conflict can you use to ramp up the tension in your scenes? Instead of the obvious story solution, how else could the main conflict be resolved?

Start another list. Get the juices flowing by writing down every idea that pops into your head, no matter how outlandish or odd. In the planning stage, experiment with some of those ideas to see which ones will help you not only avoid predictability but create something interesting and exciting that readers couldn’t possible see coming.

Choose Subplots Thoughtfully

While the main conflict or story goal within certain genres are similar (Boy Wants Girl, Woman Must Escape a Killer, Cop Has to Solve the Crime), you can differentiate your story from the others with your subplots.

In The Deceivers, Brynn is seeking to obtain certain information from her mark. This is her objective, and it’s a common one for a story in the Secret Academy/Con Artist genre. One twist, though, is a subplot involving her mother’s kingpin, drug-dealing boyfriend. When he learns that Brynn is collecting secrets from a wealthy politician, he wants in. He wants a cut. He’s a dangerous dude, so ignoring him is bad, but including him means tying herself to her old life and her dead-end neighborhood, which Brynn desperately doesn’t want to do.

This subplot takes the story out of the typical mold for this genre and creates all kinds of interesting scenarios. Throw in a romance subplot with another student who’s got issues of his own, and it becomes a totally new and unpredictable story.

When you’re planning your story, you obviously need to focus on your main storyline, but don’t stop there. Carefully consider what atypical subplots you can include that might take things in an unusual direction. Most outer motivations (overall story goals) can also work for smaller objectives (subplots). So explore the different possibilities to come up with a unique mix of plots that will give you all kinds of options for where the story can go. 

Listen, it’s easy to fall into the trap of writing a story that’s just like the others in your genre. But for readers, “easy” often translates into ho-hum, clichéd, and expected. You don’t have to reinvent the whole genre to keep readers interested. Just put in a little extra work to identify and avoid the common patterns, and you’ll end up with something for readers to talk (or even blog) about.

Quick Resource List for NaNoWriMo’ers (and the rest of us):

Writer’s Helping Writer’s Conflict Thesaurus
One Stop for Writer’s Character Motivation Thesaurus
Literary Genres and Common Tropes

Posted in Cliches, Conflict, Motivation, NaNoWriMo Strategy & Support, Reading, Uncategorized, Writing Craft | 5 Comments

Hacking NaNoWriMo: How to Reach the Finish Line

It’s NaNoWriMo season, so I’m reposting my top 5 tips that will help you bust through any block or hiccup so you reach your 50K. These tips have worked for me, and I hope they will work for you.

1. Make with a plan (yes, even the Pantsers). Really, the more you know about your plot and characters going in, the more it helps. Understanding what motivates your hero and why is the golden thread of your story which will make everything else so much easier to write because each action and decision is about getting them what they need most. Even if you’ve started without knowing this, challenge yourself to puzzle it out as soon as possible so that will help you steer the story.

2. If you get stuck on what comes next, skip ahead. Think about the story ahead and the next scene you see clearly in your mind. Maybe it’s two scenes down the road, or two chapters. Either way, put a placeholder into your book like, “Cindy is released from prison on a technicality” and then jump forward to the next scene you know will happen, like Cindy stalking the only witness to the crime. Words flow again, and in the background, you brain can work on the problem. When the answer hits (and it will), you can go back and “fill in” the missing scene.

3. Hate how a scene turned out? Change the setting and rewrite it. Many don’t realize it, but setting choice is a pretty big deal. How well the scene works is influenced by how well you utilize your setting, so choosing the right one is important. You can really mess with a character’s emotions, alter the mood, create conflict, and home in on fears, hopes or dreams as you need to, all using the setting. Here’s 4 ways to nail down the best setting choice for each scene. (Psst, if you rewrite the scene, keep the old one as it’s part of your 50K word count!)

4. Always end the session knowing the next line. We can lose momentum between writing sprints–one minute the words are flying, the next, nope. If you are writing a scene and need to quit for the day, try not finishing it…wait and pick it up again in your next session. Or, start the next scene just enough that you see the direction and then stop. This will help you get into the flow faster and keep the paralyzing fear of WHAT COMES NEXT at bay.

5. Triage, Triage, Triage. Getting stuck or stumped may happen. Let’s be real–it probably will happen. But that’s totally okay because all you need to do is visit the NaNoWriMo Triage Center. You can find help for Character Issues, Plot Problems, Conflict Juicing, Story Middle Problems, plus a bunch of brainstorming links.


Now might also be a good time to check out One Stop for Writers. With our FREE TRIAL you can have instant access to 14 description thesauruses (emotions, setting, weather, symbolism, skills & talents, physical features, colors, positive attributes, character flaws, emotion amplifiers, emotional wounds and others), to keep the words flowing.

And of course there’s also a ton of writing tutorials, lessons, story maps, timeline tools, generators, and other writerly stuff there too.

Becca and I are cheering you all on!  🙂 Go, NaNo Warriors!

Are you part of the NaNoWriMo frenzy? What are your favorite tips? Share them in the comments!

Posted in About Us, Goal Setting, Motivational, NaNoWriMo Strategy & Support, One Stop For Writers, Time Management, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Conflict Thesaurus Entry: Sending a Private Message to the Wrong Person

Conflict is very often the magic sauce for generating tension and turning a ho-hum story into one that rivets readers. As such, every scene should contain a struggle of some kind. Maybe it’s an internal tug-of-war having to do with difficult decisions, morals, or temptations. Or it possibly could come from an external source—other characters, unfortunate circumstances, or the force of nature itself.

It’s our hope that this thesaurus will help you come up with meaningful and fitting conflict options for your stories. Think about what your character wants and how best to block them, then choose a source of conflict that will ramp up the tension in each scene.

Conflict: Sending a private message to the wrong person

Category: Power struggles, failures and mistakes, relationship friction, moral dilemmas and temptation, losing an advantage, ego

Accidentally “replying all” to a work email
Replying to an email instead of forwarding the response to someone else
Responding to a group text instead of an individual recipient
Sending a text or email to the wrong person
Accidentally posting a private message to a public forum, discussion board, social media page, etc.

Minor Complications:
Embarrassment over having made a stupid and public mistake
Relationship friction (if the message contained insulting or controversial material)
Time wasted having to do damage control
Distance created between the character and the object of discussion when the latter realizes they were meant to be excluded from the conversation
Decreased productivity due to distraction and worry
A competitive co-worker learning of the character’s plans or ideas and capitalizing on them
The character’s capability and trustworthiness being questioned, resulting in fewer opportunities at work
Losing sleep and experiencing health issues over the situation

Potentially Disastrous Results:
Being fired for using work email for inappropriate purposes (sexting, propositioning a co-worker, harassing them, etc.)
Getting fired because the contents of the message resulted in lost revenue, lost clients, or public blowback for the company
Being arrested or sued (if the contents suggested illegal activity by the character)
The recipient copying and distributing the message publicly
A personal secret being shared with a stranger or rival rather than a trusted confidant
A relationship ending because of what was said in the message
Being blackmailed by the recipient in exchange for their silence
Developing serious health problems, such as hypertension, an ulcer, or depression

Possible Internal Struggles (Inner Conflict):
Shame over what the message revealed (prejudice on the character’s part, a flaw such as cruelty or pettiness, etc.)
Feeling insecure around the involved parties
Worrying over possible long-term effects from what happened
Wanting to hide rather than confront or face those involved
Being tempted to lie about the circumstances to minimize the damage
Guilt over trouble the event has caused for loved ones or co-workers

People Who Could Be Negatively Affected: The recipient(s), the subject of the message, other loved ones or co-workers (depending on where the mistake took place)

Resulting Emotions: Anxiety, appalled, apprehension, defensiveness, desperation, devastation, disbelief, dread, embarrassment, fear, flustered, guilt, humiliation, insecurity, nervousness, paranoia, regret, self-pity, shame, shock, unease, vulnerability, worry

Personality Flaws that May Make the Situation Worse: Catty, cocky, defensive, melodramatic, paranoid

Positive Outcomes: 
Learning to be more careful in the future about written communication
Seeing a blind spot in their character (a flaw or ideology) and determining to change it
Recognizing that gossip is hurtful and divisive and resolving to stop doing it
A necessary conversation being started that the character otherwise wouldn’t have initiated
The object of the discussion hearing a truth that would never have been purposely shared

If you’re interested in other conflict options, you can find them here.

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Where Do Character Strengths Come From?

Quick, name a favorite literary or movie character. Now, what is it about him/her that’s so appealing?

In all likelihood, the reason you love that character is because he or she embodies a trait that you value: Atticus Finch’s bravery, George Bailey’s selflessness, James Bond’s charisma.

It’s not surprising that these icons consistently land at the top of AFI’s Top 100 Heroes and Villains list. While flaws play a part in eliciting reader empathy, it is a character’s ability to overcome his weakness that inspires the audience.

And what enables the hero to win the day? Usually, it’s his positive attributes—his persistence, confidence, responsibility, or ambition—that allow him to succeed. This is why it’s crucial that we pick the right attributes for our characters.

But how do you know which ones are a good fit for your hero? Fully-realized characters, like real people, aren’t formed out of the air. They’re a result of many different elements that come together to make the character who he is in the current story.

When determining which attributes your character will embrace, consider the following influencers:

Past Factors

Genetics: Since this one is simple, we’ll get it out of the way first. Some traits, like intelligence, talent, and creativity, are simply handed down through DNA. Having a character share a trait with his mother, grandfather, or even a distant uncle can add believability to his embodiment of that trait.

Upbringing and Caregivers: Everything about your character’s first role models will influence him, from their personal values to the way they spoke to him to the amount and quality of time they spent with him.

If his relationship with his caregivers was positive, he may adopt their attributes as his own as a way of showing respect. If the relationship wasn’t great, he may shun the qualities that they espoused so as to create distance. Family dynamics play a huge role in forming personality; this should definitely be taken into consideration when choosing positive attributes for your hero.

Negative Experiences: While these wounding events from the past are most often associated with the formation of flaws, positive attributes can develop from them, too. The victim of a vicious attack may become cautious and alert because of it. The boy whose father never kept his word may grow up to value honesty. The oldest child of a neglectful parent may learn, by necessity, to embrace maturity and resourcefulness.

Without a doubt, flaws do tend to form when we experience these traumatizing events, but positives can come out of them, too. Keep that in mind when mining your character’s backstory for potential strengths.

Present Factors

Physical Environment: A character who grew up in the mountains is going to have a different perspective than someone who was raised in the big city. Americans tend to value things that Parisians or Brazilians or even Canadians don’t. Physical environments are formative—the ones from the past, and even the place where your character lives now. A southern belle who moves to downtown Chicago is likely going to experience some personality shifts during her transition.

Your character’s environment will subtly influence the kind of person that she becomes; choose her living places deliberately so her attributes will make sense to readers.

Peers: At certain points in life, your character’s peers will become her biggest influencers. Through her desire to please them and be accepted, she may adopt some of their values for her own. Sometimes, she may become like them out of a genuine respect for their beliefs and a desire to embrace them for herself. Like caregivers, past and present peers can greatly impact who your character becomes, so take them into consideration.

Values and Ethics: This one is a biggie, because, in my opinion, it overrides all of the other factors.

The bottom line: your character will adopt or reject attributes based on what he or she believes. Does she place a high value on her reputation and what others think? Then she could likely espouse propriety and discretion while rejecting uninhibitedness. Your character’s morals and personal beliefs will play a powerful role in the formation of her strengths. If you want her to make sense to readers, make sure that her values, ethics, and positive attributes line up.

Putting it All Together

Every character needs some strong positive qualities so she’ll be capable of reaching her goals and drawing in readers. While the easiest method would be to pick and choose random attributes, doing so will result in a character that lacks authenticity.

To avoid this, look into your hero’s backstory. Dig into these developmental factors to learn as much about them and their effect on your hero as possible. This is where the Positive Trait Thesaurus can come in handy (or maybe our new Character Trait Boxed Set, if you’re wanting a digital copy of the Positive and Negative Trait books).

The Character Builder at One Stop for Writers is another tool that was custom-made with character creation in mind; not only does it contain all the entries from the Positive Trait Thesaurus for you to explore, but it also leads you through the process of understanding where your character’s attributes might have come from.

Whatever resources you use, a little research in the planning stage can really help you create a realistic and well-rounded protagonist armed with the qualities they need to succeed.

And who knows? Maybe they’ll end up on somebody’s Top 10 List someday.

Posted in Character Traits, Characters, Writing Craft | 6 Comments

Identifying your Character’s Fatal Flaw

Good characters are often broken characters. They’ve been wounded, and the last thing they want is to be hurt in that particular way again, so they adopt new behaviors—emotional shielding—that are meant to protect them. They believe this shielding will keep them from harm, but these new habits and beliefs are usually dysfunctional, compounding the fallout and keeping them from achieving the things they desperately need. 

This is Character Arc 101; for a character to complete their arc, they have to eventually see that their emotional shielding is actually false shielding, that they must stop sabotaging themselves and start making changes if they want to win at life. And the only way they can do that is to recognize and renounce their fatal flaw. This is a critical piece of the character arc puzzle that you, the author, must know. So how do you figure that out?

First, the obligatory definition:

THE FATAL FLAW is your character’s antiquated and ineffective approach to dealing with life that must be adapted or cast aside to make room for successful methods.

No matter how the character tries to better themselves and their situation, the fatal flaw, which manifests as emotional shielding, is a constant obstacle to success. It’s what the character will have to recognize and overcome if they’re going to achieve the story goal and find fulfillment.

If you’re writing a character with a change arc, it’s crucial to know their fatal flaw so you can get them to the point of addressing it. (This is just as important in a failed arc, but instead of overcoming the fatal flaw, the character will succumb to it, resigning themselves to a tragedy ending.)

To clarify things, let me show you how this works with a familiar example: Finding Nemo. Despite the title, this movie isn’t about Nemo at all. It’s Marlin’s story, chronicling the journey of a father to overcome fear and connect with his son. When Marlin’s wife and children were killed (the wounding event), a lie unfurled in his mind: the world is a dangerous and deadly place. That belief led him to adopt certain unhealthy behaviors, which I’ve explored using the One Stop for Writers Character Builder:

All of this emotional shielding is meant to keep Nemo safe, but Marlin’s extreme helicopter parenting has driven a wedge between him and his son. His dysfunctional behavior, meant to keep Nemo close, is actually pushing him away.

Step 1: Determine your Character’s Emotional Shielding

Because your character’s fatal flaw is part of their emotional shielding, you have to first identify those shielding behaviors. Start by making a list of habits, beliefs, and ideas that were birthed in the aftermath of the character’s wounding event and the lie that was born from it. Here are some questions to move you in the right direction:

  • What is my character’s defining flaw?
  • What behaviors do they exhibit because of that flaw?
  • Who is your character biased against because of that wounding event from the past?
  • What lie(s) do they believe about themselves, certain people groups, or the world at large?
  • What behaviors do they exhibit based on those lies?

With a little digging, you should end up with a list of emotional shielding behaviors and ideas that are contributing to your character’s stagnation.

Step 2: Zero In On the Fatal Flaw

Somewhere in that list is your character’s fatal flaw. It’s a form of emotional shielding and is two-pronged, consisting of a cognitive and a behavioral component. 

The cognitive component of the fatal flaw is the mental piece—a bias, mindset, attitude, or disempowering belief—that keeps the character from achieving the story goal. Just like in real life, the character’s thoughts will determine their actions, leading to a behavioral component in the form of an unproductive and/or dysfunctional trait or behavior that must be rejected in order for them to find success.

For Marlin, the mental component is his belief that the world is inherently dangerous. We see this guiding every decision he makes before Nemo is stolen away, and it’s the main reason he sets off on the journey to find his son.

This belief, combined with his unmet Love and Belonging need, has led him to smother Nemo, denying him the space and freedom that would be appropriate for a growing boy. This is the behavioral component of his fatal flaw. His tendency to control Nemo is pushing his son away and contributing to his own unmet need.

To find the two components of your character’s fatal flaw, examine their emotional shielding. Do you already know which of those behaviors is constantly tripping them up? Then start there and work backward, looking for the mental component at the root of that habit. Alternatively, if you know the cognitive component that’s driving their behavior, you can identify that first then turn your focus to the behavioral piece. Once you’ve identified these two components, you’ll have a much better idea of how to resolve their arc.

In Marlin’s case, it takes many opportunities for him to recognize his fatal flaw as the root of his problem with Nemo. Along his journey, he meets friendly and helpful strangers who challenge his belief that others can’t be trusted. Through his encounter with Crush, he sees an example of healthy parenting based on trust and respect.

By the end of the story, Marlin has learned his lesson. He sees that the dangerous world he inhabits is also a beautiful and exciting place that, with sensible precautions, can safely be explored. And when Dori needs saving, Marlin is able to loosen his stranglehold on Nemo by recognizing his capability and allowing him to take responsible risks. This new, healthy dynamic strengthens their relationship, filling Marlin’s love and belonging void and allowing him to live a full life that’s free of fear.

I know I’ve thrown a lot of information at you here, so let me summarize the main steps to finding your character’s fatal flaw:

  • Identify your character’s emotional wound
  • Figure out what lie has grown out of it
  • Make a list of all the emotional shielding (dysfunctional behaviors, biases, and negative ideas) that the character has adopted to keep them from being hurt again
  • From that list, find the one cognitive component (a bias, mindset, attitude, or disempowering belief) that’s keeping them from succeeding at their story goal
  • Identify the one behavioral component (a dysfunctional trait, habit, or behavior) that hampers the character throughout the story

With the fatal flaw piece of the puzzle solved, you’ll have a better idea of the scenarios you’ll want to provide for the character—chances for failure (so they can start seeing a pattern to their behavior), and small wins that will allow them to take baby steps toward recognizing the truth about their fatal flaw and renouncing it in favor of healthier responses.

For more character arc help, check out these useful resources, many of which can be found on our Tools for Writers page:

The Character Builder at One Stop for Writers
Character Pyramid
Reverse Backstory Tool
Character Arc Progression Tool

Once you’ve figured out the two components to your character’s fatal flaw, please tell me about them in the comments. I love seeing how all the pieces come together :).

Posted in Backstory, Character Arc, Character Wound, Characters, Fatal Flaw, Writing Craft | 6 Comments

Conflict Thesaurus Entry: Pulling the Plug on Someone

Conflict is very often the magic sauce for generating tension and turning a ho-hum story into one that rivets readers. As such, every scene should contain a struggle of some kind. Maybe it’s an internal tug-of-war having to do with difficult decisions, morals, or temptations. Or it possibly could come from an external source—other characters, unfortunate circumstances, or the force of nature itself.

It’s our hope that this thesaurus will help you come up with meaningful and fitting conflict options for your stories. Think about what your character wants and how best to block them, then choose a source of conflict that will ramp up the tension in each scene.

Conflict: Pulling The Plug on Someone

Category: Increased pressure
and ticking clocks, failures and mistakes, relationship friction, duty and responsibilities, moral dilemmas and temptation, no-win situations

Making a medical choice for a loved one on life support
Choosing to not take measures to prolong someone’s life because it’s the right thing to do (the person wants to die, it would be cruel to let them live perhaps due to lifelong pain or some other circumstance, etc.)
Abandoning someone to their fate because it is the only choice
Putting a cherished pet down
Not intervening as someone is dying
Making a decision that will result in another person’s death
Choosing between two people when they can only save one
Assisted suicide

Minor Complications:
Angry relatives who believe it is the wrong decision
Having to set aside all other responsibilities and commitments
Having to explain the decision repeatedly to justify it to others involved
Rushing to take care of any red tape
Fast tracking any last wishes of the individual and their family (setting up an appointment with a lawyer, bringing loved ones in to visit, making funeral arrangements according to the wishes of the one dying)
Carrying the burden of guilt

Potentially Disastrous Results:
Threats and violence from those who opposed the decision
Discovering after the fact that there was another option
Causing a giant rift in the family
Being sued
Discovering they were used as a pawn by others who wanted this death to come about
The supporters, allies, or family tied to the victim coming for revenge
Nightmares, anxiety, and depression and other PTSD

Possible Internal Struggles (Inner Conflict):
Overwhelming guilt even though it was the right decision
Second guessing one’s decision and actions in the aftermath
Worries about being judged spiritually for their actions
Feeling stupid and worthless for being duped (if this was the case)
Struggling with regret and remorse
Feeling shocked, betrayed, and angry at the reactions of others and their lack of empathy for being put in a no-win situation
Anger at the one who passed followed by shame for being angry

People Who Could Be Negatively Affected: The person who’s life was taken (if it was not their choice), family members and loved ones, people the victim left behind, a community (or cause, a group, etc.) that relied on the one who died

Resulting Emotions: anguish, anxiety, betrayed, bitterness, conflicted, confusion, connectedness, defiant, depressed, despair, desperation, disillusionment, dread, grief, guilt, hurt, overwhelmed, powerlessness, reluctance, remorse, resignation, sadness, self-loathing, self-pity, shame, shock, somberness, tormented, unappreciated, vulnerability, worry, worthlessness

Personality Flaws that May Make the Situation Worse: addictive, confrontational, cowardly, cynical, defensive, disrespectful, insecure, martyr, melodramatic, morbid, needy, paranoid, self-destructive, violent, vwithdrawn

Positive Outcomes: 
Relief at seeing someone’s suffering end
Realizing they are strong enough to make exceptionally hard decisions
A greater appreciation for life and the importance of living it in full
Having a closer relationship with people who were supportive throughout the process

If you’re interested in other conflict options, you can find them here.

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Critiques 4 U!

Happy October, people! The leaves may be changing where you are, or, if you’re me, it’s still hotter than Hades. Regardless, the writing and critiquing must go on, so let’s get to our monthly first-page contest, shall we?


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 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).

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

We run this contest on a monthly basis, so if you’d like to be notified when the next opportunity comes around, consider subscribing to our blog (see the left-hand sidebar). Best of luck!

One More Thing!

Did you know there’s a new book in town? Angela and I have released a boxed set that contains our bestselling Positive Trait Thesaurus and Negative Trait Thesaurus volumes.

What makes the Character Trait Thesaurus boxed set so special is that it has been hyperlinked across the volumes, so you can get to the table of contents for both volumes from each entry AND any traits mentioned within that entry have been hyperlinked so you can move straight to the attribute or flaw being referenced. This should make character building even easier!

For more information (and a 25% off code!), go here.

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