The Key Components of a Compelling Character (According to Psychology)

 We’re fascinated by our fellow humans. In fact, we have a profound desire to try and understand the thoughts and feelings bouncing around other people, the characters on TV…the hero introduced on your first page.

From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. Our fellow humans are pretty darned important to our survival. They’re our friends; the ones we collaborate and cooperate and mate with, and our foes; our competitors who can hold the power of whether we live or die. It’s why we get a burst of dopamine when someone smiles at us and the same part of our brain associated with physical pain lights up when we’re rejected (in fact, research has found that Tylenol is an effective way to reduce the anguish of social loss).

The wonderful news is that this desire to understand and connect transfers to the fictional characters we create on the page. It means that your reader is looking for someone they can connect with. Someone who will allow them to slip off of their shoes and step into their life so they can safely trek through new territory. They want to blur the line between themselves and your protagonist.

Your reader is wired for it and they are seeking it when they open a book.

You need to give it to them.

How? Well, there’s four key ways to achieve this. The first two acknowledge that a character needs to be someone your reader can establish a relationship with—and the truth is, we empathize more with people we care about. The more invisible the boundary with the self and other (i.e. the character), the easier it is to slip into empathy. To do that, we’re going to explore our commonalities. As diverse as we all are, and as unique as each of our characters are, there are some things that are universal to all humans: a want and a wound.

Make them Want

We empathize with people we identify with, and there are some needs that are universal. Basic human needs. These deep-seated drives grab our attention because they hold evolutionary stakes. Survival, hunger, sex, protection of loved ones, fear of death, all grab us by the guts. The caveman song of survival or hunger or death? Their intrinsic connection to their father, mother, sister, brother, wife, child? That’s what we want to tap into.

As complicated as your plot gets, at its core it should be basic. It should connect with us on a visceral level. Ask yourself, would a caveman understand the core of your story? Does it have physical and/or emotional stakes? Even if your book is a sweet rom com, you need to be able to say yes.

Make them Hurt

I challenge you to find a person who isn’t carrying a wound, consciously or unconsciously. Our brains have a tendency to internalize negative events. I’ve worked with children who blame themselves for their parents’ divorce, teens who punish themselves for social transgressions, and parents who blame themselves for their child’s disability. These perceptions and conclusions aren’t always rational (or helpful), but they’re very human. Wounds will make your character authentic and ultimately someone a reader can empathize with, no matter what they’re facing.

The next two components are about harnessing two powerful psychological processes: curiosity and emotion. Your character needs to be someone who grabs our attention, and what captures our attention? Anything out of the norm, unexpected, or surprising. So we make our character unique. Then we harness the crucial emotional element by grabbing those heart strings and not letting go. To do that we make our character someone who is ‘more’.

Make them Unique

Crafting powerful, compelling characters relies on 4 key premises. Do you have them in place?

It’s a well-known rule that you want to avoid stereotypes and clichés when it comes to character development. Stereotypes and clichés are familiar, commonplace, and banal. But anything new, different, unexpected, or unprecedented? That grabs our attention, all because when we are experiencing something new we are also, quite inevitably and unconsciously, learning.

Which is why you need to make your character unique. How do you make your handsome billionaire CEO stand out in a crowd of other drool-worthy billionaire CEOs? You got it—surprise your reader. Intrigue them.

Make them one-of-a-kind.

Ask yourself, what about your character is unique? Is it their circumstance, their personality, their mannerisms? What haven’t readers come across before with this particular person on a page? Those are the characters your reader wants to spend time with.

Make them More

Many writers assume that to create an authentic, relatable character, they need to make them ‘like us.’ And they’re right. Relatable and authentic are pretty darned important, the issue is that you run the risk of having a character who is ordinary. And yes, that does translate to boring (sometimes depressing).

Luckily, when we make our character want and hurt, we create a character a reader can connect with. We all yearn and we all bleed. But the characters who are memorable? The ones who stay with us long after we finish the book? The ones who have us looking to see if maybe, maybe this book’s (please let it be) a series?

Those characters are more.

These characters have something about them that is extraordinary or exceptional, not in looks or intellect, but in timeless virtues. Traits such as compassion, strength, integrity, insight, a commitment to justice, family, love, steadfastness, sacrifice, selflessness. Essentially, they are any trait that is admirable or inspirational. In fact, research has shown that reading about good people elicits a sense of elevation and inspiration.

Ask yourself the following: what is extraordinary about your character? Even if they are an ordinary Joe Blow who lives next door, works nine to five, and drives a Volvo, what is extraordinary about him?

Have you incorporated some or all of these key components into your character/s? Have you noticed how best-selling authors use them in their writing? I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions.

Tamar Sloan is a freelance editor, consultant and the author of PsychWriter – a fun, informative hub of information on character development, the science of story and how to engage readers. Tamar is also an award-winning author of young adult romance, creating stories about finding life and love beyond our comfort zones. You can checkout Tamar’s books on her author website.

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Posted in Character Arc, Character Flaws, Character Traits, Character Wound, Characters, Description, Emotion, Empathy, Motivation, Resident Writing Coach, Show Don't Tell, Subtext, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 27 Comments

Announcing The Emotion Thesaurus Second Edition!

Keeping secrets are hard, especially keeping happy, year-long ones from the people we care about. So you can imagine how terrific it is to finally share with you that the mystery thesaurus Becca and I have been working on this past year is a second edition of The Emotion Thesaurus! It releases on February 19th.

We love all the books in our series, but the Emotion Thesaurus has always had a special place in our hearts. It redefined what a writing resource guide could look like and provided writers with a new way to brainstorm strong, compelling emotion that shows rather than tells.

And as our knowledge grew over the years, we longed to come back to this book and make it even better, adding more emotions and helpful ideas on how to express it. It’s so gratifying to finally be able to share the book cover for this new edition!

And that’s not all.

We’ve also created a pre-order for this book so if you like, you can make sure the nanosecond it’s available on February 19th, it will wing its way to you.

Indiebound (Print)

Amazon (Print and Kindle)


Apple Books

Book Depository

Preorder Bonus!

If you preorder this book, send a screenshot of the order to this link and you’ll receive a bonus PDF of entries that we completed but chose not to add to the 2nd edition!

But wait…do you need a second edition? What’s new and different about this book?

1.     Existing entries have been revamped and expanded to include more options for showing each feeling, including a list of power verbs and de-escalating emotions so you can better plan what emotion comes next.

2.     We’ve added 55 new emotions to bring the total to 130 (up from 75 in the first edition). Click to view the entire list.

3.     The instructive portion of the book has more than doubled and includes new material on how to power up dialogue with emotion, use subtext and other techniques to show hidden emotions, what character development is necessary to determine emotional range so actions are authentic to each person’s nature, and more.

All of this tallies up to a book nearly twice the size of the original. It really is a whole new book! We have some sample entries to check out too, like Schadenfreude, Vindicated, and Euphoria. We hope you love this new edition as much as we do!

And because this book and its predecessor would have never come to be without all of you, we have a small thank you gift: a free webinar on Using Emotion To Wow Readers


(This webinar recording is only viewable for a limited time, so be sure to watch it before the end of February!)

Posted in About Us, Emotion Thesaurus Guide | 45 Comments

Occupation Thesaurus Entry: Radio DJ

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: Radio (Broadcast) DJ

Overview: Radio, or broadcast, DJs work for community or college radio stations. We mostly associate them with music, but DJs can be hired for any type of radio show, including those that focus on sports, news, politics, pop culture, or another specific area of interest.  Either way, the DJ is the one that does the talking between songs or clips. If the station does provide music to its listeners, the DJ may have some say in what’s being played, or those decisions could be made by the station higher-ups. While most DJs are employed by a station, some are self-employed, recording their shows on their own and pitching them to stations.

As budgets shrink and the industry becomes more automated, DJs are required to do more than play music and talk on air. They also may need to take on the social media promotion, do live events in the community, create content, or help with sales for the station.

Necessary Training: Some stations require only a high school diploma, but most are looking for DJs with a bachelor’s degree in communications, broadcast journalism, or a similar field. Experience can always be gained by volunteering at a college station or even working on a high school station. Because of the amount of technology involved, it also helps to have training or expertise in this area.

Useful Skills, Talents, or Abilities: Charm, good listening skills, making people laugh, mechanically inclined, multitasking, promotion, reading people, writing

Helpful Character Traits:

POSITIVE: Adaptable, charming, confident, cooperative, creative, curious, diplomatic, efficient, enthusiastic, friendly, funny, observant, optimistic, organized, passionate, persuasive, playful, socially aware, spontaneous, spunky, studious, uninhibited, wise, witty

NEGATIVE: Confrontational, gossipy, manipulative, melodramatic, mischievous, nosy, pushy, workaholic

Sources of Friction: Out-of-touch members of management who want something for the show that the DJ disagrees with, budget cuts, outdated equipment, integration of new technology the DJ is unfamiliar with, saying something on-air that gets one in trouble with the bosses, saying something troublesome when one thought one wasn’t on-air, being required to do things one isn’t comfortable doing (sales, promotion, in-person events, etc.), an interviewee who turns argumentative or combative, an interview or segment falling flat, pitching an idea that the executives aren’t interested in, difficult work hours (particular at the start of one’s career) messing with one’s schedule and making it difficult to connect with others, negative public opinion being brought to bear on the station due to one’s personal beliefs coming through on-air, physical ailments that threaten one’s career (a chronic illness that changes one’s voice, vocal nodules, throat or mouth cancer, etc.), being censored, other positions being eliminated that result in one having to take on unwanted duties, stalkers, and overly zealous fans

People They Might Interact With: Station managers and executives, other DJs, a producer, guests (being interviewed in person or over the phone), janitorial and administrative staff, celebrities or politicians

How This Occupation Might Impact One’s Basic Needs:

  • Self-Actualization: As this industry changes, jobs may become scarcer, making it difficult for radio DJs to get the jobs they want. Someone stuck on a show they’re not passionate about may find this need impacted.
  • Esteem and Recognition: This could become an issue for someone who wants more recognition than they’re likely to get from the job.
  • Love and Belonging: A DJ working the night shift (out of necessity or choice) may fall short in the love and belonging department when those around them grow tired of the difficult schedule.
  • Safety and Security: Any person working a job that makes them well-known, even in small circles, will have fans. If one of those fans is psychotic or imbalanced, they could become a danger for the DJ.

Common Work-Related Settings: Big city street, green room, parking lot, public restroom, recording studio, rock concert, university quad

Twisting the Fictional Stereotype: People are often surprised when they see someone whose voice they’ve heard on air, because their physical appearance doesn’t match the image in their minds. Play on this by considering what unusual characteristics a radio personality might have that wouldn’t be known unless they were seen in person.

You can also make your DJ memorable by figuring out what personality traits might set him or her apart from the crowd. Howard Stern’s shock jock persona and Frasier Crane’s snooty and ambitious character makes them memorable standouts.

Visit the other Occupations in our collection HERE.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Four Reasons to Include Prompts in Your Writing Regimen

If you’ve hung around Writers Helping Writers for very long, today’s guest author doesn’t need an introduction. Gabriela Pereira is a former Resident Writing Coach who keeps coming back to share helpful information. Today, she’s talking about writing prompts and how they can accelerate your writing.

How can you use writing prompts accelerate your skill level and amp up creativity?

Some writers love doing exercises and prompts. Others don’t like the pressure of needing to “write on demand.” I happen to love writing exercises and firmly believe that when you weave a healthy dose into your regular writing workout, your mastery of the craft can grow by leaps and bounds. Whether you are a fan of writing exercises (like me!) or you’d rather tap dance on an alligator’s nose, here are a few good reasons—four, in fact—for why you might want to give writing prompts a try.

1) Lower stakes mean higher output and more confidence.

When you work on a project you care about—something meaningful, like a novel or other book-in-progress—the stakes are automatically going to be fairly high. No matter how hard you may try to convince yourself that this is only a messy first draft, there’s that little voice in the back of your mind that insists this project is important.

All this mental baggage can put a damper on your output. Of course you want your writing to be of a quality worthy of this project, but the pressure can squash your momentum. A writing exercise, on the other hand, has far lower stakes and you are less likely to beat yourself up if the result is less-than perfect. Instead, the exercise or prompt can help you get your momentum going before you try to tackle a bigger, more hefty project.

These lower stakes can also give you a major confidence boost. When you do a writing exercise, naturally you won’t expect the writing to be perfect. This means that when you reread what you wrote later on, you may be pleasantly surprised to discover a handful of gems buried in the garble. Your writhing may not be quite as hopeless as you thought.

Writing prompts can help you learn to set those first-draft expectations extra-low. An added benefit to these lower stakes is that when your writing inevitably exceeds your rock-bottom expectations, it will give your confidence a boost.

2) The less attachment you have to the result, the better the chances of improving your skills.

I usually think of prompts and exercises as “throw-away” writing. They are something I do to warm up; I’m not writing “for real.” This automatically makes me feel less attached to whatever I am writing, and whatever I produce is not going to be as dear to my heart as all those “darlings” I must ruthlessly murder in my manuscript.

The more darling something is to you, the harder it will be to kill. And unfortunately, in most projects there will be at least one thing you absolutely love but must remove. Just because your book will be better for it doesn’t make “killing those darlings” any easier.

This is where writing exercises come in. They help desensitize you to the brutality of revision. After all, it’s far less painful to slash a red pen across a page you produced from a ten-minute exercise than it is to cut that perfect turn of phrase you agonized over for three hours. When you revise something with lower stakes, you become more open to making broad, sweeping changes and you develop a thicker skin for when revisions reallymatter.

3) You’re more willing to take creative risks.

Here’s a secret no one tells you: creativity has nothing to do with being a “creative person,” it’s all about practice. The muse may be a fickle beast, but she can be trained. (Mine is great at playing dead.) And if all else fails, do what a fellow author once told me—chain the muse to your desk.

A huge part of creativity is training your brain to think on the fly. The more you train your brain to put ideas together and follow where they lead, the better you will get at this type of thinking. Writing exercises are a great way to practice this skill, and since the stakes are so low, you are less likely to stifle your creativity along the way.

Prompts and exercises aren’t just about getting your creativity going; sometimes they can help you hold the reins. While many writers might use exercises to rev up their creativity, others (like me) will find that prompts are a great way to get the crazies out of your system. You can use writing exercises to try things that may seem completely out of place in your current project, and you don’t risk derailing your book in the process.

Prompts allow you to try ideas on for size or to let your characters do something that might seem wildly out-of-character. The exercise serves as a container, a safe space where you can experiment without worrying that you might break something in your book. Even if you don’t use everything you write, you may be able to extract some nugget of genius from the exercise and infuse that into your project.

4) You can safely hone your craft.

Up until now, we’ve focused on how exercises can help boost your creativity, but they can also play an important role in helping you hone your craft. If you are struggling with a particular writing technique, a great way to master that skill is to do a series of writing exercises focusing on that one problem.

For example, if your dialogue feels stilted or unnatural, choose a few different dialogue prompts and exercise that mental muscle until it begins to feel more limber. I often use characters and situations from my work-in-progress when I do writing exercises. The prompt serves as a low-pressure testing ground for practicing that technique, but if the result is good, I can always use certain snippets in my project.

I call this the Petri Dish Technique. This approach allows you to test and improve upon certain elements of your writing without destroying your book. Just like scientists use small samples in a Petri dish to test their hypotheses, so too can you refine elements of your craft in the contained space of a writing exercise. This way, you can test different possible solutions without killing the entire “organism” that is your book.

Many writers love to talk about their ideas for a scene or a story, but until those words are on the page in some form, it doesn’t really exist. You can’t edit an idea that’s in your brain; there has to be some raw material for you to work with, and for a writer, that means words on the page. Writing exercises help you get out of your own way so you can think on paper and produce that essential raw material.

Want to try your hand at some writing exercises in the New Year? The DIY MFA book club kicks off on Monday, January 21. Part read-along, part writing prompt challenge, you’ll receive thought questions and mini-assignments right in your inbox. Plus, you’ll be able to connect with fellow participants on social media. If you have a blog or want to build your platform while improving your craft, this challenge is a great way to do that.


Gabriela Pereira is the founder of, the do-it-yourself alternative to a Masters degree in writing. She is also a TEDx speaker, podcast host for DIY MFA Radio, and author of the book DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community.


Posted in Experiments, Writing Craft | 16 Comments

How to Get Emotion Onto the Page

It is a truth universally acknowledged: you have to hook the reader right out of the starting gate. From the very first sentence your story must incite that delicious sense of urgency that makes readers have to know what happens next.

But what is it that actually hooks us? The answer is emotion. Every story, even the most rough and tumble, is emotion driven.

But we’re not talking about an emotion mentioned on the page — you need to make the reader feel the emotion herself, as if it were happening to her. Because it is. Studies have proven that when we’re absorbed in a riveting novel our neurons are firing as if we’re actually living the events on the page.

That makes sense, since the biological purpose of story isn’t to entertain, but to help us better navigate the world by understanding what makes people tick, ourselves included.

The bottom line is: if we aren’t feeling, we aren’t reading. And it sure doesn’t take long for our cognitive unconscious to get antsy and start thinking, hey since there’s nothing here I need to know, maybe I should just go check to see if that nice piece of cake is still in the fridge.

In other words, the reader has to feel something so strongly that they literally can’t resist finding out what will happen, even though that piece of cake is taunting them. For writers, that’s a tall order.

Especially because when we talk about emotion, it’s maddeningly easy to misunderstand what it really is, and thus how to get it onto the page.  Emotion doesn’t come from general external “dramatic” situations, nor is it expressed by body language, or whether a character is happy, sad, angry, or really, really cranky.

Engaging the reader's emotions involves both accurately conveying the character's feelings and getting across the internal why—why those emotions are happening and why they matter

In fact, it turns out that emotion itself is very different than what we’ve been taught it is, which makes nailing it even more difficult. Emotion is not logic’s hotheaded nemesis. It’s not weakness. It’s not ephemeral. It’s not abstract.

Rather, emotion is what our survival depends on, and it’s far more fundamental than logic. In fact, it’s the basis of all logic, in real life and on the page.

By itself logic is objective, generic — it tells us what things are. Emotion is subjective, specific — it tells us what those things mean to us, and therefore what action we should take if we want to live to see the dawn (hopefully, metaphorically).

So it’s not surprising that, as neuroscientists have discovered, if we couldn’t feel emotion, we couldn’t make a single rational decision. Why? Because everything would be neutral. Can you imagine never feeling anything about anything? There would be absolutely no difference in how you’d experience seeing your beloved enter the room, and noticing your absolute worst enemy skulking behind the curtains. Yikes!

So okay, if the reader isn’t feeling, they’re not reading, but the question is, feeling what exactly? Where does the emotion come from? What does it look like on the page?

The first part is easy: Your reader is feeling what your protagonist is feeling, in the moment, on the page, as she struggles with the tough choice that every scene will force her to make, beginning with the very first scene. That part is simple.

Where does said emotion come from? It comes from the subjective meaning your protagonist is reading into the what’s happening, that is, how what’s happening is affecting her inside her head. It does not come solely from her body language. It does not come solely from her action. And it certainly does not come from the exquisitely beautiful, utterly unique metaphor you’ve created to illuminate the way her heart is pounding.

In other words, the primary ways in which writers are taught to communicate emotion are deeply wrong.

Give us nothing but body language, and you lock us out. We don’t care if she winced, cried, howled under the moon, with sagging shoulders or stumbled home with a slow, dejected step. No matter how beautifully rendered, by itself it’s surface, general – it merely tells us what she feels.

What we’re hungry for, what gives body language it’s meaning, is why she feels it, how she’s internalizing what happened, how she’s making sense of it, the conclusions she’s drawing as a result, how it’s shifting her take on things. It’s this internal process that we relate to, that we empathize with, and that’s where real emotion lies.

You may be thinking, wait a minute, didn’t you just tell us the reader wants to feel what the protagonist is feeling? But how will they know if we don’t tell them?

Here’s the fine print: although yes, the reader needs to know how your protagonist feels at every turn, that does not mean you need to tell us. As in:

When Marilyn’s mother died, she felt very, very sad.

Tell me that and I hear it, but I don’t feel it. As readers, we want to feel it as deeply as Marilyn does.

Prettying up the language and throwing in a lyrical metaphor or two won’t get you there either:

Hearing of her mother’s death, Marilyn felt an arrow pierce her heart and as it shattered, she sank to her knees, threw her head back, and keened beneath the cold crescent moon.

Admit it, that’s nothing more than a fancy way of saying, “When Marilyn’s mother died, she felt very sad.”

The secret is this: emotion is triggered by how the character makes sense of what’s happening, rather than mentioning the nearest big box emotion that neatly sums it up. The goal isn’t to tell us how the character feels so we know it intellectually; it’s to put us in her head as she struggles, which then evokes the same emotion in us. You can do it without ever mentioning an emotion at all.

Want an example? How about a passage from Celeste Ng’s 2014 debut literary novel, Everything I Never Told You, an award-winning New York Times bestseller, heralded as a best book of the year by NPR, Booklist, Amazon, The San Francisco Chronicle and more. In other words, it was a lauded literary novel that sold – and still sells – very well.

The scene in question takes place in 1966. Marilyn, a white housewife, has just learned of her estranged mother’s death. They hadn’t seen each other since Marilyn married her Asian college professor, James Lee, in 1958. And this Marilyn isn’t sad at all.

. . . By then she had not spoken to her mother in almost eight years, since her wedding day. In all that time, her mother had not written once. When Nath had been born, and then Lydia, Marilyn had not informed her mother, had not even sent a photograph. What was there to say? She and James had never discussed what her mother had said about their marriage that last day: it’s not rightShe had not ever wanted to think of it again. So when James came home that night, she said simply, “My mother died.” Then she turned back to the stove and added, “And the lawn needs mowing,” and he understood: they would not talk about it. At dinner, when she told the children that their grandmother had died, Lydia cocked her head and asked, “Are you sad?”

Marilyn glanced at her husband. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, I am.”

There’s nothing in the passage that mentions how Marilyn actually felt, and yet everything in the passage conveyed it. It ends with a send-up of the word “sad,” which is the dictionary definition of what we’re taught to expect in situations like this. Sad is the one thing Marilyn doesn’t feel; it’s also the word she hides behind, to protect both Lydia and herself from the far more complex emotions she is actually experiencing. You can feel Marilyn’s caution, triggered by a perfect use of body language – Lydia “cocks her head” – signaling she’s been listening and is paying attention, alerting Marilyn to the fact that she has to shield Lydia from the truth.

Plus, it’s a literary novel for heaven’s sake, yet notice that there are no twenty-five dollar words here. No lyrical language. No pretty metaphors. It was just us, in Marilyn’s skin, during what otherwise might be a very mundane moment – making dinner for her family – experiencing something profound.

You may be thinking, but hey, that scene was kind of plain. I didn’t feel all that much. And reading it here, out of context, as a mere snippet, that might be true. However, if you were in the midst of reading the novel, and came across that passage as a seamless part of a story-long continuum, a compelling piece of an internal cause-and-effect trajectory that you’d been experiencing since page one, it would pack a potent punch.

And yet writers are often taught that this is not the way to get emotion on the page, by well meaning instructors no less. Let me tell you a story. A few years ago I was giving a talk at a university in Pennsylvania. It was the third time I’d been asked to speak there, and I’d become friends with the professor who invited me.

When I spoke in her writing class, I read that same passage to her students, and made the same point. Afterward, she and I were having lunch before she dropped me off at the bus depot to head back to New York. She looked at me sheepishly across the table and said, “I have an admission. You know that passage you read in class from Every Thing I Never Told You? If one of my students had written it, I’d have told them it was too bland. I’d have asked them to pretty it up.”

I understood what she meant. We’ve been taught to look at writing as something separate from story. In fact, we’ve been taught that learning to “write well” is what makes you a good storyteller. Couldn’t be less true. It’s the internal emotional story – that begins on page one and evolves throughout via the protagonist’s internal struggle – that makes the writing beautiful. Meaningful. And, as in the case of the passage above, imbues even the simplest, humblest words with transcendent meaning.

The takeaway is this: Emotion on the page? It’s not a technique. Emotion is not communicated as a surface feeling — happy, sad, angry — nor is it expressed through neatly rendered body language. Emotion is a consequence, a by-product, of a deeply rendered inner struggle.

How do you get emotion onto the page? By letting us inside the head of your protagonist as she struggles with how to respond to an escalating problem she has no choice but to deal with. It really is as simple as that.


Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story and Story Genius. Her 6-hour video course Wired for Story: How to Become a Story Genius can be found at, and her TEDx talk, Wired for Story, opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference, Stories: The Common Thread of Our Humanity.

In her work as a private story coach, Lisa helps writers of all ilk wrangle the story they’re telling onto the page. For a library of her free myth-busting writing tips, and information on how to work with her one-on-one, you can find her at:


Posted in Characters, Emotion, Resident Writing Coach, Uncategorized, Writing Craft | 7 Comments

The Next Thesaurus Book Is Coming…And You Could Win An ARC!

Oh my gosh, it’s almost time for us to share what the next description thesaurus book in our collection will be, and we CAN’T WAIT. The official cover reveal will be on January 21st and we hope you will join us here at the blog. Who knows, this book might just become your new favorite volume in our WHW series!

While we wait for the big cover reveal, we created this redacted one.

REDACTED: to select or adapt (as by obscuring or removing sensitive information) for publication or release broadly.

What’s with all the mystery?

People are wondering why we haven’t talked about this book and what area of description it will help writers with. Well, this is a special book so we wanted to give it a special launch. Plus, we’ve somehow managed to keep this book’s topic a secret for an entire year, so we thought we’d follow it through. What could be more fun than offering our wonderful readers a surprise book?

Fun facts about the *REDACTED* Thesaurus:

  • It has more entries than any other thesaurus volume to date (131)
  • It features a brand new style of cover (we love it!)
  • Becca and I spent the last year writing it in secret
  • We’ve already sold translation rights to a publisher in Korea
  • Our Street Team knows what the book is and they are going bonkers with excitement
  • And finally, YOU could win a copy before it releases! Giveaway has ended, thanks for entering, everyone!

This book hits the shelves February 19th, but you could win yourself an ARC just by leaving a comment on this post!

10 digital Arcs are up for grabs (open internationally).

Full legal disclaimers can be found here

Winners have been notified by email, so watch your inboxes!

Posted in About Us, Contests, Uncategorized | 284 Comments

All-Important Considerations When Crafting a Scene

Pleased to welcome C.S. Lakin back to the blog for a tremendously helpful post on what to keep in the front of your mind when crafting a scene. Read on and bookmark this great list!

Anyone who says writing a scene is easy probably hasn’t written one. I’ve written upwards of three thousand scenes (a fairly rough estimate), and every time I start to write one, I am humbled by the daunting task before me.

There are so many elements that make up a great scene, and so many things to juggle as you write.

And then there are all the preparatory issues to be considered before you begin. Questions that must be answered:

  • Who will the POV character be for this scene? What mind-set do they need to have?
  • What is the high moment I need to build to, and what will happen and be revealed in that high moment?
  • Where and when will this scene take place?
  • Why and how is this scene essential to my plot?
  • What is the central conflict in this scene (inner and outer)?
  • How will my character change by the end of the scene (because she should, in a significant way, at the end of every scene)?
  • What key bits of backstory do I need to include, and how will I insert them without info-dumping?
  • How will I create microtension on every page by hints, secrets, innuendo?
  • What other characters should be in this scene and why?
  • What is the tone or mood I need to set in this scene?
  • What take-away feeling do I want to leave with the reader when they finish reading the scene?

These are only some of the many questions to consider when plotting out a scene. (You can grab this First-Page Checklist, my Scene Structure Checklist, and my 8 Steps to a Perfect Scene, for starters).

Types of Scenes

Before you write a scene, you need to determine what type of scene it’s going to be. Will it be a narrative scene in which the POV character is telling a story? Will it be a high-action scene? A low-energy dialogue scene?

I’m guessing many novelists don’t step back and look at the bigger picture of the string of scenes they are crafting for their novel. If you’ve just had a big-action scene, you might follow it with a contemplative processing scene. If you put too many high-action scenes in a row, you can start to tire out (read: bore) your reader.

Writing Deep Scenes, by Jordan Rosenfeld and Martha Alderson, takes a deep look at fifteen scene types, where they might go in a novel, and when they would be used. If you aren’t familiar with all the various scene types, this would be a good resource for you. Some of these scene types are transition scenes, epiphany scenes, twist scenes, escape scenes, recommitment scenes, resolution scenes.

Rosenfeld and Alderson also explain what types of scenes are best used in the beginning, middle, and ends of novels, and what functions they serve in those specific sections of a novel. This, too, is critical to understand.

Study Novel Structure and Genre

You can see how having so many choices might paralyze you, especially if you don’t have a strong handle on novel structure. When you know, for instance, what the ten foundational scenes are, it makes it easier to choose your scene type. A climax scene will have high action, and, of course, the resolution of your novel would require a resolution scene.

Your genre comes into play as well. The type and number of high- and low-energy scenes are going to vary based on genre. A thriller is going to have a lot more high-energy scenes than a slow-paced thoughtful women’s fiction or romance.

Want to know the best way to figure out what scenes should go where? Study best sellers in your genre, novels that are as close in plot and style as yours. Tear them apart. Make a list of scene summaries and note what type of scene each one is.


Another thing that will help you determine what type of scene to write is to always keep in mind the natural cycle of action-reaction. This is also something that will vary by genre.

The natural behavior cycle of humans that our characters should also convey is this: action-reaction-process-decision-new action.

A scene might be solely a processing scene. A detective, in the prior scene, just discovered some important clues. Now, in this scene, she is mulling over what she’s learned, maybe discussing it with her partner, to determine the next course of action (decision).

Or you might have an action scene that ends with a reaction. That detective might be chasing down a lead, only to find a gang of vampires waiting for her in a dark alley. The last paragraph might show the detective swearing under her breath, wishing she had listened to her partner about going it alone.

Or you could make that scene all action, ending it with her running into the vampires, leaving the reaction to the next scene.

Sometimes that cycle of action-reaction repeats dozens of times within one scene. Think about it. Your detective chases the bad guy, who vanishes around the next corner. Now she has to process that and make a decision. Should she continue her search or give up and get a latte? She might go to get coffee (new action), only to spot the bad guy flirting with the barista. She then reacts, processes (Should I confront him here or wait till he gets her phone number?), then makes a decision.

At any point, the scene may end in the middle of that cycle on one of the five stages. It all depends on … what your high moment is, what key reveal you are building to, how the character will change and why, what is that lasting feeling you want to leave with your readers …

You see how all these pieces intertwine?

Your scene also needs an opening and ending hook. It needs a balance of narrative, dialogue, internal thoughts, and action. How do you know how much of each you should have?

Go back to those best sellers and study them. Therein lies your answer. Yes, novels will vary even within niche genres. Writing style varies, and you need to develop your own unique style. But there are parameters and markers for every genre.

These are just some of the all-important considerations of scene structure. And why “pantsing” may not be the best way to proceed. I often do a kind of storyboarding, almost always starting with my high moment and working backward. I always start with the scene’s key purpose in mind and how that scene will advance the plot. And that takes careful planning.

No one ever said writing scenes was easy—except those who’ve never written one (a good one!).

That’s the reason I started teaching intensive three-day boot camps on scene structure. If you’d like to really master scene writing, consider attending one of four Scene Mastery Boot Camps held in beautiful locales around Northern California.

In 2019, I, along with co-instructor Catharine Bramkamp, will be teaching these boot camps in Nevada City, South Lake Tahoe, Carmel, and Geyserville (wine country). At the boot camp, you’ll be immersed in learning with a dozen or so other writers in an intimate setting, learning all about scene structure, writing and rewriting your scenes, and getting feedback from other attendees and the instructors.

There is no better way to master scene structure than to go deep into the craft, applying what you learn immediately, and having personalized help every step of the way. Plus, boot camps are a whole lot of fun! No distractions, no dishes to wash, no kids to cart around. Just dedicated time to improve your novel-writing skills.

For more information on our boot camps, go to our event site Writing for Life Workshops. There, you can read up on all the events (which includes our Plotting Madness and Self-Publishing Boot Camps) and book your space.

Make 2019 the year you master scene structure!

C. S. Lakin is the author of about twenty novels of various genres. She also has eight nonfiction titles in her Writer’s Toolbox series, which aims to help fiction writers learn all they need to know to pen a terrific novel. Her online instructional school offers self-paced video courses for writers and editors on marketing and the craft of writing. Sign up for her Novel-Writing Fast Track mailing list and get two free ebooks the first week and regular emails offering tips, special offers, and freebies—all intended to help you fast track to success as a novelist.

Posted in Focus, Guest Post, Story Structure, Uncategorized, Writing Groups, Writing Time | 8 Comments

Want Readers to Fall in Love With Your Hero? Create The Perfect Hero Lens

We writers worry about all sorts of things: traits, arcs, themes, motives etc. But even when we’ve got all of those things sorted, bridging the gap between the black ink and the reader’s heart can still require something more… That little je ne sais quoi a reader can’t always put their finger on.

Well, I can, and I want to let you in on the secret.

It’s all about The Hero Lens.

What is the hero lens? The Gestalt of book writing. It’s what makes the whole more than the sum of its parts.

Your hero is a funnel… a telescope, a strangely muscular pair of hero-shaped glasses, a… I’ll stop. The point is, your hero is the lens through which your reader experiences your novel. Everything your hero does, sees, feels and thinks encloses your reader in a book-shaped bubble. Your hero is the lens the reader looks through when reading your story.

The lens is made up of four parts:

  1. Actions
  2. Thoughts
  3. Dialogue
  4. Feelings

These four things are entirely unique to your hero and they separate her from every other hero in literature. It’s not traits or motivations that make your hero unique; those things are universal. What makes your hero unique is how she embodies those traits and how she reacts to her motivations. For example, is turquoise more blue or more green? I bet half of you said blue and the other half green. The answer is irrelevant. What it demonstrates is how important our perception is. It’s important for your hero too.

Rather than telling the reader that the hero feels angry, let the reader get to know your hero implicitly. To do this, let the world unfold as your hero experiences it.

Top Tip: While it’s tempting to lace your book with backstory and world-building details to help shape your reader’s perception, only include backstory when it’s relevant to the plot or when your hero comes into direct contact with it. Backstory can jar a reader out of your story because it usually refers to information from the past.

Let me give you an example of the hero lens at work. Here are two heroes; both of them are experiencing the same town parade:

Hero one:

“The villagers weave through the street brandishing placards like rifles. They’re soldiers marching into their last battle. The war-drum beat of their feet grinds into my ears, rattling my teeth and making my blood boil.” (Sacha Black, 10 Steps To Hero, p.154)

Hero two:

“They move like a current, each person flowing past the next. Supposedly united in their cause, but as they chant and sing for solidarity, it sounds like the melody of mourners. I see the tiny fractures, the gaps they leave between each other, the scattered looks, the fear of isolation. Each of them is drowning in a swelling crowd, and yet, despite the mass of bodies, they’re all fighting alone.” (Sacha Black, 10 Steps To Hero, p.154)

I didn’t tell you anything about the heroes before you read those two passages. But even in those short snippets you can tell hero one is angry and hero two is much more melancholy and sad. That’s the hero lens at work. Notice how I also didn’t use the word angry or sad to create those perceptions.

To make the differentiation between the emotions stark, we need to look at the sentence level and examine the differences.

Hero one: Anger as an emotion is sharp, explosive and hot. Which is why in the first snippet the sentences are shorter to reflect that sharpness. Likewise, the metaphors and similes are more violent – comparing the footfall to war and the drum beats and placards to rifles.

Some of the words that specifically invoke anger include: rattling, blood boil, grinds, brandishing and war.

Hero two: The emotion for hero two is different. Sadness aches and blurs and sometimes isolates a person when they withdraw into themselves. That’s why in the second hero’s paragraph, the sentences are longer. The increased use of commas is on purpose. It makes the sentences blur into each other. This also helps to imbue the sense of melancholy and depression. Instead of comparing the parade to war, hero two compares it to death and mourning and being alone.

Some of the words that specifically invoke sadness include: scattered, drowning, fractures, alone and supposedly united.

Top Tip: Next time you’re writing a scene, think about the emotion your hero is feeling in that moment. Consider how that emotion impacts the way your hero sees the events unfolding. What could you change at the sentence level to reflect that emotion?

Traits and motivations aren’t what set your hero apart from anyone else. What separates her is the way she embodies those traits and her expression of them. How her personality influences the way she sees your story world. Let your hero’s traits and emotions influence her description of the world around her. And allow them to extend right down to the details of your word choice and punctuation. Doing that will help you to add depth to your character.

Your hero is biased, your story should be too. 

If you enjoyed this post and would like to read more about the hero lens, you can in 10 Steps To Hero: How To Craft A Kickass Protagonist.

Sacha Black is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, 13 Steps To Evil – How To Craft A Superbad Villain. Her blog for writers,, is home to regular writing, marketing and publishing advice sprinkled with dark humour and the occasional bad word. In addition to craft books, she writes YA fantasy. The first two books in her Eden East Novel: Keepers and Victor, are out now.

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Posted in Characters, Point of View, Resident Writing Coach, Show Don't Tell, Uncategorized, Writing Craft | 15 Comments

Occupation Thesaurus Entry: Yoga Instructor

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.

Is your character a yoga instructor? We've researched how character personality and talents will impact the story and writing

Occupation: Yoga Instructor

Overview: A Yoga instructor (Yogi) is someone who specializes in helping others create a harmonious union between the body and mind through breathing exercises (pranayama) and postures (asanas). They help clients become more flexible while strengthening their bodies, and to develop a more balanced, peace-seeking mindset through visualization and meditation. While teaching classes (at a studio, health center, spa, in a natural setting, on a retreat, or in a private home), a good instructor will pay close attention to the needs of their clients and design a program that is tailored to them. A class for pregnant women, children, or senior citizens will require specialized stretches for example, just as special evaluation and customized programming will be necessary for individuals recovering from a surgery, injury, or other vulnerability. A yoga instructor must pay careful attention to each client to avoid injuries.

Yoga instructors also will put considerable time into the business end of their practice (accounting, time management, promotion, client outreach, etc.), choosing what specialties to teach (Ashtanga, Bikram, Hatha, Iyengar, Kripalu, to name a few), creating playlists and routines the group will enjoy, building relationships with clients, evaluating progress to best decide when clients are ready to move onto more complex postures, and being available to answer questions and guide clients toward meditative solutions that may help them through personal struggles.

Necessary Training: There are many schools and programs that teach the philosophies and history of yoga and certification in a variety of practices. After becoming certified, many will develop specialties (in specific styles of yoga, spiritual/meditative schools of thought, and working with clients such as pregnant women, seniors, and other vulnerable individuals who will have specific challenges to ensure yoga sessions are safe). These will all require further education, and for devout practitioners, continuing education remains a steady focus throughout their career.

Those wishing to take up this practice must be careful when seeking education as while there are many accredited and respected programs, there are many that are just there to make money off eager students.  

Useful Skills, Talents, or Abilities: A knack for languages, a knack for making money, basic first aid, charm, empathy, enhanced hearing, exceptional memory, gaining the trust of others, high pain tolerance, hospitality, making people laugh, promotion, reading people, regeneration, strong breath control, throwing one’s voice

Helpful Character Traits:

POSITIVE: Adaptable, adventurous, affectionate, calm, centered, charming, confident, cooperative, courteous, creative, diplomatic, disciplined, empathetic, enthusiastic, extroverted, friendly, generous, gentle, happy, honest, honorable, hospitable, idealistic, industrious, inspirational, kind, loyal, mature, nature-focused, nurturing, optimistic, organized, passionate, patient, perceptive, persuasive, philosophical, quirky, socially aware, spiritual, supportive, talented, uninhibited, wholesome, wise

Sources of Friction: balancing studio sessions and private clients (and finding a work-life balance), needing to travel to multiple locations each day (teaching at a studio, at client’s homes, running classes at gyms and community centers, etc.), illness, a car breakdown, or an injury that puts one out of commission for a period of time, private clients who cancel or ask to reschedule with little notice, clients who assume one yoga instructor is the same as the next, misunderstanding a vulnerable person’s challenges and them being hurt during a yoga session as a result, clients not being upfront with conditions and injuries that make certain maneuvers dangerous, attendees who join for the wrong reasons (hoping to meet a romantic partner, etc.), creating a practice that creates a steady income and livable wage, being a poor business person and neglecting that aspect of the practice (creating financial or even legal troubles), struggling with the “popularity” aspect with so many teachers in the industry and worrying over keeping clients, having less-qualified instructors undercut one’s pricing and market share, working at a studio that doesn’t properly support one’s needs (a regular schedule, proper equipment, cleaning the space, etc., helping to promote classes, offering insurance coverage, etc.), having clients who repeatedly ask for help (to better their health, improve their mindset, etc.) but then fail to follow through on advice

People They Might Interact With: clients, studio owners, gym management, community hall employees, other instructors

How This Occupation Might Impact One’s Basic Needs:

  • Self-Actualization: If the character was unable to find clients with similar ideologies and a true desire for embracing becoming someone more is in tune with themselves and the world around them (and instead doing yoga because it was fashionable, for example), disillusionment may set in. If so it could deplete the character’s own psychological and spiritual energies and make them question if this work was truly their calling.
  • Esteem and Recognition: A character who struggled to maintain a steady practice because of too much competition, being undercut on pricing, or other economic factors, may start questioning their own abilities in this field.
  • Love and Belonging: Yoga instructors may need to put in long, unpredictable hours in that can impact the ability to form and nurture loving relationships, leading to a void in this area.
  • Safety and Security: It can be very hard to make a steady income and living wage, which could lead to financial struggles.

Common Work-Related Settings: backyard, beach, community center, cruise ship, fitness center, gymnasium, living room, park, spa

Twisting the Fictional Stereotype:

Yoga instructor characters don’t have to always fit into the “young and beautiful” category. Consider how an older character who teaches will not only reinforce the idea of following a passion–they will also have valuable insight into life and may offer a more balanced outlook, which can add something special to the story. Some occupations are more about personality and mindset that physical features, and this is one of them.

Fad yoga practices (like Goat Yoga) may date your manuscript, but if you want to make your character’s practice unique, consider a instructor that takes clients on retreats to beautiful foreign locations, on adventurous excursions like mountain hikes that end with a yoga session at the summit, a rafting trip that includes pulling over to do yoga and enjoy the natural scenery. or they specialize in something unique such as sunset yoga sessions.

Visit the other Occupations in our collection HERE.

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Critiques 4 U

Happy 2019, people! You know the saying: New year. New you. New eyes on your first page? Angela and I may be gearing up for the release of our next book, but I’ve got just enough time to squeeze in a few critiques.



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).

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 | 35 Comments