5 Tips for Writing Stellar Romantic Subplots

Does your story contain a romantic subplot? They can be tricky to write well while not allowing them to take over the main plot line. Savannah Cordova is back with some tips on how to whip them into shape.

As a reader and writer, one of my favorite story elements is the romantic subplot: a blossoming romance between two characters that, while not integral to the main plot, often makes it more intriguing and enjoyable. Indeed, weaving romance into your story is an excellent way to develop your characters, heighten the emotional stakes, and recapture romance-inclined readers whose interest in the A-plot may be waning.

Of course, romantic subplots can only do all that when written well. A poorly constructed romance is merely a distraction that dilutes the plot, and should be avoided at all costs! That’s why I’m here to share my best tips on how to write stellar romantic subplots — in any genre, between any sort of characters — just in time for Valentine’s Day. 💘

1. Know the Character Dynamics Going In

One of the biggest issues I see in romantic subplots is inconsistent character dynamics. This is jarring in any story, but especially when romance is involved: one moment the characters are ready to rip each others’ throats out, the next they simply can’t live without each other.

To avoid situations like this, develop your key characters’ dynamics before you begin writing your story. Having a strong sense of their defining traits and how these traits might mesh (and clash, for that matter) is crucial to creating a satisfying romance! That’s not to say your couple’s dynamics can’t evolve; on the contrary, they absolutely should. But for every shift in their behavior toward each other, there must be a reason — one that makes sense given their personalities and circumstances.

For example, in a classic enemies-to-lovers romance, you might have two characters whose worldviews seem totally at odds, which causes conflict at first. Yet as they spend more time together, they find they have more in common than they thought — say, their natural intelligence and joy in deep discussions, with the added bonus of witty banter — thereby realizing they’re actually perfect for each other. (Am I just describing When Harry Met Sally? Who’s to say.)

Speaking of enemies-to-lovers, if you’re stuck on the dynamics of your characters, it may be useful to think about romance tropes. Tropes can provide a great jumping-off point if you know you want a romantic subplot, but don’t know how to implement it; just be sure to add unique details, maybe even a twist or two, to make it your own.

2. Introduce Romantic Subtext Early

As you start writing, try to hint at the chemistry between your characters fairly early. Why so early, you ask? Well, because a subplot that fits seamlessly with the main plot needs to be built carefully and gradually, brick by brick. If the first stirrings of a romantic subplot arrive too late, it can come across as haphazard or forced.

On that note, you’ll also want to be subtle about it from the get-go. In my opinion, the best romantic subplots begin with such a light touch, the reader may not even register it — but later, when they realize that a romance is happening, they’ll delight in flipping back to previous romantic beats to see how you’ve paved the way.

The good news is that it’s easy to throw in a romantically charged moment early in your story! It takes no more than a few sentences, and can happen any time your characters interact. Maybe one person offhandedly notices how attractive the other one looks in a certain light, or becomes flustered by something the other says or does. (My favorite is the “lady doth protest too much” where one character insists they’re not attracted to the other, even though they clearly are.)

For concrete examples of this, I’d recommend any book by Leigh Bardugo, who’s truly mastered the art of the romantic subplot. Here’s a passage from Six of Crows, with the barest hint at the eventual romance between Kaz and Inej:

Despite everything she’d been through, Inej still believed her saints were watching over her. Kaz knew it, and for some reason he loved to rile her. He wished he could read her expression now. There was always something so satisfying about the little furrow between her black brows.

A character who enjoys teasing another, finding something “satisfying” about their face. Small details like these are all you need to drop a romantic hint and, again, to give readers something to look back on and think, “ohhh.”

3. Give the Characters Something in Common

As your characters’ relationship progresses, they’ll need something to bond over emotionally. Otherwise their attraction will be based on nothing but appearance, which doesn’t make for the most compelling romantic subplot.

The best way to foster this bond is by giving them something in common. This could be anything from a mutual friend or favorite TV show, to the same place of work. If you really want to solidify their emotional connection, make it a shared motivation or a dramatic event they go through together. Even if your characters are a case of “opposites attract”, you should be able to find some thing for them to have in common.

Jodi Picoult, another author who excels at romantic subplots, is especially skilled at this. In many of her novels, the couple has some sort of history — having been childhood best friends, college exes, or people who worked together previously — and kindle (or rekindle) a romantic flame as they grow closer over the story. This dynamic works well if there’d been a possibility of romance in the past, but something like timing or another relationship got in the way.

That said, characters don’t need history to bond. In fact, another interesting approach is to have two characters who hardly know each other, and may even harbor mutual dislike… until they discover the critical thing they have in common. This will cast them both in a new light and get them just a little closer to seeing what a good match they are.

4. Bring Them Together in a Vulnerable Moment

When it’s time to kick your romance into high gear, you can’t go wrong with a dash of vulnerability. Whether physical, emotional, or both, having one character experience a vulnerable moment in front of the other — or having both be vulnerable together! — is often the perfect catalyst for characters who need to confront their feelings.

Indeed, this technique crops up in just about every romantic subplot ever written. Let’s return to one of my earlier titles: in Six of Crows, Kaz’s longtime haphephobia causes him to faint in front of Inej, but he begrudgingly admits that he trusts her to keep his condition a secret. Another one of my favorite vulnerable scenes comes from the first Hunger Games book, in which Katniss takes care of Peeta after she finds him terribly ill. (To be sure, well-plotted YA books like these are a hotbed for romantic subplot ideas.)

Of course, whether your characters act on their feelings at this juncture depends on their individual personalities and character arcs. Maybe they fall into each others’ arms immediately, or maybe it’s a wake-up call that isn’t quite big enough for them to get together. If one character is particularly stubborn, they might even push the other person away in the aftermath, determined not to rely on anyone.

But whatever follows, there should be no doubt in the reader’s mind that this is a significant scene — and that these two characters, no matter how much they deny it (or how busy they are with everything else in the story), are meant to help each other through tough times.

5. Don’t Overshadow the Main Plot

While most of the tips here could apply to writing romance in general, this one is specifically for subplots: don’t get so carried away that the romance takes up more space than the main story. I speak from experience when I say it’s all too easy for romantic subplots to spiral out of control! After all, it’s much more fun to write scenes where your characters shamelessly flirt with each other than it is to progress the actual plot.

However, unless you want to turn your story into a bona fide romance, you’ll have to keep the banter to a minimum. Too much romance in a book that’s not actually a romance can throw off the pacing and distract readers — and besides, as noted above, less really is more when it comes to how you present it. When in doubt about whether you’re over-romancing the sauce, simply consider your ratios: if more than a third of what you’re writing is solely in service of a romantic subplot, you probably need to pull it back.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t have fun with it — quite the opposite! The more you, the author, enjoy writing a romantic subplot, the more that joy will shine through to create the same effect for your readers. And if you find that weaving such subplots is right up your alley, maybe you should try writing a romance novel of your own. Having taken this advice to heart (pun fully intended), you’ll be more than prepared to try.

Savannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories (and occasionally terrible novels).

Posted in Guest Post, Romance, Story Structure, Writing Craft | 3 Comments

Opening Scenes: 3 Critical Elements

One of the most common questions I get as an editor is, “Am I starting my novel in the right place?” Let’s discuss how you can craft an opening that subtly shows you are, in fact, starting in the right place and feel confident about your choice.

We often think we need to open with a huge bang, something that’ll catch the reader’s attention and play out like a blockbuster movie. But here’s the thing about those high-powered opening scenes: readers don’t care because they don’t yet know the characters or the baggage they bring onto page one. Readers don’t know what the events mean for the characters, or what’s at stake for them.

There’s no doubt it’s difficult to balance establishing the protagonist’s ordinary world, or before, while hooking readers. Ordinary world sounds boring, right?

But the trick to establishing your protagonist’s ordinary world and crafting a successful opening scene isn’t in impressing your reader as much as you think it is. The trick is in crafting an interesting event that somehow impresses your protagonist. To do that, we need enough of a glimpse of their before to understand how whatever happens toward the end of your opening will change their lives.

Think of your opening as having 3 parts:

  1. Let us meet your protagonist. We need a clear understanding of who they are and what they believe about their world when we meet them. Preferably, this is done through interesting action and dialogue. Meaningful action that will reveal something about their current beliefs and personality. Think of protagonist Katniss in The Hunger Games, waking up to find she’s alone in her bed when typically, her younger sister is beside her. Her immediate concern flares in the form of dialogue and action. We become acquainted with Katniss on a deep level before she steps foot into the arena, and all she’s done is wake up. No car chases. No mythical beings showing up. Just normality with an interesting twist.
  1. The primary external event toward the end of your opening scene leads to a noticeable turn. The “turn”— or the “opportunity,” as it’s called in the One Stop for Writers’ Story Mapping tool—is the moment the opening’s main event impacts the protagonist and leads to a decision of some sort. In light of establishing your character’s ordinary world, your reader will better understand the context and meaning of this new event. So going back to The Hunger Games, the turn is when Katniss’ younger sister’s name is called to become a tribute in the games. It’s the moment that forces Katniss to make some sort of a decision. By then, we know Katniss’ primary goal is to protect her sister (ordinary world) and that this “turn” will force her hand. And because we felt Katniss’ reaction to feeling that cold spot in the bed where her sister should have been, the event of having her name called has context. We already know what Katniss cares about and why, which makes the event far more engaging. 
  1. The external event needs to have a clear impact on your character, but only in a way that shows who they currently are and that more than likely, they’re not ready yet for any remarkable changes. Maybe the protagonist is choosing to ignore what’s happening, or choosing to stay on the path they’ve been on since before we met them, or behaving in a way that reinforces who we’ve met so far. In The Hunger Games, Katniss makes a  decision to volunteer in place of her sister. It sounds dramatic, but this is actually not far-fetched based on what we know about her. She’s done something that reinforces the protectiveness she showed on page one. Here, you’ll want a reaction to establish your character’s reaction to events, but nothing so drastic that they seem to be changing already. There’s something going on in their lives that is new to them, but they probably perceive their world as still being within their control.

Take a look at your story’s opening and see if you’ve included these three components of a successful opening scene. Is there a particular aspect you find stands out strongly in your pages? Do any of these aspects need polishing? What other elements of a novel’s opening do you look for as both a writer and reader? Can you think of examples in books or film or TV that accomplish these three elements particularly well? 

Happy crafting!

Marissa Graff

Resident Writing Coach

Marissa has been a freelance editor and reader for literary agent Sarah Davies at Greenhouse Literary Agency for over five years. In conjunction with Angelella Editorial, she offers developmental editing, author coaching, and more. Marissa feels if she’s done her job well, a client should probably never need her help again because she’s given them a crash-course MFA via deep editorial support and/or coaching.
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Posted in Openings, Resident Writing Coach, Revision and Editing, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 8 Comments

Relationship Thesaurus Entry: Siblings (Youth)

Successful stories are driven by authentic and interesting characters, so it’s important to craft them carefully. But characters don’t usually exist in a vacuum; throughout the course of your story, they’ll live, work, play, and fight with other cast members. Some of those relationships are positive and supportive, pushing the protagonist to positive growth and helping them achieve their goals. Other relationships do exactly the opposite—derailing your character’s confidence and self-worth—or they cause friction and conflict that leads to fallout and disruption. Many relationships hover somewhere in the middle. A balanced story will require a mix of these dynamics.

The purpose of this thesaurus is to encourage you to explore the kinds of relationships that might be good for your story and figure out what each might look like. Think about what a character needs (good and bad), and build a network of connections for him or her that will challenge them, showcase their innermost qualities, and bind readers to their relationship trials and triumphs.

Description: A sibling relationship is where two individuals are raised in the same family unit. Many factors can shape this relationship, including the age between the two, home life and environment, parenting, personality traits, intelligence and maturity levels, health and physicality, opportunities for growth and other individual formative experiences (good and bad) and more. The sibling relationship also evolves (or devolves) with age and time. In this case, we’re looking at a sibling relationship between younger children.

Relationship Dynamics:
Below are a wide range of dynamics that may accompany this relationship. Use the ideas that suit your story and work best for your characters to bring about and/or resolve the necessary conflict.

Loyalty to one another (putting the family bond first)
Caring about the sibling’s happiness and trying to do things to lift them up (small gifts, sharing toys or treats, doing what they want to do, letting the other choose)
Playing together (games, make believe, building things)
Spending time together (talking, being in the same room but doing different things, etc.)
Sharing interests or joining the same clubs, activities, or leagues
Asking for help or an opinion
Talking about things that happened that day, good and bad
Giving advice or offering ideas when they other is struggling
Including the sibling when playing with friends
Sticking up for the sibling
Wanting to do the same things as the sibling
Having no secrets
Agreeing to cover up for the other to keep them out of trouble
Telling the sibling when they are good at something
Asking to borrow something
Refusing to lend something (out of spite or payback for a slight)
Taking things and lying about it
Tattling to get the sibling in trouble
Lying to parents so the sibling gets in trouble
Excluding a brother or sister when with friends
Encouraging friends to be rude or mean to a sibling when angry
Doing things to trigger the sibling’s fears and thinking it’s funny
Breaking promises
Hiding things so they don’t have to be shared with a brother or sister
Setting the other up so they get caught doing something they shouldn’t
Breaking things that belong to the sibling
Physical altercations
“Reminding” parents or caregivers of rules or limitations that apply to the sibling
Invading the other’s privacy
Extorting a brother or sister to not tell on them

Conflicting Desires that Can Impair the Relationship
A need for privacy when the siblings share a room
A sibling who likes to be alone who has a brother or sister who wants to do everything together
One child having a guilty conscience so they struggle to keep their sibling’s secrets from parents or teachers
Sibling rivalry and birth order struggles (one has more freedom than the other, high parental expectations despite the age gap, etc.)
Wanting to do something alone (a sport, to go on a sleepover) or have something special when the sibling (or parents) want to see everything shared or done together
Both wanting the same thing when only one can have it
Wanting to be loyal to a sibling but also wanting parental approval

Clashing Personality Trait Combinations: Trusting and manipulative, adventurous and timid, inhibited and rebellious, introverted and extroverted, mature and irresponsible

Negative Outcomes of Friction
Arguments and fights
Revealing secrets in anger and losing the other’s trust
Parents who take sides, creating distrust and a sense of inequity between siblings
Siblings that are split up because of a divorce
Taking a fight too far and injuring the other
Being punished or limited (grounded) by parents because the sibling tattled

Fictional Scenarios That Could Turn These Characters into Allies
Having parents or guardians who are neglectful or abusive
A close proximity to danger
A mutual enemy (a bully, a third sibling, a neighbor’s kid, etc.)
A shared mistake that must be covered up
Needing help or protection
Having a mutual goal
When good behavior leads to rewards
If passing on knowledge is important (one teaching the other)

Ways This Relationship May Lead to Positive Change
Healthy sibling relationships teach children about trust which will help them form bonds moving forward
Children who have a sibling will learn how to get along with others and work through problems
The value of privacy and understanding the difference between self and others will give children the formative knowledge they need to set boundaries
This relationship allows each to explore emotions safely because sibling transgressions and hurt feelings are more easily forgiven
Differences between siblings, especially in the case where one is experiencing a hardship the other does not, helps empathy develop
A less-than-ideal sibling relationship can help an individual develop emotional armor early which will help protect them from life’s hurts (a double-edged sword as this often means an unresolved wound)

Themes and Symbols That Can Be Explored through This Relationship
A Fall from Grace, Alienation, A Quest for Knowledge, Coming of Age, Crossroads, Family, Freedom, Friendship, Hope, Innocence, Instability, Isolation, Journeys, Love, Obstacles, Passage of Time, Rebellion, Rite of Passage, Sacrifice, Teamwork, Unity

Other Relationship Thesaurus entries can be found here.

Need More Descriptive Help?

While this thesaurus is still being developed, the rest of our descriptive collection (15 unique thesauri and growing) is accessible through the One Stop for Writers THESAURUS database.

If you like, swing by and check out the video walkthrough, and then give our Free Trial a spin.

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The Author’s Guide to Redeeming Villains

Have you ever fallen in love with a story villain? Or at least found yourself liking him or her somewhat against your will? Seems a little weird, experiencing all the happy feels for this character, but I think we’ve all been there.

When a villain is well written and well rounded, they can tug at our heartstrings just like the protagonists do—which can be cruel, since the villain is usually destined to fail. I say usually because stories can include a change of heart for the enemy.

Is this what you’d like for your bad guy or girl? Let’s take a peek at the villain’s journey and see what the path to redemption might look like.

Understanding Character Arcs: Positive Arcs

First, we need to have a basic understanding of character arc. In essence, this is the transformation a character goes through from the start of the story to the finish.

In the opening pages, the character is lacking something internally. Often, this comes out of a wounding event from the past—a trauma that was so scarring, she was compelled to don emotional shielding to protect herself from the pain of that experience and any possible recurrence.

This emotional shielding comes in the form of bad habits, defense mechanisms, personality flaws, biases, and skewed beliefs that, while intended to protect the character, only create more problems. They’re so destructive that they create a void in the area of her basic human needs.

This void leads her to pursue a story goal (outer motivation) that will fill that need. But her emotional shielding cripples her, keeping her from succeeding and becoming fully realized.

Throughout the course of a positive arc, the character recognizes those internal problems and begins to address and change them. This enables her to grow and deal properly with her past, eventually ensuring that she meets her goal and achieves fulfillment.

Understanding Character Arcs: Negative Arcs

That transformation is the essence of a change arc. It’s the one most protagonists follow. But there’s another, lesser-used arc form that’s common for villains.

In a failed arc, the character is unable to overcome their issues and the demons of the past, failing to make the necessary positive changes that would enable them to achieve satisfaction and fill their inner void. Characters following this arc end the story either back where they started or worse off than they were to begin with.

Very often, this is where you’ll find the villain in your story. She may be aware of the wounding event from her past, but she’s already tried to deal with it and has failed.

Now she’s embracing her dysfunctional behaviors, believing they’ll make her stronger. Or she may never have faced her past and is living in denial, refusing to address it.

Either way, she’s destined to continue living an unfulfilled life that lacks closure—unless she’s given the opportunity to try again, and this time, succeed. Then…redemption.

How Can We Redeem Our Villain?

So as an author interested in redeeming your villain, you first must know her backstory, which will tell you what she’ll have to overcome to succeed.

  • What wounding event from the past profoundly impacted her?
  • How did her view of herself or the world change because of it?
  • What new behaviors, beliefs, habits, and responses developed as a means of protecting herself from a recurrence of that event and the negative emotions associated with it?

There’s a lot of backstory to explore, but questions like these will get you started. The Character Builder at One Stop for Writers is also great for unearthing a villain’s buried trauma, identifying their strengths and weaknesses, figuring out which talents or skills would benefit them, and so forth.

Once you’ve got a clear vision of your villain’s history, you can use one of the following techniques to get her back on the road to healing.

Redemption Path #1:
Elevate the Stakes Associated with Unmet Need

Need is a primary motivator for all people. A void in the human needs department will push the character to take action to alleviate it; this typically means facing past pain and becoming vulnerable again.

But a villain won’t want to go there. Instead, she denies or avoids her past, distracting herself by pursuing other goals and interests.

To turn her around, poke that sore spot; make that unmet need really hard to ignore. Create a situation that makes her painfully aware of her lack and forces her to reconsider her position.

As an example, look at Darth Vader—the ultimate villain redemption story. He’s as dysfunctional as they come, haunted by his past, cut off emotionally from others. Then, he meets his son.

Over the course of several clashes and conversations, something shifts in him, until he eventually chooses his relationship with Luke over everything else.

Figure out which of your villain’s unmet needs (there are probably several) is the most vulnerable, and create a scenario that amplifies it, making it a problem she must address.

Redemption Path #2:
Reveal the Truth about the Story Goal

As we’ve discussed, outer motivations are chosen as a means of filling an unmet need. While most characters aren’t aware of their inner-need void, they subconsciously believe that achieving a certain goal will bring them happiness and completion, so they pursue it.

For instance, someone living without security may decide to get a better job that will enable them to move out of a dangerous neighborhood. A character lacking esteem might seek to prove himself by winning a competition or contest.

But self-awareness isn’t a common trait for villains. They’re incredibly unfulfilled, and they’ll avoid like the plague any emotions or circumstances that mirror their past pain.

So your villain will choose goals that look promising but won’t ultimately satisfy. Avenging herself, amassing vast amounts of wealth and material goods, being feared by others—motivations like these won’t fill the inner void.

If she can be led to a place where she recognizes this unending spiral of pursuing goals, achieving them, and still being unable to escape her pain, she may become motivated to look at other options, including facing the source of her trouble.

This is hard to do, since she’s set in her ways and her actions over time have piled up, making it very difficult for her to examine herself realistically. This process of self-realization can be encouraged with the help of a friend, associate, or even an enemy who is able to hold up a mirror that reveals the villain’s true reflection.

Redemption Path #3:
Show How to Forgive

In the aftermath of a wounding event, it’s normal to examine it and try to figure out what went wrong. Very often in this process, the character will end up blaming someone else (a person, group of people, organization, system, etc.) or finding fault with herself—even if no one is to blame. Unwilling to face the truth, she dedicates herself to punishing those at fault, believing it will ease her pain.

To turn this villain around, you must force her to see that her blame is misplaced and lead her to a place of forgiveness. Create a new scenario where the source of the villain’s blame proves to be upright or somehow bucks her stereotype. Allow a respected person in the villain’s life to forgive in extreme circumstances, undermining her beliefs about what true strength and weakness look like. This could also be achieved if one of the villain’s victims chose to forgive her.

Scenarios like these can shine a new light on her long-held beliefs and ideals about forgiveness, stimulating change.

Redemption Path #4:
Recreate the Wounding Event

If your villain is unwilling to examine the trauma from her past, recreate it so she’s forced to deal with it—but provide a different outcome.

  • Maybe, this time, she can see that her blame was misplaced.
  • Perhaps the dysfunctional habits she’s embraced (her perceived strengths) fail to protect her, and she realizes that they’ve been holding her back all these years.
  • She might look at her own enemy and see similarities to herself, causing her to question everything that has happened since that fateful first meeting.

Final Tip for Redemption: Change Is Hard

Obviously, none of this happens quickly. Change takes time—particularly for someone so ingrained in their habits and false beliefs.

For the conversion to ring true, your villain will need numerous chances to change. Build them into your story while the protagonist is undergoing his own transformation. Give the villain ample opportunities to examine her trajectory and reconsider her path.

These scenarios should trigger deep and unexpected emotions that eventually lead to a change of heart. Redemption for these characters usually requires some form of self-sacrifice as a way of making amends that often (but not always) results in their demise.

How your villain ends their story is up to you, but with these techniques, redemption is always an option.

Posted in Backstory, Basic Human Needs, Character Arc, Character Flaws, Character Wound, Characters, Endings, Fatal Flaw, Villains, Writing Lessons | 4 Comments

The 8 Points of Progress

In a lecture series on Youtube, #1 New York Times best-selling author Brandon Sanderson talks about the three P’s of plot structure: Promise. Progress. Payoff. 

Promises are particularly important in the beginning of the story, as they draw in the audience. 

Progress keeps the audience invested, particularly through the middle of the story. If there is no sense of progress, then the reader feels as if the plot isn’t going anywhere. 

Payoff is what fulfills the promises of progress. It rewards the audience for sticking around, and if done properly, creates a feeling of satisfaction at the end of the story. 

While all three can be tricky in their own right, many writers struggle to create a proper sense of progress, which can lead to saggy middles. 

Luckily, Dramatica Theory breaks plot down into eight story points that essentially encapsulate progress.

If you apply them to your stories, your writing will always have progression through the middle.

1. Goal – Every story has a goal. It may be a goal of aspiration, such as becoming a top chef. Or it may be a goal of thwarting something, such as stopping a murderer. Whatever the case, a story’s goal is what enables us to measure progress. If there is no goal, then what one does, doesn’t really matter. We have no orientation or purpose, so there is no sense of moving forward or backward. The goal allows progress to happen. 

2. Requirements – In order to achieve the goal, something is required. This can be broken down into two variations. In one, the characters must follow an order of steps, like following a set of directions. In the other, the characters must do or obtain things in any order, like a shopping list. The characters in Jumanji, for example,have the goal to restore the world to normal. The requirement is to win the game. But they must do this in a proper order–they can’t skip turns.

3. Consequences – Consequences are what happen if a goal isn’t achieved or hasn’t yet been achieved. In some stories, the protagonist is trying to prevent the consequences, but in others, the protagonist is trying to stop the consequences that are already happening. Consequences might be thought of as overall stakes. In Ralph Breaks the Internet, if Ralph and Vanellope don’t buy a new steering wheel for Sugar Rush, then its characters will be homeless. 

4. Forewarnings – Forewarnings convey that the consequences are getting closer, becoming worse, or becoming permanent (depending on the story). If a dam is in danger of breaking, then a forwarning may be a crack that shoots out water. In Back to the Future, Marty’s family slowly disappearing from a photograph works as a forewarning. 

5. Dividends – Characters will likely receive small rewards for little successes along the journey to the goal. These are dividends. For example, on her journey to fight in the war in her father’s place, Mulan is rewarded honor and a place in the military when she is able to retrieve an arrow from a wooden post that none of the men could get down.

6. Costs – Just as the journey may include dividends, it also entails costs. These have negative impacts on the protagonist’s well-being. In order to win The Hunger Games, for example, one must be willing to kill others, which also includes psychological trauma. In order for Frodo to get to Mount Doom to destroy the Ring, he must suffer a loss of innocence. This is a cost. 

7. Prerequisites – There are often certain essentials one must have, to pursue the goal at all. These are prerequisites. Prerequisites on their own don’t bring the goal closer. This is why they aren’t requirements. In Interstellar, a spaceship, equipment, and astronauts are needed to travel space to find a new home (goal). But simply having those things doesn’t necessarily mean the characters are closer to discovering a liveable planet. 

8. Preconditions – Preconditions do not directly relate to the goal. They are “non-essential constraints or costs placed on the characters in exchange for the help of someone who controls essential prerequisites.” In Karate Kid, a prerequisite is that the protagonist must receive extra lessons from a master, but the master adds the precondition of doing chores. One does not technically need to do chores to do karate.

Some of these points are more direct–like requirements–while others are more indirect–like preconditions. The direct points will usually be more intense than the indirect. As you apply these elements to your stories, you’ll create a sense of progress–especially through the middle, which will help make any story more satisfying. 

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 FawkesEditing.com. 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 SeptemberCFawkes.com for more writing tips, and find her on
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Posted in Action Scenes, Characters, Conflict, Endings, Middles, Motivation, Openings, Pacing, Plotting, Resident Writing Coach, Story Structure, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 9 Comments

Relationship Thesaurus Entry: Landlord and Tenant

Successful stories are driven by authentic and interesting characters, so it’s important to craft them carefully. But characters don’t usually exist in a vacuum; throughout the course of your story, they’ll live, work, play, and fight with other cast members. Some of those relationships are positive and supportive, pushing the protagonist to positive growth and helping them achieve their goals. Other relationships do exactly the opposite, derailing your character’s confidence and self-worth or they cause friction and conflict that leads to fallout and disruption. Many relationships hover somewhere in the middle. A balanced story will require a mix of these dynamics.

The purpose of this thesaurus is to encourage you to explore the kinds of relationships that might be good for your story and figure out what each might look like. Think about what a character needs (good and bad), and build a network of connections for him or her that will challenge them, showcase their innermost qualities, and bind readers to their relationship trials and triumphs.

Description: At its basis, this relationship consists of two parties abiding by a mutual agreement and providing something the other needs or wants. But ego, greed, irresponsibility, external family dynamics, and so many other things can turn this seemingly simple relationship into a complex one. Because the stakes are high for both individuals should things fall apart, the potential for conflict between these characters is high.

Relationship Dynamics:
Each relationship is different, depending on the people involved, their history together, their individual personalities, and a host of factors. Below are a wide range of dynamics that can accompany this relationship. Use the ideas that suit your story and work best for your characters to bring about and/or resolve the necessary conflict.

Mutual respect in the form of both parties abiding by the rules of the legal contract and holding up their end of the bargain
An empathetic landlord who understands that life happens, choosing to extend grace to a tenant in need
A landlord making their tenant a priority by taking care of facilities issues promptly
A tenant being a responsible steward of the landlord’s property and leaving it in the same or better condition than when they moved in
A landlord checking in periodically to see how the tenant is doing (rather than only reaching out when there’s an issue)
A landlord and tenant resolving to work through their problems rather than bringing in an outside source, such as a lawyer or the police
The landlord being so agreeable and helpful that the tenant sees him/her as a resource rather than the last person they’d go to for help
Addressing concerns respectfully
A tenant consistently being late or not paying their rent
An absentee landlord who shows no concern for the tenant’s living conditions
A landlord having no sympathy for an emergency situation that temporarily puts the tenant behind
A vengeful tenant who resolves to make the landlord pay for a real or perceived slight
A landlord being quick to evict their tenants
A landlord or tenant avoiding the other party’s phone calls and correspondence
Dishonesty—the tenant lying about when they’ll have this month’s payment or the landlord saying they called a repair service when they didn’t
A nitpicky landlord who won’t let the tenant make any changes to personalize the property
A tenant who does what they want (painting walls crazy colors or changing the landscaping) and pleads ignorance, deciding to ask for forgiveness instead of permission

Conflicting Desires that Can Impair the Relationship
The landlord wanting a romantic relationship with a tenant who isn’t interested
A landlord who wants a long-term tenant and a tenant who wants to move on
A biased landlord wanting to get rid of a tenant for unfair reasons while the tenant just wants a roof over their head
A tenant who wants something outside of the landlord’s parameters (getting a pet, hosting a raucous party, etc.)
A landlord who wants their property to be respected and a tenant who sees the living space as something to be used up and discarded
A landlord wanting to evict a negligent tenant who refuses to leave
One party wanting to communicate about a problem while the other party is avoiding contact
A tenant wanting to be let out of their contract, and the landlord refusing to comply
A tenant wanting to live in safe and clean conditions, and a landlord who is too cheap, lazy, or apathetic to get involved
A tenant and landlord conducting illegal activity on the property but having different desires about the operation (e.g., one wants to grow and make tons of money while the other wants to stay small and avoid unwanted attention)

Clashing Personality Trait Combinations:
Confrontational and Timid, Controlling and Weak-Willed, Disrespectful and Respectful, Flaky and Responsible, Gossipy and Private, Perfectionist and Lazy, Fussy and Scatterbrained

Negative Outcomes of Friction
The tenant being evicted
An unhappy tenant trashing the landlord online, making it hard for him/her to obtain a new tenant
Bad feelings making it harder to resolve future issues
Broken trust leading to oversensitivity, which results in unnecessary conflict
One party choosing to get back at the other in a subversive way (slashing their tires, vandalizing the property and blaming someone else, etc.)
A lawsuit
The tenant getting sick or being attacked because of a property issue that the landlord should have handled but didn’t
The tenant being unhappy in their own home
The landlord experiencing stress and health problems from financial strain when tenants don’t fulfill their obligations

Fictional Scenarios That Could Turn These Characters into Allies
A wealthy individual seeking to buy the property and turn it into something no one wants
An environmental leak from a nearby factory or business bringing the tenants and landlord together to fight a common foe
Pending legislation that, if passed, would be bad for the community as a whole
A gang, drug ring, or other entity moving into the area and making it unsafe
The landlord and tenant joining forces to get rid of another tenant
The landlord and tenant coming together to break up a romance between members of their families
The parties becoming business partners and starting a criminal enterprise on the property
An outside source taking an interest in the property and bringing unwanted attention to the landlord and tenant (the police, the IRS, etc.)

Ways This Relationship May Lead to Positive Growth
One party helping the other to overcome bias and change their mind about “that kind of people”
A landlord developing empathy for others
A tenant’s loving family situation leading the landlord to pursue improvements or reconciliation within his or her own family
A landlord teaching a stubborn tenant that it’s okay to accept help from others
A young tenant learning valuable lessons about keeping one’s word and being financially responsible
A positive landlord taking an active role in a tenant’s life, becoming a mentor and providing the skills needed to pursue their dreams

Themes and Symbols That Can Be Explored through This Relationship
A Fall from Grace, Beginnings, Borders, Disorder, Endings, Greed, Inflexibility, Instability, Journeys, Refuge, Sacrifice

Other Relationship Thesaurus entries can be found here.

Need More Descriptive Help?

While this thesaurus is still being developed, the rest of our descriptive collection (15 unique thesauri and growing) is accessible through the One Stop for Writers THESAURUS database.

If you like, swing by and check out the video walkthrough, and then give our Free Trial a spin.

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Creating from the Familiar

Have you watched The Mandalorian yet? It’s worth it just to listen to the opening theme music. It has this haunting western-scifi feel that is utterly unique, compelling, and has a complexity that allows you to discover something new each time you listen.

My husband, being the musician he is, found this video about how the composer of The Mandalorian, Ludwig Göransson, found the Mando sound. What struck me about Ludwig’s process was how he created a piece of art so unique by returning to the common and familiar instruments of his childhood.

Ludwig also mentioned multiple times that he “locked himself in his studio for a month,” away from his normal sound equipment and high-end sound tech, in order to create these Mando songs. 

Most of us don’t have that luxury; however, it does make me wonder if this Academy Award-winning composer was dealing with a little bit of writer’s block–complete conjecture–and needed to clear his mind and workspace of distraction.

Maybe he needed to return to the familiar to create.

Are you struggling with finding inspiration or the creative energy to write lately? It would be completely understandable, if so. Maybe a return to your familiar will help unearth a deep well of creative energy.

Revisit Childhood for Inspiration

When was the last time you read your favorite book from when you were a kid? Maybe the first chapter book that made you fall in love with words?

The oldest patootie and I recently started reading A Wrinkle in Time together. Her first time, my fortieth. And I was struck by the way the rhythm of Madeline L’Engle’s words fell into place for me. Much like Ludwig going back to the recorder, rereading one of my favorite childhood books cracked opened the well to my struggling creativity (thanks 2020). 

As I rediscover this book through the eyes of my patootie, I’m struck by how much Ms. L’Engle’s descriptions impacted the way I write today. Not only is it inspiring and motivating me to deepen my descriptions, but it is helping add a layer of creativity to my current work.

Play That Funky Music

Music plays such an important part in many authors’ writing process–so much so that it’s fairly common for an author to post their book’s playlist on their website. But have you ever tried listening to some old favorites to inspire an emotion you need to write? Maybe an angsty song from your teenage years to inspire betrayal or love at first sight. Or your wedding song. Maybe yours and your best friend’s favorite tunes or artist? 

Music is important because it hits us in such a personal and unique way, and different music affects us differently at different times. And when we hear those songs again, we often remember where we were, who we were with, and how we were feeling with startling accuracy.

Pick Up Old Habits

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my writing routines…or lack thereof (this one goes out to all parents of young kiddos in the middle of a pandemic).

First, I want to go on the record of saying that I do not believe in shaming yourself into writing. 2020 has been exceptional in many ways, and if the most you can do is write 200 words a month? Go you. It is more important to have grace with yourself than beat yourself into creative burnout.

What did I do well when I did have a good, solid writing routine?

For one, I had a strict bedtime that didn’t allow for excess Netflix binging. I also woke up earlier than everyone else in the house…and often that was the only time I could get work done. Frequent walks by myself gave me much-needed brainstorming time. And I did a better job of balancing my time between day job, family, and writing.

Not all old habits are easy or healthy to pick up. But some are. 

As often as I’ve talked about the importance of new experiences to creativity, it is also important to have some familiar routines to fall back on when life gets too big.

Memories of Days in the Sun

(Bonus points to those of you who name that song.)

Speaking of the importance of new experiences to creativity, when you can’t travel for inspiration, revisit your days in the sun. Through photos.

I love Google Photos. They’ll send me my year ago, two years ago, seven years ago, etc photos and it is so much fun. Recently I’ve received a flood of Cruising Writers photos and have spent more time than I care to admit to my husband revisiting those memories and emotions. My photos from our international trips help me recall the way a city smelled or a pastry tasted or how the off-tune, accordion-playing, opera-singer-in-training sounded.

Maybe your photos aren’t vacation photos. Maybe they are family or friend photos. Maybe they are nature hikes or sunsets or the fish you’ve caught. Whatever they are, they are your memories and each one still holds captive a little bit of that moment for you, waiting for you to take another peek, soak it in, and use it for inspiration.

To an outsider, these activities may seem like you’re wasting your time or procrastinating doing something else. But for those in the know, they’ll recognize these activities exactly for what they are.

Food for your creative soul.

Christina Delay

Resident Writing Coach

Christina is the hostess of Cruising Writers and an award-winning psychological suspense author. She also writes award-winning supernatural suspense under the name Kris Faryn. You can find Kris at: Bookbub ǀ Facebook ǀ Amazon ǀ Instagram.

Posted in Motivational, Resident Writing Coach, Writer's Attitude, Writer's Block | 2 Comments