Build Character Empathy in Your First Few Pages

You may not be aware, but I’m kind of obsessed with first pages and chapters. They’re not the end-all-be-all for keeping your audience engaged, but it’s definitely true that if you lose readers in the opening, you risk losing them altogether. That old saying about us only getting one chance to make a good first impression? Totally true for books, too.

Personally, I’ve started a lot of books I didn’t finish. As a reader, this is no big deal; there are plenty of other fish in that particular sea, and it’s easy to find another book to read. As an author, this is alarming. Why aren’t these books engaging? I’ve done some research on my own and have come up with a number of reasons why books fail to hold my attention. I’ve also discussed this question with others, and I’m finding that failure to connect with the character is a common reason why people stop reading. As a writer, this is good to know. I definitely want my audience to be invested in the hero. To make that happen, empathy is key.

Empathy draws readers in and keeps them engaged. In today’s market, with its growing availability of affordable books, it’s imperative that we hook readers from the very start. To achieve this end, here are some elements that can help you create reader empathy early on.

Want to write books that keep readers reading? Create characters empathy in your opening pages with these tips.Desperate Circumstances

One way to endear your character to readers is to show the desperation of his situation. A character who is stuck in a no-win scenario can evoke sympathy in readers who will want him to escape. Melvin Udall (As Good as It Gets) is nasty, offensive, and self-serving. This becomes apparent in the opening scene, when he shoves his neighbors little dog down the garbage chute then lies about it. We can also see right off that his obsessive-compulsive disorder is isolating him from everyone. He’s completely cut off and alone. Despite his awfulness, the audience can’t help but feel badly for him and hope that his life is somehow going to get better.

Villains can also play a part in establishing a hero’s desperation; the worse your villain is, the more readers will want the hero to triumph. Think the acid-dripping xenomorph from the Alien franchise, or Jigsaw from the Saw movies. Introduce a truly ruthless villain early on, and you’ll build build reader empathy even for a deeply flawed character.


To a certain degree, human beings are inherently curious. Solving a mystery and getting answers to our questions give us a distinctly satisfying feeling. Take advantage of this part of your reader’s nature by raising a question about the reader early on. Why is she sabotaging herself? What is she afraid of? Why is she responding this way? What’s her history with this person who’s getting her all riled up? When we provide character-related questions—particularly those that are emotionally charged—it raises the reader’s interest in the character and makes them want to keep reading to find answers.


I think we all can agree that it’s hard to fall in love with someone you just can’t stand. Even the most abrasive or offensive characters need good qualities to round them out.

The screenwriters for Good Will Hunting drew on this technique when they opened the movie with a seemingly ordinary janitor exhibiting exceptional intelligence by solving a genius-level math problem. Likewise, Will Freeman from About a Boy is self-centered and lazy, but readers are entertained by his sarcastic wit, which is evident the moment Will begins narrating.

So be sure to give your hero some endearing traits: compassion, humor, loyalty, courage, etc.. Show these traits early on—in the opening pages, if possible–and the reader will be that much closer to jumping on the hero’s bandwagon.


Readers come from all cultures, backgrounds, and experiences, making it hard to create a hero that everyone can relate to. The way around this is to incorporate universal themes or problems into your story such as the loss of a loved one, wanting to fit in, self-doubt, or a moral dilemma that makes him question his beliefs. Your hero could be a giant porcine robot from the planet Oink, but incorporating a universal theme for him like redemption makes him relatable. Readers get him because they’re familiar with that theme, the character’s struggle with it, and how his life will be impacted once he figures everything out.


Wounds are sad. Painful. They make us vulnerable, and vulnerability in a hero is attractive because it makes the reader root for him. As in real life, a character’s past helps define his present, molding him into the person he is at his core. Hint at your hero’s wounds and it will tug the reader’s heart strings, bringing the reader firmly to the hero’s side.

These are only a few ways to amp up the empathy factor in your opening pages. What do you think? Have you read a book lately that utilized any of these techniques? What other methods might we use?

Posted in Character Traits, Character Wound, Empathy, Openings, Reader Interest | 12 Comments

Occupation Thesaurus: Makeup Artist

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.

What jobs will you choose for your characters? Make them meaningful to both the cast and your story with the Occupation Thesaurus.

Occupation: Makeup Artist

Overview: A makeup artist uses cosmetics to enhance or change a person’s physical appearance. This type of artist may work as a clerk at a store, in a salon, as a personal makeup artist for a celebrity, at special events (such as a photo shoot, runway show, or wedding), or on staff for a TV production company. They may also work in a mortuary or funeral home, preparing corpses for viewing. At the extreme end of this career spectrum, makeup artists may use their techniques to create special effects in movies. People in this career field can either be freelance or employed in a permanent position.

Necessary Training: Many makeup artists start their training by volunteering in the aforementioned roles and learning from professionals as they go. Certifications aren’t required in all places, but sometimes they’re necessary in order to work in the field, so many people choose to take cosmetology courses in order to become certified.

Useful Skills, Talents, or Abilities: Good listening skills, multitasking, promotion, repurposing

Helpful Character Traits:

POSITIVE: Adventurous, calm, cooperative, courteous, creative, enthusiastic, gentle, industrious, responsible, studious, talented, whimsical

NEGATIVE: Extravagant, perfectionist, vain, verbose

Sources of Friction: A customer requesting something that’s beyond one’s ability to accomplish, perfectionistic customers who are impossible to please, a customer having an allergic reaction to one’s products, financial limitations that force one to work with inferior cosmetics and tools, insecurities about one’s own appearance, jealous or petty co-workers, being unable to break into the desired area of one’s industry, unhealthy practices at one’s salon or spa that lead to bad press and a decrease in customers, having one’s techniques or ideas stolen

People They Might Interact With: Other makeup artists, customers, managers (in a retail/commercial setting), hair stylists, fashion consultants, photographers, vendors

How This Occupation Might Impact One’s Basic Needs:

  • Self-Actualization: An artist who wishes to do high-end makeup for a professional or very creative work on a movie set but is unable to break into that field may be forced to work in a commercial environment as a fall-back option. This could lead to dissatisfaction and a feeling of being unable to meet their full potential.
  • Esteem and Recognition: Comparing ourselves to others will usually lead to disappointment. An artist who feels inferior in their abilities may suffer in the esteem department.
  • Love and Belonging: If someone in the character’s life doesn’t appreciate what they do or desires something more lucrative or esteemed for them, the relationship may suffer, and a void in this area may develop.

Common Work-Related Settings: Cruise ship, funeral home, green room, hair salon, mansion, performing arts theater, shopping mall, spa, trade show, Vegas stage show

Twisting the Stereotype: People with an interest in makeup and fashion are often viewed as vapid and superficial. Avoid that misperception by fleshing out your character to include a variety of meaningful traits and interests.

Visit the other Occupations in our collection HERE.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Critiques 4 U!

Are the seasons turning where you are? I sure hope so. Change is often stressful, but a change in climate is usually a good thing. It’s one thing I love about living where I do—getting all four seasons instead of ten months of OH MY WORD, I’M MELTING!

Another welcome change is getting new reading material when the well has run dry. For me, that means…



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 is up-to-date, I’ll be able to contact you if you win. Just please know that if I’m unable to get in touch with you through that address, I’ll have to choose an alternate winner.

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!

ALSO, HEADS UP! Two giveaways are ending today:

For a chance to win 1 of 4 six-month One Stop for Writers subscriptions, sign up for our newsletter (and always be the first to know what new tools are being added to our One Stop site!)


For a chance to win great writing craft books by our Resident Writing Coaches, sign up to our Writers Helping Writers newsletter (unless you’re into spam because we definitely don’t spam people and you’ll only be disappointed by the updates & helpful writing links we always share).

Posted in Uncategorized | 40 Comments

Conducting Informational Interviews for Story Research


Recently I hit a roadblock with my current manuscript. It wasn’t a typical “writer’s block,” though. Rather, I made an inspired decision first: My protagonist’s father would be the owner / manager of a home remodeling company. (I blame my love of home improvement TV shows for this!) Then came the stumble: Apart from those TV shows, which focus on the “external” aspects of construction and remodeling, I had no idea what’s involved in running such a business.

That’s when I realized, in order to get the information I needed, I’d have to talk to owners of home remodeling companies.

Yes, I freaked out at first. But it wasn’t the only instance where I interviewed people for this manuscript. (The story also involves characters of diverse backgrounds and/or struggling with mental illness.) Then again, informational interviews aren’t unheard of in the creative writing world. Authors, bloggers, and even poets turn to this journalistic form of research when books, articles, and documentaries aren’t enough. And when we find the right people, the knowledge they share with us can be invaluable.

So how should writers pursue these kinds of interviews? What should we do during the exchange so that the interviewee feels comfortable and respected? And, how should we demonstrate our gratitude for the other person’s time and generosity? Here are pointers for before, during, and after the interview that can make an initially intimidating experience more enjoyable and rewarding for everyone involved. These tips apply to all types of interviews, from in-person conversations to phone / video calls and email interviews.

Before the Interview

Brainstorm your questions. It’s important to confirm what you already know about the topic and what you need to learn before contacting potential interviewees. First, spend some time reviewing how the topic plays into the story. Then, develop a list of questions, paying close attention to how you word them. You don’t need to sound like an expert (that’s why you’re pursuing these interviews, after all!), but you should phrase the questions respectfully and use appropriate terminology you’re familiar with.

Use your network to generate a list of contacts. Start by asking friends, relatives, and colleagues if they know someone who’s knowledgeable about the topic. Even better, if one of your contacts has the right experience, ask if they would feel comfortable answering your questions. And if you need to broaden your search further, try posting a “call for help” on Facebook or Twitter, or use Google or LinkedIn to find professionals or experts and their contact information. You’ll be less likely to get an interview without the help or name of a mutual friend, but that won’t make it impossible. For example, I talked to friends who struggled with anxiety or depression for my mental health interviews, but I landed an interview with a local home remodeling contractor through a cold call.

Prepare talking points in advance. Before reaching out to these contacts, write down bullet points (or complete sentences, if you prefer) to help you remember what to say. Include a brief introduction of yourself, the name of the mutual friend who referred you to that contact, and why you’re contacting them. (So, yes, plan on saying that you’re a writer and why you need their help with research for your story.) That way, the other person will better understand how they can help you, and you’ll be more confident in delivering your pitch.

“Sweeten the deal.” When making these inquiries, offer something of potential value to your contact. It can be a mention in the novel’s acknowledgements, paying for the contact’s coffee or lunch (if you’re meeting them in person), or something else that’s appropriate. Not only will it show that you take yourself and your writing seriously, but it will also serve as a gesture of your appreciation for the other person’s time and knowledge. Plus, it could be the one detail that persuades your contact to say “yes.”

Be gracious and courageous. It’s easy to expect “no” from a potential interviewee (or to not hear back from them at all). But the only way you’ll guarantee you don’t land an informational interview is if you give up. So if one of your contacts turns down your inquiry, do your best to remain pleasant and thank them for their time, then move on to the next person on your list.

During the Interview

Maintain a professional appearance and attitude. The information you’re about to glean will help make your story more authentic, so treat the interview – and the interviewee – with the utmost respect. You can demonstrate this by dressing appropriately (think business casual) and speaking courteously in a calm, even tone. And regardless of how the interview will be conducted, ensure you arrive at the agreed-upon location, or are ready and waiting at your computer or with your phone, about 5 to 10 minutes early. This will also help you avoid the stress of last-minute rushing.

Be mindful of the interviewee’s time. Depending on everyone’s schedule, you might only have a short window (30 or 45 minutes) to talk to them. Do your best to stick to the planned timeframe, and prioritize your questions accordingly. Chances are that the interviewee will invite you to reach out them if you have more questions – and if they do, then follow up on that offer within a few days. As for email interviews, arrange for a target reply date that works for both you and the other person. And if the interviewee asks for more time, be flexible and honor their request.

Take notes and record the interview audio. No interviewer wants to lose their only copy of a transcript, or feel pressured into writing or typing quickly enough to capture every word. Play it safe by using an audio recording device as well as a notebook for writing (or a laptop, tablet, etc. for typing) short-hand notes. That way, you’ll have two copies of the precious interview and eliminate the stress of copying entire answers. Also, as a general courtesy, ask the interviewee if they’re OK with you recording the interview.

Pace yourself and the interviewee. No matter how much time you’ve scheduled for the interview, it’s important to not rush through it. Allow the interviewee to answer each question completely, and leave a brief silence as you finish your note-taking before moving on. This will help the both of you feel more relaxed and create an easy rapport between you.

After the Interview

Compile your notes and/or audio transcript. After interviewing the home remodeling contractor, I spent between 30 minutes to 1 hour for the next couple days listening to the recording and typing my handwritten notes and highlights from the audio. Doing this reinforced the facts I absorbed and created a single, convenient document I could later use as reference material.

Incorporate pertinent information into the story. If you’re inspired after transcribing the notes and audio, why not dive in and integrate your research into relevant scenes now? This might be more attractive if you plot your stories in advance and/or write your first drafts out of sequence. If you prefer writing scenes in order, you can certainly wait until you’re ready to do this.

Send a thank-you note. Whether you send an email or a handwritten note is personal preference. (My suggestion: Send a handwritten note if the interview was in person and the interviewee lives or works within driving distance, and an email in all other cases.) What matters more is that you share your gratitude for the interviewee’s time and generosity. So, in your thank-you, use your personal “writing voice” to ensure the message is genuine, and include one or two highlights from the interview (one thing you learned, a compliment on the interviewee’s friendliness or knowledgeability, etc.). Also, send the thank-you in a timely manner so that the interviewee receives it while the exchange is still fresh in their mind.

Add the interviewee to your book’s acknowledgements. This is the section where the author thanks their family, friends, agent, editor, and other people who were involved with the manuscript’s development. So it’s the perfect place to express your appreciation to the interviewee once again for their help. Plus, it never hurts to start writing that list early. 😉 You can also blog about your interview experience if the end result for the writing project won’t be a published book.

No matter how passionate you may be about your story, the thought of doing an informational interview for research can be nail-biting. But with a little common sense and a lot of determination, you can find people who will be willing to share their experience or area of expertise with you. And who knows? Maybe you’ll enjoy the actual interview more than you think you will. Just remember that these interviews will benefit your work as a writer – and that fact alone might be all the motivation you need to pursue them.

Have you ever conducted informational interviews for your writing projects? If so, what was the experience like? Also, what was the topic and the interviewee’s role or relationship with this topic?

sara-_framedSara is a fantasy writer living in Massachusetts who devours good books, geeks out about character arcs, and drinks too much tea. In addition to WHW’s Resident Writing Coach Program, she writes the Theme: A Story’s Soul column at DIY MFA and is hard at work on a YA/New Adult magical realism manuscript. Find out more about Sara here, visit her personal blog, Goodreads profile, and find her online.
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Build Your Writing Career By Investing In the Right Help

One question we are asked to weigh in on is whether an MFA in creative writing is worth the investment. After all, an MFA is a huge commitment and can be costly so writers should investigate thoroughly before jumping in.

To MFA or not? What is the best path to writing success?

Becca and I don’t have our MFAs but we know many others who do. An MFA can be a terrific way to gain the tools one needs to make writing a career. But, a graduate program is one path a writer might take. There are others to consider, and each person should decide what is right for them.

We are blessed to live in a time where great education is often only a few clicks away. We can invest in learning online when it fits our schedule, from home, and it works with our budget!

Choosing online education can lead to another hurdle, however: how do you tell the worthwhile courses from ones that are not? No one wants to waste time or money. If we are in the market for a course, we want to take it from someone who has proven themselves again and again, right?

Well, if you are looking for this sort of help right now, we know of a program that might be right for you: DIY MFA 101.

Get the Knowledge Without the College

What if there was a way to get the MFA experience without going to school? You could become a better writer and make progress toward your writing goals, and maybe even get published, without…

  • Having to quit your job
  • Abandoning your family responsibilities
  • Moving to a new city
  • Plus, you could save tens of thousands of dollars by not attending a traditional writing program.

Believe it or not, this is totally possible. In fact, that’s what DIY MFA is all about. When you DIY your MFA, you have the freedom to build a writing life—and career—that fits within the scope of your real life and also serves your writing goals.

Our friend and resident writing coach, Gabriela Pereira, is the founder and instigator of DIY MFA, and she’s built a program for writers who are hungry to master the craft, write stories, and share them with the world, but who don’t want to put their lives on hold in order to do it. Gabriela has been working with writers for over a decade and has helped hundreds of people just like you craft great stories and pursue their writing goals.

But she doesn’t just talk the talk. Gabriela built her own career as an author by doing the very things that DIY MFA teaches you how to do. She also knows a thing or two about the traditional MFA system because she earned one herself.

Based on both her own experience in graduate school, and extensive research she’s done on other programs, she discovered that an MFA in writing boils down to three basic pillars—Writing, Reading, and Community—and her flagship course DIY MFA 101 covers all three things. (More about DIY MFA 101 here.)

Her 10-week program includes ten modules, full-to-the-brim with material to help you write more, write better, write smarter. You’ll also be able to participate on three discussion calls with Gabriela so you can connect with other writers in the class and get your questions answered.

This course includes 10 weeks of video lessons, each week focusing on one essential aspect of a writer’s education. Topics include:

Writing habits and productivity
Crafting strong characters
Plot and story structure
Point of view and voice
World building scene-by-scene
Reading like a writer
How to get feedback on your work
Publishing fundamentals

Each week’s materials includes video lessons as well as audio recordings and slides, so you can digest the material in the way that’s best for you. You’ll also get worksheets with each lesson so you can absorb and understand what you learned.

The entire course is housed on a private course website, so you can access the materials anytime, anywhere. You’ll also have access to group discussion calls and a private course-only Facebook group where you can ask Gabriela questions and connect with other writers in the class.

Finally, you’ll also get continued access to the material even after the course is over. This way, if you can’t take it all in during those ten weeks (there’s a LOT in this course!) you can always come back and finish it later.

To MFA or not? What is the best path to writing success?

This is a comprehensive program that doesn’t just give you tons of information on the writing side of things, but also helps you with those other important things like navigating the publishing process or learning how to apply what you read to your writing.

To learn more about DIY MFA 101 and to register, go here. (Note: this is an affiliate link, meaning WHW will receive a thank you fee should you decide to sign up for this course. Affiliate partnerships are very common in our industry, but not for Becca and I. We only partner with those who provide something exceptional to our readers.)

If you are looking this type of help, I urge you to visit the DIY MFA site and poke around.

Read some articles, listen to Gabriela’s great podcast, or watch her TEDx talk. Spend time getting to know what she is all about and why we adore her!

You may also want to check out her free video series HERE where she looks at common writing blocks and shares key mindset shifts to help you be more resilient and productive as a writer.

Learn more about DIY MFA 101.

Happy writing, all!

Angela & Becca

Posted in Focus, Publishing and Self Publishing, The Business of Writing, Uncategorized, Writer's Attitude, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons, Writing Time | 6 Comments

Occupation Thesaurus Entry: Pest Control Technician

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.

Need authentic detail about your character's job? This occupation thesaurus will help. Here's "Pest Control Technician."

Occupation: Pest Control Technician

Overview: A Pest Control Technician removes unwanted pests in residential and commercial areas. The types of pests will be dependent on the location, but commonly these include ants, roaches, bedbugs, termites, ticks, spiders, wasps, rats and mice that infest structures. In some areas, they may also be called in to take care of snakes, scorpions, crocodiles, birds, and alligators. Typically poisonous fog, baited traps, and sprays are used to remove these pests. Technicians run site inspections, assessments, and carry out fumigations and removals using spraying equipment, power fog machines, bait guns, and traps. Because technicians may be required to kneel, crawl, enter small spaces, and possibly work in sewers or other locations that are undesirable, a reasonable level of fitness and strong mental constitution is required.

Necessary Training: Characters looking to get into this profession usually need a high school diploma or equivalent, and often require a certification to practice. Training is also given on the job and technicians must have a clear understanding of the chemicals and pesticides they use as well as how to apply them safely. All work must be in accordance with any local environmental laws and regulations regarding the use of pesticides. Having skills in math is also important to accurately plan the quantities of pesticides needed for the job as well as the time it will take to effectively complete the task (especially when it comes to fumigation and the use of chemicals in residential areas). Technicians must also have a valid driver’s license for transporting equipment and driving to locations to assess the problem.

Useful Skills, Talents, or Abilities: A way with animals, basic first aid, blending in, carpentry, enhanced hearing, exceptional memory, foraging, high pain tolerance, mechanically inclined, parkour, predicting the weather, self-defense, strategic thinking, strong breath control, super strength, swift-footedness, wilderness navigation, wrestling

Helpful Character Traits:

POSITIVE: Adaptable, adventurous, alert, analytical, cautious, centered, courageous, disciplined, efficient, independent, industrious, observant, organized, patient, proactive, professional, resourceful, responsible

NEGATIVE: Cruel, Cynical, Perfectionist, Stubborn

Sources of Friction: Discovering irresponsible homeowners are part of the infestation problem (by not getting rid of trash, by not caring for the property as they should, etc.), pests that are resistant to one’s methods, angry homeowners who take it out on the technician, dealing with poisonous pests (especially if one needs to get into areas that are tight-spaced or dangerous to work in), having ethical problems with the company’s methods or policies, working with a partner who is unnecessarily cruel, being accused of theft after fumigating a home

People They Might Interact With: home owners and building managers, wildlife officers (in the case of larger pests), other technicians, supply reps, health and safety inspectors, business owners

How This Occupation Might Impact One’s Basic Needs:

  • Esteem and Recognition: A person in this field may struggle because of the public perception of this work is undesirable. This could affect their self-esteem and feelings of self-worth.
  • Love and Belonging: Having this as a profession may create a hurdle in the romance department. Many possible partners may not be able to look past their disgust of the work being done, or make unfair assumptions about the character as a result of the work they choose to do.
  • Safety and Security: Because a character often must go where homeowners and property managers dare not, safety is a concern, especially if the pests are poisonous or dangerous. The nature of a Pest Control Technician’s work is risky, and if they mishandle their equipment and poisons the result could be deadly.

Common Work-Related Settings: alley, attic, backyard, barn, basement, big city street, casual dining restaurant, cheap motel, child’s bedroom, condemned apartment building, construction site, convenience store, custodial supply room, deli, diner, elementary school classroom, factory, farm, fast food restaurant, flower garden, flower shop, greenhouse, grocery store, high school cafeteria, high school hallway, hotel room, kitchen, living room, man cave, mansion, nursery, nursing home, office cubicle, orchard, outdoor pool, outhouse, pond, public restroom, rec center, root cellar, run-down apartment, secret passageway, sewers, shopping mall, slaughterhouse, small town street, subway tunnel, swamp, teenager’s bedroom, teenager’s bedroom closet, tool shed, trailer park, underground storm shelter

Twisting the Fictional Stereotype: Characters in this occupation are often portrayed as uneducated or society misfits. If you’re working with this profession, make sure your characters break free of these stereotype. The work involved requires very specific handling of toxic pesticides and sometimes dangerous pests, so logically, the character would have to be intelligent enough to work in this area safely. And like any other character, they should have qualities that humanize them and make them interesting. Also, in fiction, most characters seem to be men…so why not try a female in this position?

Visit the other Occupations in our collection HERE.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Choosing the Right Details

Need revision help? Check out these tips on knowing when to include the right characterization, setting, and other detailsIt’s my personal opinion that getting the words down on paper is the easy part, because at that point, the details don’t matter. Just throw a bunch of words down and take care of the specifics in the revision stage. That’s when it gets really tricky, because you’ve got to figure out which details to leave in and which ones to chuck.

I see this problem a lot with first page critiques. There may be a lot of good things going on: the story’s started in a good place, the protagonist is interesting, an engaging question or two is raised, conflict and tension are evident. But when we don’t get the details right, the story itself isn’t easy to read. Too little, and the reader isn’t engaged; they’re left feeling lacking. Too many, and the reader loses interest because it’s so much effort slogging through the unnecessary words and redundancies.

Sot how do we separate the wheat from the chaff?

Get Feedback

One of the reasons we don’t know which details to include is because of our perspective. We’re too close to our writing to know if we’ve included too much, too little, or the wrong details altogether. The best way to learn if we’ve got a problem in this area is to let other people read our work.

If you don’t have enough detail, your readers might say something along the lines of…

I was confused.
I couldn’t picture the scene/character/etc.
The writing feels bare.

If you’ve included too much detail in a given passage, you’re likely to hear the following:

There’s a little too much going on.
The passage went on for too long.
There were too many adjectives or adverbs.
I found myself skimming (skipping ahead).
It has a melodramatic feel (because things are being overstated).
It feels a little wordy.

When you get feedback like this, you’ll need to revisit the passage to a) trim the details that are cluttering up your story, or b) include the details that add to it. And that brings us to our next point.

Know your purpose

Every passage should have a purpose. You might be setting the stage, sharing a character’s physical details, sharing backstory, or revealing information through a conversation. So it’s important to first identify what you’re hoping to accomplish. But even then, when a passage simply exists to convey information, it can read as boring to readers. To avoid this, give your passage a secondary purpose.

For instance, if you want to establish the setting, you could simply write

At the edge of the bluff stood a house with chipped paint and crooked shutters.

This does the trick; it conveys the setting to readers. But it’s a little blah. What if we chose to also characterize, using the house to represent the person who lives there?

The house stood at the highest point of the bluff, perfectly erect, lording over the pathetic trees. Its newly painted skin glistened. Its windows gleamed, staring unblinkingly at the cloudless sky.

With this description, we have a very clear image of what the house looks like, but we’ve also set the stage for the character who lives there. We can easily imagine the kind of appearance he or she might have and what their personality is like, so when they’re introduced later on, the stage has been set. The same is true if we’ve chosen our details to provide some contrast for our character. The reader is expecting to see a condescending, fastidious, perfectly-coifed resident. But when she emerges looking slovenly and unkempt, we’ve also accomplished our purpose.

Either way, the chosen details keep the passage focused on what’s important; there’s no need to also describe the lawn, or the weather, or the cars in the driveway. Knowing a passage or scene’s purpose can help you choose the details that are necessary, with no extraneous words.

(PSST! If you’re specifically interested in tightening up your setting descriptions and making them more intriguing, we cover this extensively in the Rural and Urban Setting Thesauruses.)

Ask the Right Questions

As with any other problem, the more you practice, the easier it gets. So over time, it becomes easier to recognize in your own writing those places that are a little over- or under-done. One way to do this is with an editing checklist for tricky areas.

I’d love to say that I’ve made one for you, but the truth is, someone beat me to it. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (Browne and King) is, hands down, the book I recommend most when critiquing. It’s one of the first resource books Angela and I read and explored when we first started writing, and I still use it to edit my fiction. It’s broken down into manageable chapters that each cover a problematic area of writing, and each chapter ends with a series of questions to help fine-tune your work. Here’s a sampling:


Look back over a scene or chapter that introduces one or more characters. How much time, if any, have you spent describing the new characters’ character? Are you telling us about particulars that will later show up in dialogue and action?

Translation: Have you chosen the right details (the ones that will characterize as well as describe the physical appearance)? Have you added details that are going to be repeated later (and should be cut here)?


Mark every –ly adverb. How many of them do you have? How many of them are based on adjectives describing an emotion (hysterically, angrily, morosely, and so forth)? You can probably do without most of them, though perhaps not all.

Translation: How many adverbs do you have that aren’t necessary and can be cut?

Breaking Up IS Easy to Do

If one of your scenes seems to drag, try paragraphing a little more often. Or, do you have scenes with no longer paragraphs?

Translation: Sometimes a scene reads as slow or clunky because there’s a problem with the structure rather than the details. Experiment with paragraph length and white space to see if that helps.

In addition to these topics, this book covers show and tell, point of view, voice, and so many others. It’s a gold mine of questions and considerations in many areas of writing. If you find yourself struggling with knowing how much or what to include in your stories, check out this book.

Choose the Right Words

Wordiness is another common problem resulting from not choosing the right details—in this case, not choosing the right words. Wordy passages slow the pace because the reader is having to process words that are redundant or unnecessary. Here are a few questions I find useful for finding and paring down these passages:

  • When you read your work aloud (which is always a good idea), are there places you’re always stumbling over or having to re-read for clarity? Chances are, those could use some trimming or rephrasing.
  • Are there words in a given sentence that can be cut without losing any meaning?
  • How many adjectives do you have? Not every noun needs a describer. If they do, go for one strong one rather than two or three weak ones.
  • Are your characters calling each other by name? Hello, Bob. Hi, Karen. What are you doing tonight, Bob? Oh, Karen, I’m glad you asked… When people talk to each other, they don’t typically use names unless they’re feeling emotional or need to make an important point. Drop those names from everyday dialogue.
  • Are you describing unnecessary actions—aka, using play-by-play? She walked across the kitchen and dropped her dish in the sink. After pushing up her sleeves, she added some soap, turned on the water, and waited for it to get hot. All those unnecessary details slow the pace, making the passage too long and fairly boring. Readers know the usual process for washing dishes. They can fill in the blanks for themselves. To get rid of play-by-play, make a list of unnecessary action words you tend to overuse: turn, walk, move, pick up, set down, open, close, etc. Not all of them need to go, but many of them will, and getting rid of them will do wonders for your story’s pace.

Choosing the right details is hard for everyone. If you struggle in this area, these suggestions can breathe life into your writing by keeping up the pace and making it easy for your readers to breeze right through to the very last page.

Posted in Description, Editing Tips, Revision and Editing, Writing Groups | 11 Comments

How to Convey an Established Relationship Quickly

september-c-fawkesI was recently reading two story openings that were frankly amazing at conveying an established relationship in a matter of pages or even paragraphs. While many stories revolve around the protagonist meeting new people, such as in a typical hero’s journey plot, perhaps even more stories revolve around relationships that are established before the novel begins.

Many new writers have a difficult time conveying such relationships quickly, and to be honest, it can even be tricky for more experienced writers to figure out sometimes, especially if the relationship is very significant.

Whether you are working with best friends, significant others, parents and children, schoolmates, rivals, or downright enemies, here are several methods that can help.

Conveying Important Realtionships To Readers can be tricky to do without too much backstory. Grab these terrific writing tips!

Communicate what’s normal.

Every established relationship has been . . . well . . . established, meaning it has behaviors and attitudes that are typical in it. In one of the story openings I recently read, the protagonist had to deal with two, mean, cruel older sisters. First the meanness was rendered and then validated through narration. In the second one, what was normal of two brothers was simply conveyed through the way they talked to one another. In both cases, I immediately had context for what was typical.

Refer to or imply an off-page history.

Every established relationship has a history: how the characters met, what events have taken place between them, and how they got to where they are now. In some cases, they may have a “reoccurring history.” For example, every Saturday they happened to both be at the dog park, and that’s how they became friends (or enemies).

Have a character predict how the other will behave or react.

This immediately conveys that these two people know each other very well. Again, it can be more reoccurring: “Samantha always got cranky when she ran out of chocolate.” Or a specific moment: “I could already picture Monica’s eye roll before I delivered the news.”

Conveying Important Realtionships To Readers can be tricky to do without too much backstory. Grab these terrific writing tips!If the relationship is long-term, give us a sense of how it has changed.

A lot can change between first falling in love and being married for ten years. Whether it’s a friendship, partnership, or even an enemy, naturally there will be some degree of growth or at least change. Give us a glimpse of how the relationship we see on the page now is different than it was before.

Round out likeness with foiling, or opposition with likeness.

One of the mistakes that is easy to make is to make participants in a positive relationship exactly the same, or participants in a negative relationship exactly opposites. But almost nothing can make a relationship feel more authentic and well-rounded quicker than having some of both. This means that even two best friends should disagree with or dislike each other to some extent, in some aspect. It’s better if you can even make them opposites in some way. On the other hand, with an enemy, there should be some similarity and likeness between the characters, maybe even admiration (even if the viewpoint character doesn’t want to admit it). This will immediately make the relationship feel more complex.

For a more in-depth look at some of these points and at creating powerful positive relationships between characters, check out my article HERE. And if you don’t have time to read it, you can listen to it HERE on my Youtube page!

september-c-fawkes_3Sometimes September scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and reading. She works as an assistant to a New York Times bestselling author while penning her own stories, holds an English degree, and had the pleasure of writing her thesis on Harry Potter. Find out more about September here, hang with her on social media, or visit her website to follow her writing journey and get more writing tips.

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Posted in Characters, Resident Writing Coach, Romance, Subtext, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 9 Comments

Occupation Thesaurus Entry: Clergy

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.

Looking for the perfect occupation for your character? Check out our Occupation Thesaurus, starting with this entry on Clergy Members.

Occupation: Clergy

Overview: Clergy is a general term referring to someone in a position as the head of an organized religious group. Pastor, bishop, priestess, rabbi, and imam are some of the titles used to indicate this leadership role in various religions.

The roles will differ depending on the tenets of the associated religion. Main duties of a clergy member may include interpreting sacred texts, educating followers, ministering to their followers and others within the community, and seeing to certain religious duties, such as offering sacrifices, intervening with the deity on behalf of the people, and overseeing sacraments specific to the religion, such as baptism, communion, prayer, and ordinances associated with holy days.

Some clergy are paid full time while others work on a part-time or voluntary basis. Depending on the structure, some make very good money while others make next to nothing.

Workspaces will also differ from one religion to another. Some work out of church offices while others work from home. Some lead services in an official church, synagogue, mosque, etc., while others hold services in rented facilities, homes, or in a natural setting.

Necessary Training: Some religions require their leaders to attend an affiliated religious institution for a certain period of time and receive a degree before starting work. Others might require their clergy to go through an apprentice-like situation where they work with an existing leader and learn as they go. Clergy members in remote locations may have no formal training beyond a passion for their religion and a basic knowledge of its tenets.

Useful Skills, Talents, or Abilities: Charm, empathy, gaining the trust of others, good listening skills, hospitality, multitasking, reading people, writing

Helpful Character Traits: Bold, centered, charming, confident, cooperative, courteous, creative, diplomatic, disciplined, discreet, empathetic, enthusiastic, extroverted, honest, honorable, hospitable, humble, idealistic, inspirational, intelligent, just, kind, loyal, merciful, nurturing, obedient, organized, passionate, persuasive, philosophical, spiritual, studious, supportive, unselfish, wholesome, wise

Sources of Friction: Not being paid enough to support oneself, bureaucratic red tape that keeps one from doing the important aspects one’s job, disagreements with parishioners or higher-ups about doctrine, politics within the religious organization, conflict with the public when the tenets of one’s beliefs go against cultural norms, clashes with traditional parishioners over modern ideas, knowing a follower needs a certain kind of help but they’re unwilling to listen, dealing with misperceptions and unfair stereotypes about one’s religion, facing persecution for one’s beliefs, risking one’s life to lead a group of people in a society where the religion is outlawed, struggling with forbidden temptations and addictions (alcohol abuse, sexual transgressions, etc.), being a leader for others but having no one to confide in or go to for advice

People They Might Interact With: Parishioners or followers, officials within the religious hierarchy, those that they serve outside of the “church” (the homeless, social pariahs, the poor, etc.), members of the media, other staff members, local clergy members, strangers seeking something the religion may be able to provide (peace, absolution, knowledge, community, physical care, etc.)

How This Occupation Might Impact One’s Basic Needs:

  • Self-Actualization: Spirituality and being true to oneself are big parts of being fully actualized. A clergy member who’s required to sacrifice their personal beliefs and priorities in the course of their job will find themselves lacking in the area of personal fulfillment.
  • Esteem and Recognition: Most people in this occupation are living a life somewhat characterized by self-sacrifice; they’re seeking to fulfill a purpose higher than themselves. But if they care very much about the opinions of others, and they find themselves being dismissed or criticized for their choice of occupation, it could impact their need for respect and esteem.
  • Love and Belonging: A clergy member who too-strictly interprets the religious laws and puts them above true love and caring for others—sacrificing love in the pursuit of justice—may find him or herself without loving relationships of their own.
  • Physiological Needs: In many cultures, both past and present, the practice of certain religions has been outlawed, and those breaking the law face jail time, physical abuse, banishment, or execution. In these cases, being a clergy member literally could put one’s life at risk.

Common Work-Related Settings: Church, community center, emergency room, forest, funeral home, graveyard, hospital (interior), hospital room, medieval castle (speculative), military base, police station, prison cell, wake, wedding reception

Twisting the Stereotype: While some clergy members adhere to their religious beliefs to the point of hateful and abusive behavior, this practice has decreased significantly and is much less prevalent than it used to be. Historically, this was common, but it isn’t so much anymore. Take this into account when writing your character.

Also, the hypocritical, two-faced sexual deviant has become a common trope for clergy members in literature. Make yours multi-dimensional and come up with a fresh portrayal.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

How to Write an Effective Scene with One Stop for Writers’ Formal Scene Map

When it comes to story structure, writers seem to fall into one of three camps: they love it, hate it, or are completely confused by the many iterations of it. With this third group, it’s understandable. Are there 3 Acts, or 4? Do I use Save the Cat, the Hero’s Journey, or something else? Is this turning point called Opportunity, or a Call to Adventure, or…

Can you hear the lambs screaming, Clarisse?

(Yes, I can. And I bet you can, too.)

Personally, I like things to NOT be complicated. Writers should be writing, not stressing out, right? So, I’m going to take a moment to mention some of the structure tools at One Stop for Writers that make life easier for us creatives.

Macro Structure

Need help with story structure? I can be much easier with the right tool. If you are planning a novel, story, or screenplay, check out One Stop for Writers' structure tools.

Story Maps (above) is an excellent tool for macro story structure. You can set up the bones of your novel using turning points based on Michael Hauge’s 6-Stage Plot Structure. (We use 6-Stage because in my opinion it is one of the most effective for tracking plot AND character arc elements.) The tool gives you step-by-step help as you plan each part of your outer story (plot) and inner story (character arc).

Need help with story structure? I can be much easier with the right tool. If you are planning a novel, story, or screenplay, check out One Stop for Writers' structure tools.

Timelines (above) will help you organize important details, like different towns your hero must visit during a quest, the clues a killer leaves behind at each crime scene, or the order of events that led to a terrible tragedy in your character’s past. You can storyboard, too, as each timeline tile can be moved and reordered!

Micro Structure

One Stop also helps with micro structure, which is structure at the scene level. And this is important stuff, so let’s dig into a specific tool today: Scene Maps.

We’ve all heard the saying, “Each scene should push the story forward.” Only…what does that look like? And how do we know if our scenes are doing their job?

(Well, with Scene Maps, that’s how!)


Need help with story structure? I can be much easier with the right tool. If you are planning a novel, story, or screenplay, check out One Stop for Writers' structure tools.


To accommodate all writers, we created two versions of scene maps. Today I’ll discuss Formal Scene Maps, which tracks the four cornerstones of a strong story plus a few other critical scene elements.

Here’s what this tool suggests writers include in their scenes:

Outer Motivation:  In each scene your protagonist should have a goal: to find out information, get help, avoid something, gain something, etc. So, always know (and make sure to show!) what the main character’s goal is.

Inner Motivation: It should also be clear as to WHY this particular scene goal is so important to your character. Knowing what is pushing them to act will involve readers more directly in the story as they will identify with the POV character’s needs and desires.

Outer Conflict: If your character’s goal in a scene is too easy, there’s a problem. Outer conflict is that delicious tension that happens when you have a person or force get in the protagonist’s way. Remember, each character in every scene will have their own agenda (goals) so if you want to create great friction clashes, make sure these goals sometimes conflict, creating a tug of war!

Inner Conflict: Sometimes what is causing problems for your character is within: their own thoughts, feelings, and biases that trip them up. So, look to see which of the character’s fears, flaws, self-doubts, and misbeliefs are creating turmoil. These will affect their emotional state and can lead to them misreading a situation or making a mistake (woot, more conflict!).

Primary Emotion: Your main character may feel many emotions in a scene, but one will be at the top of the pile. Making note of this primary feeling during the planning stage will help remind you of it when you write the scene later. (And, if you are using our scene map tool, the emotion you choose is hyperlinked to its entry within the Emotion Thesaurus!)

Emotional State: When you think about this primary emotional state, it can be helpful to make notes of what is causing the character to feel this way. This ensures that when you are writing the scene you’ll be sure to give the stimulus enough description so that the character’s emotional reaction is logical and understood by readers. You might also want to note any point-of-view thoughts, body language, actions, visceral sensations, or dialogue that will also show this primary emotion.

What is at Stake: Your character’s struggle to achieve a scene goal is only interesting if they have skin in the game. So, make sure to show what the fallout (stakes) will be if the character fails to achieve their scene goal. If something is always at stake, the scene is more intense, and readers are more invested.

Scene Notes: Finally, we encourage writers to add as many notes as they wish to each scene to plan which characters will be involved, the location of this scene, time of day, weather, and anything else, like symbolism they want to include or backstory hints to drop in.

Not every scene will have all of these elements, but most should. You can pick and choose which to include for each scene.

Psst! What about us Pantsers?

Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. If you prefer to pants more than plan, you’ll be happy to know you’re in the driver’s seat – plan as many or as few scenes as you like. If you only want to make notes on key scenes and then pants everything around them, you can.

Need help with story structure? I can be much easier with the right tool. If you are planning a novel, story, or screenplay, check out One Stop for Writers' structure tools. Like the timeline tool, the scene map tiles can be dragged and dropped into a new position. So go ahead, play with the order if you are still deciding.

Whether you use our Scene Map tool or not, the above list can be very useful to keep in mind. I recommend using it to double check that your scenes are pushing the story forward. It will help you make sure everything is being clearly communicated to readers, including the goal, the stakes, and whatever is standing in your character’s way.

Thanks for letting me show off this helpful tool! I will cover the Informal Scene Map version at a later date.

If you want to find out more about the Scene Map Tool or any of our other tools and features, pop over to One Stop for Writers!

Happy writing,


Posted in One Stop For Writers, Plotting, Software and Services, Story Structure, Tension, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 8 Comments