How Realistic Should Your Action Scenes Be?

At a conference some time ago I was on a panel with some fellow thriller writers. During the Q & A we got this question from the floor: “How can I learn to write a good action scene?”

I answered first. I told the questioner that it’s what happens inside the character that’s the key, and you can make that implicit or explicit by using all the elements of fiction writing ­­–- dialogue, internal thoughts, description, and action.

I recommended he read how Dean Koontz does it, especially in what is considered his breakout bestseller, Whispers (1980). There Koontz has an action scene (an attempted rape) that lasts 17 pages (that’s right, 17 pages!) all taking place within the close confines of a house.

Another panelist protested (in a good-natured and professional manner). He said action needs to be “realistic.” For instance, when a gunshot is fired nobody has time to think. It all happens too fast. If they’re shot, the pain comes, and they will not be reflecting on anything. They’ll just be in pain.

This was grist for a great debate. I licked my chops but, unfortunately, we ran out of time. I never got a chance to respond. 

Now I will.

I would have said, first, that a gunshot does not cover the wide spectrum of action. In the Koontz scene from Whispers we have someone stalking the Lead. No guns. So that example is of limited value.

But further, and even more important: fiction is not reality! Fiction is the stylized rendition of reality for emotional effect.

That’s so important I’ll say it again:

Fiction is the stylized rendition of reality for emotional effect.

Reality is boring. Reality is not drama. Reality is to be avoided at all costs (“We must stay drunk on writing,” Ray Bradbury once said, “so reality does not destroy us.”)

Hitchcock’s Axiom holds that a great story is life with the dull bits taken out. Reality has dull bits. Lots of them. Fiction, if it works, does not.

A thriller writer wants the reader to believe he or she is vicariously experiencing the story. We use techniques to engage the reader’s emotions all along the way. If there is no emotional hook, there is no thrill, no matter how “real” the writing seems.

Let’s have a look at a couple of clips from Whispers. Hilary Thomas, a successful screenwriter, comes home to discover that Bruno Frye, someone she’d met one time, is waiting for her, and not for a game of cribbage.

She cleared her throat nervously. “What are you doing here?”

“Came to see you.”


“Just had to see you again.”

“About what?”

He was still grinning. He had a tense, predatory look. His was the smile of the wolf just before it closed its hungry jaws on the cornered rabbit.

Koontz breaks into the dialogue exchange for some description. The effect is like slow motion, which is another key to a good action scene. In essence, you slow down “real time” to create the feeling and tone you desire.

He took a step toward her.

She knew then, beyond doubt, what he wanted. But it was crazy, unthinkable. Why would a wealthy man of his high social position travel hundreds of miles to risk his fortune, reputation, and freedom for one brief violent moment of forced sex?

Now Koontz inserts a thought. In real time, when a rapist takes a step toward a victim, there would probably be no reflection, no pondering. But fiction enhances moments like this. Koontz is stretching the tension. He wants the reader taut while furiously flipping pages.

But 17 of them? Is Koontz insane? Or is he one of the best selling writers in history for a reason?

In fact, Koontz is a consummate pro who knows exactly what he’s doing. He even names it a couple of pages in:

Abruptly, the world was a slow-motion movie. Each second seemed like a minute. She watched him approach as if he were a creature in a nightmare, as if the atmosphere had suddenly become thick as syrup.

That, my friends, is stylized action for emotional effect. If you’d like to grumble about that –– complain that it isn’t “like reality” –– you may send your objections directly to Dean Koontz, who gives his address in the back of his books.

Let me know what he says.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking to sell your fiction, learn to use the tools. Especially in actions scenes.

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

Posted in Action Scenes, Resident Writing Coach | 4 Comments

Conflict Thesaurus Entry: An Unexpected Pregnancy

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

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

Conflict: An Unexpected Pregnancy

Category: Increased Pressure and Ticking Clocks, Failures and Mistakes, Loss of Control

Examples: Becoming a parent is a huge responsibility that profoundly changes a person’s life. Discovering that one is going to be a parent without planning or wanting to can cause all kinds of trouble for the mother, the father, grandparents—it could realistically be a problem for many different members of your cast. If you’re thinking of adding this kind of conflict to your story, consider an unexpected pregnancy for one of the following:

A teenager
An empty-nester
A rape victim
The parent of an already-large family
A family living in poverty
A business woman who has just gotten her dream job
A woman whose husband has just been laid off
A woman who doesn’t who who the father is (due to an affair, being a prostitute, etc.)

Minor Complications: Uncomfortable symptoms, having to put one’s plans on hold (graduating from high school, traveling, etc.), having to move back in with one’s parents, giving up a promotion so one can stay near family, being judged or criticized by friends and acquaintances

Potentially Disastrous Results: Health complications that endanger the child’s or the mother’s life, extreme symptoms that cause the mother to lose her job, being rejected or shunned by one’s parents, being abandoned by one’s partner, going off of a necessary medication to keep the baby safe

Possible Internal Struggles (Inner Conflict): Moral quandaries over what one should do (keep the baby, have an abortion, give it up for adoption, etc.), worrying over finances, worrying about what other people will say or think when they find out, struggling with hormonal mood swings, trying to hide the pregnancy, not telling anyone and having to bear the burden alone, being pressured by others to do something one doesn’t want to do

People Who Could Be Negatively Affected: The mother, the father, grandparents who end up being caregivers, the character’s other children

Resulting Emotions: Anxiety, apprehension, denial, depressed, desperation, determination, devastation, dread, embarrassment, fear, guilt, humiliation, loneliness, moody, overwhelmed, panic, regret, reluctance, sadness, self-pity, shame, shock, vulnerability, worry

Personality Flaws that May Make the Situation Worse: Apathetic, childish, evasive, frivolous, ignorant, impulsive, indecisive, irresponsible, melodramatic, needy, nervous, pessimistic, spoiled, temperamental, uncooperative, vindictive, weak-willed

Positive Outcomes: Maturing and growing through the crucible of parenthood, learning to rely on oneself, learning to accept help from others, standing up for what one believes, taking responsibility for one’s actions, learning to put the needs of others before one’s own, discovering that one is capable of more than one realized, discovering who one’s true friends are

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

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Secret to Getting Paid to Sell Books

Many writers I know either write non-fiction already or are toying with the idea. It’s a lot of research and work, but because it tailors to a specific audience, books can also do quite well. But what if there was a way to help nudge along that success factor…would you be interested? Read on as Joshua Lisec provides a possible path to guaranteed sales that writers may not have considered before.

The Wonderful World of Corporate Sponsorship

Think of the college stadium or professional sports arena that’s closest to you. Got it? Great. Chances are, the word arena, field or stadium is preceded by a company name. Like Bridgestone Arena, lair of the National Hockey League’s Nashville Predators. Or PNC Field, hideout of Major League Baseball’s Pittsburgh Pirates. And MetLife Stadium, home of the National Football League’s New York Giants.

Bridgestone, PNC, MetLife…welcome to the wonderful world of corporate sponsorship. According to Linda Hollander, the world’s leading expert on the matter, companies like American Airlines, Citibank, FedEx, IBM, Microsoft, Staples and WalMart spend sixty-five billion dollars per year to fund organizations and individuals who align with their brand—or who reach the people they (the company) want to reach. For the right opportunity (or author), a corporate sponsor will shell out anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000!

It’s a win-win. The company gets unmatched publicity, putting their brand top of mind for an audience they might not have otherwise been able to reach. And the individual gets to tap into industry connections and income they never could have found on their own.

How Authors Can Benefit from Corporate Sponsorship

If sports stadiums can take a slice out of the multi-billion-dollar annual corporate sponsorship pie, why can’t an author like you?

A writer named Karen asked herself the same thing. A physician with decades of experience serving patients, Karen had packaged everything she wished women knew about their bodies into a single masterpiece. But how exactly was she going to get the word out so people would buy her book? As a medical professional, she wasn’t a self-promoting online influencer with a massive following. She had a humble roster of patients, but even if they all bought her book, she wouldn’t feel she’d impacted her target audience. Enter corporate sponsorship.

Whenever Karen would highlight a vitamin or supplement that helped women prevent adrenal fatigue, improve skin care, or relieve anxiety, she dropped the name of her preferred supplement brand. Once she had a first draft and a book cover mock-up, she reached out to the brand’s marketing director: scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.

The supplement company had exactly what Karen needed to get her book in front of the masses—a global distribution network of health and wellness product wholesalers and retail stores, millions of existing customers (the majority of which are female), and an annual marketing budget a thousand times higher than Karen’s salary.

Karen offered the company exactly what they wanted—the credibility of a physician, a trusted industry voice, and the expertise that gives women peace of mind. So when Karen tells readers her preferred Vitamin C brand, her words carry a thousand times more credibility than any study the brand highlights in their customer newsletter. Win, win.

The marketing director agreed to sponsor Karen, and she sold a whole lot of books as a result. The supplement company spent thousands advertising Karen’s webinar at health clubs, fitness centers, and independent grocers across the country. Right alongside the promo flyer for Karen’s live class on the best supplements for women was Karen’s book. And that’s on top of the sponsorship fee they paid Karen to put together the webinar!

The company also ordered tens of thousands of copies at wholesale price and used their retail relationships to put them in many of the stores and outlets that already sold health and wellness books. So not only did Karen sell thousands of copies more than she ever could have by herself, she actually got paid to promote her book!

Who Would Sponsor You and Your Non-Fiction Book?

You can take advantage of the corporate sponsorship opportunity, too. Like Karen, start with your vision for the book. What brands, corporations, or nonprofits align with your message? Who already advertises to the same people your book is intended for? For Karen, that was health-conscious women who wanted to invest in their and their family’s well being.

Once you’ve identified a few potential sponsors, reach out to their marketing team with an offer they can’t resist. Your pitch shouldn’t be about you—make it all about them. How can you help them build their brand credibility, reach a new market, or sell additional products to existing customers? Anything that builds a buzz around their company and generates sweet, sweet return on that $10,000 to $100,000 investment they put into you and your book. Depending on your industry, your sponsor may pay you to speak at conferences, to join panels, or like Karen to host a webinar on the uses and benefits of their products (which tie in with your book). Even if you’re a first-time author with a small platform, you can make big money from your book thanks to the power of sponsorship!

I’ll let expert Linda Hollander close us out with her recommendations in Corporate Sponsorship In 3 Easy Steps for setting your sponsored book up for success:

“[Y]ou can include sponsors in your book tour and place the sponsor’s material in the physical books that are shipped to readers… [Y]ou can give the sponsor exposure in your promotional campaigns. Don’t forget online speaking, training, and campaigns. These are very viable promotional opportunities for your corporate sponsors.”

Who could you see sponsoring your book? What organizations sell products, offer services or advocate for a cause that aligns with your book—and your personal brand? And what questions do you have about connecting with them? Let me know in the comments below, and I’ll see how I can help!

Joshua Lisec is founder of The Entrepreneur’s Wordsmith LLC, Ohio’s first Certified Professional Ghostwriter, a #1 International Bestselling Ghostwriter, a Forbes Contributor ghostwriter, a TEDx speaker, and a two-time published novelist.

Since 2011, Joshua has ghostwritten forty books. He has been featured in TED, TEDx, Foundr Magazine, American Express, BBC Radio London, Yahoo!, Fatherly, The Huffington Post, and numerous other outlets. During a recent podcast, Dilbert comic creator and New York Times bestselling author of Win Bigly, Scott Adams, recommended Joshua Lisec to aspiring authors. Talk to Joshua about your book idea at

Posted in Collaboration, Guest Post, Marketing, Promotion, Publishing and Self Publishing, The Business of Writing, Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Critiques 4 U

Happy almost-end-of-August, everyone! I spent the past month moving my family from New York to Florida, and I must say that it was kind of a crazy ride. I’m now convinced that the moving truck pulling up to your new house is one of the happiest sights ever—right up there with kittens and Christmas trees.

Luckily, we’re moved in now and things are starting to get back to normal. The house is unpacked. There is chocolate in my desk drawer. The garage has been organized enough that I no longer break into hives just thinking about it. And I’m finally able to focus 100% on work. That means I’m ready to get back into critiquing!


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

Two caveats:

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

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

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

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

Best of luck!

Posted in Uncategorized | 39 Comments

Conflict Thesaurus Entry: Unwanted Scrutiny

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

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

Conflict: Unwanted Scrutiny

Category: Power Struggles, Increased Pressure and Ticking Clocks, Failures and Mistakes, Relationship Friction, Duty and Responsibilities, Moral Dilemmas and Temptation, Ego, Miscellaneous Challenges

Being assigned an overseer to watch one’s every move
Drawing unwanted attention when trying to stay under the radar
Doing something by mistake that raises the suspicions of others
A lapse in judgement that causes others to change how they view the character, creating wariness and mistrust
Having to report to someone higher up (and knowing one is being watched by others who will, too)
The stakes being raised in a way that everyone’s attention is focused on the outcome
A loss of trust that causes another to monitor one’s activities
Being followed or investigated
Having one’s performance (decisions, judgements, etc.) evaluated in a test
Having one’s loyalty be questioned, resulting in less freedom and autonomy
An increase in security measures that makes it harder to circumvent them
Being caught up in something by accident (wrong place, wrong time) that leads to being monitored for further “transgressions”
Being placed under a microscope because of racism, prejudice, or a bias
Celebrity-like status that keeps one’s activities in the public eye

Minor Complications: Having very little privacy, having to deal with more red tape, needing to report one’s activities or actions in a way that one didn’t need to before, delays caused by increased security or new processes that have been implemented, being assigned a partner or a team instead of being allowed to work independently, having to adhere to new protocol or have another sign off on one’s work, being forced to hold off certain objectives until the scrutiny passes, losing out on an opportunity

Potentially Disastrous Results: Cracking under the pressure and making a big mistake, being caught in a lie or doing something one was not supposed to do, being unable to achieve a goal that leads to painful fallout, trust issues growing to the point where a relationship becomes damaged beyond repair, an enemy using the scrutiny as a way to seed further suspicions about one’s motives, being forced into a corner that requires one to break the law or become the opposition (but for the right reasons), being limited because of an unfair bias or another’s prejudice

Possible Internal Struggles (Inner Conflict): trying to forgive those who let their trust waver, anger at oneself for screwing something up in the first place which led to the scrutiny, a loss of faith at a critical time, questioning one’s loyalty, low self-esteem or feelings of lower self worth over things one cannot control

People Who Could Be Negatively Affected: Family, friends, co-workers, a business or institution, other people who will be impacted by one’s failure

Resulting Emotions: agitation, anger, annoyance, betrayed, bitterness, contempt, defensiveness, defiant, determination, disappointment, disbelief, disillusionment, emasculated, embarrassment, flustered, frustration, hurt, impatience, indignation, irritation, panic, paranoia, rage, resentment, resignation, shock, unappreciated, uncertainty, vulnerability, worry

Personality Flaws that May Make the Situation Worse: abrasive, childish, cocky, confrontational, controlling, cynical, defensive, devious, dishonest, disloyal, disorganized, disrespectful, evasive, evil, foolish, hostile, hypocritical, impatient, impulsive, inflexible, irresponsible, jealous, judgmental, know-it-all, macho, manipulative, melodramatic, mischievous, nosy, obsessive, possessive, prejudiced, pretentious, promiscuous, pushy, rebellious, reckless, self-destructive, uncouth, unethical, verbose, vindictive, violent, volatile

Positive Outcomes: Being forced to slow down and think things through may improve one’s success rate, the character may learn who their friends really are, and if successful, navigating this challenge teaches self-reliance and helps the character to see they are more capable than they may have previously believed themselves to be

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

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

4 Keys to a Powerful Denouement

Often as writers, we put a lot of our focus on the starting, climax, and middle of a story, and the denouement or falling action may be somewhat of an afterthought. If you grew up like me, you were kind of taught that the denouement should just be a quick wrap up that can end the story, and you weren’t given much direction on how to do that in a satisfying way. But when crafted well, the denouement can sometimes feel like the most powerful part of a story–not because it has heightened tension and conflict, like the rest of the novel probably has, but precisely because it’s the emotional release of all that. 

Here are some things to keep in mind when working with denouements. 

The Proper Length

Denouements are often short, and in fact, I’ve been in some creative writing classes where we were told that you can even cut them off completely, and while that might work for some rare stories, I argue that almost every story is better with a strong denouement than without. My advice? Don’t skimp on it. (Usually.)

Because some of us were taught that the purpose of the denouement is to get out of the story quickly, some of us actually make them too short. You might be able to get away with that, but you miss out on ending your story on a more powerful note. 

So what length should they be? Well, long enough to cover the important parts but short enough to keep them interesting. So let’s talk about what they need.

Its True Purpose: Validation

A powerful denouement doesn’t just “end the story.” It validates it. This means validating changes that happened during, or maybe rather, because of the story. Show evidence of what has been lost, defeated, gained, or won. So after a romance conflict, you may show the couple getting married. If someone died in the climax, you may show a funeral. If the protagonist completed a character arc, we need to see him acting as a changed person. Was the antagonist defeated? Show that he, she, or it is now gone from the world. 

Powerful validation, especially one after another, is what can often bring an audience to tears–it’s the release and outcome of all the previous hardship. It can also cement the theme into readers’ hearts. 

Validate what has changed, and sometimes, what hasn’t changed. A lot of powerful denouements do some of both, which is why you’ll notice it may be similar to the beginning of the novel, but different.

Tie Loose Ends (and Maybe Add New Ones)

This is usually what people think of when thinking of denouements, but when you validate changes, you are often tying up any loose ends in the process. Still, there may be some elements that need to be mentioned and addressed directly. If there was a side mystery, we may need to still get that resolved in the falling action. Any information that we are lacking, should probably be in the text. Smaller conflicts that weren’t handled in the climax, may be concluded here. 

And in some stories, you may actually be adding loose ends in addition to tying off others. This is particularly true for a book in a series. Maybe what happened in the climax opened up more questions and potential conflicts. Some denouements close all the conflicts of the book, and then at the very end, add a few loose ends. Installments in a series may acknowledge any ongoing loose ends that haven’t yet been resolved.

Convey a New Normal

In the beginning of the novel, you probably conveyed a sense of normalcy to the audience–what was normal for this character, this setting, this society. Most satisfying denouements establish a sense of what the new normal may be. This can be big and obvious, like a couple being married. Or it may be more subtle, like what a changed character is planning to do next in life. In some cases, you may be “hinting” at the future more than “establishing” it. 

Sometimes, the “new normal” may actually be the old normal you opened up with, but in most stories, that would probably undermine all the changes that took place. Still, it can work for the right kind. But even if the new normal is almost the same as the old normal, typically it’s a good idea to at least give us a hint of how the protagonist grew, internally.


Sometimes 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. Find September on
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Posted in Backstory, Character Arc, Characters, Endings, Motivation, Plotting, Reader Interest, Reading, Resident Writing Coach, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 13 Comments

Motivation for Character Arc: A Different Approach

When it comes to discovering and writing about your character’s motivation, there are a dozen different methods. We can get there by any number of roads—most of which originate in the planning stage. But what if the key to unlocking this part of the character’s inner landscape could be found in revision? That process might look something like this…

First, the rough draft.

We create a protagonist with intensely conflicting needs. Those needs force this protagonist to behave and speak in specific ways. And these ways create situations that, once they’re in them, they desperately want out of, situations they can’t get out of without making things immeasurably worse.

We put this protagonist into a room or garden or culvert or on a street or island or mountain or under a thundercloud or tent or blanket with some other characters, who also have their own needs. 

We thrown in a stick of dynamite and leap out of the way.

And it’s brilliant.

We keep this up for a good, long time, until this protagonist’s conflicting needs collide in a life-changing shower of fireworks. Then we force them to choose.

And eventually, footsore and weary-worn but with a gleam of well-earned satisfaction in our eyes, we fetch up here alongside everyone else in Revisionland. We’re a bit surprised to be feeling quite so footsore and weary-worn. But now we’ve taken a satisfying rest, and we’re ready to get back into our story, to begin the second phase: revision. 

So the first thing we do is pull out a notebook and ask ourselves, “How well do I know this protagonist?”

What is our protagonist’s primary overwhelming need? I know we wrote this down back in the beginning (you didn’t?), but we’ll pretend that the Climax is a short story and none of the rest exists. 

What’s the fire in this strange new protagonist’s belly, the death-defying drive that makes them forge straight into this Climax and fight there tooth-&-nail for everything they love and believe in? 

We’ll write the answer at the top of a fresh page. We’ll draw a box around it. Doodle in three-dimensional sides for the box. Add shadows, dents, cracks, travel stickers. Add a cat with one of those inscrutable cat expressions. That’s the witness.

Got it? Good.

Now, what deep inside this protagonist is pitted against them in that Climax? What’s the equal-but-opposite fire in their belly that’s fighting back?

We’ll write it down below the box we just drew. Decorate it with its own little box, its own light and shadows, dents and cracks, evidence of a long and painfully difficult road. If the first cat is looking too directly at the first box, we’ll give this one a cat of its own. Otherwise, one cat will suffice.

Got it? Good.

We’ll doodle some lightning bolts between the two boxes.

Now we’ll ask ourselves, “Exactly how could these two needs have gotten this protagonist into this dreadful calamity?”

We’ll take copious notes on this, fleshing it out as fully as possible. We won’t re-tell the story. We’ll forget we ever even knew the story. We’re diving beneath the wave, re-envisioning the story from a completely different perspective. This is essential in order to know that the story we’ve told is, in fact, the story we’ve meant to tell.

We’ll ask ourselves, “What do you suppose happened here?” Then we’ll ask ourselves,And how could these needs have led somewhere else? We’ll write about that for awhile.

We’ll draw circles and brackets, arrows and asterisks, little comments about things we forgot to mention. We’ll fill up pages. Keep our hands moving. We’ll always be wondering, “What do those two needs imply about this protagonist? How could this character have responded to their problems differently?” We’ll write sideways, at an angle, in loops, or upside-down. Nobody’s ever going to see this stuff. 

We’ll work backward through the story from Climax through Development, uncovering the hidden aspects of our protagonist’s internal conflict and recording them in great, whacking, glorious detail.

Eventually we’ll arrive at the Hook and write long and copiously about that. And finally—sprawling all over the pages of a full notebook or more—there will be a whole multitude of deep, intricate roots to this story.

Take a long breath and admire it. You had no idea your story contained such depth, did you?

Then we’ll go through it all slowly and thoughtfully, doodling circles or boxes or pyramids or stars around only those most special, magical roots with the freshest, most amazing potential. 

All we care about right now is that they’re different, surprising, magical. We’re not outlining something we’ve already outlined before. We’re searching for hidden potentialities that vibrate with the greatest possible tension and significance. We’ll know them. They’ll make our fingertips tingle.

Now we’ll take out another fresh sheet of paper (you didn’t know revision took so much fresh paper, did you?) and draw a sweeping curve and letter in extremely small letters each of those special, magical roots in chronological order.


Our protagonist’s real character arc.

Victoria has been a professional writer and editor for over thirty years. She is the author of the Art & Craft of Writing series and offers email subscribers a free copy of Art & Craft of Writing: Favorite Advice for Writers. Catch up with Victoria on twitter or visit her website for more information on her editing services.
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Posted in Character Arc, Characters, Motivation, Resident Writing Coach, Revision and Editing, Uncategorized, Writing Craft | 5 Comments

Conflict Thesaurus Entry: A Delay that Makes One Late

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

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

Category: Increased Pressure and Ticking Clocks, Failures and Mistakes, Loss of Control


Oversleeping (due to an alarm not going off, a hangover, etc.)
A diaper explosion as the character is getting ready to leave
The dog escaping and having to be chased down
Facilities issues, such as a pipe breaking or the fire alarm going off
A transportation breakdown (the car won’t start, one’s bike being stolen, etc.)
Forgetting something vital (a wallet, passport, phone, etc.) and having to go back for it
Getting stuck in traffic, behind a school bus, or at a drawbridge
Taking a wrong turn
Getting a ticket
Getting into a car accident
Having to take an important call (from the kids’ school, the boss, a doctor, etc.)
Having to wait on someone else (a carpool driver, late school bus, babysitter, etc.)
Poor planning (due to being overwhelmed by other things, personality, etc.)

Minor Complications: Friction with others who are inconvenienced, one’s credibility being damaged, forgetting something important because one is in a hurry, being short-tempered with others due to the stress, minor health implications (increased hypertension, aggravating an ulcer, etc.), missing a meal and becoming cranky

Potentially Disastrous Results: Being late to an interview and not getting the job, missing a flight to an important event, ruining a last chance at romance, getting into an accident due to rushing, giving in to road rage, being triggered into a panic attack or mental meltdown

Possible Internal Struggles (Inner Conflict): Berating oneself unnecessarily, struggling with panic or anxiety, denying one’s responsibility and blaming others, becoming defensive, defeatist thoughts (if the impact of one’s tardiness is dire), being tempted to lie about the cause of the lateness

People Who Could Be Negatively Affected: Anyone waiting on the character: co-workers, the boss, clients, a spouse or partner, children, other relatives, a babysitter or nanny, friends

Resulting Emotions: Agitation, anger, annoyance, conflicted, defeat, defensiveness, desperation, determination, devastation, disappointment, discouraged, dread, embarrassment, flustered, guilt, impatience, irritation, nervousness, overwhelmed, panic, powerlessness, regret, unease, worry 

Personality Flaws that May Make the Situation Worse: Abrasive, controlling, defensive, disorganized, flaky, foolish, forgetful, fussy, impatient, impulsive, indecisive, inflexible, irresponsible, martyr, melodramatic, nervous, obsessive, perfectionist, scatterbrained, selfish, stubborn, verbose, worrywart

Positive Outcomes: A chance encounter that wouldn’t have happened had the character been on time, learning one’s lesson and planning better in the future, taking responsibility for one’s mistake and being forgiven, recognizing that one is overcommitted and taking steps to keep it from happening again, missing one’s final destination and realizing it was for the best

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

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Writers, Remember: The Wand Chooses The Wizard

When we choose a writing career, naturally we want to find our footing quickly. But this can cause us to pay too much attention to what other authors are doing in hopes of finding the magic of success. Michelle Barker is here to remind us why looking within is actually the key, so please read on!

When I first started writing, I was fresh out of university with a degree in English literature. I was determined to be a literary writer. To me, this was what being a writer meant. Never mind writing about the things that suited my personality. I would write big important novels for adults, and short stories with lots of sentence fragments. And never mind finding my own voice; I wanted to sound like Margaret Atwood.

Well, the short version of this story is: I am not Margaret Atwood. It turns out, big important novels for adults are not my thing at all. I write young adult novels, because the voice that most suits my personality is a teenage one. It took a long time to reach this point, however. I did not understand the wisdom of Mr. Ollivander in Harry Potter’s world, nor would I have accepted it. But like it or not, Mr. Ollivander was right: the wand chooses the wizard.

Flannery O’Connor had her own version of the wand merchant’s wisdom: “The writer can choose what he writes about but he cannot choose what he is able to make live…” I tried writing two important adult novels. They were utter failures. There was no magic in them, no spark. They weren’t me.

Seeking Your Own Inspiration

Having misconceptions about writing serious literature is one aspect of this problem. You will also no doubt encounter well-meaning friends and family members who advise you to write about vampires because they’re popular right now. Or you’ll have that uncle at the Christmas party who corners you with a story that would make a great novel and you should write it.

Write what is in your heart, not to trends

Writing what you (or other people) think you should be writing simply doesn’t work. Unless vampires are your obsession, unless your uncle’s story made all the hair on your arms stand up, chances are you’ll only be writing with half a heart.

Besides that, jumping on the market bandwagon is a recipe for disappointment. By the time your book is ready to meet the world, there’s a good chance the fad—whatever it is—will have passed and the market will already be glutted.

Uncovering Your Passion

What do we bring to life most effectively? The things we are passionate about. The things that keep us awake at night.

These are not always easy to pin down. If you had told me even ten years ago I would be writing historical fiction, I would have laughed. I’m not a history buff. But I have a mother who lived in Germany during World War Two and then in what became East Germany. I grew up hearing stories about her life. When I finally realized I needed to write about East Germany, I didn’t care if novels about East Germany were popular. I had a protagonist with a story that was bursting out of me, and I had to write it.

We don’t usually choose our obsessions. They’re built-in, ready-made. You don’t need to justify a love for dragons or aliens or cowboys. You just need to own it.

People used to ask Stephen King why he was “wasting” his talent writing horror. Why? Because horror is what he loves. And what exactly is being wasted? He is arguably the best horror writer in the world. Should he have ignored his obsessions and tried to be a literary writer? Would he have been as successful if he had?

Finding Your Wand

But what if you stumble into Mr. Ollivander’s store like the young Harry Potter, unsure of who you are and what you might be good at? There are a few things you can try:

  • Pay attention to what you like to read. That’s often a good clue about what you might like to write. Include a list of your favourite movies and TV shows. Keep an eye out for what they all have in common.
  • Try Ray Bradbury’s exercise of making lists of nouns to see what floats to the surface of your mind. What might these lists consist of? Memories. Things that frighten you, or amuse you, or puzzle you. He contends that this exercise was what lifted his work from imitation into originality.
  • Do some journaling about the ideas you find yourself circling. If you look at many writers’ bodies of work, you’ll see they keep coming back to the same themes like a dog worrying a bone. Chances are you’ve got a few of those lurking in the background of your thoughts.

Above all, don’t apologize for what you write and who you are. Anything true, anything original and authentic, comes from this deep place.

Michelle Barker is the award-winning author of The House of One Thousand Eyes. She is also a senior editor at, a novel development and editing service, and a frequent contributor to its blog for writers, The Chopping Blog. Her newest novel, My Long List of Impossible Things, comes out in spring, 2020, with Annick Press. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, and her website.

Set in East Berlin in 1983, The House of One Thousand Eyes is a young adult historical thriller. Seventeen-year-old Lena’s beloved uncle, a famous author, has disappeared.

Lena will stop at nothing to find him—but she must do so in a society of ruthless surveillance and control. Who can she trust to help her find out the truth?

Have you ever found yourself writing something that “wasn’t you?” Let us know in the comments!

Posted in Focus, Guest Post, Motivational, Voice, Writer's Attitude, Writing Groups | 23 Comments

Conflict Thesaurus Entry: Being Offered an Easy Way Out

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

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

Is your character trying to get out of trouble? How will they deal with someone offering to buy their way out...for a price?

Conflict: Being Offered an Easy Way Out

Categories: Power Struggles, Failures and Mistakes, Duty and Responsibilities, Moral Dilemmas and Temptation, Ego

An offer to retake a test after one’s poor performance
An offer to take over a difficult situation when one is struggling
A powerful connection offering to pay someone off and make one’s sticky situation go away
A friend willing to lie so one can escape repercussions
Having an inside man offer to fast-track a process or application
Being offered a position because of a connection, not because one earned it
Someone offering to call in a favor to ensure evidence is “lost”
An inside man offering to alter records to get one out of trouble
Being offered a solution in exchange for a favor down the road
Being offered a bribe or donation to look the other way after making a discovery that could be hazardous (to one’s job, health, etc.)

Minor Complications: Being forced to lie to people one cares about, having to lie on record, deciding to resist temptation and deal with the fallout, disappointing others when the truth comes out

Potentially Disastrous Results: Owing a person in power a favor, being blackmailed, the truth getting out and one’s reputation or standing being ruined, losing the trust of someone one cares deeply about, having to live a lie, being forced to do something outside one’s comfort zone (danger, morally wrong, etc.) in return

Possible Internal Struggles (Inner Conflict): Paranoia that someone will find out, an identity crisis over crossing a moral line, guilty feelings if there is fallout to others as a result of an action one took, self-hatred for being weak if one took the easy way out, trying to make up for what one did in a way that doesn’t reveal what truly happened but finding it doesn’t erase one’s guilt or shame

People Who Could Be Negatively Affected: the character themselves, family and friends who hold the character in high esteem or vouch for their honesty and skills, co-workers or others who are being penalized due to one’s unfair advantage, people who are victimized because justice is not served

Resulting Emotions: anguish, anxiety, conflicted, denial, depressed, despair, desperation, disillusionment, dissatisfaction, doubt, dread, emasculated, embarrassment, empathy, fear, gratitude, grief, guilt, humiliation, obsessed, overwhelmed, panic, paranoia, powerlessness, regret, relief, reluctance, remorse, resignation, self-loathing, shame, smugness, tormented, unease, vulnerability, worthlessness

Personality Flaws that May Make the Situation Worse: addictive, cocky, confrontational, cowardly, cynical, defensive, disloyal, disorganized, flaky, foolish, forgetful, gossipy, greedy, gullible, impatient, impulsive, insecure, manipulative, melodramatic, paranoid, prejudiced, pushy, reckless, resentful, self-destructive, spoiled, subservient, uncooperative, unethical, weak-willed, whiny, worrywart

Positive Outcomes: resisting temptation and accepting responsibility, learning the value of being prepared, being determined to not make the same mistake again that landed one in trouble, redoubling one’s efforts to be ethical, moral, or honest moving forward, gaining respect for people who do accept responsibility even when it hurts them

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

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