5 Innovative Strategies That Could Help You Win a Writing Contest

One person I love having at the blog is Savannah Cordova from Reedsy, because she always has an innovative take on every subject. If you enter writing contests, this post is one you will want to read, because she offers a ton of great ideas on how to make your entry stand out. Enjoy!

If you’ve ever participated in a writing contest, you’ll know that it’s one of the most exhilarating, motivating, and overall craft-stimulating experiences you can have as a writer. Indeed, what starts off as a modest contest entry can even turn into a much bigger project, like a book.

However, the flip side of the coin is that if you’ve entered multiple writing contests and still haven’t won, the experience can become intimidating, demoralizing, and frustrating.

I’ve personally been on both sides of the contest conundrum: I’ve lost time and time again and felt incredibly discouraged, then had all faith in my writing restored after a win. And recently, my knowledge of writing contests has gained yet another dimension — the perspective of a judge, as I help decide the winner of a weekly contest we hold at Reedsy.

My experience as both a writing contest participant and a judge has given me a finely-honed sense of what contributes to a winning entry… and what doesn’t. To that end, here are five innovative strategies that could help you win — some of which I’ve used myself, some of which I’ve seen in action, but all of which have proven concretely successful (as you’ll see from the examples below).

1. Draw from a recent experience

“Write what you know” is some of the most oft-given writing advice for a reason. Writing about something you’ve personally seen, felt, or done lends the story an air of authenticity that’s nearly impossible to replicate in any other way.

How to win a writing contest

My key addition to that advice is to make it recent: the fresher the experience, the stronger your writing about it will be. Of course, if you want to write about something from a long time ago that affected you deeply, that’s your prerogative — but you might find it hard to dredge up the words to describe something that happened months or years ago.

I’ve found that the more recent the experience, the more smoothly the words flow. Indeed, this was the tactic that I used for my story “Perspective,” which actually won the Reedsy short story contest last May (and led me to my current job). When I wrote “Perspective,” I was getting ready to move away from my family and feeling sentimental, which I indulged by watching old home videos. The intensity of emotion I felt then inspired me to write a story that started with a woman watching her home videos and see where things might go from there.

2. Subvert the prompt

Many contests provide writers with a prompt or theme to write about. In this case, another highly effective technique is to subvert the contest theme/prompt. Of course, this can backfire if the rules of the contest are particularly rigid — however, in most cases, judges will appreciate writers who think outside the box.

There are many ways to subvert a prompt. One common method is to switch up the expected genre; for example, if given a dramatic prompt, you might make it comedic instead. You might also interpret the prompt’s phrasing in an unorthodox way, and/or apply it to a subject that nobody else would think of. Two great examples of this from the Reedsy contest are “Leaves” and “Apart,” each of which responds to a quote in such a way that the original speaker never intended, but with utterly brilliant results.

3. Evoke a certain atmosphere

This one can be hard to pull off for writers who’re real plotters and always prioritize story over setting the scene. But bear with me: sometimes it’s best to focus on atmosphere, particularly if setting is a meaningful component of your piece.

You can evoke atmosphere by employing detailed sensory descriptions: what the characters see, hear, smell, touch, everything. Remember to show rather than tell as much as you can, though don’t overwhelm the reader with paragraphs of description — break it up with some dialogue and action.

This also ties into my first piece of advice, in that one of the best ways to create strong atmosphere is to base it off real life. Judges will be much more able to “soak up” the atmosphere of your story if you, too, have experienced it.

If you can, immerse yourself in that environment for a solid hour or two before you start your story, making observations and notes. When you’ve emerged from your sensory cocoon, you’ll be primed to evoke that atmosphere as part of a more polished piece. (If you’re still lost, check out this contest winner, “A Bird in the Hand,” which conjures atmosphere beautifully.)

If you are unable to visit the setting yourself, these tips will help you deliver description that feels real to readers.

4. Try out an unusual POV

Using an unconventional or surprising point of view in your writing can also be a major boon in a contest. Most entries are written in basic first or third person, so using a different POV can really help your piece stand out.

For example, second person POV (in which the narrator addresses their intended audience as “you”) is rare, but very powerful when used well. One of our winning stories that did this was “Local Hero,” in which the narrator speaks directly to her tormented husband. The impact of second person POV here is breathtaking — her sorrow and pain are palpable, and the reader feels almost as though they are responsible for it, since they perceive themselves as the “you.”

You (the writer) might also consider writing in standard first or third person POV, but not revealing who the narrator actually is, or making them unreliable. Finally, you could switch back and forth between different narrators, possible even different types of POV (e.g. between first and third person), which keeps the pacing swift and readers on their toes.

5. Play with temporal structure

Perhaps the most challenging of these suggestions is to experiment with chronology and temporality in your work, disrupting the reader’s conception of how time should work.

A well-established way of doing this is to include flashbacks, which gradually reveal more and more information that coincides with “present-day” events in your story. You can also reverse the timeline — though this is tougher because you can’t just rehash everything backwards. You have to carefully depict information and events in such a way that it reveals something of import; Reedsy contest winner “The Final Day” accomplishes this reveal with great aplomb.

In any case, as you can probably tell, the essential lesson to glean from all of this is: be the most unique version of yourself as an author and write a story only you could write. Ironically, following other people’s advice on the subject won’t get you nearly as far as marching to the beat of your own drum. So be intrepid, go forth, and write!

If you’re feeling inspired to start right now, head on over to our directory of over 300 writing contests you can enter in 2019.

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

You can read more of her professional work on the Reedsy blog, or personal writing on Medium.

Posted in Experiments, Flashbacks, Focus, Guest Post, Mood and Atmosphere, Point of View, Uncategorized, Writer's Attitude, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 5 Comments

Why Every Novel Needs a Sprinkling of Fear

You’d be forgiven for thinking that only horror books should contain an element of fear, but I’m here to challenge that thought by claiming that all books – regardless of genre – need a sprinkling of it.

Why You Need Fear in Your Novel

Fear is a driver. It drives plot, pace, tension, and emotion—which, when you combine those elements, creates the climax of your story. Status quo would suggest that desire is the predominant motivation pushing a hero towards the climax of a story, and sure, it might be. But fear is a secondary motive.


In most stories the hero wants something: to save the day, to save a loved one, to stop the villain. But having those goals also means the hero has something to lose…the world, their loved one, innocent lives.

Having something to lose – something of value – creates fear. The fear of losing something important will naturally drive your hero onwards.

5 Tricks for Creating Fear

1. Insinuation and Implication

When the Blair Witch Project came out in 1999, I was twelve – not old enough to watch it. But I’d seen the trailers and couldn’t understand what the fuss was about. Afterall, you didn’t see any monsters in the clips. What you did see was a lot of running, heavy breathing, and twig snapping. 

So I asked my dad (who had seen it), what exactly he’d seen to make it so universally scary. He said, “Well, you don’t see anything.” That made me realize that a reader or viewer’s imagination is FAR superior to any words or clever film trickery. 

One could argue that fear doesn’t exist; it’s an emotion caused by a perceived threat of the danger of pain or harm. In other words, it’s just an idea in someone’s head.

And that’s something we writers can take advantage of. We can insinuate that bad things will happen and that’s enough to send a reader’s mind racing.

2. Use Psychological Fear

The types of fear that are popular tend to cycle. For example, since the early 2010s we’ve seen the rise in popularity of psychological thrillers like Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn) and The Girl on The Train (Paula Hawkins). But in the late 70s through to the mid 90s, physiological fear was huge, especially in gory films like the Halloween series, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and A Nightmare on Elm Street.

How to Create Psychological Fear

At the heart of psychological fear is the emotional state your characters (and therefore your readers) are in. Therefore…

  • Make sure your hero has a fear that the hero, reader, and villain are aware of. The villain can then capitalize on it and make the hero face that fear in order to defeat them. 
  • Remove all possibility of hope for your hero. Make it seem like he or she will lose. That drives up the tension and heightens the fear factor by making your reader assume that losing is inevitable.
  • Make sure your hero is vulnerable. Vulnerability can be a form of foreshadowing; if your hero is in a dangerous situation and all alone, the reader automatically knows something is about to go down. Note: you can also make your hero emotionally vulnerable, which is particularly effective for inner flaws or genres like romance.

3. Use Physiological Fear

This one does what it says on the tin: violence, gore, torture, or anything gruesome. It’s not for everyone nor every genre, but the prospect of injury or maiming will inevitably create a sense of fear for both your hero and your reader.

4. Capitalise on Your Hero’s Emotion by Using the Senses

Fear is an emotion, which is why it’s essential to utilize the senses in your descriptions. Hopefully you’ve read Becca and Angela’s Emotion Thesaurus, which will tell you that fear is a physical reaction heightened by your senses. When you’re afraid, your face turns white, you blink rapidly, your muscles tighten, and beads of sweat run down your back. Your villain should provoke that sort of reaction in your protagonist. If he does, your reader will feel it too. 

Likewise, showing the reader (rather than telling her to be afraid) will also increase the sense of fear she feels:

“Don’t tell me the killer is standing in front of you holding a knife covered in blood. Show me the table where the knife used to sit, and a trail of blood droplets on the floor that finishes at your feet. Let me hear the creak of floorboards or the click of a lock that no one’s had a key to for a decade.” Sacha Black, 13 Steps to Evil – How to Craft a Superbad Villain

5. Withhold Information

Knowing what a monster looks like creates one type of fear, but NOT knowing what’s coming creates something different. Let the reader (and the hero) know something awful is coming, but withhold just enough information so they don’t know what, why, or when. When authors do this it reminds me of the movie technique of making music crescendo into a fever pitch and then dropping to silence. It puts me on edge every time.

No matter your genre, fear is vital. Whether you want to increase tension and pace or create depth for your hero’s motivations, it’s one tool that should be in every writer’s toolbox. These five tips will get you started, but try exploring multiple genres, as well as film, TV, and theatre, where you’ll find plenty of subtle tricks and techniques for crafting fear.

Sacha Black is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, 13 Steps To Evil – How To Craft A Superbad Villain. Her blog for writers, www.sachablack.co.uk, is home to regular writing, marketing and publishing advice sprinkled with dark humour and the occasional bad word. In addition to craft books, she writes YA fantasy. The first two books in her Eden East Novel: Keepers and Victor, are out now.
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Posted in Emotion, Fear, Motivation, Pacing, Resident Writing Coach, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 19 Comments

Conflict Thesaurus Entry: A Deadline Being Moved Up

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: A Deadline Being Moved Up

Category: Increased Pressure and Ticking Clocks

Examples: Needing to have important paperwork completed, securing funds to pay off a debt, needing to have materials prepped for a earlier meeting than expected, being forced to complete plans for a rally or other event sooner, discovering the timeline to fulfill a promise has been bumped up, needing to secure resources sooner (for a battle, to prepare for imminent danger, etc.), finding out a window of opportunity is closing faster than anticipated (to escape, to overcome an obstacle, to impress the right people, to prove one’s innocence, to save someone’s life etc.)

Minor Complications: Disrupting one’s schedule and personal plans, inconveniencing other people if their support is needed to complete a task, losing sleep, having to sacrifice quality for efficiency, disappointing loved ones by placing their needs last, having to ask people for help that one may not want to (because it makes one look weak, they may expect something in return, or the other person is a rival), scrambling to make changes to fit the new timeline (cutting back on scope of the project, changing the venue, having to pay more to expedite things or obtain what one needs, etc.)

Potentially Disastrous Results: Rushing that leads to safety issues (and someone is injured), having to make a deal that carries a high personal cost (being forced to sacrifice a cherished goal, having to return a very expensive favor, being placed in harm’s way, etc.), being blamed for a poor turnout or sloppy end result, failing because the timeline cannot be met, having one’s reputation destroyed because one delivered subpar work, completely blowing a budget and being held accountable, treating someone poorly while stressed and damaging a relationship beyond repair, breaking the law to meet the deadline and getting caught

Possible Internal Struggles (Inner Conflict): Anxiety over how to meet the deadline, suffering a crisis of faith in one’s abilities, feeling guilt for putting others in a bad position through no fault of one’s own, feeling guilt at letting some people down to focus on the task at hand, anger (at the cause) that wars with feelings of duty and responsibility, struggling with the temptation to cut corners, break the law, lie, or cross an ethical line to get what one needs

People Who Could Be Negatively Affected: One’s boss, co-workers and employees, family members, a political party or cause one is championing, people in one’s community, or anyone who will be impacted by the choices one makes in order to complete the objective in time, or if one fails, those who will be hurt by that failure

Resulting Emotions: Anger, Anxiety, Apprehension, Bitterness, Conflicted, Contempt, Defeat, Despair, Desperation, Determination, Doubt, Dread, Emasculated, Embarrassment, Flustered, Frustration, Guilt, Inadequate, Intimidated, Overwhelmed, Panic, Powerlessness, Resentment, Resignation, Self-pity, Shock, Skepticism, Stunned, Unappreciated, Worry

Personality Flaws that May Make the Situation Worse: Abrasive, Cocky, Compulsive, Confrontational, Controlling, Disorganized, Extravagant, Fanatical, Flaky, Forgetful, Fussy, Gullible, Hypocritical, Impatient, Impulsive, Inattentive, Indecisive, Inflexible, Insecure, Irresponsible, Martyr, Melodramatic, Needy, Nervous, Obsessive, Oversensitive, Perfectionist, Pessimistic, Reckless, Resentful, Scatterbrained, Stingy, Tactless, Temperamental, Uncooperative, Weak-willed, Whiny, Worrywart

Positive Outcomes: Becoming better at time management, being able to hone one’s organizational and planning skills, becoming more adaptable when things go sideways, a chance to lead and gain valuable experience, becoming better at working with others, discovering who one’s friends truly are by seeing who sticks around to help and who does not, learning one is far more capable than believed by taking on a difficult challenge

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

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

Digging Deep: The Psychology of a Layered Story

Humans like complexity; puzzles, questions, layers. It fascinates us. My guess it’s because there are so many complex systems in nature that our brain needs to navigate successfully. Ecosystems, weather systems, the tax system…But the one that has the most influence on our evolution are social systems.

Our relationships were vital to our survival. Throughout the ages, fellow humans have been our friends— the ones we collaborate and cooperate with to gain more resources, and our foes—our competitors who can hold the power of whether we live or die. These relationships gave rise to social systems: rules, expectations, and norms. These same social systems are enduring but constantly changing, strongly connected but disjointed, adaptive but counter-intuitive (like, why do I bother asking my sons if they’re hungry?). As writer, what’s important to know, is that the minute evolution finds something that enhances our survivability, it lights up our neurons and makes it pleasurable (think calorie rich cheesecake or gene reproducing sex).  

So it’s not surprising the brain is drawn to complexity (think about a piece of art that caught your attention—did it have layers?), is curious about complexity (did you spend time wondering and pondering?), and attends to complexity (how long did you stand there, wondering and pondering?).

It’s why complexity in stories also attracts us, and I’m going to hypothesize that a significant proportion of best-selling novels capture complexity in their pages. As I think of the novels that I loved, the ones that stayed with me, they all had complications, intricacies and layers. They were complex.

And I don’t just mean a complex plot. Complexity isn’t all about the whoa-didn’t-see-that-coming. It’s more than that, and to explain it, I’m going to use permaculture. For any non-horticulturalists out there, permaculture is the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient. How does it relate to writing? Well, you’re either about to learn a valuable strategy for writing awesome scenes, or you’re about to wonder about the convoluted mechanics of my brain…

One of the principles of permaculture is that any element in your garden needs to perform more than one function. Chickens? Yes, they produce eggs. But they’re also scrap munchers, manure makers and little walking tractors. Feed them your left over lunch, then use them to turn over old garden beds, and fertilize them in the process. The eggs are almost a bonus! A grape vine growing on a trellis? At the right angle, it can provide shade from the hot afternoon sun for a bunch of veggies, it can provide a nice little micro-climate for the strawberry bed beneath, oh, and its fruit and leaves are edible.

A good scene will do the same. It works on more than one level. Through careful consideration and design (just like a permaculturalist), you add more value for your reader, more experiences and emotions and information for your reader to devour. You’d already have an idea of the function of your scene  — usually moving the plot forward. Here are some ‘layers’ you can add to a scene to add complexity:

Deepen characterization

Let your readers learn something about your character they didn’t know. Let their quirks shine through, slip in a little of their backstory or their wound or their strengths. As they learn about how the plot is evolving, let them learn about this person they’re journeying with.

Explore theme

Use a little symbolism or metaphorical word play to explore the deeper question, worldview, philosophy, message, moral, or lesson your book is probing.  You could slip it into dialogue, the setting, or your secondary characters.

Explore a secondary character

Your secondary characters are a great way to explore theme, but they can also be a juxtaposition or complement to your main character (and/or antagonist). Use them to elicit emotion in your reader — whether it’s empathy for them or for your hero. Expand the focus of your scene to include interesting and valuable information about them, too.


I do love some nice foreshadowing, both as a writer and as a reader. Foreshadowing elicits intrigue, which in cognitive terms, means curiosity. Whilst entrancing and educating your readers about what’s happening right now, you can give them a taste of what might be coming…

Deepen setting

Your setting is a character in itself. It can help your hero, or be a major roadblock (either literally or metaphorically). It can set the mood, provide context (e.g. the culture or the historical period) and denotes the passage of time. Weave it into your scene like a best-selling author.

Show off your writing talent

Sprinkle a little purple prose or a few clever metaphors. Implement those literary devices or challenge the ‘rules’ of writing. As you take your reader on this ride, do it in style. Most importantly, do it your way.

So, if you have a scene that you think might be a little ‘flat’, or if you’re looking to jazz one up so it has more impact, I recommend engaging your green thumb and employing this handy little permaculture principle: every scene must perform more than one function.

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

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Posted in Backstory, Characters, Description, Resident Writing Coach, Revision and Editing, Setting, Show Don't Tell, Subtext, Theme, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 13 Comments

Conflict Thesaurus Entry: Taking Advice from the Wrong Person

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

Whether you’re looking for minor friction options for a given scene or major conflicts to hamper the character’s overall story goal, this thesaurus can help. 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: Taking Advice from the Wrong Person

Category: Failures and mistakes, relationship friction, duty and responsibilities


  • A character seeking advice from someone who is secretly working against them
  • The protagonist taking advice from someone whose top priority is him or herself
  • The character taking advice from someone with good intentions who doesn’t know what they’re talking about
  • The character seeking the advice of someone who will affirm their ideas rather than challenge them with an opposing viewpoint
  • The character seeking outside advice because it’s easier than them doing the footwork and research themselves

Minor Complications: Embarrassment when it’s made public that the character had the wrong information, experiencing a minor set-back in achieving the overall goal, relationship friction between the character and the advice-giver, losing credibility in the eyes of others, becoming complacent (because of the nature of the advice) when time is of the essence, over-reliance on the trustworthy people in the character’s life (since they’re the only ones that can safely be trusted)

Potentially Disastrous Results: Difficulty trusting others, not being trusted in the future with important projects or duties, purposely not seeking the advice of others (relying solely on one’s limited knowledge, missing out on the wisdom of others, etc.), the misinformation causing the loss of an important ally or benefactor, the setback creating a ticking clock situation that makes the overall goal very difficult to achieve, someone being harmed or killed because the character acted on incorrect information, getting fired, the character becoming defensive and digging in their heels to support the bad advice,

Possible Internal Struggles (Inner Conflict): Doubting one’s discernment and ability to read people, blaming oneself (for trusting the wrong person, for allowing oneself to be swayed despite initial suspicion, for not having enough information initially to recognize the advice as being faulty, etc.), being tempted to silence the accuser and bury one’s mistake, conflicted feelings about the guilty party (especially if they’re a valued person in the character’s life), becoming indecisive due to a new need to over-research and make sure one is making the right decision

People Who Could Be Negatively Affected: Allies, family members and friends, co-workers, mentors and benefactors

Resulting Emotions: Anger, anxiety, appalled, betrayed, bitterness, confusion, defensiveness, denial, disappointment, discouraged, disillusionment, doubt, embarrassment, fear, built, humbled, humiliation, hurt, inadequate, insecurity, intimidated, resentment, self-pity, skepticism, surprise

Personality Flaws that May Make the Situation Worse: Apathetic, cocky, defensive, gullible, insecure, martyr, melodramatic, oversensitive, perfectionist, tactless, volatile, weak-willed

Positive Outcomes: Realizing the importance of doing one’s own research, being more careful about who one trusts in the future, creating a checks-and-balance system by seeking out multiple people for advice, being better able to spot inauthentic or unreliable people due to one’s experience, being more inclined to trust one’s gut (because one didn’t in this situation)

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

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

The Easiest Way to Plan Characters in a Series: Cloning (Yes, Really!)

This spring, Becca and I released two very important tools for writers… The Emotion Thesaurus 2nd edition (expanded by 55 entries) and a Character Builder Tool at One Stop for Writers.

These two releases happened within days of each other, unplanned, because if we’ve learned anything about building software these last few years it is that releases rarely hit their target date. And that’s okay with us, because the team at One Stop cares far more about quality than deadlines!

Because these two big projects releases so close to one another, we weren’t able to spend as much time describing just how powerful the Character Builder at One Stop for Writers is.

It’s the first tool we’ve created that uses all the content from our many character-specific descriptive thesauruses, meaning as you plan your character’s backstory wound, physical features, personality, skills, etc., the character builder shows you all the options we have in our description databases. Even better, it’s hyper intelligent, so each time you choose a specific detail, the tool prompts you with more options tied to that detail so you can go deeper. Building a fascinating, complex, and unique character now takes half the time!

This alone makes the CB tool different from anything else, but we weren’t finished, so we pinpointed specific details from your character’s profile that, when combined, will create an accurate character arc blueprint:

There are a million other things I could tell you about this tool, but today I want to point out one super helpful feature: the ability to clone characters.

Why Do I Need a Clone?

Many of us write series, meaning we often carry our characters from book to book. But as the series progresses, our protagonist’s goal and motivation will change, they will have different flaws to overcome, and something new will be at stake. Redoing all that character planning seems like a lot of work…unless you can make a clone!

Just click the button, and boom, you have a clone. All their details carry over, and you can focus on whatever changes for the next book: the goal, the stakes, newly-acquired talents, and whatever is motivating them to achieve a specific objective.

And then you can head back to their character arc blueprint and see exactly where the story will go from here!

This is a perfect way to tweak and adapt characters as they grow book to book. It is also handy if a character’s role changes, say if your protagonist had a love interest in book 1, but in book 2, an ugly war pits the lovers against one another and now she’s the antagonist. You’ll need to change certain things about this character but her backstory, personality, beliefs, appearance, etc. will remain the same. What an easy way to save yourself some work!

In just a few short months, One Stop for Writers users have created over 2000 characters using the Character Builder tool!

How amazing is that? And if you’d like to see how deeply layered these characters are, check out our character Paul Graham or watch a video to see this tool in action.

Have you tried out the Character Builder Tool at One Stop for Writers using our FREE TRIAL? We’d love to hear about the characters you build!

Posted in Backstory, Basic Human Needs, Character Arc, Character Flaws, Character Traits, Character Wound, Characters, Description, Emotion, Emotion Thesaurus Guide, High Stakes, One Stop For Writers, Series, Software and Services, Tools and Resources, Villains, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 2 Comments

Introducing the Conflict Thesaurus

Every story needs CONFLICT.

What elevates a story from good to great? CONFLICT.

A car breakdown in the middle of the zombie apocalypse. A jealous ex who is interfering with the hero’s new relationship. A loss of power when the heroine needs it most. Big or small, conflict creates problems for our characters, tests their motivation, and forces them to prove just how much they want to achieve their goals.

Conflict is the writer’s sacred tool, a kaleidoscope of temptation, pain, and strife that makes the character’s journey more challenging. It comes into play at turning points, pinch points, and whenever we feel like cranking up the heat because we’re evil.

Naturally, Becca and I wanted to explore the many faces of conflict, specifically by zeroing in on psychological categories that can be applied to any genre:

Power Struggles
Increased Pressure and Ticking Clocks
Failures and Mistakes
Relationship Friction
Duty and Responsibilities
Moral Dilemmas and Temptations
Losing an Advantage
A Loss of Control
Ego Hits
Unwelcome Challenges
No-Win Scenarios

Here’s the breakdown of what each entry will include:

Minor Complications will look at how an event or scenario will mess up your character’s day, leading to missed opportunities, complications, and painful consequences.

But conflict is all about making things worse, so we’ll also explore how heightened emotional reactions, bad timing, and other factors may lead to Potentially Disastrous Results. Oh, the possibilities for tightening the noose on our characters!

In order to get more mileage from conflict we might want fallout to cascade to others, so we will identify the People who Could Be Negatively Affected in each situation. Including unforeseen consequences for others will make the protagonist even more determined to undo this new problem, especially if their own actions are to partially to blame.

When our characters are faced with adversity, showing their emotions in the moment is critical to ensuring readers are invested in the outcome. Our list of Resulting Emotions will help as you brainstorm actions and responses that are believable and drive their choices.

Speaking of behavior, how a character deals with a challenge depends on their personality. Traits can harm or help, but because we never want characters to solve problems too easily, a list of possible Flaws that Could Make the Situation Worse is something we’ll include in each entry. This way, when your character’s less desirable qualities get him into bigger trouble, he will start to see how he is part of the problem. This puzzle piece will help him realize how he must change if he wishes to achieve his story goal (character arc growth!).

The character’s mindset, beliefs, and values also are a big factor when dealing with obstacles. Before a character responds it’s not uncommon for an internal tug of war to take place: what they feel and what they think are at odds. Not only do they have to weigh different needs and desires, they are often forced to examine the values and morals they live by. Will they stay true to what they believe in or sacrifice their identity for something else? These Internal Struggles (Inner Conflict) make decision-making even more difficult for the character and reading much more intense for our audience.

Finally, we will look at the upside of conflict. Sure, the character would probably prefer to not be challenged on the path to their goal but obstacles offer the potential for growth. So we’ll look at Positive Outcomes like healthier habits and behaviors, how a character might become more open-minded and socially aware, and how a better perspective may change the way they view the world and themselves.

We hope this thesaurus will mean you get a bigger bang from your conflict buck, especially when weaving external conflict with internal reflection. As much as possible we want to force that look within and cause a struggle inside of the character. This way, the actions that result are always an extension of who they are.

Watch for the first entry this week and in the meantime, check out our many other descriptive thesauruses here on this Thesaurus Collection page.

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Occupation Thesaurus Entry: Conductor

Jobs are as important for our characters as they are for real people. A character’s career might be their dream job or one they’ve chosen due to necessity. In your story, they might be trying to get that job or are already working in the field. Whatever the situation, as with any defining aspect for your character, you’ll need to do the proper research to be able to write that career knowledgeably.

Enter the Occupation Thesaurus. Here, you’ll find important background information on a variety of career options for your character. In addition to the basics, we’ll also be covering related info that relates to character arc and story planning, such as sources of conflict (internal and external) and how the job might impact basic human needs, thereby affecting the character’s goals. It’s our hope that this thesaurus will share some of your research burden while also giving you ideas about your character’s occupation that you might not have considered before.

Occupation: Conductor

Overview: Conductors direct orchestras, symphonies, choirs, and other musical ensembles, interpreting the music and setting the tempo for the musicians. Their responsibilities include studying the musical scores, planning and overseeing rehearsals, and leading performances. They may also network with potential donors and help with fundraising. In addition, conductors taking on a secondary role of music director will select the music and schedule guest performances for their program.

Conductors are most often associated with top-end symphonies and choirs. But they’re needed for all levels of musicianship, providing career opportunities in schools and universities, community groups, musical theater companies, and military organizations, as well.

Necessary Training: A four-year degree is required and a master’s degree is often preferred. Conductors should also have significant mastery of one or more instruments. Practical experience is imperative; many aspiring conductors achieve this by attending conducting workshops to gain the advice of a master, enrolling in a grad school program to study with a teacher, and conducting small groups and ensembles.

Useful Skills, Talents, or Abilities: A knack for languages, enhanced hearing, exceptional memory, good listening skills, multitasking, musicality, photographic memory, promotion

Helpful Character Traits:

POSITIVE: Alert, ambitious, analytical, appreciative, bold, confident, cooperative, decisive, disciplined, enthusiastic, focused, imaginative, inspirational, meticulous, passionate, persuasive, studious, talented, uninhibited, whimsical

NEGATIVE: Perfectionist

Sources of Friction: Musicians with a diva mentality, oversensitive musicians who can’t take criticism, one’s authority being challenged, creative differences with the musicians or composer, facilities issues (the building having terrible acoustics, a broken heating or a/c system, etc.), language barriers, a show or tour being cancelled, flagging ticket sales, losing a major donor or benefactor, romantic entanglements with one’s musicians, a physical ailment that threatens one’s career (hearing or vision loss, a degenerative bone disease that makes it difficult to stand, etc.), being uninspired by the piece one must conduct, being unable to advance to a more desirable program

People They Might Interact With: Musicians, a music director, composers, donors and benefactors, other conductors, facilities staff, journalists

How This Occupation Might Impact One’s Basic Needs:

  • Self-Actualization: A conductor in a lower-level organization with a dream of working with a top-tier ensemble may become disgruntled at his or her inability to move up.
  • Esteem and Recognition: A conductor who isn’t respected by his peers might begin to feel resentful or insecure.
  • Love and Belonging: People who are highly passionate about their work often find it difficult to share their time, attention, and passion with others, which could lead to a love and belonging void.

Common Work-Related Settings: Airplane, airport, ballroom, black-tie event, community center, cruise ship, green room, gymnasium, high school hallway, hotel room, performing arts theater, recording studio, university quad, Vegas stage show

Twisting the Fictional Stereotype:

  • Conductors, by and large, are male, so consider a female for this leading role.
  • When we think of people in this role, they’re usually wealthy, pretentious, and snobbish. Twist the stereotype by giving your conductor some unorthodox traits, making them quirky, timid, sloppy, uncouth, etc.
  • Instead of putting your conductor in charge of a highbrow ensemble, consider the less-represented options. Maybe she conducts the army band, an orchestra for an off-Broadway show, or an inner-city children’s choir.

Visit the other Occupations in our collection HERE.

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Goal-Oriented Storytelling: Tension

This is the third post in my four-part series on ANTS, my framework for understanding what a story needs to keep readers engaged. Previously, I’ve covered attachment and novelty. Now it’s time to look at the big reason why stories have a plot structure: tension.

Cultivating tension is usually one of the first and most important skills a new storyteller learns. It’s why your mentors and editors are always yelling at you to add more conflict to your story. Let’s take a quick tour of what tension is and what it needs to work.

“Tension” is the word we use for the reader’s preoccupation with whether or not something bad will happen in the story. It’s a synonym for suspense, minus the latter’s association with thrillers. Storytellers create tension by giving the protagonist problems. When we watch the protagonist struggle to solve those problems, whether by going to battle or just arguing, we call it “conflict.”

The level of tension created by a problem is determined by two factors.

How bad will the consequences be if the problem isn’t solved?

We generally call this the “stakes” of a conflict. The destruction of the world is a much higher stake than the demise of a few goldfish. Rewards for solving a problem can matter as well, but readers are more preoccupied with potential losses than gains.

However, even big losses don’t create tension unless readers care about them. That’s why some attachment is a prerequisite for tension. As long as your protagonist is liked and the stakes are important to them, you’ll probably be fine. But if your story has no tension and you can’t figure out why, ask your readers whether they want your characters to succeed. If they think your protagonist is a jerk, it’ll be much harder to create meaningful consequences.

What is the likelihood that the protagonist will face these consequences?

If solving the problem feels like a sure thing, you’ll have no tension. This is why it’s essential for your villain to feel threatening. Unfortunately, the more often the antagonist fails at their goal, the more readers will feel that the protagonist can best them without an issue. Often, the best way to avoid this is to give your antagonist early goals they can succeed at without stopping the story. You probably don’t want them to kill the protagonist, but what if they manage to steal a weapon or kidnap someone the protagonist was trying to protect?

Putting deadlines on story problems is another time-honored way of making conflicts feel like an uphill battle. If you give your protagonist a whole year to find a solution, readers will assume they’ll figure something out, even if the problem is all but impossible to solve. Similarly, if the protagonist can try to solve the problem, fail, and then try again without being any worse off, the only conclusion is that sooner or later they’ll succeed. A ticking clock ensures failed attempts always leave the protagonist with a lower chance of success.

Like novelty, tension makes stories more entertaining. Bored readers are the most obvious sign that tension has dropped too low. While a few brief lulls between conflicts can give readers a chance to catch their breath, the tension should generally rise until the climax of the story.

However, tension is different from the other ANTS in one important way: you can have too much of a good thing. By its nature, tension is stressful. Some people don’t want lots of stress in their pleasure reading, and others may look for something low tension when they’ve had a bad day. It’s also inevitable that story problems will hit closer to home for some readers. Overall, preferred level of tension is one of the biggest reader divides, so it’s important for storytellers to choose the general level of tension they want in their stories and recruit beta readers with matching tastes.

Even if you’re catering to tension-averse readers, don’t neglect your plot. While you may not want life-or-death conflicts in a low-tension story, you should still have problems with lower, more personal stakes. Higher attachment can be crucial here, because it takes more attachment to care about personal issues. To compensate for lower tension, you’ll also need much higher novelty. Even if your story is very light, no one should get bored.

There’s another reason to cultivate a strong plot structure even in a low-tension story. Your plot isn’t just for tension; it’s also essential to the last of the ANTS. Join me in September when I cover tension’s partner and opposite: satisfaction. And to see the previous ANTS posts I linked to earlier, visit Attachment, Novelty and Satisfaction.

Chris Winkle is the editor-in-chief of Mythcreants, an online magazine dedicated to fantasy and science fiction storytelling. You can read more of her articles on writing or listen to her talk about stories on The Mythcreant Podcast.
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Posted in Character Arc, Characters, Conflict, Emotion, High Stakes, Pacing, Plotting, Resident Writing Coach, Tension, Uncategorized, Villains, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 5 Comments

Occupation Thesaurus Entry: Professional Athlete

Jobs are as important for our characters as they are for real people. A character’s career might be their dream job or one they’ve chosen due to necessity. In your story, they might be trying to get that job or are already working in the field. Whatever the situation, as with any defining aspect for your character, you’ll need to do the proper research to be able to write that career knowledgeably.

Enter the Occupation Thesaurus. Here, you’ll find important background information on a variety of career options for your character. In addition to the basics, we’ll also be covering related info that relates to character arc and story planning, such as sources of conflict (internal and external) and how the job might impact basic human needs, thereby affecting the character’s goals. It’s our hope that this thesaurus will share some of your research burden while also giving you ideas about your character’s occupation that you might not have considered before.

Occupation: Professional athlete

Overview: Professional athletes play a sport for a living. They make money off of ticket sales, medals and top placements they receive in sporting events, endorsements, corporate sponsorships, grants, merchandising, book sales, and by working part-time jobs to cover the bills. While most athletes don’t reach the millionaire level of fame and fortune that star players do, many can make a living as long as they stay healthy and on top of their game.

While much of an athlete’s time is dedicated to practicing their sport, their workday might also be spent reviewing footage of past performances, analyzing an opponent’s practices, working out, adhering to a fastidious diet regime, participating in promotional activities, and attending meetings with agents, coaches, and team members. Players of certain sports can live where they want and travel to and from sporting events. Athletes who can be traded at the whim of management may need to relocate multiple times throughout their career.

Necessary Training: Professional athletes only reach their level of skill through extreme discipline and years of diligent practice. Many work with private coaches to speed up the learning curve. Most athletes begin playing their sport as a child and continue honing their abilities through high school and college. While some athletes begin their professional careers directly after high school, most are drafted out of college, so they must have the academic foundation to get into a university and succeed there as they wait for the right opportunity to arrive.

Useful Skills, Talents, or Abilities: Basic first aid, high pain tolerance, promotion, strategic thinking, super strength, swift-footedness

Helpful Character Traits:

POSITIVE: Ambitious, analytical, confident, cooperative, decisive, disciplined, enthusiastic, focused, inspirational, passionate, persistent, responsible, studious, talented, uninhibited

NEGATIVE: Confrontational, obsessive, perfectionist, workaholic

Sources of Friction: A nagging or career-ending injury, having a bad day when an important scout is present, negative social media interactions being resurrected and tainting one’s reputation, trusting the wrong people (a greedy agent, friends who are only interested in one’s fame or money), failing a drug test, being replaced by a younger and more talented athlete, pressure (internal and external) to perform and succeed, a crisis of confidence, being traded and having to move one’s family to a new location, falling into temptation while on the road (one night stands, drugs, etc.), an unfavorable change in management or coaching staff, a coach that plays favorites, making poor choices with one’s vast amount of money, being accused of sexual harassment or fathering someone’s child, being sexually harassed on tour, losing a key sponsor or endorsement opportunity

People They Might Interact With: Teammates, competitors, coaches, agents and managers, personal trainers, nutritionists, doctors, physical therapists, fans

How This Occupation Might Impact One’s Basic Needs:

  • Esteem and Recognition: An athlete who is unable to deal well with the constant criticism inherent with this career may quickly find their self-esteem bottoming out.
  • Love and Belonging: Athletes who have to travel a lot or move away temporarily from family members may find it hard to maintain loving and loyal romantic relationships.
  • Safety and Security: Most career athletes last less than 20 years in their sport due to injury (this varies, depending on the sport). Career-ending and dangerous injuries, such as concussions and the like, can present a safety threat for professional athletes.
  • Physiological Needs: Athletes have been killed while competing, so while it’s unusual, it is a possibility.

Common Work-Related Settings: Airplane, airport, archery range, black-tie event, bowling alley, fitness center, golf course, green room, gymnasium, hotel room, house party, mansion, marina, outdoor skating rink, penthouse suite, skate park, ski resort, sporting event stands

Twisting the Fictional Stereotype: Stories about athletes typically involve the underdog hero going up against the well-funded, well-connected, legacy-type antagonist. Keep this in mind and switch up your characters to bring something fresh to the page.

Also consider the sport your protagonist will pursue. Popular sports are, well, popular for story fodder, but what about the less-romanticized activities? Sports like skeet shooting, equestrian dressage, fencing, wrestling, rowing, and paralympic events can provide the same competitive and stressful environment while allowing you to cover new ground for readers

Visit the other Occupations in our collection HERE.

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