Words for Writers: Killing Your Babies

Coined by Ernest Hemmingway, the phrase “to kill your babies” is not about infanticide, but about editing.

Tumblr Question: If you’d be so inclined to discuss the matter, I wouldn’t mind seeing you address the writing concept of what I refer to as Killing Your Babies. The next step after learning all the rules, and structure and tradition and accepted theories and habits, and knowing when to tear the rule books up. Just tossing that one out there. : )

Right. Okay. This is a hard one.  Especially if we’re talking about your first novel.

Simply, “Killing Your Babies” refers to having to edit out something you love in order to make the story/book/script better. It utterly, completely sucks. It is, quite frankly, one of the hardest things to do as a professional writer.  When you write, you will inevitably get attached to an idea, or a character, or a concept, or a line – and generally, like any proud parent, you will cling tooth and nail to that thing you love, and will do anything to keep it in the story.

For me it’s the last one – I get so attached to specific phrases, and I do anything in my power to keep them.

(Gabrielle Harbowy has actually told me that I crow over them like Peter Pan – “Oh, the cleverness of me!” – and that it’s difficult to get me to cut them. She says it’s one of my biggest flaws, and I consciously make an effort to not be Peter-Pan-like whenever I get my edits and revisions back.)

It’s bugging hard, killing your baby. Removing something from a book is emotionally draining. You mourn for what has to go, you bargain to keep it in, you rail and you get angry that nobody understands why it should stay. It’s got such a visceral phrasing for a reason – because you behave and you feel as if you actually are killing a helpless infant. And you mourn it as if it were an actual death.

But in the end, the aim of a writer is to create a script/novel that is a cohesive whole with nothing superfluous.

Knowing whether you should remove it is another matter entirely. It’s really hard to figure out which of your babies you should be killing, if any at all.

Generally, I find that if more than one beta reader comments about it, then it’s a good indication that, no matter how much I love it, it doesn’t need to be there or is actively impairing the quality of the manuscript.  If more than one reader says “Why is this character here?” or “this scene is the way of the plot” or “why do you need this concept?”, then it’s an indicator that the stuff that’s getting the negative attention needs to be addressed.

Sometimes, I force myself to sit back and ask, out loud, “Is this self-indulgent?” If the answer is yes, then out it comes. Or I’ll ask, “Is this impeding the pace of the narrative? Is it keeping my hero from being the hero? Or my villain from being the villain? Is it absolutely necessary for the reader to know this, or can they understand the world/narrative just fine without it?” If I answer yes, out it comes.

But killing babies is an intensely personal process, and I can’t offer pithy advice or hard-and-fast-rules on how to deal with it. All I can say, really, is… deal with it.

If you want to be a professional writer – novelist, academic, screenwriter, etc. – part of that is learning to suck it up and do whatever it takes to make your story the best it can be. Part of that is learning how to take criticisms and look at them with a level head and make a choice. (And that’s hard, I won’t pretend it’s not. I’ve had to email my agent and apologize for my overly emotional reply more than once).

Sometimes it means arguing with your agent/editor about choices, and defending yours; sometimes it means accepting that you wrote too much, or didn’t explain it well enough, or that you need to delete a character, or that, something you love has to go.

The thing with a story is that there is always so much more in your head than what you can cram onto a page. There are scenes, little moments, backstories, world building, characters, and conversations that you think are stunningly important and fascinating. You wouldn`t have written your book (or screenplay, or comic, etc) if you didn’t.

But it can’t possibly all fit on the page. Not if you are going to tell a good story, and that is the key thing to remember. That, in the end, you are telling a story. A single, vital, living story. It might have subplots and twists, but in the end it all braids together to become one story and it is that story that you have to serve.

I will repeat: it sucks.

Nobody wants to kill their babies. But in the end, you owe it to your work – your world, your characters – to give it the best presentation you can.

And if you really, really love what you’ve cut, keep it in a morgue file/box, and save it for another project, where it might work better.

I’ve already given a case study about having to pull an entire character out of a WIP, and the angst it caused, so I decided to poll my writer friends to see if they had any advice or stories to share.

Here is some more advice from other writers:

Julie Czerneda, author of The Species Imperative series:

Doesn’t bother me at all. I’m ruthless. I delete. Paragraphs, scenes, chapters, plot threads, characters. Highlight, delete. I refuse to look back or regret or save. I think it’s my training from non-fiction, in part, and being an editor as well. If A doesn’t work, wipe the slate and try B. Faster and cleaner. When something’s right, I can tell because it survives me, but if a phrase or cool bit tries to persist beyond its expiry, I’m suspicious of its motives. Off with its head!

That being said, this is how I behave during my own revision process. If my editor finds something that will be a problem for a reader in the draft I submit, almost always it’s not a question of something needing to go, but of something missing. I didn’t include a step or reveal a point or set up an emotional payoff properly. I tend to err on the side of oooh, I’m being mysterious.

The bottomline? There’s always a better way to write something, and never enough time to explore all the possibilities. Perfection is a direction, not a goal. If pruning makes the work better, and it usually does, keep the clippers close at hand.

From Jason Leaver, Writer/Creator of the smash-hit webseries Out With Dad:
When I write a screenplay I always let go of the practicality of production. Just write from my heart and worry about the rest later. “Later” have a nasty habit of catching up – and sometimes you’re forced to make harsh revisions based on the practicality of production, budget, logistics or even technical limitations.

The project I’m in development on right now has core concept that I’m IN LOVE WITH. I’d go so far as saying it is the heart of the project. However, this piece of the complicated puzzle that is production-hell, has been vetoed by my producers. I hate them for it, yet I can’t deny they’re right. It is simply outside the scope of feasibility. The compromise we have is good. One day I may even see it as an improvement. For now though, it feels like this project has been downgraded. That downgraded feeling will probably last right up until we get into production.

From Laurie Channer, author of Godblog:
Yes, you sometimes have to kill your babies, or chop off their cute little fingers.  But just because you love it doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for the piece.  But you’re a writer, and you go confidently knowing someday you can cannibalize those orphan bits (mixing my metaphor here somewhat) into something else that you’ll write.  That lovely moment, or killer piece of dialogue or entire scene can be dredged back up and tweaked into something new you’re doing.  And then that’s one less thing that you have to make up.

From August C. Bourre of Vestige Book Reviews:
The more you do it, the easier it gets. And most important: learn to tell between what you like & what’s good. Not always the same.

Derwin Mak, Aurora Award winning author of The Moon Under Her Feet:
A story should be more than the sum of its parts. Therefore, if there’s an idea, character, subplot, paragraph, description, or sentence that doesn’t work well with the rest of the story, you have to get rid of it, no matter how interesting or well-written it is on its own. You can save it for use in another story later, but your priority is to make your current story the best it can be.

Ira Nayman, author of the Alternate Reality Information Network series:

  1. Look at every opportunity to rewrite as a new opportunity to exercise your creativity.If you think of rewriting as a chore, like doing the dishes or declawing the rhinoceros, you are guaranteed to hate the process. If, on the other hand, you approach it with the same attitude that you approach your first drafts, you will find it much easier (and actually fun, as hard as that may be to believe). Consider writing a story answering a series of “What happens next?” questions. When you’re writing your first draft, you’re asking the questions yourself. When rewriting, the questions are being asked by the editor. Ultimately, no matter who asks the questions, your job is to make the story the best that it can be.
  2. Write a lot.If it takes you ten years to write a single short story, you will be crushed if an editor suggests you change a single word. If, in those 10 years, you have written a couple dozen short stories, a few novellas and a novel or two – and you are constantly circulating them until they find their publisher – you will be less emotionally invested in any individual work. Not only will this make it easier for you to rewrite, but it takes the sting out of outright rejection.
  3. Keep in mind that in our digital age, nothing is etched in stone.If, after rewriting a story at the behest of an editor, you still feel that your original version was better, wait until the rights revert back to you and publish your original version on your Web site. In fact, you can have fun with this: post both versions and ask your readers which they prefer (as long as you’re willing to accept the possibility that they will choose the edited version…)


    For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.


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Words for Writers: A bit of advice for NaNoWriMo

Logo for National Novel Writing Month

NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month – is almost here! Across the interwebs, writers of every age, genre, creed (pantsers vs. plotters), and experience levels are revving up to participate.

As veteran of NaNo (have been doing it since 2003, won all times but 3, and in my defense, I was writing thesises or MA school applications), I  have been asked a few times if I have any advice for the newbies.

Yes, I do.

Remember, as wonderful and fantastic as NaNoWriMo is – 50K of a first draft is not a novel.

The average commercial novel is between 80-120K. That means that what you have at the end of NaNo is a very, very good start. You have half a novel, and only the first draft thereof. But it is not done. (Have pity on agents and slush-readers! Don’t send it out on December 1st!)

A novel is not a novel until it has been edited, polished, revised, beta’d, red-penned, and re-re-re-rewritten. Your NaNo is brain vomit and it needs to be tidied before it can be a novel.

But what you DO have is the foundation on which to lay an entire, fantastic novel, a DAMN good start, and brand new set of work habits to add to your tool kit. You have experience, an idea of what your novel can grow into, and enthusiasm. You have a new community of peers to support you, critique you, and help you. You have the glowing knowledge that you did it, that you’ve made it this far… and frankly, getting to 50k on a first draft is the hardest part. It’s all downhill from here. What is another 30-50K on a novel that you’ve already done 50k on? What is, as my agent says to me, “a few more months spent dialing it in?”

And I don’t say any of this to be mean or to put you off NaNo; quite the opposite!

I say this so that you come into NaNoWriMo with a clear understanding of what it is EXACTLY that you are creating and that it will be, in all honestly, a bit crap.

And you know what?


The truth of the matter is… first drafts are always a bit crap. In fact, first drafts are meant to be a bit crap. That’s the nature of first drafts.

And the reason you allow your first draft to be a bit crap is because the important part of creating a first draft is not to write a polished, perfect, incredible novel. The point of a first draft is to get the STORY onto the PAGE. All the magic of tone and form and style happens in editing. But all the magic of running and jumping and loving and hating and living and dying and killing and screaming and kissing … that happens in the first draft. And it is supposed to sweep you away and plunge you into your world and make your chest ache and your stomach twist and your eyes swim and your mouth grin.

And you can’t do that if you’re self-censoring every time you pick up the metaphorical (or not) pen.

So allow your first draft to be a bit crap.

Because fearing to write because you’re going to be a bad writer is silly; if you hate everything you put on the page, if your inner editor cringes at each typo, then how will any of it get ONTO the page?

Embrace that your NaNo is going to be a bit crap and use that as permission to keep writing. Think: “Oh, well, this scene is a bit crap. But that’s okay, because I can edit later! LATER! For now I will follow my fingers and my imagination wherever they shall lead and it will be GLORIOUS.”

So there it is. There’s my advice for NaNo.



For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

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Words for Writers: Unhooking, Tough Choices, and Raising Your Manuscript Up Right

So today, I want to talk a bit about tough choices.

I’m sure you’ve heard the metaphor before, but writing a book is a lot like giving birth. Things gestate, come together, split apart, subdivide in your mind from concepts to characters, from outlines into plots into scenes. You must go through the neck-wrist-back-ache of several thousand hours of keyboard-assisted labour.  And then, after months of carrying this writhing, living, wonderful thing around inside of you, suddenly there is a tiny, perfect creature in your hands, staring at the world with wide-eyed wonder and enchanting everyone you show it to.

Only this little thing, as much as you love it, as much as you think it’s incredible, is totally dependent on you raising it up right. Editing, revising, considering critique – this is like teaching your baby manuscript how to eat solid food, to sleep through the night, how to walk on its own.  When it can stand alone, when it can answer any question put to it intelligently and listen to it when you tell it to do something, then it’s time to pack your MS off to college to succeed or fail with agents in the query process on its own merit. As much as you want to stand behind your baby’s shoulder and take the pop quizzes for it, it has to make the grade alone.

And when your MS has graduated, when it’s off in the real world on submission to publishers, it is job seeking. Its marks from college, the letter of support from its professors and its slick pitch are a CV that has to stand in for the candidate before the publisher ever sees the book. And when the book gets the job, when it gets picked up, it enters the publisher’s editing process, the job training. When it’s ready, when it’s mature and representing it’s employer in the work force, published and on the shelves, you can be proud. You raised your little manuscript right and it is out there right now, courting the perfect reader, curling up with him or her in a cozy coffee shop, spawning adorable little thought-lings in his or her minds, seeding the next generation of book-parents, happily going about the gloriously intimate business of making you a grandparent.

Sometimes, though, your manuscript might have a terrible twos, or a teenaged rebellion. It might drop out of college, tell you it hates you, and resist all attempts at corrective behavior. And what do you do when your manuscript just isn’t cooperating?

Several years ago, when I was in university, my grandfather was quite ill, I’d had a horrible row with my friends, I was being emotionally bullied by someone in my program, and I was feeling cripplingly insecure, I did the one thing I never thought I would have to do – I went to see a shrink.

My family was all quite well adjusted, there was no history of mental illness in my immediate gene pool, and I had a good support network at school. Why, I always wondered, would I ever need to see a psychotherapist?

I am glad I did though. She helped me get my head back on straight, was a neutral party when I told her about my problems who didn’t leap to defend other friends when I complained, and taught me how to grieve – something I don’t think we’re very good at in this century.

But the most important thing she ever taught me was how to “unhook”.

Imagine, she said, that your body is covered with fishhooks. Some only dig into your skin a little – those are the people you know from work, the acquaintances that you don’t mind seeing at the pub but would never call to hang out otherwise. The little people dangling like charms off the end of the hook are quite light. Then there are medium sized hooks – these are your closer friends, your pie-in-the-sky fantasies, your distant family, yoru career aspirations.  They’re a bit heavier, but that’s okay, you can bear them easily. Now imagine big hooks, fat hooks, dug far into your flesh.  Some of them are light, they don’t hurt you… in fact, their pull and tug is reassuring, pleasureable. Those are your family, your best friends, the creative project you adore, the dreams you cherish. But there are other giant hooks, and they’re too heavy. They rip your skin. They hurt. They make you bleed. Those are the people who exhaust and frustrate you, the ones who cling and demand and want you to fix all their problems FOR them, the ones who don’t care how much pain they’re causing. Those are the dead dreams and the dead-end job.

Now, she said. Close your eyes. Pick up the biggest, most painful hook that is dragging at you, ripping into your core. Carefully wriggle it out of your skin. Drop it to the floor. Let it go. Let that person go. Let that annoyance, that aggravation vanish. And here, my dear, is the most important thing for you to remember – don’t ever add more hooks to your skin than you can bare. Adding more hooks will never make the heavy ones feel light.  It is better to strip away than to add.

Better to strip away than to add.

This is important advice that I have held on to. That therapist was a lifeline in a hellish part of my youth, and her advice remains with me today. I am very cautious about who and what I let hook into my skin, who I let pull and who I cherish when I see the charm dangling from the line. And I’ve learned to be ruthless about who and what I unhook.

I nearly unhooked this whole manuscript.  I had worked so hard at raising it up right, but it was being obstinate, loud and angry. My manuscript had become an obese, screaming teenager.  It was behaving a lot like this:

And I’ve tried everything. Bribes. More scenes, more character development, more conflict. I made my main character’s best friend turn bitchy, added an entire new race of beings, layered urban legends and fairy tales onto the world. I paid attention to it and lavished love on it, and it slapped me. I did everything I could, and while it was making the manuscript rounder, thicker, plumper… it wasn’t  making it grow up.

I was indulging it instead of fixing it.

Filled with worry, I had a long conversation with Evan, my agent, and every piece of advice, every suggestion he offered made me more miserable. It was all good, it was all right advice, and if my manuscript had been inclined towards corrective behavior, it might have worked.  But even applying these edits, I couldn’t seem to get my fat, lazy manuscript to start playing outdoors and eating his vegetables. It was all Moreness advice.

I was really ready to unhook it and let go. Evan convinced me not to with a very nice list of what he did like in the book, what was working, and it helped me see the positive, wonderful side of my manuscript, made me remember the chubby, laughing baby under the churlish teen.

And, a few days later, I realized that what the manuscript needed was not More, but Less.

I remembered my therapist’s advice – unhook.

But what had to go? Or worse, who? What wasn’t so vital to the story that the story wouldn’t suffer when it was taken away?

I couldn’t choose. Which element? Which character? Which chapter and all the  following scenes connected to it? My heart broke.

Then I remembered that Evan had confessed that he was less than enamored of one of my characters, especially with his role and dialogue patterns in this book.

I liked this character. He was smart-mouthed, a good shot, and trying to explain his existance was the impetus for a lot of the worldbuilding I’d done.  He was fun to write and great to make the reader mistrust. But, in the end, I realized, he was an indulgence.

He was taking the role of hero away from my MC, doing the things that she should be doing. He was taking the role of the villain away, too, being threatening when fear of the villain should have been paramount, instead of worry about him.

He was, in every sense, in the way of the plot.

Nothing could happen around him because he would prevent/solve the problem before my MC could or my villain arrived. He was a black hole – he sucked up the momentum, the motivation, adn the reasoning in my world, and he was sucking up my time and energy and focus, too.

I still like this character. But, for the MS to thrive and mature, he had to be unhooked.

And that was one of the toughest choices I have had to make. It feels a little bit like killing a kitten. It feels a lot like betraying the friend on whom this character was based. It is terrifying and it hurts.  I mean, what if the whole plot disintegrates without him there to hold up part of the frame? What if cutting him out destroys the fun in the novel, and it becomes too serious for itself? What if taking him away makes the whole novel crumble?

But unhooking the burden of this character and his motivations from the manuscript has made both the MS and I stand a little straighter, walk a little lighter, smile a little more. Because, even though it took hours and hours of talking through motivations and action points and scenes with an author friend… the plot is better. The characters’ motivations are clearer. My hero is a hero.

It’s like… a pyramid that had one too many sides. The structure was actually made weaker by having too many supporting struts, sharing out the weight between them, allowing for cracks.

Now, the villain has matured and grown into his own, spreading like squid-ink into the places that this character has vacated – an honest, ever-present threat, now. The heroine has something tangible to fight against.  The stakes have been raised, and all the Moreness that I added to complicate/explain/fill out the manuscript can be pared back, turned around, and slimmed down. My best friend character doesn’t have to be bitchy anymore, because with this extra character gone, my MC has reason to stay her friend. My MC will have to do the stalking, fighting, and shooting for herself. She will have to defend her choices, and angst over the hard ones, instead of someone letting her do it all for her.

In short, my baby manuscript is growing up.

And the character that I cut? He’s hanging out in the wings, waiting for his turn to take the stage. Because the truth is, he was getting just a little cramped, all jammed into that manuscript, cheek-by-jowl and doing very little. He strolled on out of there happy as you please.  He’s got breathing room now. He’s pushing his shoulders back and grinning his white grin at me, glittering tarnished-penny eyes saying, silently, Oh yes. You and I both know that I was meant for the sequel, anyway.  There wasn’t enough room to maneuver over there. Let me have my space here.

His hooks are still in my skin, but it doesn’t hurt anymore, because he’s finally hanging in the right place. And he is watching, plotting, planning, as another baby manuscript starts to gestate in my mind, waiting for the right moment for that world to be complete enough for him to step inside and become a part of it.


For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

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Words for Writers: The Balance Between Science-telling and Story-telling

The first of a series of guest posts I will be doing over at AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, is up.

In this post, I talk about the division among fans between Hard and Soft SF and ask why we all can’t just get along.

Read it here.


For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

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Words for Writers: How To Structure A Story

Just wanted to say, I’m really enjoying the blog posts that are coming out of the questions folks ask me via email; please feel free to send me any questions about writing, publishing, cosplay, being an acafan, or anything else, and I will be happy to answer as best as I can here!

Yesterday I talked about techniques for how to keep your bum in your seat and your fingers on the keys and finish your book. Today I’m going to get a bit more basic and talk about how to tell a story.

Stories have a specific structure – they are narratives about a character who goes through a conflict.  After 4000 or so years of human culture, we’ve pretty much figured out how it is that we, as human beings, prefer to tell and be told stories. Of course there are always exceptions to every rule, but in general, when you are preparing to write a story, I would consider these three tenants:

#1  Stories Are About People, Not Places


This might seem obvious, but there is a large danger in genre fiction (especially fantasy) that people are so focused on the world building that they forget that the story has to be about one person, a person on whose shoulder the reader rides and whose thoughts we get to share.

What makes a story compelling is the journey we get to go on with that one person, the hero/anti-hero/protagonist.  Something amazing happens to them, and we get to experience it with them.  The villain/antagonist appears to try to thwart the hero, and we want to be a part of the epic struggle they go through in order to achieve their wants and desires.

The world around the character has to be rich, of course, so world build away! The world needs to be filled with scents and sounds and textures, with cultural institutions and a weighty history of culture and civilization – but it has to be revealed through the eyes of the characters.

The great danger of drowning in worldbuilding so much at the beginning is that it becomes an exposition dump that impedes your ability to actually start the plot. The best way to avoid this is to cut it out entirely.  I know, it’s painful to think that your perfectly crafted treatise on why the world is in the political situation that it is would be cut out, but it’s necessary.  Start your novel when the story starts.  Start when the bullet leaves the barrel, when the king is slain, when a messenger from the regent comes and tells the miller boy that he is being drafted for a war with foreign wizards, when the aliens crash-land on Earth, when your heroine meets the love of her life and watches him walk away with another girl, etc.

Put the world building AROUND that stuff.  Use the plot to tell us about the world as your hero interacts with it.

Here’s an example from Pride and Prejudice (CAPs are my comments):

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters. AH, OKAY – SO NOW AUSTEN IS GETTING US TO START THINKING ABOUT HIGH SOCIETY MAMAS WHO ARE FIGHTING ONE ANOTHER OFF TO MAKE SURE THEIR DAUGHTERS MARRY BEST.


Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.” OH, LOOK. MRS. BENNET IS A GOSSIP!


“Do not you want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently. BUT MRS. BENNET HAS A LOT OF EXPERIENCE WITH HIS SILENCES AND HAS SUCH AMAZING GOOD NEWS THAT SHE HAS TO SHARE.

“You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.” AH, MR. BENNET IS DROLL AND LONG SUFFERING.

This was invitation enough.

“Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.” GOSSIP GOSSIP GOSSIP, BUT IT SERVES TO EXPAND THE READER’S UNDERSTANDING OF THE WORLD IN WHICH THE BENNETS LIVE. THEY HAVE A NEIGHBOUR NAMED MRS. LONG, THEY LIVE IN ENGLAND, THE NEIGHBOUR DRIVES A CHAISE AND FOUR, SO THAT PUTS US FIRMLY IN A PRE-INDUSTRIAL SETTING, AND THAT THEIR NEIGHBOURHOOD IS VERY RELIGIOUS.

“What is his name?”






So, you see – we learned a lot about the world by simply listening to the conversation. The plot began while we were with the Bennets in the library, we found out immediately what sort of woman Mrs. Bennet was and what her marriage is like, and we already know that the theme of the book is centered around the scramble of the poor landed gentry to marry their offspring off to advantage.

None of the worldbuilding was sacrificed, but the focus was on the character-building instead.  And this is a great set up, because now we know what sort of family the Bennet girls come from – when we finally meet our heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, we understand why she is so witty, frustrated with her family life, prejudiced against Mr. Darcy’s cold formality, and full of the vigor of a very busy household.

Now imagine if Austen had instead opened with ten pages about how the Bennets had fallen into poverty, how in England the estates must be entailed to eldest male heirs, and how the great families are all considered cold and aloof to the lower class ones. Boring!  It’s a fantastic bit of world building, but I have nobody to stand beside and care about, nobody to champion, nobody to invest in emotionally.

Tell me a story about a person, start the story when the plot starts, when something in that person’s life is about to change, and I will remain engaged as a reader. And you will remain engaged as a writer, because you will suddenly have someone that you care about immensely and you will be able to keep at writing his / her story.

Stephen Jay Schwartz has a great article on writing strong characters here

Also check out “The First Five Pages” by Noah Lukeman

#2 Stories Must Have Conflict


When I talk about a character, your hero, you must imbue them with a WANT and a FLAW.  Characters are flat and too perfect if they have neither of these things.  The WANT drives the plot, and in fact often begins it, and the FLAW is the way that the character often trips themselves up or are tripped up in their pursuit.

Let’s go back to Pride and Prejudice:
Mrs. Bennet WANTS her girls to marry Mr. Bingly, but her FLAW is that she’s a horrible busybody gossip who embarrasses her daughters and whose behavior drives away the Binglys. Elizabeth Bennet WANTS to marry for love, but her FLAW is that she’s prejudiced against snobs without grounds and her pride was wounded by Darcy’s harsh words.

In Buffy the Vampire slayer, Buffy Summers WANTS to be a regular normal girl, but her FLAW is that she’s the Slayer and her mere existence means that the baddies of the world are attracted to her and so she can’t avoid being a Slayer.

In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker WANTS to become a Jedi and save the Princess, but his FLAW is that he is Vader’s son and there’s a danger he may switch to the Dark Side. Also, he’s an undisciplined whiney brat, and that is a FLAW he must overcome within himself.

You see where I’m going?  The plot arises out of the clash between those wants and flaws.  Your character desires something, but can’t get it. The story is about your character trying to get that thing.

Author David Nickle; says: “Drama happens between people, not inside people.” And author Laurie Channer says “A Situation is not a Story.”  These are good axioms to keep in mind.

This very informative Wikipedia entry about narrative conflict nicely sums up the seven major types of conflict between WANT and FLAW that your hero can experience:

    • Character vs. Self  – in which the character fights with some part of themselves (In Star Wars, Anikin Skywalker’s ambition and desire overwhelms him and he turns to the Dark Side.)
    • Character vs. Character – in which the character fights with an antagonist who seeks to keep them from getting what they want (In Superman, Lex Luthor wants to protect the world by destroying Supes, and Supes wants to protect the world from Lex Luthor’s evil schemes.)
    • Character vs. Society  – in which the character fights against an aspect of their own culture to achieve their want (In 1984, the protagonist fights against Big Brother to achieve freedom of thought and agency over his own life).
    • Character vs. Nature  – in which the character must struggle against the environment around him to achieve his want (In 127 Hours, the protagonist must  fight to survive being trapped in a cave with his sanity intact.)
    • Character vs. Supernatural  – in which the character must struggle with forces outside of the realm of the norm to achieve their want (In Supernatural, the Winchester brothers must fight against the Yellow Eyed Demon and all his monsters to keep the world safe and discover the truth of Sam’s birth.)
    • Character vs. Machine/Technology – in which the character must struggle against forces of technology to achieve their want (In The Matrix, Neo must learn to master and destroy the computer programs in order to free humanity)
    • Character vs. Destiny  – in which the character either embraces or struggles against their prescribed destiny (In Harry Potter, Harry must become the best wizard he can to avenge his parents and save the Wizarding community from Voldemort. Alternatively, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy Summers tries to defy her role as a Slayer in order to live a normal, happy life)

Another great tool for building a plot out of conflict is Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. The 12 steps of the mythological hero’s journey is based on the life of Christ, and corresponds to the labours of Hercules, the deeds of Oden, the deeds of Osiris, and many other mythological heroes. There is a reason for this – these are the sorts of stories that we as human beings love to hear, and we as writers love to tell.

You know who else follows the Hero’s Journey?  Buffy Summers.  Harry Potter. Luke Skywalker. Xander Harris. Peter Parker.

Now, I’m not saying you have to follow it slavishly, but this is a great starting point, and a fantastic way to start fleshing out your plot.  Here are the steps (from this site)

  1. The Ordinary World

Here the person is introduced to the audience. S/he doesn’t know her/his personal potential or calling.

  1. Call to Adventure

The call to adventure is the point in a person’s life when s/he is first given notice that everything is going to change, whether they know it or not.

  1. Refusal of Call/Reluctant Hero

Often when the call is given, the future hero refuses to heed it. This may be from a sense of duty or obligation, fear, insecurity, a sense of inadequacy, or any of a range of reasons that work to hold the person in his or her current circumstances.

  1. Meeting Wise Mentor

Once the hero has committed to the quest, consciously or unconsciously, his or her guide and magical helper appears, or becomes known.

  1. The First Threshold

This is the point where the person actually crosses into the field of adventure, leaving the known limits of his or her world and venturing into an unknown and dangerous realm where the rules and limits are not known.

  1. Tests, Allies and Enemies

The road of trials is a series of tests, tasks, or ordeals that the person must undergo to begin the transformation. Often the person fails one or more of these tests, which often occur in 3s.

  1. Supreme Ordeal

This is sometimes described as the person’s lowest point or darkest moment. The separation has been made between the old world and old self and the potential for a new world/self. By entering this stage, the person shows her/his willingness to make a change, to die and become a new person.

  1. Revisiting the Mentor

The person revisits the teachings of an old mentor or meets and learns from a new mentor and subsequently returns to the path s/he started on.

  1. Return with New Knowledge

The trick in returning is to retain the wisdom gained on the quest, to integrate that wisdom into a human life, and then maybe figure out how to share the wisdom with the rest of the world. This is usually extremely difficult. Just as the hero may need guides and assistants to set out on the quest, often times he or she must have powerful guides and rescuers to bring them back to everyday life, especially if the person has been wounded or weakened by the experience.

  1. Seizing the Sword (or Prize)

Here the hero confronts and defeats old enemies with the new power and knowledge gained. S/he is able to overthrow or defeat the opponent.

  1. Resurrection

The old self dies physically or spiritually and moves beyond the normal human state. This is a god-like state where the hero acknowledges her/his new stature. Another way of looking at this step is that it is a period of rest, peace and fulfillment before the hero begins the return.

  1. Return with Elixir*

The return with elixir is the achievement of the goal of the quest. It is what the person went on the journey to get. All the previous steps serve to prepare and purify the person for this step, since in many myths the elixir is like a plant, or a magic potion or medicine, that supplies immortality. For a human hero, it means achieving a balance between material and spiritual world. There is freedom to live and freedom from the fear of death. This is sometimes referred to as “living in the moment”.

*magic potion or medicine


Of course, the thing with this is that it doesn’t have to be about swords and potions. It can be about marriage and love. It can be about ray guns and spaceships.  It can be about self worth and bullies.

A really great and compact version of a perfect Hero’s Journey is the webseries “The Legend of Neil” (warning! NSFW!).  By some of the same folks who brought you The Guild, the Legend of Neil is about a regular looser who gets sucked into a game of Zelda and must learn to be a hero against his will.  He WANTS to be a hero and save the Princess Zelda (so he can get laid), but his FLAW is that he’s a lazy whiner who only thinks of himself.  It plays out the Hero’s Journey in an entertaining, engaging, and thoughtful way, and it’s also a really great example because it’s a completed story.

Also check out The Key To Writing Damn Good Fiction, Using the Power of Myth by James N. Frey
#3 Stories must have narrative structure


Okay – so you’ve figured out who you want to tell the story about, what their WANTS and FLAWS are, the sort of world they live in, and where their major struggle will lay. Now it’s time to actually PLOT the story.

As I said yesterday, there are two types of writers who do this different ways. The Planners make very detailed notes and charts about what is going to happen to whom, in what order, and why.  The Pantsers have a vauge idea of what the thrust and ending of the book should be, and write without a plan, seeing where the story takes them. I’m a hybrid species, where I usually write the ending first and then go back to the beginning and figure out how to get my characters there.

Gustav Freytag put together a graph of what the common conflict-based narrative looks like:

From Wikipedia

There’s more explanation in the link above, but generally the graph can be broken out like this:

Exposition – in which we learn about the hero and why we should care about them. We also learn a little about their WANTS and FLAWS.

Triggering Event – the event in which the hero is forced to do something or go somewhere by an outside force, that sets them on the path of achieving their WANT.

Rising Action – in which the antagonist appears and proceeds to thwart the hero in pursuit of their WANT, usually by exploiting the hero’s FLAWS. The hero struggles here, and often times considers turning back. They then learn or realize that they are the only person who can stop the antagonist and go forward, and usually correct  their FLAWS.

Climax – in which the antagonist is defeated and the hero achieves his WANT.

Falling Action – in which the hero returns home triumphant but ultimately changed, and uses his new knowledge to benefit his society or close circle of peers.

Also check out: “Conflict and Character Within Story Structure” over on the Elements of Writing a Novel blog.


At every stage, ask yourself WHY.

WHY is this character the one I want to focus on?
WHY do they WANT that?
WHY is that their FLAW?
WHY are they struggling with that element?
WHY does the antagonist want to thwart them?
WHY doesn’t someone else do it instead, WHY does it have to be my hero?
WHY do they need to travel there, or not travel there?


Then answer that WHY within the book.

And the scariest WHY of all… WHY do I feel this story needs telling?  WHY do I need to sit down and spend all this time and mental energy on this narrative?

My answers to that WHY are generally – a) because I want to make a comment on this or that thing, and my book will do that, b) I want to start a discussion on that theme, c) I love to tell stories and I want to tell this one, d) I love these people I have created and I want to share them with my readers, e)I might actually go crazy if I keep all these people pent up between the confines of my skull.

Also check out my blog post on Why I Write.


For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

JM FreyWords for Writers: How To Structure A Story
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