Lemony Snicket Proves I Can Love Literary Fiction

This is a review — a word which here means, “an excuse to write about a book that I like” — for the book, Poison for Breakfast. This book was written by Daniel Handler, who sometimes calls himself Lemony Snicket when he’s writing books. He mostly uses straightforward language, and when he doesn’t, he likes to define the words he’s using, as I just did, above.

Poison for Breakfast is a book that takes its time getting where it’s going, but it does get there. So I’m going to take my time getting where I’m going in this review. I’ll start by talking about music and books.

How I’ve Felt About Music

I first recall really paying attention to music, beginning to realize that I might have opinions about music, in middle school. Those opinions were mainly whether I liked a particular song or not. For some music lovers, there is a particular genre they fall in love with, and it becomes a lifelong passion. I had no conception of genre, at first. That came sometime later.

When I did develop opinions about genre, they were mostly vague and negative ones, influenced, if not outright parroting, my parents’ tastes. I recall “hating” techno, rap, and country music, or at least saying that I did.

As I grew into an adult, I made it a point of pride to seek out opinions and ideas that challenge or conflict with my own beliefs, whether that be in politics, religion, or music. I’ve been an adult for many years now (a shocking number, when I stop to think about it), and I’ve sought to listen to a wide variety of music. Luckily, we live in a world where there are still a few independent radio stations and innumerable streaming services, not to mention Bandcamp, YouTube, and all the other places where artists can make their work available to the world without much interference.

I’ve learned that there is no genre of music I truly dislike. The trick is to find a single song that I can appreciate. From there, I always find more. Rather than genres that I “hate,” it turns out I just have genres where I’m pickier.

A Little Cognitive Dissonance

From a very young age, I’ve been attracted to genre fiction. I loved books about aliens when I was a child. Around the time I was discovering opinions about music, my mother’s co-worker introduced me to The Lord of the Rings, and from there I was thoroughly hooked on fantasy as well as sci-fi.

As I grew and my tastes in music expanded, so did my tastes in literature. Once again, all it takes is finding one book to serve as a gateway into a new genre. While I once may have eschewed non-fiction or romance, I’ve discovered a love of all sorts of non-fiction in recent years, and a few romances too (even if they do have a sci-fi bent).

I just talked about how I like to keep an open mind and expand my interests. It might seem absurd then, that I would shy away from any genre of literature. But the absurdity of it doesn’t make it any less true.

Literary fiction, which oddly has become as much a closed-off genre as sci-fi or fantasy, has long left a bitter taste in my mouth. Since this is a label more controversial than most genre labels, I’ll provide my own controversial definition: “fiction that is more interested in playing with words than in telling a compelling story.” This is a definition that encompasses quite a lot of “traditional” Lit-Fic, while also allowing something like Vandermeer’s Dead Astronauts, which many people might exclude, to perhaps straddle the border.

I might trace my early dislikes in music to my parents tastes, but I have a harder time tracing my literary dislikes. I’m sure it didn’t help that school foisted onto me some of these lit-fic “masterpieces,” like Catcher in the Rye or The Great Gatsby, without adequate context and certainly before I was mature enough to appreciate much about them. I have gone back to a few of these books in recent years, and discovered that they at least have something to offer, even if I didn’t fall in love with all of them.

Literary Fiction

Writing a review of a book that barely mentions the book itself is considered bad form by many people. With this in mind, and having now taken a leisurely drive around the metaphorical block, let’s return to where we started this somewhat strained music/literature metaphor.

This is one of those books that, by my own definition, qualifies as literary fiction. And I enjoyed it quite a lot. Not only that, but what I enjoyed most was the words, rather than the story. I enjoyed it because it was literary fiction.

One could argue (with good supporting evidence) that this book does have a plot. It begins with Snicket, the narrator, who is told by anonymous note that he has eaten poison for breakfast. He spends the rest of the book trying to solve this mystery, though his methods mostly involve meandering around town and becoming lost in thought. It’s a tiny plot, but also a tiny book. This little bit of story is just enough to let the book focus on what it really wants to do, which is play with words.

Poison for Breakfast is so full of delightful sentences that I started marking the bits I liked with little scraps of paper. By the time I finished, there was a nice, thick ruffle of scraps sticking out. The book is full of anecdotes and asides that seem like non sequiturs until you read a bit further and find that they’re referenced again and again; linguistic winks and nods, like inside jokes with the reader. It wraps back around on itself. It pulls disparate threads together and twists them into delightful and surprising shapes.

There are motifs, like sets of rules that turn out to really only be one rule from a certain point of view, or that a good story must be bewildering, or the contents of the narrator’s breakfast, left-justified like poetry with each individual food on its own line:


with honey,

a piece of toast

with cheese,

one sliced pear,

and one egg perfectly prepared

And there is death. This is a book that mentions brutal prison camps; and death by starvation, and old age, and of course, poison.

Winks and Nods

A book about being poisoned might not sound like a child-friendly book. And perhaps it isn’t. Like Snicket’s other books, this is a book that observes the world with a child-like wonder, and discusses it with mostly simple and straightforward language. It’s a book that seems to understand a child’s perspective. It is more of a child-understanding book. It feels like the sort of conversation you might have been lucky enough to have as a child, with an adult who spoke seriously and honestly, and didn’t sugar-coat the truth or dumb-down the complicated. An adult who understood how to speak with children as equals.

By virtue of being both author and narrator, Snicket places himself where he can freely talk about his love of language and literature, and the books, poems, songs, and ideas he likes, while also illustrating that joy in his own words.

The second-to-last chapter takes all the little callbacks, the little winks and nods, and ties them all together in a neat little bundle. It’s the big reveal at the end of the magic show. And in the final chapter, Snicket sets to work writing the story you are in the midst of reading, making the whole thing feel like the cycle of chicken and egg (which is itself another repeated motif from earlier in the book).

Poison or Antidote?

Poison for Breakfast reminded me that I can love literary fiction, even if it’s not the first section I visit in the book store. As an added bonus, this is a book ostensibly for children, so I will get to enjoy it a second time when I read it to mine. With any luck, they won’t spend years thinking that they dislike whole categories of things when they are, in fact, just a little bit picky.

Reblog: Crutch Words – the Word Police — D. Wallace Peach

Today’s reblog is a helpful reminder of some words that can feel good when you’re in the process of writing, but don’t pull their weight. I know I have my own list of personal “favorites” that I search down and excise from early drafts.

Crutch words are words that add nothing to the meaning of a sentence. They’re hollow words that we automatically insert and frequently don’t notice. We want our writing to be tight and sharp. Too many crutch words will slow down the pace and dull the impact.

An interesting thing about crutch words is that we often have favorites. You may never use some words from the list below and use others more than you want to admit!

Read the rest over at Myths of the Mirror…

Games for People Who Prefer to Read — The Stanley Parable

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to personify different types of media for a moment.

Literature is the eldest. From flash fiction to the longest novels, it has been thoroughly explored. Comfortable in its tropes and standard structures, but permitting all kinds of experimentalism. Home to derivative commercial fiction and plotless literary meanderings.

Cinema, and its fraternal twin, television, are mature adults, but perhaps not quite as well-explored as their venerable older sibling. With the advent of ubiquitous streaming, we’re seeing new and exciting forms that break the strict boundaries of commercial viability that have constrained them for so much of their history.

Finally, there are video games. Just blooming into their teenage years, they have realized with a thrill that they can become something more than what they currently are, but are still not quite sure what they want to be when they grow up.

The Stanley Parable

The Stanley Parable is indicative of these teenage growing pains, grappling with the questions of experience and participation that we’ve discussed here before. The game is nearly a decade old, and the narrative ideas that it pioneered have been expanded in other games since then. However, a new expanded edition is coming early next year, so now seems like a great time to talk about it.

The game begins with a black screen and cheerful, perhaps cheeky music plays as we zoom slowly through a very dull office building. We land in a particular drab office, facing the uninteresting back of a man in front of his computer.

The very British narrator sets the scene:

This is the story of a man named Stanley. Stanley worked for a company in a big building where he was employee # 427. Employee # 427’s job was simple: he sat at his desk in room 427 and he pushed buttons on a keyboard. Orders came to him through a monitor on his desk, telling him what buttons to push, how long to push them, and in what order. This is what employee 427 did every day of every month of every year, and although others might have considered it soul rending, Stanley relished every moment that the orders came in, as though he had been made exactly for this job. And Stanley was happy.

And then one day, something very peculiar happened, something that would forever change Stanley, something he would never quite forget. He had been at his desk for nearly an hour when he realized that not one, single order had arrived on the monitor for him to follow. No one had shown up to give him instructions, call a meeting, or even say hi. Never in all his years at the company had this happened, this complete isolation. Something was very clearly wrong. Shocked, frozen solid, Stanley found himself unable to move for the longest time, but as he came to his wits and regained his senses, he got up from his desk and stepped out of his office.

At this moment, when the player first gains control of Stanley, the game has already hinted at its objectives. Stanley has been made exactly for this job. He has been frozen solid, unable to move, as he waits for the player to finish the cut-scene. The player and Stanley have exactly one way to proceed: get up from the desk and step out of the office.

It is this interplay between the player and The Narrator that The Stanley Parable is all about.

The Meta-Narrative

A single play-through of The Stanley Parable is short and strange, and not especially profound. It might elicit a few chuckles. It might be a bit uncomfortable. And then the scene fades and Stanley and the player find themselves back in the office, starting over. The game is not in the play, but in the replay. The peculiarities of The Stanley Parable only become apparent when playing the game over and over again.

As the player, you soon discover that you can make choices that change the story. In fact, your choices have such a radical effect on the story that it is completely different and often contradictory between playthroughs. Strangely, this mish-mash of alternative stories makes any one version of it seem less and less significant. You may like or dislike particular stories, but the game doesn’t tell you how to win or lose. As a player, the most obvious goal is to explore and discover all the different ways to “complete” the game.

In this way, the narrative becomes unimportant. It’s the meta-narrative that matters.

Through playing over and over again, you also discover that you can interact with The Narrator himself. He does his best to describe what you’re doing, and what you’re going to do. He explains that you’ll go left at the fork, and the you can make him a liar by choosing to go right. He explains that there’s nothing of interest in that broom closet, but you can choose to sit there anyway, much to The Narrator’s consternation.

And yet, this is a false rebellion. The Narrator is just another character in the story. Even if you fight the story he has planned for you at every juncture, you’re still choosing from options that have been meticulously planned by the developers of the game. You can foil The Narrator, but you’re still playing into the hands of the developers.

You have choices, and those choices have consequences…for a little bit. Then the game starts over. The world begins anew. The Stanley Parable asks if those choices—choices pre-defined and wiped away after each reset—have any meaning. Can any choices in a video game have any meaning when they only have consequences within the game, and perhaps, within the player?

A Light Touch

These are heady questions, and a lesser game might find itself mired in dull philosophy. However, The Stanley Parable couches everything in absurdism. It alternates constantly between the bizarre and the mundane. Kevan Brighting’s voice acting as The Narrator provides dry wit and hammy over-acting in equal measure.

The game is enjoyable even if you only pay attention to the surface-level silliness. But it gives the player the opportunity to dig deeper, if they so choose. Chances are good that some of the well-hidden story paths will slip by even a dedicated player without a guide, giving the impression that the game just keeps getting more subtle and strange as you invest more time into it. A quick google search for “the meaning of The Stanley Parable” will make it clear that plenty of players have chosen to dig very, very deep into the game. Honestly, maybe a little too deep.

And Even More?

It’ll be interesting to see what The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe edition adds to the original game. This is a game that really affected the landscape of narrative games in the eight years since its release, but that also means that it’s no longer necessarily on the cutting edge.

The marketing copy suggests there will be “new endings and new choices,” which again is merely the surface-level experience that the game offers. More interesting to me will be any new directions the developers take the meta-narrative ideas of the first game. Will it be derivative of the original, or introduce something new?

Getting the Game

The original Stanley Parable is available on PC via Steam.

Despite several delays, the Stanley Parable Ultra Deluxe is expected in 2022, on Steam and consoles.

Restarting A Writing Project

This past week, I started working on Razor Mountain again after taking about a week and a half off. It wasn’t too tough to get back in the swing of things, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t take me longer than usual to finish that chapter. And it was really a struggle getting that first sentence out. This particular break was a much-needed rest, and it helped me to recharge and get excited about writing again. It also got me thinking about coming back to old projects.

I have to admit, consistency has never been my biggest strength. I’ve tried to develop a daily writing habit many times, but I doubt it has ever lasted more than a month. I’m the kind of writer that vacillates between periods of productivity and…well, not productivity.

I often find that getting the motivation to write is as big of a challenge as the actual writing. As many authors have said, I don’t always like to write, but I like having written. That motivation can be even harder to find when I’ve let a project falter in the middle. Whether it has been a day, a week, a month or longer, it can be a struggle to pick up where I left off.

Tips for Starting Again

In some ways, the challenge of coming back to a half-finished project is just a very specific form of writer’s block. You may have forgotten where you left off, you may be uncertain where you want to go, you may have forgotten the names of all the minor characters, or you may simply have a hard time getting excited about the thing again. Each of these blocks can be overcome.

Read/Edit the Story So Far

This may seem obvious, but one of the easiest ways to get back into a story is to read what you already have. This can be daunting if you’re halfway through a novel, so you might start with the most recent chapter and see how you feel.

When I reread my work, especially an early draft, I have an immediate desire to edit. That often isn’t the most effective use of time when the work is still unfinished, but in this case it may be a desire worth indulging. Editing is still writing, and it can be a gentle way to ease back into the process. Once I’ve read through the most recent chapter and edited out all the ugly phrasings and typos that popped out to me, I find myself at the end of that chapter, all warmed up and ready to start filling the next empty page.

Read Your Notes

If you’re working on a large enough project that you were taking notes on the side, these can be a much better way of getting back into that “author headspace” than simply reading the story itself. I like to think that my important themes and ideas are going to be obvious on the page, and I’d immediately pick them up on re-reading, but the truth is that most of my first drafts lack that sort of detail.

A few notes on a character’s obsessions or their back-story might be more helpful than the most recent chapter or two. You’ve already written where the characters have been. To move forward, you have to focus on where they’re going.

Start Somewhere Exciting

Sometimes, the place you left off just doesn’t excite you. If that’s the case, don’t be afraid to skip ahead or back-track. Ask yourself if the story seems to have gone off-track, or if you’re just more interested in something you know is coming up. It’s okay to jump to the exciting part to get back into writing mode.

This may feel weird if you’re not used to writing out-of-order, but it can actually be good practice. Just think of it as a non-linear story. Jumping ahead doesn’t mean you can’t go back and fill in the blanks later. You may even find that something from the “future” of the story makes going back to write the “past” more interesting.

Ask if It’s Good—or Why You Stopped

On that same note, being bored with a story can be a warning sign. If you stopped because the story wasn’t holding your interest, and you come back to find that you still don’t want to write that part, it may just not be good. That faint sound you hear is Maud Newton in the distance, trying to tell you “Don’t Write the Tedious Thing!”

Try to remember what drew you to these ideas in the first place. Instead of struggling to finish the story you don’t actually want to write, take the time to find the story you’re excited about, and get back to writing that.

Don’t Be Afraid of Breaks

When I took my (relatively short) vacation from Razor Mountain, I was worried about pausing, about losing momentum. The truth is that it was a much needed break, and I felt remarkably refreshed afterward. It took a bit of effort to get started again, but once I had, I found that the words flowed just as well as they always had: sometimes easily, sometimes haltingly, but they were still there to be found, somewhere just above and behind my eyeballs.

If you’re worried about “falling off the wagon,” it helps to have practiced. I happen to be an expert starter-and-stopper, so I know that it can be painful to start again, but I also know that I can. I’ve done it many times before.

You might be able to make it easier on yourself. You can plan it out like a writing vacation, with beginning and end dates. You can leave yourself an exciting spot to start back up, in a scene you love, perhaps even mid-sentence, instead of waiting for some painful sticking spot to take a hiatus. You can leave some notes for your future self to remind you of all the wonderful threads you’re in the process of spinning.

In the end, it’s important to remember that writing is a physical task as well as a mental one. You put down one word after another. Finish a sentence and start the next. If you can do that, you’re writing again.

From the Blogroll: Aeryn Rudel’s Rejectomancy

Aeryn Rudel is a sometimes-editor, sometimes-RPG-designer, and writer of stories. In fact, he is an unstoppable story writing machine.

On his Rejectomancy blog, he talks about various writing topics, but what I find most interesting is his thorough documentation of the sheer quantity of short stories and flash fiction he writes, along with his submission, acceptance, and rejection numbers.

There’s plenty of advice out there about writing and submitting short stories to publications, but I haven’t found another person who is so thorough in documenting their own personal experience. He really embodies the idea that writers should embrace rejection as a natural part of the publishing process and build up a thick skin.

Earlier this month, he compiled some interesting information and advice to commemorate his 500th rejection, a feat that took him almost ten years of submissions.

Check it out over at Aeryn Rudel’s Rejectomancy.


This post is a bit more off-the-cuff than my usual essay-style posts about writing. It’s not prescriptive. I don’t have any conclusions or answers. I just have a few things I felt like talking about.

Writer’s Block vs. Burnout

Writer’s block is wanting to write, but finding yourself unable to get the words out. It is perpetually romanticized (by some writers, and some non-writers). If you do a google search, you’ll find millions of suggestions for how to “break through” writer’s block. I’ve made my own contributions.

Burnout, on the other hand, is losing even the desire to write. It’s writing depression; it’s losing the joy or even interest in the stories that compelled us to write in the first place.

The Grinding Gears of the Content Machine

Gone are the days when writers would toil away quietly, hidden from the public eye, perhaps producing a novel every couple of years. (Or wait, was there ever really such a time?)

To be a successful writer today, you are expected to do everything. If you’re a traditionally published midlist author, publishers are doing less and less for you. You’re expected to do more of the marketing and promotion. If you’re self-publishing, then you not only have to do everything yourself, but you’re probably paying out of your own pocket for services like editing and layout. Either way, you need to have a social media presence on a list of sites that changes every few years. You need to be entertaining. You need a Substack newsletter. You need to dance on TikTok with your book, or some shit.

The publishing industry is a massive beast, and it’s slow to change, but it’s clearly moving in the same direction as other modern media. The focus isn’t on making something amazing occasionally, it’s on making a constant stream of “content.” It’s quantity over quality, the obsession with capturing views and the fear that if you give anyone a reason to glance away, even for a moment, they’ll forget about you and never come back.

Earlier this week, I reblogged Lincoln Michel’s post, subtitled “Why are we more comfortable talking about output than art?” That was right about the time when I realized I was falling into exactly that trap.

Background Radiation

Stress is like background radiation. COVID has been stressful, but things are improving, right? It was really bad, and now it’s…better? It’s pretty hard to tell. I used to work in an office, and I’m still working from home. My kids are back in school, but they’re wearing the mandatory masks. Everything is just not quite right. Just a little bit tainted.

I have no intent to talk about politics on this blog, but political strife has come to permeate more and more of modern American life. Where you live is a political choice now. The car you drive is a political choice. Where you work is a political choice. And, of course, how you’re dealing with COVID is a deeply, deeply political choice. It taints everything it touches: a slow poison in the air.

These are the kinds of background radiation that most of us are dealing with every day. I feel bad even complaining about it, because others have it so much worse than I do. But that stress wears away our defenses. It weakens us in body and mind. Winter and the upcoming holidays pile a little more on top.

That building stress level didn’t really come front-and-center in my consciousness until this Friday, when the software development world collectively freaked the hell out over this thing now known as Log4shell, and my entire team got to drop everything we were working on to frantically search for possible exploits and figure out whatever mitigation was needed. Probably the worst computer security issue found in the last year or two.

Oddly enough, that huge stress spike in my day job helped me to realize the stress I had been putting myself under when it came to my writing. Somehow, it snuck up without me realizing. Nothing like realizing you’re sad and have been for a while.

Observing the Signs and Portents

In my February 2021 “State of the Blog” post, I mentioned a two-posts-per-week schedule. I talked about building up a buffer of pre-written posts. Even a whole month’s worth! And maybe, just maybe, adding a third post per week. After all, I was being careful to avoid burn-out.

In my August 2021 “State of the Blog” post, I had apparently given up on the two-month buffer. But I talked about adding a third post to the weekly schedule. Maybe. Sometimes.

I was certainly up to three posts per week when I began actually publishing chapters of Razor Mountain at the start of November. That threw the existing schedule out the window. I decided I would post a chapter of Razor Mountain each week, while still doing a weekly development journal and a weekly post about writing. That left me scheduled to write 4-5 posts per week. And my stats show that I have indeed posted 4-5 times every week from the start of November until last week.

It can also be observed that pretty much every chapter development journal contains some mention of “falling behind.” Despite having one chapter written when I started, I was behind my self-imposed schedule by Chapter 3, and pretty much unable to keep up from that point forward. That makes sense when I had been steadily increasing my expected output. Unfortunately, the power of wishful thinking makes it sometimes seem reasonable to start behind schedule and not only catch up, but get ahead.

In short, it’s easy to get caught up in a self-determined schedule despite that schedule being objectively unreasonable. In my case, I really wanted to be able to finish publishing the book in a year, and I did not want to consider evidence that the schedule was not practical for me.

The Creative Pathology

I am a naturally lazy person. I am the sort of person who absolutely delights in staying up until 1:00 or 2:00 AM, and then will happily sleep past noon. I love to spend a Sunday playing video games all damn day. Without an external stimulus, I am capable of truly astonishing feats of procrastination.

Yet, in complete opposition to this laziness, I am a person deeply concerned with my legacy (as pretentious as that word sounds). I’m terrified of dying without leaving behind any artifacts that somehow prove my worth. Is a life worthwhile if it doesn’t leave behind ample evidence?

Intellectually, I know that’s ridiculous. Emotionally, it’s a feeling I can’t shake. I’m Ozymandias, from the famous Shelley poem.

No matter what we leave behind, memory is always temporary. Some lives are remembered longer than others, but nothing lasts forever. We’ll all be broken statues in the desert eventually.

Still, this dichotomy is probably what drives me to create more than anything else. I know that I can easily fall back to that default state of lethargy. I’ve certainly done it before. There’s a sort of frantic worry somewhere down deep that if I ever stop, I won’t be able to start back up again. The feeling that I need that inertia. Moderation has never worked well for me. It’s just a stepping stone back into apathy.

I don’t think that kind of internal push and pull is healthy, but I suspect it’s the sort of engine that drives a lot of creative people. We’re all Ozymandias, trying to not be forgotten.

(a typical gathering of writers)


In a deeply ironic twist, while I was worrying about my output, WordPress came around like an excited puppy and informed me that I hit a new record for page views in a single day. Someone sharing a link or a new reader going through the back catalog still gives me more of a bump in readership than a typical post.

So, is it really worth stressing about?

No. That’s probably obvious from the outside looking in. It’s just a blog. It’s just a novel. If there’s anything I take away from all this, it’s that it’s very easy for things to feel more important in a given moment than they are in the long-term.

I’ve taken a week off the novel, and I might take more. I’ll take a little bit of holiday vacation to de-stress. And I’ll pick back up where I left off and keep writing, maybe not worrying quite so much about schedules and the endless churn of “content.”

Reblog: Writing Is about the Right Words, not the MOST Words — Lincoln Michel

I posted a couple months back about my experience with NaNoWriMo, and how it works well for some writers, and pretty terribly for others. In his post, Lincoln identifies a key problem with the popular (Twitter) discourse around writing that goes hand-in-hand with NaNoWriMo: the tendency to obsess over quantity of output instead of the end result.

This is a problem we see in business all the time: when useful metrics are hard to find or hard to measure, managers will often try to measure bad metrics, and workers will optimize to excel at those metrics rather than trying to get the best results.

But the general attitude is one I see all the time. Writers are often less comfortable talking about aesthetics than productivity. They’ll brag about the years they worked on something or the number of drafts they’ve done. It’s as if they aren’t making art but operating a plastic pellet factory. “Check out this optimized output!” And I get it. Art is hard to talk about.

Read the rest over at Counter Craft…


This happened a couple weeks ago, but I figured it was worth a mention.

It’s not exactly a huge number, but it’s something. Looking back, what’s more interesting than the actual number is that the first ~500 took eight or nine months, while the second ~500 took about four months.

Anyway, thanks for reading, and special thanks to the regulars. Seeing the same names in my notifications each week makes me think I must be doing something you like.

Mapping Dialogue

Dialogue is a cornerstone of fiction. It’s also one of the hardest things to write well. Dialogue isn’t like real life conversation. Let’s face it—real conversation is often not that interesting to someone not directly involved, and doesn’t always serve a purpose. Dialogue in fiction can’t afford to be dull and meandering. It has to be pulling its weight.

Mapping dialogue is a way to plan, analyze, or fix dialogue by looking at what it contributes to the story. It’s all about deciding what the dialogue should accomplish, and then figuring out how it can accomplish it. It won’t turn dull dialogue into snappy conversation—but it will ensure that the dialogue is at least moving the story forward.

Dialogue mapping can be used when outlining or planning, to make sure the dialogue achieves a narrative goal. It can also be used in revision to tighten up dialogue that isn’t getting the job done.

Finding Purpose

Dialogue, like anything included in a story, should have a purpose. If it has no purpose, it can be safely left out, the way you’d leave out a character’s irrelevant breakfast, or that bathroom break they took between scenes.

To understand the purpose of a given conversation, you need to look at the state of the story before and after. What does the conversation change? In what way does it move the story forward? You can think of this in terms of how the dialogue contributes to the MICE quotient thread that contains it. The conversation itself may also be a small thread of its own. Either way, it needs to contribute to the bigger picture in some way, or the story is just treading water.

Since a conversation consists of two or more characters, this before-and-after effect can be broken down for each person. Each character has their own goals, and each character may change, or change their goals as a result of the conversation.

  1. What is the state of each character at the start of the conversation?
  2. What does each character want at the start of the conversation (in the story, and in this particular interaction)?
  3. What is the state of each character after the conversation?
  4. How has each character’s goals changed after the conversation?

These individual character differences add up to form the total change in the story from a given piece of dialogue.

Dialogue is Conflict

Dialogue has two main story purposes: information sharing, and conflict. However, information sharing isn’t terribly interesting without some sort of associated conflict. It can become interesting if the information is incomplete, incorrect, or not given freely.

As an example, consider a detective trying to solve a murder. If they ask the witness, and the witness explains exactly who the killer was, how they did it, and why, then the story isn’t interesting. However, if the witness only saw a fraction of what happened, the detective has to make inferences and combine information from other sources to solve the crime. If the witness doesn’t want to help, the detective needs to find a way to change their mind or trick them. If they lie, the detective needs to discover the lie. These “twists” on basic information sharing are all forms of conflict between the characters.

This conflict is caused by interactions between the characters’ goals:

  • Characters with similar or identical goals may try to work together toward a common cause. In this case, the conflict is something external that they team up to fight.
  • Characters with opposing goals will try to succeed at the expense of each other. One or the other may end up “winning” the conversation, or it may end in more of a tie, with the tension remaining or ramping up. They may get something useful from the conversation, or it may just increase their animosity for one another.
  • Characters with different, but not opposing goals may make a trade where both try to gain something from the conversation.

Action in Dialogue

Sometimes characters just talk, and sometimes they act without speaking, but often the two go hand-in-hand. When mapping out dialogue, it’s important to consider the actions that the characters will be taking while they talk. Are they just sitting in a room, or are they in the middle of a heist, trading quips between the safe-cracking and zipping down elevator cables?

Scenes can really start to pop when the characters’ actions in a scene drive one thread of the plot, while the characters’ dialogue in that same scene drives a different thread. The two characters may be stealing the diamond so they can pay off their debts to the deadly villain, but they can also be flirting in a way that ramps up the sexual tension, or trying to work out which of their fellow criminals ratted them both out.

Of course, sometimes the action and the dialogue go hand-in-hand, both advancing the same story thread. But beware scenes where only the action or dialogue is doing work. Meaningless dialogue during important action, or vice-versa, is a missed opportunity.

Charting a Course

Here’s a simple example with some of our heist dialogue in a table with a column for each character, and actions (in parentheses).

(slides down elevator shaft first)(slides down elevator shaft second)
Comments about the view from below. 
 Asks about Boris’s suspicious behavior recently. Is he the traitor?
She trusts Boris—he saved her in Amsterdam. 
(Works on the vault lock until it opens)(keeps watch)
Asks about Rocky—he knew things about her dad that he shouldn’t. 
 Agrees that Rocky is suspicious. He seemed to be snooping when they were planning the job.

The important thing is to list out the segments in order. Dialogue is give and take. In a typical conversation, each segment will lead logically into the next. When mapping dialogue, it typically looks like a series of actions and reactions.

Sometimes the characters will exhaust a topic and move on to something else, but even that requires planning. If one of the characters has more to say, they may not want to shift topics. If there is a break, one of the characters will usually start a new topic that pertains to their goals at that point in the conversation.

Mapping in Revision

Dialogue maps can be useful for editing, by providing a tool to analyze dialogue that’s already written. If a piece of dialogue doesn’t feel right, a dialogue map can reveal structural problems. Does the conversation flow naturally from the characters’ starting points and goals? Is there conflict? Does the flow of the segments back and forth make sense? Do the characters leave the conversation with new goals or knowledge? What changed?

Because dialogue maps are a structural tool, they won’t help with voice. A piece of dialogue can be perfectly functional in pushing the story forward, but still come across as stilted and artificial. Dialogue maps describe the content of the conversation, but not the exact wording.

The other important function of dialogue maps in revision is in making sure that changes to dialogue don’t break the structure. I often find that I want to change something that a character says in the middle of a conversation. Maybe I come up with a single line that I really want to include. Because of the nature of dialogue as back-and-forth, one change can result in another character’s response no longer making sense. Sometimes a change to one segment requires that the next segment change, and the next segment, and so on.

With a dialogue map in hand, it’s much easier to embark on this kind of reworking with an understanding of what that conversation has to accomplish. Even completely replacing the entire conversation is possible, so long as it starts and ends with the same character states and goals, and the appropriate action still happens.

To Map or Not to Map?

Depending on how you write, you may want to do some dialogue mapping before writing, as a guide through the conversation. It can be especially useful when more than two characters are involved or there’s a lot going on in a given scene.

If you’re less inclined to plan, you can always write first and ask questions later. Mapping dialogue after the fact is a great troubleshooting tool for a scene that feels “off,” or even as a way to decide exactly what a meandering conversation should be about.

Mapping every single conversation may be overkill. It can be a lot of work. But it’s a useful tool in the writer’s toolbox for addressing one of the biggest challenges of writing great stories.

Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 4

This is part of an ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain.

You can find my spoiler-free journals for each chapter, my spoiler-heavy pre-production journals, and the book itself over at the Razor Mountain landing page.


This chapter’s research was all about flights and preserved food.

I had to figure out more of the details of Christopher’s flight plan. I looked up flights from Minneapolis to Anchorage. There are a wide variety of airlines that make the trip, and the flights are typically about 8.5 hours, which is more than I would have guessed. The distortions of the Mercator projection strike again.

I figured if he were headed to someplace less populous, he would probably connect in Anchorage. From Anchorage, I needed it to be a long enough flight to his actual destination that he might reasonably fall asleep and also fly over mountainous wilderness areas. Fairbanks fit the bill pretty well. I haven’t gotten too deep into it in the story, and probably won’t, but Christopher was on a sales trip trying to sell products to electrical utilities. In this case, the GVEA electric cooperative.

Flying from Anchorage to Fairbanks would send him over the Alaska range and would also be somewhat close to Denali National Park and Preserve, a 6-million acre park with a single road entrance and a small airport, McKinley National Park Airport.

While I was searching for info about what it might be like to board a small plane in Anchorage, I found a plane-spotting website and then spent a while going down that rabbit hole. One of the fun things about writing is discovering these random topics and subcultures that I know nothing about. I have absolutely no desire to go somewhere to watch planes, but I love anything where I can hear (or read) someone discussing something they are intensely passionate about.

For the preserved food, all I really needed for this chapter was something portable that Christopher could bring on his hike. However, I’ve been working on a larger list of long-lasting foods to fill the pantry. Christopher’s eats are going to be an ongoing background detail. It’s reasonable for the bunker to be stocked with long-lasting, zero-maintenance foods, but from a story perspective I also want things that preserve the mystery of how long it’s been since someone last used the bunker.

The meaty stuff that Christopher took on his hike is called pemmican. I found it through survivalist websites, although it has been around for centuries. It’s basically dried meat powder mixed with tallow and sometimes berries for flavor. It’s a high-energy food and one of the few meat products that can last for many years when properly prepared.

The final bit of research I had to do was around flint and steel. I was about as familiar as Christopher is. Thanks to a million RPGs and fantasy stories, I knew that these are used to make fire, but I’ve never actually used one. I looked into several different types and how they’re struck, as well as accoutrements like char cloth.

The Breaking Point

In the first three chapters, I found fairly natural break-points where I could split up episodes. This chapter was about 3.5k words, enough that I could theoretically break it into three episodes a little over 1k words each. Unfortunately, I only came across one break-point that I liked. I tried to find a second, but I wasn’t very happy with the placement, and it still would have left me with a very short third episode. Instead, I opted to just break the chapter in half. This ended up bringing me quite close to Tapas’ 15k characters size limit. I hadn’t bothered measuring it before, but it ends up being around 2k words. So this is about as big as an episode is going to get.

This week, having only two episodes worked out well, because I didn’t get all my revisions from feedback done until Tuesday, and I wouldn’t have been able to post three episodes without pushing this post into the weekend. As you can tell, I’m still working on getting ahead of the posting schedule.

I think part of my challenge has been that my chapters are continuing to skew long. Okay, not that long, but in the past I have tended toward ~2,000 word chapters. That may just be my style changing over time, but I’ve been wondering if there are other factors. I produced a more detailed outline for this project than I usually do, so that might have had some impact. I also suspect that I’m cutting fewer words in editing than I would be if I wrote the whole book and then edited all at once, instead of writing and revising the chapters in sequence.

Finding Drama

Christopher has had a bad time so far, but the bunker seems relatively safe. He’s lazy, like me, and he has to fight his instinct to lie low if he’s going to have a chance at being rescued. I tried to get into how he’s feeling toward the end of the chapter, as he realizes that he probably needs to save himself.

It’s a lot harder to dramatize dying slowly by doing nothing than dying quickly in an attempt to escape. Christopher will be facing some of both, but I wanted to lay some groundwork and get the reader into his head space here. He’s not someone who was inclined to take low-stakes risks in life before the start of the story, and he’s finding it hard to think about taking high-stakes risks now.

Back to God-Speaker

We now have three Christopher chapters and only one chapter of God-Speaker, but we’ll be getting back to him next week. I feel more comfortable writing Christopher, so I may have to work a little harder to keep God-Speaker’s chapters entertaining. I’m a little worried that the 2:1 chapter ratio will make him feel too much like a B plot, but that structure is baked-in now, and there’s no going back. Luckily, constraints breed creativity.

See you all next time, for Chapter 5.