on Anne R. Allen: For writers who want to improve their practice in using children’s voices in their work, one of the best places to start is by …How to Create Authentic Children’s Voices in Fiction–and Hold an Adult Reader’s Interest – by Gail Aldwin…
I recently went on a foray into Twitter-size microfiction, a story format so short that it’s challenging to even fit the basic elements of a story. It was a fun exercise in minimalism and editing down to the bare bones, and gave me something to do with a bunch of ideas that I had never found a home for. I wrote 21 of these little gems and I was rather pleased with myself.
Well, that was then, and this is now. I’ve really grown as a creator in the last…uh, month or so. My stories need to grow with me. I simply cannot be contained within the narrow confines of 280 characters. No, I need more.
I’m moving up, friends. Moving up to drabbles. “What are drabbles?” you ask. Drabbles are short stories of exactly 100 words. Yes, that’s an astonishing two or three times the length of an average tweet.
On the one hand, a drabble might be harder to write. In terms of pure labor, it has more words. On the other hand, one of the biggest challenges of microfiction is making a structurally sound, interesting story, within the size limit. So the extra space may make the editing that much easier. More likely, I’ll just be tempted to cram more into that luxurious extra space.
How to Drabble
I’ll admit, I haven’t read very many drabbles, so I thought I had better educate myself. There are some examples by well-known authors (and a bit of history) at meades.org. I also found the site Drablr, where authors have freely published thousands of drabbles. They have section on drabble history and suggestions on how to go about writing one (namely, write a short short story, then edit it until it’s exactly 100 words).
When it comes to Drabble construction advice, I think Connie J. Jasperson has the best take I’ve seen. She says to limit yourself to a setting, one or two characters, a conflict, and a resolution. No subplots, and minimal background. She also suggests a dedicating about 25 words to the opening, 50-60 for the middle, and the remainder for the conclusion (and resolution). Check out the whole post over on her blog.
More to Come
My first attempts at this format will probably be expanded versions of my microfiction. There were several that left a lot on the cutting room floor. I’d like to see if they benefit or suffer when given twice as much breathing room. I plan to write some “fresh” ones as well, to get the full experience of writing drabbles from scratch.
It’s worth mentioning a notable benefit to writing drabbles instead of tweet-sized microfiction: drabbles are more practical to sell to online and print magazines and journals. In fact, there are markets like The Martian magazine that only publish drabbles. If there are markets for tweet-stories, I haven’t seen them.
I’m guessing drabbles are going to be a bit harder to write than my microfiction stories, but I’ll have a follow-up post once I’ve finished a few, to describe the experience.
When it comes to crafting your characters, one important thing to include is motivation. It’s not just because motivation will get the story moving forward, but because it will also help you create well-rounded characters readers will relate to and become invested in. If that sounds like something you want to include in your book, […]Character Motivation: Tips And Tricks — K.M. Allan
As I’ve been working on the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain, I’ve recently been thinking about plot holes. Razor Mountain is a “puzzle box” story driven by mysteries. While any story can fall victim to plot holes, this type of story is especially susceptible.
I’m doing a few things with Razor Mountain specifically to try to catch and fix plot holes, and I plan to talk about those in my usual development journals. Today, I want to talk more generally about plot holes — what they are, how to find them, and how to fix them.
Two Layers of Story
There are a million ways to dissect and study stories, but for now I want to look at two layers: the action layer and the motivation layer.
The action layer is the “what” of the story. What happens? Who does what? The motivation layer is the “why” of the story. Why do the characters behave the way they do? For a story to have depth, it needs both of these layers. For it to make sense to the reader, the motivation layer should drive the action layer. If the action isn’t being driven by the motivations of the characters, then the plot is either arbitrary, or the characters have little agency in their own story.
Both layers can have plot holes, but holes in the action layer look different from holes in the motivation layer.
What Exactly is a Plot Hole?
For my purposes, I’m defining plot holes as any time when story elements at a particular point don’t lead logically into the story elements that follow. The reader has to stop and say, “Wait, why did that happen?”
Holes appear in the action layer when something happens that shouldn’t be physically possible. If the butler was trapped in the cellar in chapter two, then how can he be serving tea to the duchess in chapter four as if nothing happened? Holes appear in the motivation layer when actions don’t make sense based on a character’s motives or personality. Lucy hates Rachel, and we’ve seen that Lucy only helps her close friends. Why would she step in and defend Rachel when their teacher accuses her of cheating?
Action layer holes are usually obvious once they’re pointed out. That thing that happened is impossible. Did the author forget a scene? Did they lose track of the order of events, or simply overlook that particular instance of cause and effect?
Motivation layer holes are less straightforward. Character motivations are more nebulous than the physical reality of the action layer. Just as it isn’t always easy to understand why real people do what they do (or even why we ourselves act in a certain way!), it’s not always easy to understand why characters take action. Often, as authors, we want to be circumspect and only gently imply a character’s motivations, instead of beating the reader over the head with precise, detailed explanations of why the character does what they do.
How Plot Holes Happen
It’s certainly possible to accidentally write a character doing something that goes against their personality or goals. Plot-focused writers can have this problem, if they’re more worried about the sequence of the plot and not paying enough attention to the motives of the characters driving that plot.
It’s also possible that we intend to make the character’s motivations drive the actions they take, but fail to make the relevant motivations clear enough to the reader. This is one of those challenges where there’s no right answer. Some readers may have no trouble following, while others are thoroughly confused. As an author, this kind of problem is very hard to catch without the help of critique partners or beta readers.
Exploratory writers (a.k.a. “pantsers”) may end up with plot holes due to the way they approach the writing process. If you don’t know the path that the story will take when you’re in the middle of writing it, it can be easy to include accidental incongruities. Usually, exploratory writers will have to look for these inconsistencies in the revision process, once they have a better idea of the shape of the story.
However, just because you’re a planner who follows an outline doesn’t mean you’re immune to plot holes. Outliners can get plot holes because they go into the story knowing a lot of it so well that they forget to adequately explain something to the reader. When you know all the back-story and exactly why each event leads to the next, it can be surprisingly easy to forget to include a vital piece of information that you simply take for granted.
Identifying Plot Holes
We’ve established that plot holes can happen to anyone, and they can happen in the action layer or the motivation layer of the story. So how can we find those plot holes in our own work and fix them?
As I mentioned before, mysteries are magnets for plot holes. You can think of a mystery as a purposeful, temporary plot hole. The author picks specific bits of information to withhold from the characters and the reader in order to create tension. It may be a mystery of what happened (in the action layer), or a mystery of why it happened (motivation layer).
For a mystery to be effective, the reader needs to trust that the author is doing this on purpose. A mystery that looks like a plot hole can bother the reader just as much as a real plot hole. As authors, we need to make it clear from the structure of the story that the mystery is supposed to be there, and understand that the reader will have the expectation of a payoff where that hole is filled in later.
To identify accidental action layer plot holes, it helps to look at places in the story where a lot of action is happening. If you have complex, interwoven plot lines, you’ll want to look closely at those areas of the story. It may help to make simple lists of events in sequence, or even a flowchart for complicated plots. A missing piece in the sequence is often much more obvious when laid out in this way. Does each event lead to the next in the sequence?
To identify motivation layer plot holes, you need to think about how character motives lead to character actions. Complex motivations make it easier for something illogical to slip past, so you might want to pay special attention to a character with several conflicting goals, or situations where multiple characters are at odds with one another, or have shifting allegiances and animosities.
Just as you can map out the sequences of action with lists and flow charts, you can map character goals and personality traits to the actions they take. If you can’t describe why a character would do that thing, you have a problem.
Finally, your last and best line of defense may be your readers. Critique partners or beta readers — really anyone can help find plot holes that you miss by virtue of being too close to the story. Ideally, you want readers who read a lot of your genre. Readers who prefer murder mysteries may have a slightly harder time catching inconsistencies in your politically charged sci-fi space opera. Still, the most important thing is to get extra pairs of eyes on your story to double-check your work.
Fix That Plot
Often, identifying a plot hole is the hardest part, and the actual fix just requires adjusting or adding a scene. A nasty action layer hole may require you to rethink how the events around it are laid out. A bad motivation hole may force you to change what a character does in the story, or change the character. You may find that you can add some backstory or personality trait earlier in the story so their actions make sense. Just try to make it feel organic. If done well, this can add depth to the character.
Instead of looking at it as just a fix for something broken, treat a plot hole as an opportunity to make the character or plot richer than it would have been. You can fill that hole with whatever you want, so you might as well fill it with something great.
When I was younger, I would devour a book or blog on how to write, and I’d think, “Okay, maybe this is the one that will stick. Maybe this is the one true path that will work for me.” Maybe I can write just like Stephen King, or Neil Gaiman, or Sue Grafton, or even Strunk and White.
Inevitably, I would do my best for a few days or a few weeks, and then I’d start to drag my feet. Or I’d miss my thousand words per day for one day, and then two, and then I’m hardly on the writing-a-thousand-words-per-day plan anymore, am I?
Trying to follow these myriad, often-conflicting pieces of writing advice can be exhausting. Every time you find a process that doesn’t work, it can be even more dispiriting. They’re a bit like fad diets.
Yet, I have a shelf of books about improving your writing. I follow blogs about improving your writing. My own blog is all about writing and learning about writing. I love this stuff. I love the analysis of the writing process almost as much as the actual writing. So how do we make that learning process more useful, and less painful?
Today, I don’t want to talk writing advice. I want to talk about how we take writing advice. Writing advice…advice. Meta-advice, if you will.
Remember Who You Are
If you go look in the mirror right now, chances are pretty good that you won’t see Stephen King or Neil Gaiman. (If you do, get them a warm drink and a typewriter in a corner and they’ll stay out of your way.)
When someone successful puts out writing advice, it’s easy to say, “Look how well it worked for them.” We focus too much on the “look how well it worked,” and ignore the “for them” part.
We all have different life experiences, different internal machinery. We live in different times, places and circumstances. Even if those wildly successful writers could provide the exact book-length recipe that lead them to their wild success, it wouldn’t work the same way for the rest of us. We have different circumstances, and different mental cogs and flywheels that make us tick.
This gets said sometimes, in various ways, but usually not loudly enough. The first thing to accept is that we each have our own recipe for success. It’s going to be different from everyone else’s recipe.
Instead of trying to replicate someone’s recipe, step back and try some of their ingredients.
Pick and Choose
Let’s mix metaphors. Look at all that writing advice like the classic American buffet. There’s everything from pancakes and steak to crab legs and raspberry ice cream. There’s way too much. A lot of these things don’t really belong together. Some of it is fresh, some of it has been sitting there a while. See, the metaphors are all food-related. It’s fine.
If you try to take everything from the buffet, you’re going to have a bad time. If you only take one thing…well, why are you at the buffet? Instead, pick a few things that seem to go together. Things you think you’ll like. Pick and choose.
I know myself better than any author with a book on writing knows me. I know what I’m good at and not-so-good at. When I hear some advice, I can think about it and have a gut instinct about whether it will be good or bad for me.
Unfortunately, I don’t know myself perfectly well. There are probably some things that would sound awful to me at first hearing, but actually work pretty well. There are certainly things that seemed like a good idea at the time, but ended up working terribly for me.
When following writing advice, pick and choose what sounds good. Once in a while, maybe try something that you’re skeptical about, just in case it surprises you. Follow that advice for a while. If it works, keep it. If it doesn’t, don’t be beholden to it. Throw it away and try something else.
Let it All Wash Over You
When I think of following writing advice, I tend to think of making a plan and putting it into action. It’s a bit of a science experiment. Make a hypothesis, run the experiment, and compare your results to what was expected. (Okay, this one isn’t a food metaphor. Sorry.)
That’s just my personal default mode. You may be different. But there are other ways to learn. As clever, thinking humans, we are great at acquiring knowledge and skills through purposeful study and experimentation. But we still have an ape brain lurking just below the surface. That animal brain, that subconscious, is great at learning just by exposure.
I’ve read plenty of blog posts and a few books on writing that just didn’t inspire me to go out and try doing something new and different. I’ve read some that I enjoyed, but I didn’t come away with a list of things to put into practice. I think that can still be useful. The act of considering the writing process, and listening to other people’s opinions and thoughts on the topic can still exercise those subconscious muscles. Your ape brain will take bits and pieces, mix them into your subconscious stew, and pour out a big helping the next time you put words on a page. (I did it! We’re back in food metaphors!)
Raise Each Child Differently
As a parent of three children, I know for a fact that my parenting style has changed over the years. My oldest got a different experience that the middle child or the youngest. As a young parent, I worried about things that I now know are no big deal. As an older parent, I have new worries that my younger self never considered. And regardless of order and what I’ve learned along the way, each of my children is their own person, with a unique personality and way of seeing the world.
Have you ever heard writers say that their books (or stories or projects) are like their children? Well, it’s true. Sort of. Each project comes along at a different time in your life. You, yourself, are different when writing them. And each project is its own thing. It has its own needs and its own unique challenges. Just like being a parent of children, when you’re a parent of words, you have to adapt.
It’s one of the most amazing feelings in the world to find a way to get through a book, or even a short story. And it’s really damn frustrating when I find out that what I did last time doesn’t really work that well for the next one. It’s unfair, frankly. But that’s the way it is. One of my favorite quotes lately is Gene Wolf’s: “You never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel you’re writing.”
Accept that some projects — maybe every project — will be different. Even if something worked for you previously, don’t feel like a failure when it doesn’t work this time. And keep all your failures in your back pocket. You never know when a project will come along where one or two of those things just happen to fit.
There is no silver bullet. No One True Way. I write as well as I can today, and I keep learning new things so that I’ll write a little better tomorrow. Promises of sudden writing super-powers are enticing, just like those diet books that supposedly let you lose 20 pounds in a week. Unfortunately, those promises usually don’t pan out. It’s the steady, incremental improvements that make a real difference over the long term.
Many writers, myself included, like to think about some nebulous point in the future when we will have “made it big.” It’ll all be easy after that. The words will flow out of my keyboard and onto the bestseller lists. I’ll have it all figured out.
Even for the people on the bestseller lists, with the books about how to write, it doesn’t work that way. They still struggle sometimes, and if they’re good, they keep changing up their tactics. They keep learning. Instead of imagining some point of total enlightenment, think of learning as a continuous journey. There is no writing nirvana. It may be a bit sad to accept that we’ll never get to the point where we have it all figured out. But it’s also pretty awesome that we can always get even better than we are today.
That’s the end of my writing advice…advice. We’ll be back to the regular old non-meta writing advice by next week. And I hope you’ll take the things that work for you, for the project you’re working on, and throw away the things that don’t, without a hint of remorse.
Have you ever read a book where an important character died, and you felt completely crushed by that death, as though you had lost someone real? Now, have you ever read the death of a character and felt…nothing? The big build-up led to that moment, and you just couldn’t muster anything but indifference?
Killing characters is in vogue these days, but there are good reasons and bad reasons to do it. When characters die in service to the story, the impact can be huge. It can be a moment that your readers will remember forever. When characters die for the wrong reasons, you’ll be lucky if your reader only feels indifference and not outright irritation.
The Wrong Reasons
There are plenty of questionable justifications for charactericide. Let’s start with a few reasons to not kill your characters.
First — to “spice up” the story, or make it more edgy. Some authors assume that adding more sex or violence automatically makes their story more mature. But just because it contains “mature content” doesn’t automatically make it better. In fact gratuitous mature content that’s not integral to the story can easily come off as juvenile.
Second — to show that your villain is evil. Don’t get me wrong, a villain killing key characters as they advance their agenda can be important story beats. The problem is more when murder is used as a substitute for characterization. Does the villain kill for a reason? Do they have a personality beyond “that crazy guy who’s always indiscriminately killing?” If not, you may end up with a dangerous character who still manages to be flat and uninteresting.
Finally — to make your life, as the author, easier. You may find yourself deep in the slog of the second act, absolutely despising one of your characters. Maybe their personality developed in a really annoying way. Maybe they just want to do things that push the story in a direction you don’t want to go. It’s tempting to just “get rid” of them. But that doesn’t really solve the problem. Chances are, that character didn’t get a nice, meaningful arc.
What you really have to do is decide if you want to keep that character at all. Maybe they don’t belong in this particular book. They might need a big personality adjustment. Fix the character, adjust the plot, or pull them out of the story. It’s a bad idea to just knock a character dead in a random spot, even if it might be cathartic for the author.
With those out of the way, let’s talk about some good reasons to kill a character.
An Inciting Incident
At the root of each story is an inciting incident. This is the moment when the protagonist’s world changes. It’s the moment that introduces the major conflict or tension that will drive the story. You can be sure that your protagonist losing someone close to them will turn their world upside down and throw them into conflict.
As a well-worn example, look at the beginning of Star Wars. Luke Skywalker’s old life is over when his aunt and uncle are killed and his home is burned down by the Empire. He has nothing left to tie him to his former home, and he has a whole new reason to want to fight the Empire, something he was already considering.
This kind of character death isn’t without dangers. To be an effective inciting incident, it has to happen early. That means the reader is still getting to know your protagonist, and they’re very unlikely to have any strong feelings toward the character(s) you’re killing off. They need to see how those deaths hurt your protagonist, but their empathy is naturally going to be limited. Even among crazed Star Wars fans, you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who really loves Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru.
Developing a Character
The middle of a story may be the most interesting time to kill off a character. The reader has had a good amount of time to learn about your characters, to understand them, and to empathize with them. The middle of the story is also when you’re deep into the conflicts and tension that drive the story. That dead character is going to leave others behind, and their death can and should influence how the remaining characters move forward.
The death of one character may reveal more about another character who lives. In Ender’s Game, we discover two-thirds of the way through the book that the protagonist has killed two people. We watched him fight those people, but never knew the outcomes. Ender himself isn’t told that he has killed, because the people manipulating him know that the knowledge might destroy him. As readers, we understand that he doesn’t want to be a killer. He hates the very idea. But people around him have learned how to manipulate him into killing, for their own purposes.
Sometimes, death reveals more about a why a character is the way they are. Sometimes, it shows just what they’re willing to do. In the Hellblazer comics, John Constantine watches the people close to him die. People he trusts and loves. He learns that letting people get close is dangerous. It leads to pain. That’s why he does his best to be a sarcastic asshole: so he can hold everyone important at a safe distance — for them, and for himself. But, of course, he doesn’t always succeed. People get close, and suffer the consequences.
John Constantine is a complicated character though. He’s far from the typical goody-two-shoes superhero. In fact, he’s often the anti-hero, and perhaps occasionally the villain. He kills. Sometimes for the right reasons, sometimes for his own selfish reasons. Sometimes because he just doesn’t care. He can be cruel and manipulative as much as he can be soft-hearted.
Sometimes, death can reveal secrets. Perhaps the dead character has been hiding things, and those secrets can only come out once that character is no longer there to protect them. One character killing another may also reveal an animosity that was kept under wraps. In The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, we believe that the protagonist is seeking treasure and riches. It is only when he ends up in a fight to the death with the other major character that his true intentions are revealed. Little bits of carefully parceled back-story take on entirely new meaning as the twist unfolds.
Resolving an Arc
If the middle of the story is the most complicated time to kill a character, the end of the story is probably the simplest, although it’s not without its challenges. The end of the story is when the reader knows the most about your characters. They ‘ve been with them, through thick and thin. They empathize with the good guys, and they’re hoping against hope that the bad guys will lose.
In a traditional tragedy, the hero dies at the end. Their mistakes or failures catch up with them. They may go down swinging, or they may realize the error of their ways. In a more modern take, the hero may save the day, but sacrifice themselves in the process. No matter what leads to their death, it should mean something. Back in our Star-Wars example, Darth Vader is an exemplar of this. He is an important villain throughout the original Star Wars trilogy, and only at the very end does he realize his true feelings, saving the day and his son.
Of course, many villains think they’re in the right all the way to the end. They go down swinging. But their death typically ends the main conflict, and often resolves one or more characters’ arcs. These other characters probably have strong feelings about this, to be explored before bringing the story to a close.
When you feel tempted to kill a character, ask what it accomplishes. How does it affect the characters who are left behind? Does it move the story forward?
Put yourself in the shoes of your reader. Will they be excited? Heartbroken? Or bored and irritated? It’s surprisingly easy to kill a character. What’s hard is killing them the right way.
I’ve been feeling the itch to write short fiction lately. It’s something I haven’t done much in the last couple years. I don’t really have the bandwidth to work on another novel alongside Razor Mountain, so something shorter was really appealing.
I came up with a little project: an anthology of micro-fiction. Not just flash fiction (usually 1500 words or less). Not even a drabble (exactly 100 words).
It’s obvious what short-form writing actually defines our modern age: Twitter. Since 2018, each tweet provides a whopping 280 characters to work with. In my experience, that’s about 45 words, depending on your punctuation, white space and trendy hashtags. Is it even possible to write a coherent or interesting story in that tiny space?
Well, I tried the experiment. I wrote twenty-one micro-stories. I’ll let you judge whether the experiment was a success or failure. Every day for the next couple weeks, I’m going to tweet a new micro-story on @DeferredWords. I’ll also collect them into mid-week posts here on the blog.
What’s the Point?
Why bother doing this? The simple answer is “for fun, to see if I could.” It helped rev up my short story brain after a bit of a hiatus. But I was also hoping to learn something in the process. In fact, I learned a few things.
Don’t Be Precious
When you’ve written a story that’s barely a story and you need to trim ten more letters to get below your limit, you are forced to trim things that feel essential. That adjective or adverb feels so good, but is it really needed? What about those commas? Do you really need any articles, ever? Maybe that seven-letter name should be a three-letter name.
The limit is harsh, and it demands harsh sacrifices. I went through this exercise over and over again, and it turned out that the story was often better when I rewrote it around that one or two word edit. It made me think harder about the cuts I should be making in longer projects.
The Barest Bones of a Story
I keep long lists of little brainstorming ideas, which gave me lots of fodder for micro-fiction. When you actually try to write an idea out as the smallest possible story, it becomes apparent very quickly whether an idea has “good bones,” or just a setting or character without arc or resolution. This is a really good exercise to go through for a short story or novel idea, to prove that the concept is solid and to nail down the core of the story.
Form Follows Function
When I started writing these micro-stories, I assumed that any authorial voice would fly right out the window. In some ways, it does. I definitely had stories with phrases that I really liked but had to throw away, because they wouldn’t work in these tight constraints. However, as I wrote and revised more stories, I discovered that even in 45 words, there is space for humor, weirdness, and sometimes even an extra word here or there to achieve a particular effect. Voice is the sum of the choices you make within your chosen constraints.
Variety is Valuable
I’m a firm believer that every story, every book, every writing project teaches you something. As authors, everything we write is influenced by what we wrote before it, and what we learned along the way.
Granted, you can only learn so much from a tweet-length story, but I was able to write a lot of these in the amount of time it would have taken to write one “proper” short story. Each little story with its own fun. Each with its own challenges.
You can get in on the fun too. Try writing a micro-story in 280 characters. All you need is a little idea. No outline. Put it out on Twitter, possibly with #microfiction. Ping me or send me a DM. Let me know if you learned anything interesting.
The “hook” is the opening of a story: the handful of sentences where a reader is willing to completely suspend judgement and open themselves up to a new world. It’s called a hook because it’s the author’s opportunity to reel the reader in. To grab hold of them and refuse to let them go until the story is done.
Hooks are among the most daunting things to write. A hook needs to pull the reader in, but it’s also a promise of what’s to come. If the hook captures the reader’s interest, but does it in a way that’s at-odds with the rest of the story, it will feel like a betrayal. A bait-and-switch.
Today, I want to look at hooks from a few books I like and see what I can learn from them. How are they structured? As a reader, how do these introductory sentences pull me in? What do they promise about the story to come?
Travel Light, by Naomi Mitchison
It is said that when the new Queen saw the old Queen’s baby daughter, she told the King that the brat must be got rid of at once. And the King, who by now had almost forgotten the old Queen and had scarcely looked at the baby, agreed and thought no more about it. And that would have been the end of that baby girl, but that her nurse, Matulli, came to hear of it. Now this nurse was from Finmark, and, like many another from thereabouts, was apt to take on the shape of an animal from time to time. So she turned herself into a black bear then and there, and picked up the baby in her mouth, blanket and all, and growled her way out of the Bower at the back of the King’s hall, and padded out through the light spring snow that had melted already hear the hall, and through the birch woods and the pine woods into the deep dark woods where the rest of the bears were waking up from their winter sleep.
This lovely rush of words is only five sentences. Most of them start with conjunctions, making it feel like one long, breathless run. So much is happening.
It’s clear from the first few words that this is going to be a fairy tale, and that’s further confirmed when we see that being able to turn into an animal is treated as no particularly impressive feat. We can also tell that this is no light and fluffy fairy tale. It begins with the almost casual cruelty of the king and queen.
This opening also makes it clear that this girl is the protagonist, and she will not be living a normal life. In this single paragraph, we see her lose her birthright, saved by a bear-woman and brought to live in the woods. It’s hard not to be curious about what will happen next.
The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, by Neil Gaiman
You ask me if I can forgive myself? I can forgive myself for many things. For where I left him. For what I did. But I will not forgive myself for the year that I hated my daughter, when I believed her to have run away, perhaps to the city. During that year I forbade her name to be mentioned, and if her name entered my prayers when I prayed, it was to ask that she would one day learn the meaning of what she had done, of the dishonour that she had brought to my family, of the red that ringed her mother’s eyes.
I hate myself for that, and nothing will ease that, not even what happened that night, on the side of the mountain.
This opening starts in the second person, drawing the reader in by including them in what seems to be conversation in progress. A conversation with us.
We start with a few fragmented sentences, already waist-deep in mysteries. Where did you leave him? Who is he? What did you do? The daughter clearly didn’t run away to the city, so what happened to her?
The viewpoint character is already being defined here. He’s someone with strong emotions – a fierce temper that more or less caused him to disown his daughter, and his shame when he discovers this still unexplained truth of what really happened to her.
Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
“I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get.”
“That’s what you said about the brother.”
“The brother tested out impossible. For other reasons. Nothing to do with his ability.”
“Same with the sister. And there are doubts about him. He’s too malleable. Too willing to submerge himself in someone else’s will.”
“Not if the other person is his enemy.”
“So what do we do? Surround him with enemies all the time?”
“If we have to.”
“I thought you said you liked this kid.”
“If the buggers get him, they’ll make me look like his favorite uncle.”
“All right. We’re saving the world, after all. Take him.”
Starting with dialogue puts us in the action immediately. It also tells us that whoever these two disembodied voices are talking about is probably important to the story. Dialogue like this, without tags attributing it to a character, is a dangerous choice because it can be disorienting to the reader. In this case, it works because we don’t have to care about these two speakers, only the information they’re conveying really matters.
The first sentence sounds like standard Messiah fare, but it’s immediately subverted. We understand that the target of this discussion is being observed and tested (in a very invasive way), and his brother and sister were subjected to this treatment as well. These voices are willing to be cruel to him if it’s required to make him into this messianic figure and save the world. The stakes of the story are already being established on the first page.
There is a little mystery here as well. What are the buggers, and why does the world need to be saved?
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.
Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.
This planet has — or rather had — a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.
It goes on like this for another page and a half of prologue, which meanders right into the first chapter. I found it hard to pick a cut-off point.
To me, this is the most interesting example we’ll look at today. It doesn’t introduce any of the main characters, or anything about the situation or setting (beyond Earth in general).
It does tell us that it’s science fiction, it’s not going to take itself seriously, and it’s going to be looking at everything from a rather skewed and unexpected viewpoint. In fact, what it’s really introducing is the the author’s incredibly distinctive voice and tone. If you’ve read Douglas Adams, you’ll know that his narrative voice is almost a character in its own right (even if it isn’t from an actual character’s perspective). This series includes plenty of chapter-length digressions and asides, and is undoubtedly better for it.
In short, the story can afford to wait a bit, because it’s so damn entertaining to just listen to what Adams has to say.
Give it a Try!
I’d encourage every writer to do this exercise with some favorite books. One of the wonderful things you’ll discover is the sheer variety of forms that a hook can take. You don’t need to feel forced into a formula — there are a plethora of ways to pull readers into a story. By analyzing the hooks of stories you love, you might discover some great ideas you can apply to your own stories.
Last time, I discussed conflict as the engine that drives a story forward. Conflict is one of the primary ways to create tension in a story.
Tension not only makes the reader want to find out what happens next, it is a valuable tool to direct pacing — how fast or slow the story feels.
Chapters Follow Tension
We are so used to seeing chapters that it’s easy to just accept them as the normal unit of construction for a novel. However, chapters are a choice. Some books eschew them entirely. The reason that they’re so common is that they’re useful for breaking the story into discrete sections.
The length of chapters can influence pacing, with shorter chapters tending to feel faster, and longer chapters tending to feel slower. However, it’s a little more complicated than that, and the complication has to do with tension.
Tension ebbs and flows throughout a story, and tends to follow an arc. The conflict, mystery, or other source of tension is introduced, then the tension increases to a peak where it is most problematic or concerning to the characters. Finally, the tension proceeds to a resolution where it stops being relevant.
Chapters tend to feel like good units of story when they follow one of these arcs of tension.
Resolutions or Cliffhangers?
Looking at the way tension ramps up and down, an obvious chapter structure is to start with the introduction of a source of tension and end with its resolution. This structure provides a feeling of satisfaction and completeness. It makes the chapter feel like a little self-contained story within the larger narrative.
An alternate structure utilizes cliffhangers. A chapter with a cliffhanger ends at the peak of the arc of tension. This is a critical moment when the characters are really struggling, and there is no resolution yet in sight.
If several cliffhanger chapters follow one after another, it results in a structure where the chapters are offset against the tension. The middle of the chapter is where arcs start and end, and the end of the chapter is where the tension peaks.
Ending a chapter on a cliffhanger like this creates the maximum impetus to the reader to keep reading. This style of chapter is often used in fast-paced thrillers to achieve that heightened feeling of action and suspense.
Pacing is a tricky thing. A novel that is constantly high-tension or continually escalating tension can wear the reader out, to the point that they become inured or annoyed with the continuously high stakes. There are a variety of tropes (this, that, the other, etc.) to describe this kind of narrative, and there are a lot of potential pitfalls.
One of the ways to add variety to the narrative, and to even out the tension is to alternate between fast- and slow-paced sections. A fast-paced chapter that ends in a cliffhanger could be followed by a chapter that ends with resolution. You may also choose to increase or decrease the tension within a sequence of chapters to follow larger arcs in the story.
With multiple characters or sources of tension, different arcs can be interleaved. One arc can be ramping up as another is resolving. Of course, this adds complexity as all the different elements play off each other.
Cliffhangers and Consequences
Tension plays a major role in pacing, and the structure of chapters is closely related to that. When sections feel too fast or slow, adjusting chapter breaks or the arcs of tension within chapters can help. Tension in each chapter also contributes to the larger arcs of the story.
It may feel comfortable to always end your chapters with a clean resolution, or always go for the cliffhanger, but it’s worth understanding both options and keeping them as tools in your writer’s toolbox. The choice to end a chapter on a cliffhanger or a resolution is a relatively small one, but the consequences go beyond that chapter, across the rest of the story.
Read any book about writing fiction, and it will probably have something to say about conflict. Conflict is the engine that drives characters to action, and it’s the force that drives readers to keep turning pages in order to find out what happens next. When a story lacks forward momentum, or it feels like the characters are being pushed around by the plot rather than pushing their own agendas, I find that it’s often due to a lack of conflict.
Conflict provides two vital services. First, it makes outcomes uncertain. Characters aren’t going to get what they want easily. They’re going to face hardship. The reader doesn’t know what will happen next. Second, it lets the reader gain a stake in the outcome and invest in the story. As social creatures, we naturally form bonds, even with fictional characters. We will latch onto a character and root for them to win. We will worry if it looks like they won’t succeed, and we’ll share in their joy when they do. We will empathize with them.
Mechanics of Conflict
Despite all of the attention conflict gets as a vital component of a story’s plot, the actual mechanics of creating conflict are frequently glossed over. How does an author create conflict and use it to drive the story?
If you do a quick search for “types of conflict,” you’ll see lists of varying sizes. Are there eight types of conflict? Four? Five? This is one of those topics where you can split hairs as much or as little as you like. The categorizations are somewhat arbitrary. For this article, I’m going to discuss three broad types of conflict, and some ways they can be implemented.
- Antagonistic Conflict, or character vs. character
- Internal Conflict, or character vs. self
- Situational Conflict, or character vs. nature/fate/God
Antagonistic conflict is when characters conflict with one another. As the name suggests, this often takes the form of a protagonist and an antagonist. This form of conflict has the advantage that the conflict is fully embodied in the characters. Many readers love a villain they can root against as much as they want a hero they can root for.
Internal conflict is when a character is uncertain or conflicted about what to think, say, or do. This can be more challenging to depict in a dramatic way, since the conflict is really inside the character’s head. The inner conflict often needs to be “externalized” as dialogue or action to really be understandable and compelling.
Situational conflict provides some external force for the character to fight against. The danger with this type of conflict is that the force is too amorphous or lacks the personality of an antagonist. Some authors would suggest that the situation or force is an antagonist, but I personally don’t feel obligated to personify something like a natural disaster.
It’s important to understand that these different types of conflicts can and do overlap. A character may have the situational conflict of being in prison for a crime they didn’t commit, overlapping antagonistic conflicts with the warden, guards, or other inmates.
From these three types of conflict, let’s dig down into some common examples. Try to correlate these examples to some experience you’ve had in your own life. We may not encounter such extreme conflicts as we see sometimes in fiction, but we all experience challenges. It’s often easier to understand and write these situations by relating our own, everyday conflicts to those of our characters.
Character wants or needs something that’s hard to get.
I like to think of this as a sort of default conflict for any character. We all have things we want and need, and some of those desires will be unfulfilled. Goals are simply wanting something and taking action to get it.
This basic conflict could describe a heist to steal some valuable artifact, or a romance where one character seeks to win over another.
Several characters want something they can’t all have.
This is almost always antagonistic conflict, pitting characters against one another for something each one wants. It can sometimes be connected to an internal conflict, where one of the characters decides that they don’t actually want to compete for a shallow goal, and turns to a more deeply fulfilling goal.
Examples of this are coworkers competing for a promotion, or a love triangle where two characters compete for the affection of a third. It could also take the form of a Hunger Games-style battle for survival.
Character wants two incompatible things.
This is usually an internal conflict. The character has two or more mutually exclusive desires. Usually this comes down to a choice, where the character has to pick one thing and let go of the others. Sometimes it may turn out to be a false dichotomy, and they manage to figure out a way to get everything. It might put the character in a position where their survival depends on violating their moral convictions or beliefs. They can stay true to themselves to the bitter end, or give something up to fight another day.
Examples include the workaholic who has to decide between wealth and success in business and a fulfilling family life; or a teen whose divorced parents move apart figuratively and literally, leaving her wondering where and how to live her life.
Character’s core belief is challenged.
This is often situational and internal conflict. An event or situation forces the character to rethink something vital to their personality.
The classic example of this is the priest who has a crisis of faith. It could also be the hotshot surgeon who gives up medicine after an important surgery goes awry. It might even be the parent whose child commits some offense that puts them at odds with the rest of the family.
Characters with incompatible personalities are forced to work together.
This tends to be mostly antagonistic, as different personalities butt heads, but you may also have situational elements pushing together people who would otherwise stay far away from each other.
This style of conflict is the basis for some classic genres like the buddy cop story, and many romantic comedies where the couple hate each others’ guts…right up until they don’t.
And many more…
These are just a few patterns of conflict. To discover more, a good exercise is to go through some of your favorite books, movies and TV shows, and try to briefly summarize every conflict you can spot.
Driving the Story
We’ve covered these three types of conflict — antagonistic, internal, and situational. We’ve skimmed the surface of how they can be deployed among characters. What good is it? If conflict is a tool, what do we want to achieve with it?
Conflict springs from the wants and needs of characters. It drives them to action, advancing the plot. It keeps the reader invested and gives them a means to measure the success or failure of the characters.
A short story may only have a single conflict that drives it, but longer forms tend to deploy multiple conflicts throughout the story. A series of conflicts may be chained together sequentially, but they can also overlap across different time scales.
In The Lord of the Rings, the ultimate conflict is the Fellowship and their allies against Sauron and his armies. They need to destroy the Ring of Power before Sauron’s forces march across Middle-Earth.
Within that vast conflict, there are dozens of smaller conflicts that play out within and across chapters. The hobbits hiding from the Black Riders on the road to Bree. The battles for Helm’s Deep and Gondor. The interplay of Sam, Frodo, and Gollum as Sam tries to protect his master, Frodo tries to reform Gollum, and Gollum schemes to steal the ring for himself.
Similarly, if you look at most modern episodic TV dramas, you’ll see some ongoing conflicts, perhaps across the entire run of the show. Then there will be smaller conflicts in each episode, across multiple episodes, and perhaps from season to season.
Chaining and overlapping conflicts in this way provides multiple threads to pull the reader along. Resolving smaller conflicts is also satisfying. There is a sense of closure, and of the story moving forward.
Resolving conflicts is also a central part of character arcs. An arc just tracks how a character changes over time, and resolving conflict inevitably makes characters change. If the character got what they wanted, then they’re no longer motivated to chase that thing. Perhaps they’ll pick a new goal. Similarly, if they failed in their quest, that will change their behavior. They might seek revenge, or turn toward a new goal.
The end of a conflict also often marks the end of a character’s involvement in a story. A beaten antagonist may be dead or irrelevant. A character who resolved their inner conflict may no longer be interesting for the plot to follow.
It’s also informative to look at where conflicts get resolved, and where new conflicts are created or ramped up. Looking at the example of buddy cop movies, you’ll often see that the conflict between cops is resolved just in time for them to work together to stop the real big antagonist. In those romantic comedies, the two leads frequently realize their true love around the end of Act II, only to have some additional complication come between them, providing the conflict to finish off the story.
Writing With Conflict
The next time you write a story, try doing a pass through it and noting all of the conflicts, the characters involved, and their resolutions. Look for chapters that feel weak, or characters that lack motivation. Is there enough conflict, and is it pushing the characters in the right directions? Is it resolved in a satisfying way? Does new conflict pick up the slack when other conflicts end?
Conflict is the engine that pushes a story forward. By evaluating stories as a series of conflicts, you’ll gain an amazing set of tools for creating action, suspense, and excitement.