Storytelling Class — Round and Flat Characters

Every week, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This week, our topic was making characters.

We always start with two questions: What did we read, and what did we write over the past week?

What Did We Read?

The family had a day this week where just about everyone wrote some poetry, so Freya read everyone’s poems. At school, they’re reading “The One and Only Bob.” My wife is reading her “Wildwood” at bedtimes, and she’s still working through Harry Potter in her free time at school.

I read the remaining pile of Vertigo comics that my wife snagged for me at a garage sale. Last week, I read the first two volumes of Y: The Last Man, a critically acclaimed series that I found pretty uninteresting. This week I delved into two other popular comics series and enjoyed them both quite a bit. They were:

  • Fables: Legends in Exile (Vol. 1)
  • Fables: Fairest: Wide Awake (a side series, I guess?)
  • Unwritten (Vols. 1-4)

Fables is all about fairy tales come to life and magically transported to modern day New York, forced to shlub it up with us mundane people while keeping their magical identities hidden. The first volume is a murder mystery, with the Big Bad Wolf as detective. It doesn’t end with the most shocking twist, but it serves as a great framework to introduce some of the main characters and the world they inhabit. Moreover, I appreciate a short, self-contained little arc, since comics are so often sprawling arcs and cross-series tie-ins (something Marvel has now inflicted upon films).

Fables: Fairest: Wide Awake is another self-contained arc, but completely separate from the New York fables. This one tells the story of a few fables who come together by chance and end up in the sights of an evil fairy queen.

While I enjoyed the Fables books, I really fell in love with Unwritten. Of the random selection of series in this pile ‘o garage sale books, these were my favorites by far.

Unwritten is about a sad man named Tom Taylor, who just happens to have the same name as the main character in a series of wildly successful Harry-Potter-esque novels written by his father. The story starts with Tom making a pittance attending conventions and signing his father’s books, but he quickly gets pulled into a strange conspiracy that threatens his life. Odd occurrences start to stack up, and it looks like he might actually be the boy wizard from the books, and that the worlds of stories might be just as real as our own.

I liked these enough that I’m going to buy the other 7 volumes, and at some point I’ll probably write a separate post about them.

What Did We Write?

This week I wrote my usual blog posts and finished the rough draft of Razor Mountain Chapter 8.

Freya wrote another chapter of her story, Amber and Floria. She also wrote a poem for the ad-hoc family poem-fest.


The topic for this week was characters, specifically flat and round characters. These, like so many writing terms, end up being talked about as a sort of binary, but they’re really two ends of a spectrum.

  • Round, deep or complex characters are those with extensive back-story, with many and subtle personality traits.
  • Flat, shallow or simple characters are those with minimal back-story and little personality.

It should be obvious just from these definitions that there is a spectrum here, where characters can be more or less complex.

It might feel desirable to make every character as complex as possible, and this is generally a good instinct. However, it’s important to note that there are only so many pages in a book. Some characters will necessarily take up more of the story, and others will be inherently less important. So even if every single character is equally complex, they cannot be shown with equal depth in the text itself.

Round Characters

To make characters more round, figure out more details about their

  • Background
  • Personality
  • Strengths and weaknesses
  • Conflict (what’s their problem, and how do they intend to solve it?)
  • Growth (how do they change over the course of the story?)

Again, it’s fine to know more things about a character than you actually end up using on the page. Sometimes having a deep back-story allows you to hint at bits of their personality that don’t show through clearly, but still give the character a sense of being a complicated, living person.

Flat Characters

The flattest characters are usually purpose-built. They do something specific for the story. The danger with these kind of characters is that they look too much like a plot device and not enough like a real person.

For these characters, having a personality, goals and conflict are less important. In fact, they only matter in that they’re useful to make the character feel real for the short time they’re on the page. Sometimes, flat characters can be defined with a shorthand or handle: specific, interesting traits. These might be something physical, or a mannerism, an unusual mode of speech, or other memorable attributes.

Flat Can Be Okay

There’s a school of thought that says no characters should be flat, and especially not ones that are important to the story, but that’s not necessarily true. While we usually want the characters in the spotlight to be complex and interesting, there are certain types of stories and certain genres where relatively flat characters can be effective, even in a starring role.

In some comedy, especially cartoons and sitcoms, it’s common to see characters that are mostly static from episode to episode. These shows typically feature a problem at the start of the episode that is resolved by the end, which means that over time, the status quo is maintained. This allows an audience to “pop-in” to the show at any time, as long as they’re familiar with the characters. They don’t have to catch up on the two or three episodes they missed. When this works, it’s because the characters are largely treated as vehicles for a steady stream of jokes.

Similarly, in certain mystery stories, the detective protagonist may undergo surprisingly little character development. These stories are focused on the mystery: the clues, the false leads, the clever inferences, and the eventual satisfying conclusion. Again, the detective character becomes a vehicle, this time, for the mystery.

Some superhero comics are superlative examples of characters that can remain static and flat. I have a pet theory that superhero origin stories are almost always the most compelling, because the character has an arc in the origin story, but oftentimes becomes much more static after that, enslaved by a serial format that wants to keep selling issues indefinitely. (Of course, this is a gross generalization, but there are certainly examples you can point to.)

Point of View

For POV characters and narrators, who are the reader’s window into the story, having a deep understanding of the character is vital for understanding their voice. When the character is the POV or the narrator, their voice is the voice of the book (or at least the parts they are involved in). It affects what the reader sees and how the reader interprets almost everything.


As an example of the flat <==> round spectrum in action, Freya and I talked about one of my half-finished stories.

It takes place in a steampunk world where everyone can wield a tiny amount of magic via totemic items, but a rare few (called “hexes”) can wield greater magical power. The protagonist, Edward, is a hex and a former soldier and spy who once worked for the crown. After committing terrible atrocities in a world war, he quit and vowed to never take another life. He’s an emotional wreck thanks to the horrible things he’s done and seen, and he is constantly balancing his natural inquisitiveness and propensity for getting into big, violent trouble with his vow of pacifism.

Early in the story, he gets involved in a mystery and meets a man who calls himself Vociferous. Vociferous is huge. He claims to be a Hex, wears slightly absurd robes and works in a factory, supposedly casting spells as a part of the highly secretive manufacturing process. We quickly find out that Vociferous is a fraud, and not a hex at all. We find this out because Edward is a real hex who knows all about it.

Vociferous is a relatively flat character. We don’t find out much about his personality or past, we just know he’s faking it for money. He has a handful of characteristics to make him more interesting: his distinct look and strange name. His ultimate purpose is to give Edward good reason within the story to explain the way magic works (to another character, and to the reader).

Edward is a much more rounded character. The story follows his point of view. He has a backstory and history with other characters. He has friends and enemies. He has flaws and goals and challenges to overcome.

Next Time: Setting Goals

Next week is going to be a light class. We’re going to talk about goal-setting and growing as a writer.

Storytelling Class — Scripts 101

Every week, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This week, our topic was beginnings, middles and ends.

We always start with two questions: what did we read and what did we write over the past week?

What Did We Read?

I read the usual blogs, more of The Wes Anderson Collection, and Damn Fine Story. I also read the first two trade paperbacks of Y: The Last Man (found among a pile of random Vertigo TPBs that my wife found at a garage sale for a pittance).

Y’s main character, Yorick is the literal last man on earth when a mysterious event causes all other men to simultaneously die. The premise is fine, and the world-building is done well enough, but the story frustrated me (at least in these first two books) because Yorick just isn’t very interesting. He has trained himself as an escape artist, but we don’t really find out why he has this odd interest, and his only goal in post-apocalyptic life is to get to Australia to find his girlfriend.

What made this more perplexing is that all of the secondary characters either had odd and interesting personalities, or hints of strange backstory, or both. I felt like a version of the story from any of these other perspectives might be preferable to following Yorick around.

My bedtime reading to the kids this week has been Poison for Breakfast.

Freya continues to read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and her class, having finished The One and Only Ivan, has begun the sequel, The One and Only Bob.

What Did We Write?

I’ve been banking up some scheduled blog posts this week, working on Razor Mountain as usual, and revived an old half-finished story for my class “homework.”

Freya wrote for her school work, as well as her story “Amber and Floria.”


In previous weeks, we’ve done thematic homework that relates to the class topic of the week. That hasn’t really been piquing our interest lately, so we decided to change tactics this week. After all, this isn’t school. It’s just for fun.

From now on, our homework will be more free-form: we’ll just spend time writing some kind of fiction each week and then talk about it. If we want to tie it into the topic of the week, we can. But we don’t have to. Just as the best way to get kids excited about reading is to let them read the things that interest them, the best way to get a kid excited about writing is to let them write what interests them.

So, this week Freya worked on a story in progress called Amber and Floria, about two sisters who have to rescue their parents, whose plane crashed and stranded them deep in the jungle. Which sounds pretty awesome.

I worked “Understump,” a story I started writing for my children a year or two ago and set aside when I couldn’t come up with a satisfying ending. Time away from it has given me a fresh perspective, and I’m excited to work on it again. Kid-lit is definitely a new frontier for me, which is a good thing. It’s also the sort of story that could easily be the first in a series, which is a good thing too.

Scripts 101

After our third class, where we talked about turning ideas into stories, our homework was to come up with some new story ideas. Freya’s list included a couple ideas for homemade movies, and that got us talking about writing scripts.

I’ll be the first to admit that I am no expert on script writing. I’ve never completed a script. So this was an opportunity for us to learn a little bit together. What we covered in this class were strictly basics—the formatting and other differences between scripts and fiction.

Scripts, Scripts, or Scripts?

Not all scripts are created equal. Most scriptwriting advice I found was focused on writing for TV and movies. That’s probably what most script writers are hoping to write in this day and age, so it makes sense. However, there are other forms of audio-visual media with their own slightly different takes on what a script should look like.

Audio fiction was once a nearly extinct art form, a mainstay of radio before the advent of television. But podcasts went and reminded everyone that audio-only media is actually pretty cool, so “radio” plays are back and bigger than ever. Of course, this kind of script writing eschews camerawork and detailed descriptions of visuals, and focuses more on sound effects and dialogue.

Also, despite the best efforts of the pandemic, live theatre is still very much a thing. Stage plays have to work with the static perspective of an audience directly in front of the stage rather than flexible camera-work, and have more limitations on scene changes and special effects, thanks to being performed live by real actors and crew on a real stage with physical limitations.


I found a pretty good Studio Binder page that describes the pieces of a script and their formatting, with an example script. We read through this and discussed the different parts.

Scene headings and character introductions are much more straightforward and terse than the typical descriptions of settings and characters in fiction. However, more attention has to be paid to the viewpoint of the audience from moment to moment: what are they seeing and hearing.


Works of fiction get lumped together in rough categories like flash fiction, novella or novel by number of words. Scripts, on the other hand, are typically made to fit a particular format and hit a set length in minutes. Helpfully, the rule of thumb is that one page of script should equate to about one minute of on-screen (or in-ear?) time.

In the days when broadcast television was king, shows in the U.S. were written to fit in 30-minute or 60-minute time slots with a set amount of time dedicated to commercials, and perhaps a little extra set aside for an intro sequence and credits. Now we live in a world of network, cable, premium and streaming services, where commercial breaks may or may not be a concern and some shows even choose to have wildly variable episode lengths.

Movies follow similar rules, and much like streaming services you don’t need to worry about commercials. Movies typically run 90–120 minutes, but there are extreme exceptions like the Lord of the Rings movies, whose theatrical releases were close to 3 hours and whose directors’ cuts were even longer.


Script structure is an entirely different beast from fiction, and can depend quite a bit on the media format. How many commercial breaks? An intermission? Episodic series or one-shot? We didn’t get into this too much, because I don’t know much and it’s a big topic. If you’re serious about writing something to actually get made though, you’ll need to figure these things out.


As I said before, we’re stepping away from class-specific homework, so the goal for next week is to just do some fiction writing. Freya does want to make more home movies, but she has to wrangle her brothers into being the actors, and as we all know, actors (and brothers) are an unruly bunch who often don’t take direction well.

See you next week, when we’ll dive deeper into characters!

Storytelling Class — Nonlinear Structures

Every week, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This week, our topic was nonlinear storytelling.

We always start with two questions: What did we read, and what did we write over the past week?

What Did We Read?

I read the usual fiction blogs, and got about half-way through both Chuck Wendig’s Damn Fine Story, and The Wes Anderson Collection by Matt Zoller Seitz.

Wendig’s book on storytelling is a very in-the-trenches guide to good storytelling structures that can be easily and immediately deployed in whatever story you’re currently writing. It has the exactly same zany energy that makes Wendig’s blog fun, and while it mostly covers tried-and-true ideas about story structure, it’s a good review and packed with useful pop-culture examples.

The Wes Anderson book is a collection of interviews, photos and other Anderson-esque artifacts documenting the director’s work from his Bottle Rocket debut up to Moonrise Kingdom. It looks like the book has become a series as Anderson continues to make movies, so I may have to check out the Grand Budapest Hotel and Isle of Dogs volumes next.

I also finally finished reading The Lord of The Rings to the kids. Whew! It has been years since I read the whole thing, and I had forgotten a few things. It’s quite a series to read out loud.

What Did We Write?

I wrote my usual bloggery, and finished Razor Mountain chapter 7, which turned out to be a very long chapter. Freya didn’t write any fiction this week.

Nonlinear Stories

The main topic this week was nonlinear story structure. This was something that came up in our previous conversations that Freya wanted to know more about.

Linear stories show events happening in order. Nonlinear stories show at least some part of the story out-of-order from when it happened in relation to the other events. One could also argue that a story told in-order, but leaving some events out is also a form of nonlinear story structure.

Nonlinear structure is more effort for the reader to understand. Using too much of it, or not using it to good effect may end up frustrating the reader. If you’re going to use a nonlinear structure, do it purposefully.

Skipping Ahead

The simplest form of nonlinearity is skipping ahead. This is typically used to get past events that logically need to happen, but simply aren’t interesting enough for the reader to want to see them played out.

This can also sometimes be used to heighten excitement, often as part of a mystery, by leaving out some important event. In this case, it’s typically revealed later on, at the point when the revelation is most important. This can be dangerous because it can sometimes feel “unfair” to the reader that the knowledge was kept from them, especially if it was readily available to the characters.

Events Out of Order

A flashback is the most common way to show events out of order, inserting some previous events into the narrative near the point where they become relevant to the story’s “main” timeline. A flash-forward is a less common version of this, jumping ahead into the future to see some outcome that results from events in the story’s “main” timeline.

A frame story is a case where the bulk of the story is told as a flashback or “story within a story.” The recounting of the story is the “frame.” Examples of this are Scheherazade’s storytelling in the One Thousand and One Nights or the grandfather and grandson in The Princess Bride.

Parallel plots are often employed in stories with larger casts of characters, where individuals or groups have their own plots going at the same time. These stories will cover a certain amount of time for one character or group, then cut back to the start and show what happened during that period for the other character or group.

Events Disconnected

A more complicated nonlinear story may have many events out of their linear order.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind mostly consists of memories of a relationship, shown out of order. Memento follows a man with a brain injury that prevents him from forming long-term memories, starting with scenes at the beginning and end of the story, then going forward and backward in turns to eventually meet in the middle.

The video game Her Story tells a story through a series of interview clips, with the player able to discover different clips through play, and choosing the order to view them in.

Time Travel and Alternate Universes

Time travel stories almost always involve some nonlinear structures, and often complicate them with characters that go into the past and change the future, or muddle it with closed time loops where future characters participate in past events that contribute to the state of the future (their present).

Stories with alternate universes often use similar structures, with the added complication that similar events in different universes can have different outcomes, and at some point the alternate universes typically affect one another.


Freya and I both slacked and didn’t write anything for the previous class’s homework. This week, we’ll be playing catch-up. We’re both going to write something and either incorporate some non-linearity or use it to discuss beginnings, middles and ends.

Some of Freya’s ideas from our Ideas class were for homemade movies, so the next class topic will be script-writing 101. (I’ve never written a script before, so I’ll probably learn some things too!)

Storytelling Class — Beginnings, Middles and Ends

Every week, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This week, our topic was beginnings, middles and ends.

We always start with two questions: what did we read and what did we write over the past week?

What Did We Read?

We each read a lot of things this week!

I read the usual fiction blogs, and a whole bunch of graphic novels from the library:

Freya read:

She also continued reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

(FYI – links are my affiliate links)

Freya really enjoyed the Iliad and the Odyssey, although she said she likes the Odyssey better. She enjoyed the cliffhangers in the Odyssey and the perspective shifting between Odysseus and Penelope.  She didn’t like the limited choice that Penelope seemed to have in the story, and I don’t blame her. We discussed the agency of women in ancient Greece and in our society today.

What Did We Write?

I wrote a few blog posts, and worked on Razor Mountain chapter 7. It’s going to be the longest chapter so far, by a significant margin.

Freya wrote her Ivan reading journal at school, and a 101-word story. She was inspired by my explanation of drabbles, and decided to write one herself! However, she tried to write it in a single draft, and had a hard time finding an ending at exactly 100 words. Hence the 101.

I explained that my process for drabbles is to write a first draft that’s relatively short, but captures the story that I want. Then I trim it down over several drafts until I get to exactly 100 words. Drabbles really force brutal cutting, and I explained that she was making it extra hard on herself by trying to do it all in one go.

Last Week’s Homework: Ten Story Ideas

Freya and I talked through some of the story ideas that we came up with for last week’s homework. She only came up with eight, but eighteen ideas is still a lot to get through, so I won’t go into great detail in this post.

Freya’s ideas included movie scripts and a series of Felix the Cat stories (no, a different Felix the Cat), as well as a story based solely on an interesting title. We got the idea that she often likes to start with a particular media or “shape” of story and figure out the details afterward, which is interesting, and different from the approach I usually take.

Beginnings, Middles, and Ends

The main topic for this class was beginnings, middles and ends.

We often split stories into three parts, because three parts feels good (the “rule of threes”) and because the beginning and end tend to have specific things that need to happen, and the middle holds everything together. A lot of talk about three act structure can also be said to be about beginnings, middles and ends.

Beginning (Act I)

Beginnings introduce the important characters, the setting (or world), the situation, and any overarching mysteries.

Beginnings often start with a “hook,” which is something exciting that draws the reader into the story long enough to get them…well…hooked.

The beginning typically includes an “inciting incident,” something that goes wrong or changes the status quo. This incident breaks normality, forcing the action of the story.

Middle (Act II)

In the middle, the characters pursue their goals and try to overcome the main conflict through try/fail cycles. They progress mysteries without completely solving them. Most of the interesting action in the story happens here, and this is usually the biggest chunk of the story.

How do the characters deal with their “broken normal?” Do they try to restore the old order, or make a new order?

Ending (Act III)

The ending should bring the story to a resolution. It may be “happily ever after,” or not. This is where big mysteries should finally be solved. It’s where big questions should finally be answered. Characters succeed or fail at their major goals, or change goals completely.

At the end, the main conflict should be over. The villain should be defeated (or at least no longer in opposition to the good guys).

The major characters will often be clearly changed or have learned something by this point. This is the time to highlight that.

The most important thing here is that the story feels resolved. Finished. The world and characters may go on, but the story is done and they’re moving past it.


We talked through some different ways you can delineate the three parts in some particular stories, including The Martian, The Lord of the Rings, and the Harry Potter series, as well as Freya’s own Felix the Cat story from last week’s class.

There aren’t hard-and-fast definitions for splitting up stories, so it’s up to each reader’s own interpretation where the transition from beginning to middle or middle to end occurs.


Freya also asked about series such as books in a trilogy (or septology or whatever-logy) and episodes in a TV show.

Typically, each piece of the whole should have a beginning, middle and end, and work at least somewhat on its own. However, there may be larger arcs that span all the books, or a whole season, or only a few episodes. These larger arcs will also have their own beginning, middle and end.

On the other hand, some series, especially comedies, rely on a basic premise that remains the same. Each episode contains a beginning, middle and end. The characters resolve a problem and everything returns to baseline “normal,” ready for next week’s episode.

There are other, stranger ways that series can be handled, but I think this covers the majority. Maybe in a future class we’ll go into other, more unusual styles.


The homework for next class was to write another short 1-2 page story, thinking specifically about the beginning, middle and end, and what happens in each.

Storytelling Class — Turning Ideas Into Stories

Every week, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This week, our topic was how to turn ideas into stories.

We always start with two questions: what did we read and what did we write over the past week?

What Did We Read?

This week I read the graphic novel version of Dream Hunters and my usual blogs. I’m continuing to read The Lord of the Rings to the kids. The day has now been saved, and we just have to get through the final 100 pages of endings.

I picked up Dream Hunters from the library. I like anything by Gaiman, and although I read the original Dream Hunters illustrated story, that was years ago and I remembered almost nothing about it. This full-on graphic novel version was a great story with excellent art.

Freya was in the middle of rereading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in her free time, and The One and Only Ivan at school. We talked about an exciting part of Ivan, and how she likes action sequences more than lots of dialogue.

What Did We Write?

I wrote my usual blog posts, Razor Mountain chapter 6, and my “homework” short story for this class.

Freya wrote things for school, and her homework story for this class.

Last Week’s Homework

Our homework was to complete a story of two pages or less, as practice for finishing stories.

I wrote a drabble version of my microfiction story “No More Kings.” I like how drabbles force you to cut to the essence of a story (and usually force you to cut more than feels comfortable). But unlike microfiction, they actually feel like a complete tiny story that doesn’t require a gimmick to work.

Freya wrote a two-page story called Felix the Cat Goes to School. This has nothing to do with the cartoon character—it’s actually about a green-furred cat named after her little brother. (His favorite color is green.)

Turning Ideas Into Stories

Our main topic was discussing ways to turn ideas into full stories.

As an example of building up ideas into a story, I talked about a story I’m working on that’s still missing some pieces (like a clear ending). It started as a detective story in the vein of Sherlock Holmes, in a world where magic exists. Eventually, it transformed into something closer to a steampunk James-Bond-with-magic spy drama. It also expanded from something short story length into something novel-length. As I built up this story idea, I had to add in a magic system, a setting, and a background and personality for my main character. Each of these things changed what the story wanted to be.

1. Idea Journal and Brainstorming

I’m a big believer in having a writing journal. A place to keep story ideas is one of the most useful tools a writer can have. Sometimes the muse gifts us with ideas, and this journal gives us a safe place to keep them. However, it can also be useful to dedicate some writing time specifically to brainstorming story ideas.

I showed Freya my idea journal. I used to keep an actual, physical journal, but I switched to a OneNote journal that I can sync between my phone (for ideas on the go) and my computer (for writing time).

We also discussed brainstorming time. This doesn’t have to be time spent hunched over keyboard or journal. It can just as well be a walk in the woods or whatever other environment helps you think creatively, as long as it’s free from distractions.

2. Build Idea Combos

Cory Doctorow talks about story ideas coming out of a “super-saturated solution” of things that catch your interest. You can also think of ideas as the bits of dust in space that accrete into planets and stars. The basic idea behind these metaphors is that one idea—a character, setting, situation, etc. is usually not enough to sustain a story. Instead, each story is a mixture or combination of interesting ideas.

3. Fill In Missing Pieces

Most stories need a specific set of components: characters, setting, a source of tension, and so on. Sometimes fleshing out a story idea is a Mad-Libs-esque exercise in determining the “blanks” and filling them in.

This doesn’t have to be a hard commitment. It can be an experiment. If you know you need a setting to make the idea work, you can pick one you’re not sure about and try it out. If it doesn’t work, try something else.

4. Prompts, Challenges, and Games

Another way to expand your ideas is to mix and mingle them with outside influences. These might be writing prompts or challenges, or games/tools like Story Engine.

Next Week’s Homework

In keeping with the theme, we decided that next week’s homework will be to come up with ten story ideas. These don’t have to be fully fleshed out; they might be a single character or some other piece of a story. We can then talk about what other pieces it needs to become a functional story.

The past two class topics have come from Freya’s questions and thoughts in the previous class. This time, she had no strong opinions on what the next topic should be.

Luckily, I had a list of potential topics for us to consult. After some discussion, we decided that next week’s topic will be beginnings, middles, and ends.

Storytelling Class — Finishing Stories

Every week, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. In our first class, I asked her if she had any topics she wanted to cover. She said, she sometimes has trouble finishing stories, something that I think many of us can relate to. So this week, our topic was how to finish stories.

The Two Questions

Each class, I start with two questions: what did we read, and what did we write? Then we talk about how we felt about those things, and if we learned anything.

What Did We Read?

Freya has been reading a lot. She’s re-reading the Bone graphic novels and Harry Potter (currently on The Order of the Phoenix). At school, they’re reading The One and Only Ivan.

I had just finished The Martian. I’ve also been reading the ongoing bloggy adventures of Ela the Expert and Grace. I’m also in the midst of reading The Lord of the Rings to the kids. We just finished the Battle of Pelennor Fields.

I explained that I really appreciated the Martian as a great example of the try/fail cycle in action. Freya had a hard time thinking of specific things that she liked about the stories she had read. I suggested that when she reads, she occasionally try to think about what she likes or dislikes about what she’s reading. As a writer, this is a great way to learn from what you’re reading, and pick up new ideas and techniques.

What Did We Write?

Freya wrote about The One and Only Ivan in her writing journal at school. I wrote a chapter of Razor Mountain. In keeping with the theme of this week’s class, I’d been procrastinating getting that chapter done.

I also wrote four or five blog posts, including a reblog of Cory Doctorow’s “The Memex Method.” We talked about his idea that a blog can serve as an idea incubator, growing those ideas until they’re ready to be stories.

Freya said she often has fun ideas, but isn’t sure how to make them into a story. We talked briefly about saving those ideas in a file or journal, and how sometimes the key is to combine a couple different interesting ideas into a story. Turning ideas into stories is a big thing, so we decided this would be a good topic for a future class.

Finishing Stories

On to the main topic: what are some ways to finish stories when we’re having a hard time?

1. Write Shorter Things

As a general rule of thumb, the shorter the story, the less time and effort it takes to write. It’s harder to finish a novel than it is to finish a short story. That doesn’t mean that writing a short story is easy. It just means that if you want to try to finish more things, a good strategy is to write shorter stories.

2. Have a Plan

We talked a little about outlining vs. exploratory writing, and G.R.R.M.’s categorization of writers as gardeners and architects. I’m more of an architect, and Freya is more of a gardener. Either way, we all sometimes get stuck in the middle of a story because we don’t know what happens next. It can help to have some sort of plan. It doesn’t have to be a full outline. It may just be knowing the beginning and ending of the story, or knowing a handful of stepping-stones we want to land on.

3. Make a Schedule

A lot of writers are procrastinators. As the famous phrase goes, “I hate writing, but I love having written.” Sometimes what you really need is a reason to put butt in chair and pen in hand. Personally, I often find that the biggest effort of a writing session is to get myself to write the first sentence. As soon as I start, I remember what I love about the story, and the words flow.

One of the reasons I love having a blog is that it makes me write on a regular basis. If I want to post something every Monday and Friday, then I have to sit down and write something at least a couple times per week. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’m working on other projects, but at least I’m writing.

4. Switch Back and Forth

Sometimes we just need variety in our lives. While there are a few authors who are content to write book after book in the same world, with the same characters, most authors I know have so many varied ideas that they’d like to explore that they’ll never have enough time to work on them all.

It can be incredibly refreshing to take a break from a project that you’re struggling on to work on something fresh and new. One of the oddities of human brains is that they’ll often solve problems in the background, when the conscious mind is focused on something else.

This is another great thing about having a blog. If I’m having a rough time working on a novel or story, I can always take a break to write something for the blog. I can switch from fiction to non-fiction, or from one story to another.

Of course, if you’re switching between things, you need to make sure you’re coming back to them. It’s not a helpful technique if you start ten things and finish none of them. Then you’re just telling yourself you’re taking a break, when you’re really serially abandoning writing projects.

5. Be Accountable to Someone

I’ll be honest. My ambitions are usually far bigger than my work ethic. I’d love to finish that novel, but dang it, there’s another Steam sale and I’ve gone and bought five new video games for $3 each. For a lot of us, our own internal motivations don’t always get the job done. Being accountable to something or someone beyond just ourselves can give us that motivating boost we need.

This is yet another place where having a blog helps me. If I know I have readers, it makes me want to keep writing for them. Even if, realistically, nobody is going to be terribly disappointed if I miss a week of posts, I still feel a little bit like I’m letting someone down.

A writing partner, writing group or class can also be a great motivator. Schedule a regular time with a helpful reader to go over new work, and you’ll suddenly be far more reluctant to show up with no new words in hand.

6. Set it Aside

This may not sound like a great way to finish things, but it can be, occasionally. Sometimes you start writing a story and it’s just…missing something. No amount of brainstorming or reworking seems to fix it. In that case, it may just be that you’re not ready to write that story. Maybe it’s missing some crucial idea that will pull everything together, and you haven’t thought of it yet.

If a story just isn’t working, you may need to set it aside. Again, your subconscious can keep struggling with that problem while your conscious does something else. The key is to keep coming back periodically. Re-read it every once in a while. Look through your idea journal and see if there’s something there that breathes new life into that old story. Eventually, inspiration may strike. If not, you’ve hopefully been more productive writing something else.

7. Check for Something Missing

Many stories don’t work because they’re missing something structurally. Make sure you have at least a main character who has a problem or wants something. A character without a goal is rarely interesting, and a goal without complications or road-blocks usually doesn’t make a very good story either.  There has to be a source of conflict or tension.

I told Freya a little bit about chapter five of Razor Mountain, and how it wasn’t very interesting until I added some conflict between God-Speaker and other members of the tribe. We also talked about the characters in the Harry Potter series, and how each of them has their own goals and challenges, even though Harry vs. Voldemort is the central conflict of the series.


First, we have the standard weekly homework: we need to be ready to answer the two questions, what did we read, and what did we write? How did we feel about it and what did we learn?

Second, we’re going to finish a story! Each of us will write a story two pages or less. This will help us practice some of the techniques we talked about: writing shorter things, making a schedule, and being accountable.

Next week, following Freya’s suggestion, we’ll look at ways of turning ideas into stories.

Storytelling Class With Freya

One of the joys of parenthood is when your children take an interest in an activity you love. You get the opportunity to teach them what you know and give them all the advice you wish you’d had. My nine-year-old daughter Freya recently lamented that English class was boring because she didn’t get to write stories. She said, “I wish I had a story writing class.” It took a lot of restraint for me to not jump up immediately and start singing “A Whole New World” from Aladdin. Instead, I immediately instituted a story writing class for just the two of us.

My daughter was kind enough to give me permission to post about our classes. Since we’re planning to meet once per week, this will be a new weekly feature until she gets bored or I run out of things to talk about.

Teaching writing to a child is an interesting exercise, and I don’t have a ton of experience teaching. My daughter is a smart cookie, but she doesn’t have a lot of experience writing or reading stories, having not been on this earth all that long. I think the key is to be flexible and adjust to her interests. The most important thing kids need for successful learning is enthusiasm.

For our first “class,” I decided to start with some general principles and try to find out what she was interested in.

Nobody Can Tell You How to Write

I started with an abridged version of my writing advice advice. There are many authors who have found success with wildly different methods that work for them. It’s great to study and find out what works for other people, but you ultimately have to synthesize your own systems from bits and pieces of others’ advice, along with your own discoveries.

I can give advice, but not all of it will work for you. Just take what works and don’t stress too much about what doesn’t.

Making Sense, Feeling Good

It’s important for (most) stories to make sense. They should have events that follow one after another logically. But that isn’t what makes a good story.

If you think about some of your favorite stories, you probably love them because they made you feel something. The “feeling” of a story, the emotions it evokes, is the real measure of its worth. It might be “happily ever after” and make you feel good, but it might also make you feel bad, scared, surprised or satisfied.

I think one of the many reasons humans are storytellers is because stories serve as a sort of experience by proxy. I will never know what it’s like in real life to be an astronaut stranded by myself on Mars. I’ll never know what it’s like to be a little person with hairy feet, sneaking to volcano to throw in a magic ring. But I can still experience these things vicariously through stories.

Doing It on Purpose

The most important things you can do to improve your writing are:

  • Read a lot
  • Write a lot
  • Seek advice and opportunities to learn from others

The human subconscious is a wonderful thing. Your subconscious can absorb ideas and techniques, even without you realizing that you’re absorbing it. Your subconscious instincts can take you a long way. Still, if you want to get better at writing, you can’t rely solely on your subconscious.

You want to be able to make choices and decide how to do things to achieve specific effects. To do that, you need to consciously learn different techniques and the ways to deploy them.

Questions and Homework

To finish, we discussed a few open-ended questions. These may seem a little silly, but I do think that it’s worth it for any writer to ask themselves overly-broad questions

  • What is a story?
  • Why do you read stories, and why do you enjoy them?
  • Why do you want to write stories?

I also asked Freya what she wanted to cover in these classes. She said that one thing she has trouble with is not finishing stories. I’ll admit, this is something I’ve occasionally had issues with as well. So that will be our topic for next time: finishing stories!

Reblog: How to Study the Craft of Writing — Priscilla Bettis

As I’ve mentioned before, I read a lot of books about writing and the craft of storytelling. Along with regular reading and writing, I think this is one of the keys to improving as an author.

I find I can usually take at least a few good things from any of these “how-to” guides, and I synthesize all of it into my own mish-mash of writing process. However, I’ve always done this very informally, mostly just reading, absorbing, and seeing what sticks.

Bettis suggests a much more rigorous form of study, and encourages us to take notes. Notes let us come back later and get the executive summary of what we read, but perhaps more importantly, they allow us to better retain all those juicy tidbits of advice.

As I’m reading a book or article or even listening to a YT lecture, I jot down key ideas in the left hand column, and then (this is the important part) in the bigger area I immediately apply each concept to a work in progress. If you zoom in on my notes, you might see items about a character named Wang and how I could develop an emotional core for Wang’s story.

I also make little boxes with published examples. In these notes, the published examples are from Moby Dick.

When I’ve filled up the note-taking area down to the bottom section, I stop and get out my yellow pen to highlight the main points of what I just studied. Then (this is another important part), without looking back at the notes so I’m not just copying, I summarize what I’ve learned in my own words at the bottom of the page.

She even includes an example page from her own notes, links to the note-taking method that she adapted, and an article explaining why note-taking can provoke deeper learning.

Check out the full article over at Priscilla Bettis, Author…