Story/Character Arc

The arc of a story is the overall plot of the whole thing – from exposition to denouement. The character arc is how the character changes within that story.

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Your story should have a captivating arc to it. Everything should change during the course of the story. By the time you reach the end, there should be a distinct difference between the baseline there and the one at the beginning.

The same holds true for your characters. They should change during the story. This doesn’t have to be a huge personality shift, but they ought to learn and grow during your tale.

Here’s an example of how this would work in a story:

  • Act 1: at the beginning of your story, the character is resistant to change – things are fine the way they are, so why should he or she change?
  • Plot Point 1: a surprise happens that throws the character’s life into a whole new direction
  • Act 2: the character’s emotional journey. This is perhaps the hardest part of your story to write. The key is conflict – have a list of several obstacles (both internal and external) that will raise the stakes of the game for your character as time passes. This should end at a low point, where it seems that the character is never going to be able to succeed.
  • Plot Point 2: a second surprise twist that makes the character’s goal reachable after all.
  • Act 3: the dramatic enactment of the character’s success (followed by resolution or denouement).

The Point of No Return

Conflict is a necessary part of any story. Without conflict and tension, you’ve got a boring description and no story.

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Along with conflict, though, you must have character reaction. If your characters don’t grow and change in response to the conflict, you’ve got another boring story. In order to really hook your readers and keep them rooting for the characters, those characters must react like real people. They must change – even if it is in small ways.

During your story, the characters must reach a point at which they must decide to make that change. This is the Point of No Return. Beyond this point, they can stay the same, go back to their lives as if nothing happened, and “keep on keeping on.”

The Point of No Return is that place in the conflict where the characters cannot react any further without making some sort of change – emotional, spiritual, physical, or mental. And with that change, they cannot “undo” their reaction. They can’t just pretend it never happened and go back to the way they were before.

This is a key part of a good story. Build your conflict to the point where the characters have to make a change, and your readers will follow right along, cheering for the characters. One good way to figure out if your story is progressing properly is to create a number system for your conflict, with 10 being a Point of No Return moment and 1 being no tension at all.

Number your scenes according to the tension and conflict in each one. You should see the numbers increasing until they reach 10. You can certainly have little dips where you slack off on the tension to give your characters a brief rest, but the overall curve should be uphill.

Once the Point of No Return is reached, you should be at or near the action climax of the tale as well – and it’s all downhill from there.

Writing Basics: Style

Style is an elusive element of fiction. It’s something everyone has, but not many people can fully define.

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Your style is based on several things: diction, sentence structure, detail, literary devices, dialogue, and rhythm.

  • Diction: Do you use simple language or complex? Do you use long or short words? Is your language concrete or abstract?
  • Sentence Structure: Do you use simple or complex sentences? Short ones or long ones – or even sentence fragments? Do you place your clauses at the end of the sentence (periodic) or at the beginning (cumulative)?
  • Detail: Do you go into great depth, or do you use sparse sentences?
  • Literary Devices: What literary techniques do you use? Is your work full of imagery? Do you use simile or metaphor or hyperbole? What about personification or symbolism?
  • Dialogue: What does your dialogue say about you, as a writer, in addition to telling about your characters? Many times, dialogue can reveal your own beliefs, biases, prejudices, values, and personal experiences.
  • Rhythm: What patterns of flow and movement do you use in your writing? Do you use alliteration or rhyme? How do you arrange your words and sentences? What types of repetition do you use?

Everyone has their own writing style. Now that you know the basics, you can determine what your style is, and learn to enhance it.

Brainstorming 101

One of a writer’s best tools is brainstorming.

Concept of creativity. Tin can.But how exactly do you brainstorm effectively? Here are some tips:

When to brainstorm: whenever anything happens or whenever your character has any type of choice. You can also brainstorm when you have no idea what’s going to happen next – or when you have too many ideas and need to narrow them down.

How to brainstorm:

  • State your objectives – this can be as simple as “How would my character react to what just happened?” or as complex as “What’s going to happen in this story?”
  • Number a paper from 1-100 and start writing ideas. It starts getting hard somewhere around 50, and your creativity will really kick in then.
  • Freewrite. Set a time limit and write down whatever comes to mind during that time, even if that thought is “This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever done.” Freewriting gets you into the habit of writing and stimulates your creativity.
  • Report. Answer the five journalistic questions: Who? What? When? Where? and How? This is another way to state your objectives, focusing in on the specifics you need to complete the story.

4 Tips for Great Conflict

Conflict or tension is a necessary element of storytelling. Without conflict, you don’t have a story.

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First, let’s hop over to Merriam-Webster and define our terms:

  1. Fight, battle, war
  2. a : competitive or opposing action of incompatibles : antagonistic state or action (as of divergent ideas, interests, or persons)
    b : mental struggle resulting from incompatible or opposing needs, drives, wishes, or external or internal demands
  3. the opposition of persons or forces that gives rise to the dramatic action in a drama or fiction

Pay close attention to Definition 2 – conflict can be entirely internal and still provide a ripping yarn.

Here are some tips for providing good conflict in your stories:

  • Want vs Need – The conflict between what a character wants and what he really needs makes for good reading. A character with strong wants and desires provides endless opportunities for tension and conflict.
  • Between a Rock and a Hard Place – Giving a character a selection of choices might seem like an easy “out.” But what if none of the choices appeals to that character? Having to choose between two or more undesirable outcomes gives a lot of good tension to your scene.
  • Size Up the Opposition – Make sure that your character has opposition that is strong enough to create conflict. It’s not going to be a tense scene if the villain is a little old lady in a Hover-Round sitting between the hero and the Big Red Button on the nuclear weapon panel. Likewise, nobody is going to care if the hero must choose between chocolate and vanilla ice cream for dessert. Create worthy opposition, whether the conflict is external or internal.
  • Connections – one good place to look for conflict is in the connections a character has, both to other people and to the things and places around him. What ties your hero to that dead-end job? What prevents her from moving to a better location? Create internal tension by tying your character down.

What is the best conflict you’ve ever read in a book or story?

Introduce Your Characters

You’ve seen it too many times: the character posed in front of a mirror, examining himself or herself so that the reader will know what they look like.

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For cryin’ out loud, stop it already!

Your reader doesn’t need a long introspective to introduce them to your character. What they need are two things: action and heart.

Action: Show your character doing something instead of telling about how they look. A character in action is automatically more interesting than one just standing or sitting around. Start the scene with your character in the middle of something active, something that shows the reader what sort of character they are, something that creates an immediate image for the reader.

Heart: A good character introduction also has emotion. Show your character’s internal self by the way they think and act. Give us some of their emotional turmoil up front, so that the reader knows they’re a complex character worth getting involved in.

Although most beginning writers have a hard time believing it, the reader doesn’t need to know what color the character’s hair or eyes are, how tall they are, or whether they have a dimple in their chin. Unless something is truly unusual, don’t even bother to mention it. Let the reader imagine whatever they want. They’ll be happier with that instead of a long, boring mirror scene. Trust me.

4 Tips for Creating Subplots

A subplot is a plot within your main plot, one that affects the secondary character(s).

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Here are four basic points to keep in mind when creating a subplot:

  • Is the character worthy? Does the secondary character you have chosen for this subplot have a deep enough personality to handle it? Is their life complicated enough to generate a subplot? Do they face conflicts that are separate from the main plot? If you can’t find a secondary character who is complex enough to generate a subplot, then you need to work on your characters to make them a little more three-dimensional.
  • Does the subplot connect to the main plot? In order for the story to catch the reader’s attention, there must be inter-connections between the two plots. The characters must both have good, solid reasons to be in the book. They must have some proximity to one another.
  • Does the subplot affect the outcome of the main plot? If your subplot only widens the scope of your novel, it’s not doing the job properly.
  • Does the subplot range? Your characters don’t have to travel the world, but they should have a broad range of experiences within the plot and subplot.

And a final bit of advice: stick to one or two subplots. More than that will overwhelm your novel.

Happy New Year

As 2015 begins, we as writers should take stock of our writing lives and make a few resolutions for our craft.

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Not the sort we don’t intend to keep, however. Let’s make some resolutions that we can and will continue.

  • Write when you don’t feel like it. I’m writing this post while I have the flu, so you can write something when you don’t feel like writing! Even a few words will be progress.
  • Write your passion. Don’t try to guess the market or hop on the latest literary bandwagon. Write what you’re called to write – and there will be readers out there somewhere!
  • Read for a variety of reasons. First, you want to see how the experts do it – how do professional writers handle dialogue and plot twists and setting and anything else you’re having trouble with? You want to study their techniques and learn how to create your own. And reading is just good for you – your mind absorbs what you read, your imagination is stimulated, and your brain gets a good workout. Plus, it’s fun, right?
  • Don’t take this so seriously. Writing is supposed to be fun – well, most of the time. Sure, there will be times you feel like you’re slogging through knee-deep mud, but you should usually be enjoying yourself. If you’re not, lighten up. This doesn’t have to be the Great American Novel, you know. It can just be a fun little book that you wanted to write. Also, you can try the next step.
  • Try a new genre. If you’re a fiction writer, try doing an article for your local newspaper or for a magazine. If you’re a nonfiction writer, try doing a short story. Try something totally different, like mystery if you usually write science fiction. Switch it up and give your brain a workout – and some fun, to boot.
  • Back up your computer! This should be a given, but back up your work frequently. If you have an external hard drive, use it. If you don’t have one, at least store everything on a flash drive every few days.
  • Write the truth. Be true to the world outside and inside. Don’t sugar-coat reality, even in a romance novel. And no matter how embarrassed you may feel about plumbing your emotional depths, don’t stint. Be truthful, even if it hurts.
  • Stop comparing your achievements. So what if Writer X has a bestseller and your book isn’t doing as well? Stop grading yourself against others and just get your work out there. Instead, compare your ability – that’s something you can work on and improve!
  • Do your research. This is probably a given, but do some homework before you write that setting you’ve never actually visited, or before you use that colorful old phrase in your historical piece.
  • Listen up. Pay attention to what others are saying about your writing. Pay attention to what you’re reading from other authors. And pay attention to how your own work sounds as you write it.
  • Complain less. Sure, writing can be hard – but so is any other job. If you find yourself griping about writer’s block yet again, or whining about having to rewrite that scene one more time – just stop and remind yourself of Resolution #4.
  • Break a rule. Do something “they” say never to do. Do something that makes you uncomfortable. Who knows, it may turn out to be something great.
  • Edit and rewrite. That first draft is supposed to be crap – it’s why they call it a first draft. Sure, nobody likes the editing/rewriting process. However, it’s an important part of writing, so just buckle down and do it.
  • Build a skill. You know that area you “just aren’t good at”? Work on it. Learn to write better dialogue or exposition or sex scenes or whatever it is you feel you’re lacking. Study and practice and improve!
  • Build a platform. If you don’t already have a website, start one. At least have a place readers can land and learn about the author and which books you have out there. A blog is a great thing if you have something to talk about, but a website is a must. If you don’t have a social media presence, get one. Facebook and Twitter are the biggest two, but YA authors should also cultivate Instagram and other sites where their readers congregate. Find something to post every day or two, even if it’s a just a snippet from your work that you’re having trouble with.
  • Call yourself a writer. Start thinking of yourself as a professional writer, and you’ll soon be one in reality. Tell your friends and family that it’s not just a hobby any more. If someone asks what you do, say “I write.”
  • Give something back. I mean to other writers. This can be as simple as writing some reviews on Amazon or Goodreads. Join a critique group and mentor another writer who’s a few steps behind you in the craft. Champion another writer in your genre by giving praise when you talk about the genre (both in public and in writing). There are many ways to give back to the writing community.