Fiction Secrets: Short Story and Novel Writing Tips

Improve your fiction writing with these tips.




Defeat the First Draft Blues: Part 4   

By Melissa Jones

This is Part 4 of a series on revising the first draft of a novel. Read Part 1 to find out why it's important to take a break from your first draft before you revise it. Read Part 2 to discover why a messy first draft is a good thing. Part 3 teaches you how to take stock of what works (and what doesn't).

Step 4: Find your Vision

"Strategic planning is worthless -- unless there is first a strategic vision." -- John Naisbitt, American writer and thinker

If you've followed steps 1-3 of the WEbook Guide to Revising a Novel, you should have a good handle on your book as it exists today -- warts and all. You may be tempted to get right in there and start applying liquid nitrogen to those warts. But then all you'll be left with is a toad with no warts. Why settle for that when you could have -- oh, I don't know -- a griffin, or a jackalope, or an animatronic space monkey?

In other words, they call it revision for a reason. Now that you know what your book is, it's time to create a vision for what your book could be.

There is no simple formula for discovering the greatest potential inherent in your first draft. You cannot plug in character A's strength rating, divide it by subplot B's development score, and multiply the whole thing by the square root of plot twist C. Instead, you must draw on the mysterious forces of inspiration and vision that led you to want to write a book in the first place. Luckily, there are a few signposts that can help you find your way in the dark.

Below, you will find eight questions that will guide you towards your greatest vision. Before you get started on the questions, establish some ground rules to help you get the most out of this process.

Forget what you think you know. Let go of any preconceptions you have about your book. Presumably, you started your first draft with some more or less definite ideas about plot, character, and/or premise. (Even if you started with nothing, you probably developed some ideas along the way.) Throw them all out the window. You may end up back where you started, concluding that yes, in fact, this is a realistic first-person narrative describing a lonely housewife's journey from depression to international pop stardom. But in order to find your vision, you must create space for the possibility that your book could in fact be a third-person narrative exploring the perspectives of twelve different roadies backstage before the once-lonely housewife's final arena concert.

So many possibilites, so few lifetimes. Once you open yourself up to the possibility that your book could be something other than what you originally imagined it to be, you may find yourself overwhelmed by all the somethings other it could be. Don't despair. Focus on finding the most promising path for your novel, and leave the other possibilities for another day -- and another book.

Keep it positive. Remember when you read through your first draft and took stock of what worked well? Let those bright lights guide you to your vision. As you reflect on the questions below, think mainly about the elements of your draft that stand out as great, successful, and/or energetic.

Grab a pen. Carve out some time in your day to sit down with a pen and a notebook. Devote roughly ten minutes to each of the questions below. If you need to, you can come back to some of the questions again -- and again -- until you're satisfied. You can also jot down other questions that occur to you as you answer these. Remember, you should answer these questions not necessarily about your first draft as it is, but about your book as it could be and as you want it to be.

Document your vision. Spend as much time as you want brainstorming about the questions below. When you feel that you have a solid grasp of the greatest possibility for your story, take one piece of paper and collect the downpour from your brainstorm into a single bucket. Write 2-3 sentences summarizing each answer. (If an answer covers more than one character, it's okay to devote 2-3 sentences to each character.) Incorporate your favorite ideas from the final question ("What if...?") into your answer to question # 7.

The questions:

  1. Whose story is it? It's fine if the answer includes more than one person; however, it may be easier if you have one main person to focus on.
  2. Who tells the story? This may or may not be the person whom the story is about. It also may or may not be a person in the story at all -- the person telling the story might be you, the author.
  3. How does the story begin? Pinpoint the chronological beginning of your story -- not necessarily where you begin telling it, but where the story itself is set in motion.
  4. How does the story end? See above, substituting "end" for "begin." Look for the place where the strongest elements of your story resolve themselves.
  5. How do the book's characters change over the course of the story? What transformations occur -- or should occur -- to your characters between the story's beginning and its end?
  6. How does the reader change over the course of the story? In your vision for your book, imagine what you want your reader to think and feel at the beginning of the book, and chart the changes in their perspective that should take place along the way. You may be mainly concerned with your reader's thoughts about people or events within the book; or, you may want your book to have an effect on your reader's larger worldview.
  7. What events or elements of the story are crucial to the changes experienced by your characters and readers? Make a list of things that happen in the story that lead to character or reader transformations and shifts in perspective.
  8. What if...? Finally, take ten or twenty minutes to brainstorm on possible new story elements that could strengthen the transformations you envision for your characters and readers. Repeat as necessary.



Defeat the First Draft Blues: Part 3

By Melissa Jones


This is Part 3 of a series on revising the first draft of a novel. Read Part 1 to find out why it's important to take a break from your first draft before you revise it. Read Part 2 to discover why a messy first draft is a good thing.

Step 3: Survey the Damage

So you've taken a nice, long break from your novel, and you've made peace with its imperfections. Now it's time to survey the damage -- but don't worry. You won't be making a list of all the things you did wrong. Instead, you'll be looking at what you did right, and asking yourself some very important questions.

Find What Works

When you come back to your novel after a break, the first thing you need to do is read it. That may seem obvious, but it's important that you set some guidelines for how you will read the first draft.

  • DON'T change a word. That's right, not a single word. Don't add a comma, don't remove a quotation mark. Don't make any changes at all to your manuscript.
  • DO read in big, uninterrupted chunks. If you can manage it, set aside a few consecutive days to get through the book. You may not be able to do it all in one sitting, but the last thing you want is a two-week break between page 100 and page 101.
  • DO print your manuscript. Working from a hard copy instead of a computer screen has many advantages. It will make it easier to resist the temptation to start "fixing" things. (See above.) And, you can scribble all over a piece of paper. (See below.) That doesn't work so well on a monitor.
  • DO break out the highlighters and colored markers. How you choose to mark up your manuscript is up to you, but it pays to get creative.
  • DO look for what works. Underline or highlight any passages that are particularly resonant, well-written, and effective. Write notes in the margin, pointing out sections of strong characterization, setting, action, etc. 
  • DO ask questions. As you read, leave yourself memos asking what, where, how, who, and, most importantly, why
  • DON'T get too focused on flaws. You could agonize over why a scene doesn't work, only to decide later that the entire sub-plot it belongs to needs to go. For now, think of yourself as a doctor treating a patient with an exotic, unknown disease. You can't make a diagnosis, much less prescribe a treatment, until you take the patient's history and make a list of all the symptoms. As you're reading, jot down a note if a scene moves too quickly or slowly; if dialogue is stilted; if a character does something implausible; or if something just plain doesn't make sense. Then let it go, and move on to the next page.

Ask for Help

Feedback can be a great help to a writer -- but it's important to get the right kind of feedback for whatever stage you're at with your novel. When you're planning a revision of a first draft, ask your readers to follow the above guidelines, with one modification: tell them not to focus on the flaws at all. Let your readers know that the manuscript is very rough, and you'll be working out the kinks soon. For now, you're interested in hearing what elements of the book your readers like the most.


Defeat the First Draft Blues: Part 2

By Melissa Jones

This is Part 2 of a series on revising the first draft of a novel, dedicated to all the NaNoWriMo winners out there. Read Part 1 here.

Step 2: Embrace the Mess

When I was a kid, my mom had a cross-stitched sign in our living room that said, "A messy house is the sign of a brilliant mind." If I knew how to cross-stitch, I'd hang a similar sign over my desk: "A messy first draft is the sign of a brilliant mind."

I know a few good writers who edit their work as they write it. Sentence 1 has to be just right before they can move onto Sentence 2. Chapter 1 has to be perfect before they write Chapter 2.  If they get to Chapter 13 and decide to make a change that affects Chapters 1, 2, 5, and 9, they go back and fix those chapters before they write Chapter 14.  Some of these writers even manage to finish books!

This guide to revision is not for those writers.

Let's assume that your first draft is a total mess. You wrote it (maybe in a single month); you left it alone long enough to get some perspective; and now you know for sure:  This book is a piece of junk.  No one in the history of time has ever written a book this bad.  At the beginning of the book, your main character's name is John; by the end, it's Jan.  You have no idea how or why Jan spent three chapters in Bangladesh shopping for a puppy -- she lives in Indiana, and she hates dogs.  Plus, you forgot to give Jan any friends, family, or source of income.  Whoops!

Good thing writers are so famously crazy.  You'll need at least two separate personalities to deal with this mess.

Personality #1: The Creator.  The Creator is great at coming up with cool ideas (like sending your main character to Bangladesh).  Flashes of insight and inspiration are the Creator's specialty.  Without the Creator, the world -- and your book -- would be very, very boring.  However, the Creator is lousy at logic and planning.  That's why you need...

Personality #2:  The Editor.  The Editor cleans up the messes the Creator leaves behind.  Editors are great at seeing the big picture, making outlines, setting deadlines, fixing details, and refining language.

If your first draft is a mess, that's a sign that your Creator has been hard at work -- which is a very good thing.  A mess means you've been thinking big, and you probably have some really great ideas buried under all the digressions and mistakes.  Now it's time for the Editor to take over for a while. 

In the steps to come, you will learn when to delegate responsibility to the Editor, and when to call on the Creator. For now, make a deal with yourself: The Creator and the Editor are not allowed in the same room without a chaperon.  

And stop worrying about the mess.  If you want to build the Sistine Chapel, you have to spill some paint.

Coming Soon: Step 3: Survey the Damage


Defeat the First Draft Blues: Part 1

By Melissa Jones

This is the first in a series of practical tips for writers facing the first draft blues.

It's Not Over!

Unless you're Jack Kerouac, chances are good that the work you create in a white-hot frenzy is nowhere near publishable quality. (Frankly, I've always had my doubts about old Jack, too.) Even if you're not sure you want to publish your novel, you can learn just as much -- and perhaps more -- about telling a story from editing and revision as you can from writing a first draft. Here's how it's done.

(Note: These tips come from my experience working with writers to get their first -- or second, or third, or fifteenth -- draft of a novel in shape for publication. None of these steps are compulsory. Plenty of people write, revise, and publish novels without following my advice. If you have work habits that work for you, keep working 'em!)

Step 1: Take Five

A first draft of a novel is a lot like a really, really dense forest. There may be a path in there, but if you're lost in the trees, you'll never find it. Get out of the forest. In fact, go far enough for long enough that you completely forget what the forest is like. Then, rent a helicopter and fly over the forest, making a map of what you see from a distance. When you get back into the trees, you'll be less likely to get lost.

What does this mean in non-metaphorical terms?  Quite simply: Take a break, then come back and read your entire first draft with fresh eyes, making notes before you start changing anything. Your break should be long enough that you forget a lot of the details of what you wrote. The length of this break will vary depending on how much your mind resembles a steel trap. There are a few things you can do to speed up the process. Choose one of these cross-training activities, or combine a few.

1) Read one great book. Pick something long and difficult that you've been meaning to tackle since high school. Anything written by a 19th-century Russian writer or an early modernist European should do the trick. Spend a week or two on War and Peace or The Magic Mountain, and you'll have no idea what you were working on before. Beware! Reading dense old books can infect your writing style. This is more of a danger during the composition process, but you should be on guard for accidental overdose nonetheless.

2) Read three silly books. The books should be reasonably well-written (you don't want to rot your writer's brain), but light and fast. It's best to steer clear of your novel's genre -- if you wrote a horror novel, don't read Stephen King. For all writers, I recommend anything by P.G. Wodehouse.

3) Complete a physical challenge. Train for a 5K, a 10K, a marathon, or a triathlon. Hike a segment of the Appalachian trail. Climb a literal mountain.

4) Become an art enthusiast. Take two weeks, and see as many plays, dance performances, concerts, and museum exhibits as your schedule and your town's cultural offerings will permit. Don't go to literary readings -- they lead to nothing but pointless, poisonous fantasies about what you'll wear to your first book signing.

5) Don't stop writing -- but don't work on your novel, and don't start anything that can't be finished in a day. Your goal is not to start new projects during this time -- you just need to keep the old writing muscles in decent shape. Think of yourself as an athlete in the off-season, or an opera singer between shows. You want to run drills and sing some light scales, but you also need to rest. Commit to a few weeks of free-writing for an hour or so a day, or write some 200-word short short stories. File the stories away for later. When you're done with your novel, you can pull them out and use them for inspiration for your next project.

Coming Soon: Step 2: Embrace the Mess

Join the Conversation

Share your revision wisdom and woes with fellow WEbookers on the WEbook forums.


Surprise! It's Your Character!

By FirstYearGrad

The better we know someone, the more they surprise us with their inconsistencies.

I once worked with a woman who color-coded her desk drawers.  She sorted her pens and pencils into three separate holders, depending on the duty they were to perform, and never thought to put a plastic coated paper clip into the same pot as the shiny silver wires.

One day I agreed to pick her up for work.  When I got to her house, I was shocked to see that her kitchen table was covered with last night’s dishes, and her sink was full of even older dishes.  A great orange tabby cat walked up and down the counter, carefully picking its way around newspapers and old mail.  The floor may have been clean, but it was hard to see it under the pile of dirty laundry.

Now, if I had put this woman into a story before I visited her house, her character would have been flat, one-sided, and uninteresting.  As I got to know her better, she surprised me all the time with new sides to her personality.

So, writer, know your character -- and you best know them better then that person you sit next to at work.


Make Your Own Book Club Guide

By Marieke

Many serious novels, especially those that tackle social subjects, come with a reading guide, which supplies questions for book clubs, students, and other committed readers. If you’re writing a novel, why not make up your own reading guide as you go along? Imagine the questions your readers may have about your book’s themes and characters – this will help you find the strengths and weaknesses of your story.

Here are some suggestions for questions to include in your “Writer’s Reading Guide”:

1. How do the first and last scene frame your novel?

2. Why are the main characters friends? And what do they fear from each other?

(After the Reading Guide to The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini )

3.  Discuss the topic of marriage as it is represented in your novel.

4. What are your thoughts on the structure of your novel?

(After the Reading Guide to The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan)

5. What rules, both written and unwritten, do the characters follow in the novel?

6. In what ways do the settings affect their residents?

(After the Reading Guide to The Cider House Rules by John Irving)

You can find more reading guides on


Cut the Stage Directions

by Melissa Jones


Melissa arrived at the office five minutes late, as usual. She opened the door and walked down the hall. She put her laptop down on her desk and sat in her chair. She double-clicked on her Outlook folder, and brought up her cluttered to-do list. Stage Directions Blog was written right at the top. Great. She’d been looking forward to this for a long time. But first, she had to do something about breakfast. It was no good writing on an empty stomach. She pulled her whole wheat bagel out of her backpack and unwrapped it. She put a napkin in her lap. She tore off a chunk of bagel and put it in her mouth. She chewed. She swallowed. Soon, the bagel was gone, and it was time to write the blog entry. She opened Microsoft Word (despite the program’s nightmarish incompatibility with Typepad’s text editor), and put her hands on the keyboard. She began to type.


You follow all that, readers? Or did you scan right down to the bottom, thinking, “All right already with the napkin in your lap! Get to the good stuff!”

If you answered the latter, I don’t blame you. That paragraph is a living, breathing specimen of a prose writer’s mortal enemy: Stage Directions.

Any time you narrate a physical action that gets a person from point A to point B, you’re using Stage Directions. Of course, sometimes it’s necessary to include some stage directions. But many writers – especially novices – use far too many stage directions in their writing.

The term Stage Directions comes from – you guessed it – playwriting, where stage directions are used to tell actors what they should do with their bodies during a play. Some plays include more stage directions than others. The most basic stage directions provide cues only for when a character enters or exits the stage. But plays never provide detailed directions for every single action a character should make during the play. Why not? Because actors and directors would revolt! “Don’t micromanage me!” they would exclaim. “I can create my own interpretation of my character’s actions! Give me some creative freedom!”

Your readers are sort of like these actors and directors. If a person you’re writing about goes from the kitchen table to the back door, you don’t need to tell your readers about how they stood up, walked around the table, walked into the hall, opened the door to the laundry room, etc. Your readers are perfectly capable of filling in the blanks with their imaginations. In fact, the process of doing this is one of the major pleasures of reading. Don’t rob your reader of that pleasure by micromanaging his or her imagination.

How do you know what stage directions to put in, and which to leave out? Practice, practice, practice. You might start by putting a lot of unnecessary directions in, and then taking them out in editing. Wise, helpful readers can help you find places in your writing where you use too many stage directions. As a general rule, you should include only those physical actions which are absolutely necessary for a reader’s comprehension of a scene; and those which reveal something interesting about your character or his/her situation. If you’re still uncertain, pretend your characters are capable of teleporting both through time and space. If you can teleport them somewhere without totally confusing your reader, or missing something crucial in the story, don’t describe the steps it would take for them to get there.

Now try this on for size:

Melissa arrived at the office five minutes late, as usual. She glanced at her cluttered to-do list: Stage Directions Blog. Great. She’d been looking forward to this for a long time. But first, she had to do something about breakfast. It was no good writing on an empty stomach. She tried to make her whole wheat bagel last, but before she knew it, it was time to write the blog entry. She opened Microsoft Word (despite the program’s nightmarish incompatibility with Typepad’s text editor), and began to type.


Watch Your Language

By Julian_Finn

Never use language in your prose that's noticeably more complex than your characters.

As writers struggle to find their voices and develop definitive styles, it's tempting to use "impressive" vocabulary -- sort of a textual scream that says, "See! See! I English good!"

Instead of focusing on showing off your language chops, it's usually a good idea to use language that syncs with your characters. If you're writing about gruff, gritty, morally complex characters, make your prose gruff, gritty, and sharp. Alternatively, if you're writing about pretentious, snobbish characters, it makes more sense to be more stylish and haughty with your language.

This rule is especially true if you're writing in the first person. It makes no sense for your rude, uneducated doormat protagonist to use five syllable words to describe a tree.


Story Writing by the Letters

By Melissa Jones

So you want to write a short story, but you don't know where to start? No worries - today's WEbook Writing Secret is here to help.

The key to overcoming writer's block is structure. Counterintuitive as it may seem, giving yourself less freedom rather than more can help jump start the creative process. Blame it on humankind's will to overcome obstacles. If you see a mountain, you'll climb it. No mountain? Might as well stay in bed.

As a writer, you have lots of options for finding structure. Deadlines, contests, and writing classes are all good ways to harness your boundless energy into real words on the page. But even if you don't have any deadlines, you can give your writing some structure by using rules or formulas.

Writers having trouble getting started might find a formula called A, B, C, D, E helpful. What's it stand for?

A = Action
B = Background
C = Conflict
D = Development
E = Ending

By breaking down the story-writing process into five simple steps, you narrow down the billions of possibilities for starting and writing your story into just one concrete, practical approach. Of course, it's called a formula for a reason. Stick to the plan too rigidly, and your story might turn out...well, formulaic. You and your readers will have more fun when you add complications and twists. But, just like a jazz musician, it's worth practicing your scales before you move onto improvisation.

Here's how it's done:

Action: Start your story with a compelling action. This action should raise questions in the reader's mind. Example: Jack and Jill went up the hill. The reader might wonder, "Why did Jack and Jill go up the hill?" This curiosity gets your reader to turn the first page.

Background: Imagine what circumstances could have led up to the initial action - this is the background. The background should at least partially answer the question posed by the reader in response to the action you started with. Example: To fetch a pail of water. The background section should not be too long in relation to the rest of the story - otherwise, it might seem as if your story is about what happened yesterday, instead of what's happening right now. Your story will be most compelling if you can find a way to convey background without being purely expository.

Conflict: Next, introduce the central conflict of the story. The best, richest conflicts provide a story with forward momentum - they require the character to make an action or choice in the scope of the story, which will have real consequences, changing the character's life or outlook in some way. The conflict should involve both motivation (the character wants something) and stakes (something is at risk). Example: Jack fell down.

Development: The longest part of the story is usually development. Development of what? Of the conflict, of course! This is the "what happens" of the story. As the story develops, the conflict will be exert pressure on your characters, and they will make choices in response. Those choices may involve resolution of the conflict, escalation of the conflict, or the introduction of a whole new conflict! Example: And broke his crown.

Ending: At the end of your story, the conflict must be addressed, if not completely resolved. There can still be a conflict at the end - stories shouldn't all end "happily ever after" - but it should be a different conflict than the one you started with. Something needs to have changed, whether it's something subtle or something big. Some of the best endings are those that could potentially be the beginning of a whole new story. Example: And Jill came tumbling after.

Ready to give it a shot? Write your own story using the A, B, C, D, E formula and share it with your fellow WEbookers by posting it in this project. Bonus: The first five writers to submit a story will receive personalized feedback from yours truly - priceless!

Write with All the Senses

By Nick Daws

The art of writing is bringing your words to life on the page. And one of the best ways to do this is to write with all the senses. In other words, don't just write about what your characters see. Describe what they hear, smell, touch and even taste as well. This is a guaranteed way to make your writing more vivid and exciting.

Here's a quick example:

Tony offered Malcolm one of his roll-ups. Malcolm had previously refused, but because he felt guilty about dropping Tony's paintbrush, this time he accepted. He didn't enjoy it at all though.

Now here's the same scene again, with the senses of taste and touch added. By the way, this paragraph comes from the published novel Painter Man by UK author Jeff Phelps:

Malcolm had already refused one of Tony's roll-ups, but now felt so bad about the brush that he accepted. Between his lips it had the texture of toilet paper. It tasted disgustingly of Tony's Old Spice aftershave.

No prizes for identifying which of these descriptions brings the scene more vividly to life! Writers are always taught to show, not tell, and writing with all the senses is one of the very best ways you can do this.


Check your Point of View

By saraelizabeth

Point of view (or POV) discussion may seem kind of technical, but it's actually extremely important for any writer of fiction, nonfiction or poetry. Think about it this way: If you're telling a ghost story to your friends, which is more effective- trying to convince them that you were there and survived the acts of a crazy killer in the cabin, or that you heard the tale from your cousin, who attends the summer camp? Your point of view affects the believability of your story, your reader's connection to your characters, and more. Plus, if you want a real writing challenge, give the second person perspective a try.

Let's get down to the numbers, shall we?

1st person: Me, myself and I
The first person POV speaks straight from the mouth of your characters. If you write your story about a bank robbery, the first person version could be told by the robber, or the bank teller, or any witnesses to the event. First person is great because your readers get much closer to the narrator, and can learn things about them none of the other characters know. You hear your character's take on every event. Some people say first person characters are less contrived, and your first person narrator doesn't always have to tell the truth.

A few classic examples: Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon.

2nd person: You're the one that I want
The second person POV is by far the trickiest to employ and the least used. Second person storytelling places the story in terms of "you," the reader. A stellar example is in WEbook user ducktoes' project Choose Your Own Adventure Story:

You peer through the dust, but as far as you can tell there is nothing out of the ordinary. The kids are still playing, the parents still coaching, coaxing and cheering. The only difference is that now there is a huge, noisy ambulance blaring in the grass next to the game.

Not too many authors use this POV, but if done correctly it immerses the reader into the action and just provides a nice break from "traditional" storytelling. Some examples for curious WEbookers: Italo Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City, and parts of Chuck Palahniuk's Diary.

3rd person: View from afar
The third person POV is incredibly popular and, and it gives you a lot of options for your writing. Third person narrators (who provide an external voice that explains what happens to the character) can be limited or omniscient as they refer to the main character, and they can talk about just one character's experiences or switch off between different stories. There is a great deal of flexibility with the third person. When using third person narration an author can be lenient or harsh in his or her description of characters, kind or cruel. Readers may not emotionally connect to the characters, however, as strongly as they do in the first person.

A few examples: The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, and even Pandora, the first ever published WEbook!


Something Has to Happen

By Laura Zinn Fromm

Don't kid yourself, anything we write/post/publish and offer to their world as our own combination of words ultimately has to be thought of as entertainment. If this makes you cringe, read on. Your writing does not have to make the reader happy, sad, angry or relieved, but it does have to take the reader somewhere and it does have to move the reader in some way. Your main character(s) have to move towards something. S/he can progress or regress but there has to be change. There can be movement towards birth, rebirth, revelation, disappointment, death or disaster, but the work must move in some way. Something has to happen.

It is possible that the essence of the work is a simple revelation: The character remembers something, or sees something, or does something, and it can be a very small thing, but the impact must be felt and it must lead to some kind of transformation, however minor.

We writers are selfish beasts, and of course, we write to express ourselves. But while our writing can be healing and therapeutic for us, we must remember that we are taking the reader along on our journey and s/he must feel stirred by what we write. You must always ask yourself, where I am going with this and why is the reader going to care?

Character Goals

By Cynthia Harrison

When revising a manuscript, one of the first things I do is make sure every important character has a clear goal. This is crucial because blocked goals generate conflict, jack up story tension and allow readers to walk in the world of the book. Readers love to see characters attain goals.

A goal can be anything. It can be a deep secret, disclosed only by actions, not by words, like when a married woman who wants to give up her lover stops answering the telephone. Or maybe it's wide open and obvious, like the goal of a detective in a mystery to identify a murderer. Goals can change and expand over the course of a longer work. They can set up a story question that is only answered just before the story is over. Maybe the married woman is the detective and she thinks her lover is the killer. Is he? That's the story question.

All stories, not just mysteries, can be beautifully supported by character goals. It's particularly artful if, in longer works, each character's goal is related thematically to the others. Maybe every important character in the story of the married woman detective and her possibly murderous lover wants to give something up. The married detective wants to quit having affairs. Her husband wants to stop being so suspicious. Her teenaged son is forced into nicotine withdrawal. Or whatever. The key is they're all working on stopping some compelling, perhaps compulsive and destructive, behavior.

What about the alleged homicidal maniac? To do her job, the detective is going to need to stay in contact with him, a direct violation of her original goal. This creates conflict, which is good. It also creates a second, increasingly important, goal: To find out if he's a murderer.

One neat trick is to give opposing characters the same goal. So, what if the suspect lover also wants to end the affair? We don't have to know his reason. It could be that he senses she's on to him. It could be that he wants to get married and settle down and stop all the intrigue and deception. Having the same goal, in this case with a twist, sets up barriers, especially if only one person can achieve the goal.

The married detective's primary goal is to end the affair, but her goal changes when murder enters the picture. She's forced to go against her own resolve. Her initial goal didn't change, it just got trumped by work. She has to stay in friendly, even lover-like contact, no matter how disturbing the idea is to her. He also wants to end the affair, and so resists all her attempts at contact, making her even more suspicious.

Goals are not plots; they work in tandem with plots. They help structure a story and add depth to characters. They enmesh readers in the narrative, making them active participants. Goals deliciously string the reader along. And, as writers, isn't that our goal?


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