Writing Tip of the Week: Are You a Plotter, a Pantser, or a Hybrid Writer?

All writers have their own unique ways of crafting a story.  The creative process allows writers to develop skills over time, and with each project, writers hone these skills into a method that works most effectively for them.  Experimenting with different writing methods is a great way to see what works best for you, especially when starting out.

Let’s look at three writing methods you can work with to find what works best for you!

The Plotter

You are a person who needs to know what’s happening in your story at all times.  Every story beat, every plot twist, and character moment must be nailed down and set in stone before you start.  You have your story organized on color-coded index cards, in a formal outline, or handwritten on legal pads.  You won’t start writing until you are 100% certain that all your ducks are in a row and you are confident in your story’s path.


Being organized is an important part of the creative process, especially when developing a story.  Having a roadmap from scene to scene and from start to finish can keep you on track and ensure that you will get to THE END sooner than later.  


There are times when being meticulous and following the map are encouraged, but they can also stifle and harm creativity if used too rigidly.  What you’ve written out is great and will get you to the endpoint, but if you don’t allow for a few detours along the way, you may miss opportunities for your characters and story to grow in ways you didn’t think of weeks ago during the outlining process.

The Panster

Always the renegade, the Panster likes to play fast and loose with their stories.  They have an idea or concept and have no problem diving into the fray, allowing plot and characters to bubble up whenever moments arise. You look at a blank piece of paper or a new Word document as your personal playground where you can build or tear down whatever you want, whenever you want.  Creativity is fun, and you are here to have fun!


There’s a feeling of creative autonomy that comes with this style of writing.  Your gut is in control of where your story and its characters go.  You don’t have the “limitations” of an outline or rigid story structure, and you can make immediate decisions.


Like many writers, you probably have had a great idea, jumped into it, then lost your way a few chapters in.  Where is this going?  Who are these characters, and why do they matter?  You can quickly lose your way, get frustrated, and walk away from the unfinished story.  

The Hybrid

Utilizing both methods, you can be the responsible adult (Plotter) and engage your free-spirited child (Panster).  You’ve created an outline that leaves room for creative flourishes and detours along the way.  Maybe something you have in your outline isn’t working, but a new sequence will work better.  In a Hybrid setting, you can switch things out and around without losing the overall story structure (since you have the outline), but also have the ability to be spontaneous when needed.


It’s the best of both worlds.  You can stay on track and know where you’re going but also live a little within the confines of the story.  


If you are rooted in your Plotter or Panster ways, it may be hard to implement a mixture of the two.  If you are a Plotter, give yourself a few scenes to play around with.  Likewise, if you’re a Panster, maybe create a rough outline of the major story beats that get you to the end of the story.  

Through trial and error, you can work to create a storytelling method that gets you where you need to go faster and more efficiently.

Final Thoughts

Figuring out who you are as a writer, your strengths and weaknesses, can help you fine-tune and evolve into a methodology that makes you a stronger writer and storyteller.  Creativity should be freeing, but sometimes you need a little guidance to keep that creativity – and the story being told – on the right track.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Tip of the Week: What Actually Counts as “Writing”?

Did you write today?  What did you write today?  How many pages or words did you write today?  Sometimes, the thought of sitting down at the computer or laptop at home after 40 hours in front of a computer at work can be a difficult task.  You want to get outside, see people, do anything other than sit and stare at a screen – well, one where staring requires active thought and creativity.  

While the act of physical writing is an essential part of the writer’s life (especially if they plan to show their work to others), I often do a lot of the creative legwork in places other than in front of the computer.  I find that these activities open up my creativity channels and help me to brainstorm and connect ideas in a more productive manner.

Let’s talk about them!


I often get hung up on the seeming finality and concrete nature of typing or writing an idea down; they seem to have more weight once they make it to the page.  This can prevent your ability to explore, add to, or remove concepts or ideas that don’t work in a fast-paced manner.

I like to actively think out my ideas for scenes, chapters, plot points, etc., and workshop them in my head for a while before I commit anything to paper.  I have found that this method allows me to swap out characters, change settings, create dialogue, and alter story points faster and more efficiently.

If something isn’t working, I can explore other options.  What about this?  What about that?  What if she went here instead of there?  What if he didn’t answer the phone?  Once I’ve worked things out, I’m more prepared to write the idea down.  Depending on how I fleshed out the idea, I will either write it in bullet point or paragraph form.

I do this on the couch, watching YouTube videos, cleaning, or doing other mundane activities.  Sometimes giving your creative brain free reign is a great way to solve a complex story problem.


Sometimes clichés deliver solid advice, and “Sleep on it” is definitely one that can result in many creative epiphanies.  Often, we are distracted throughout the day with dozens of other projects, chores, and activities that we don’t have the time to focus on our story.  

Once I’m in bed, ready to drift off, I will start to think of the story problem or issue that I’m having.  The crazy thing is that the subconscious often can find a way to resolve the issue while you sleep, resulting in you waking up with the answer to your story problem.  Does it always work?  No.  But when you do have that moment when you wake up, and the story dots all connect, it’s a great feeling.


Walking.  Running.  Swimming.  Any form of physical exertion can help you get out of your head and allow your brain to do what it does best: solve problems.  I’ve been on a walk on a break at work and develop story ideas or story solutions.  I’ve been on the treadmill at the gym and worked out big story sequences.  

It’s amazing how even ten minutes of walking can clear your head and let the creativity flow.

Motivating Yourself

Yes, crafting a narrative and creating compelling characters and dialogue takes time and effort.  But it is work that should be fun and get you excited about the story you want to tell.  If you dread working on your story, all the thinking, sleeping, and exercise aren’t going to get you very far (although you might have solved other problems, be well-rested and in good shape).  

You are the only person who can get yourself excited and motivated to work on your novel, screenplay, or play.  If you can’t find the motivation, ask yourself why.  Ask yourself what’s missing from the project that would get me excited and motivated to get it done.  

The key is to find an aspect of the story you love and want to explore and express to audiences and use that energy and motivation to create your fictional world and its characters.

Final Thoughts

Creative people are always creating.  No matter where creatives are, stories, scenes, characters, and dialogue flow in and out of their brains rapidly.  A legal pad and pen or a computer and word processing program don’t make you a writer; they are just tools to help finish the job.

By taking steps through thinking, sleeping, exercising, and motivating yourself to open up the creative reaches of your mind, when you do commit your ideas to paper, they will be more impactful to you and the reader.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Tip of the Week: Delivering Exposition to the Reader

Dimensional characters in fiction exist beyond the confines of their current story.    These characters came from somewhere and will be headed somewhere else once the events of their current story end.    They enter the story in one state of mind, and through the trials and tribulations thrown at them throughout the story, they change and evolve into something new before moving forward.

But how does an author deliver this past information, crucial need-to-know information, and other relevant details without dragging down the story?

Let’s talk about it!

The Dreaded Information Dump

Have you ever seen a movie, TV show, or play where characters speak information to other characters that clearly isn’t for anyone in the scene but for the audience’s benefit?    This can often be referred to as an information dump. 

And often, it can be exhausting and tedious in its execution.

Viewers and readers are very perceptive and can pick up on context cues that inform them of what’s going on in a scene based on the setting, tone, and essential dialogue.    Often, there’s no need to write a lengthy monologue for a character in an office or conference room that begins with “As all of you already know…” or, “As I said before lunch…” since these are indicators that the characters in the scene already know the information.

Some ways to get around this problem that I prefer are…

The Outsider

By bringing in a character that is not in the know about who your character is, their past, or their current situation, you can give the reader this info and make it seem organic and natural.  

Which sounds better?

Tammy nervously checked her watch as she waited for her brother to exit his flight.

A man sees her and walks toward her.    She smiles. “Hello, Steve,” she said. “Wow, I can’t believe you’re my younger brother whom I haven’t seen in six years since you moved to Ohio with your wife, Susan.”


Tammy nervously checked her watch as she waited for her brother to exit his flight.

“Is everything okay?” a tall woman next to Tammy asked.

“Yes,” Tammy said. “Thank you.    My younger brother is on this flight. Haven’t seen him in six years.”

“Six years?” the tall woman said, amazed.

“Yeah.    He moved to Ohio after he got married.    We never got the chance to reconnect until today.”

“Tammy!” she heard her brother’s voice say across the crowd of passengers.

Tammy looked toward him and smiled. “Steven!” She ran through the crowd and hugged him. “Where’s Susan?”

“She’s getting the kids situated,” Steve said. “Told me to come out and find you.”

By having an outsider ask questions, Tammy can deliver needed information to the reader without it feeling forced or clunky.    The tall woman doesn’t know anything about Tammy or her family, so she is subbing in for us as the reader.

And in the previous example, where a meeting can sound like an info dump, make sure those in the conference room aren’t experts like the speaker.    They are there to receive information, not there for it to be rehashed.    That way, they can ask questions, and you can break up the speechifying that can often occur in scenes like this.

Sprinkling the Exposition

When developing a character and their story, think about what relevant information the reader needs to know that helps them connect with your character.    Did they suffer a traumatic event in their past that has caused them to react a certain way toward events in the current story?    That is important information the reader needs to know at some point.  

Providing the reader with insight and knowledge about the characters and their pasts through conversations with others and a few paragraphs here and there help connect past events with the current ones.    Your characters don’t live in a vacuum, and like real people, what they did before informs how they do things now.  

While these are important things to know, provided the exposition and backstory on an as-needed basis will help keep the story moving and not get you and the reader bogged down in past details.

What About Flashbacks?

Suppose there is an event in the character’s past that is so formidable, so impactful that you need more than a sentence to really showcase how it has affected them.    In that case, a flashback might be an effective way to present this information.    You could have the flashback at the start of a chapter before jumping back to the present day.    You can have the character think back and reflect on this past moment, then go into the flashback before bringing them out.    There are many ways authors utilize flashbacks and many ways to format them.

The key to using flashbacks is to present important information that helps the reader understand the character and their current circumstances. Don’t throw in a flashback of their wedding where nothing related to the current story happens.    The last thing you want is for a reader to say to themselves: Well, that was pointless.

Make each flashback matter, and remember that…

Relevance Counts

Does your main character have a great aunt Millie who knits cardigans for her dogs? That’s great.    Does it have any relevance to your main character’s current story?    No?    Then I would leave it for another time.    Keeping the backstory and exposition relevant to what’s happening is important to keep the writer, the story, and the reader on track.    While Millie is a colorful character, unless the main character makes a pit stop at her home or an anecdote about her is the key to saving the world, she’s best kept in your notes.

I recently finished Billy Summers by Stephen King (highly recommend), and this is a story that presents all aspects of the main character’s life before, during, and after his assignment.    Everything King delivers to us about Summers’ backstory is relevant to his current situation and the events that transpire throughout the novel.    King presents exposition in various ways that make Billy Summers a three-dimensional character that the reader cares about and roots for from start to finish.  

Remember, if it doesn’t add to the story or give us further insight into the characters and their choices, cut it out.

Final Thoughts

Your reader has chosen to go on an adventure with you and your characters.    They want to know who these characters are, what makes them tick, and why they are where they are at this particular point in time.    Making sure that you deliver backstory and exposition relevant and important to the overarching story can keep your reader invested and not confused about why certain details that didn’t have a point were included.

The next time you watch a film, a TV show, or read a book, see how the writer weaves in the exposition.    Is everything they mention relevant to the current story being told?  

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!  

Writing Tip of the Week: Becoming a Self-Aware Writer

Most writing takes place in a state of solitude.  It’s us – the writer – versus the blank page in an epic battle to create a compelling narrative that will leave future readers or viewers spellbound and wanting more.  It’s great to have the mindset that what we are creating is exceptional, but we also have to give ourselves the opportunity for reflection and self-awareness when it comes to our own work.

Self-Awareness, Not Self-Criticism

Being self-aware as a writer means having the ability to write something, step back, and find the issues that need fixing.  It doesn’t mean beating yourself up or telling yourself negative things about your writing skills or you as a writer.

It doesn’t matter what level of writer you are; the ability to look at your work and make the changes necessary to craft a stronger narrative is a skill that can assist your quest to become a better writer.

This is not a skill that can be achieved overnight but can be learned over time.  The more you write, the more you’ll sense when pacing is off, dialogue isn’t working, or there’s a lack of conflict or stakes in the chapter or scene.  It’s easy to see these issues in other people’s works, but utilizing this skill with your own work is a must in your writer’s toolbox.

Self-Awareness and Your Subconscious

Have you ever written something, walked away, and a few hours later began to deconstruct what you wrote and found problems with the story or a character’s actions?  That is self-awareness, and it’s your subconscious telling you that there are potential changes to be made.

Don’t get upset or frustrated.  This is where the growth and writing magic can happen.

Your mind is still writing long after your fingers have quit tapping the keyboard.  Your subconscious knows your story, knows your characters, and knows where the problems are.  Don’t get discouraged when these red flags pop up.  Your brain gives you clues as to what to fix to make your work stronger.

As long as you take a proactive approach to the changes and don’t stop writing, these moments of creative clarity can profoundly impact your writing and subsequent drafts of your project.

Self-Awareness from the Start

As you craft your outline, you may start to internally ask yourself questions about various aspects of your story.  That’s good.  Write these questions down.  Will they be answered later in the story?  Are the questions related to structure or character?  Keep a list of these questions as you work on your outline and see if they are questions worth exploring once the outline is completed.  

It’s often better to have most of the answers related to your story resolved before you start writing to avoid any hang-ups during the drafting process.  While drafting, you may come across other issues, but answering questions that pop up while working on your outline will get many structural problems fixed before you begin.

Self-Awareness Makes for Better Writing

Your writing reflects you and reflects who you are as a writer.  If you think that your first draft is perfection with no need to edit or even have a trusted person read it before you publish, you lack self-awareness as a writer.

Every good writer takes the time to hone their craft and make revisions when necessary, and they almost always are necessary to some extent.  Yes, you may have written a short story that is 100% perfect on your first draft, but novels and screenplays will often have issues that need to be fixed before they are taken to the next stage.

Start by walking away from your draft for a week or two, then come back with fresh eyes.  Maybe your subconscious has been gnawing at you for the past two weeks about issues in the story, and you’ve written them down to address them later.  

Now start at page one and read – don’t skim – every sentence, paragraph, and chapter with fresh eyes and a new perspective.  You will see some glaring problems, maybe a few typos, and other things that definitely need tweaking.  

And that’s great!  You are making a better product and making yourself a better writer.

Final Thoughts

Being a self-aware writer means that you care about the work you are producing, and you respect your completed work’s potential reader or viewer.  By taking this step and putting in the effort to make your writing better, you further your goals of being a more productive and confident writer.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Tip of the Week: Outlines – A Roadmap to “The End”

To outline, or not to outline? It’s an interesting question. Do you just have an idea for a story and then dive in and let your creativity drive you forward? Or, do you take some time outlining where the story is likely to go (at least in its primary iteration)? These are more commonly known as being a panster (someone who writes by the seat of their pants) versus being a planner (obviously, someone who plans ahead).  

Today, we’re going to talk about being a planner, so let’s get to it.

Where Do I Go?

As writers, we’ve all had dozens if not hundreds of ideas. But not all ideas evolve into cohesive and complete stories. One of the reasons many ideas tend to fizzle is that people have the idea, jump into writing it, then have no idea what happens next. While it’s great for the reader or viewer to be in the dark about what’s to come, the writer should have some idea where the story is going.

Having a plan, even a basic idea, of where the story is headed can help you stay on track since you’ll have a rudimentary framework. Even if you change things along the way, knowing you have an endpoint to move toward can help you get the story done.

How should you map things out?

Using Story Structure

In screenwriting structure, a story’s major events are broken down as follows:

• Inciting Incident

• Turning Point One

• Mid-Point

• Turning Point Two

• Climax

• Resolution

These represent the big moments or turning points in the story where big things happen that cause the main character to change course and move in a new direction. Whether you are writing a screenplay, novel, or play, these can be helpful events to write down in sentence form to create a basic outline for your story.

Using Big Moments

Perhaps you’re writing action, sci-fi, or fantasy, and you know several big sequences or events are taking place throughout the story. Take the time to write them down in the order they happen and include what characters are involved.  

These big events will likely coincide with the inciting incident, turning points, or climax mentioned in the previous section. Writing down the big action sequences can also help motivate you to craft a compelling narrative that links these big events.

A Story Problem-Solver

The goal of creating an outline is to help you not lose steam ten, fifteen, or twenty pages into your story. It can also help you see any big story problems before you’re 50,000 words into the story and find you have to cut 10,000 words because one of your plot elements hit a dead end.

Taking the time to outline can help you unravel story problems, fix any confusing elements, and ensure that your story has logic and coherence throughout. Even if you are writing a story meant to keep the reader guessing, you, as the writer, need to know what will happen.

Keep the reader in the dark, not yourself.

Like A Road Trip

Most people wouldn’t go on a road trip without some basic idea of where they’re going, where to get gas and food, and maybe some places to stop along the way. In the old days, people would have a paper map to draw their route from start to finish, perhaps highlighting or starring the points of interest.

Think of a story outline from the same perspective as planning a road trip. You have your starting point, points of interest, and your final destination. Will it go 100% according to plan? Probably not, but you can make the necessary adjustments and changes along the way in both situations.

Both situations take you on a journey that can lead to self-discovery, learning to deal with stressful situations and the satisfaction of getting to the end of the trip.  

Taking Detours

An outline is not an iron-clad document that is immune to change. If you want to take your story in a new direction, go for it. But take the time to map out the basics of where the story is headed with the new changes.  

This also allows you to play “choose your own adventure” repeatedly without having to write thousands of words, only to discover that the direction you chose doesn’t work.

Final Thoughts

A story outline in any form is a helpful and valuable tool for us to use when developing a coherent and solid narrative. By taking the time to map out where your story is headed, you can rest easy knowing that you have a plan to get from “Once upon a time” to “and they lived happily ever after.”  

Whether basic or detailed, story outlines are a must for any writer’s toolbox.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Tip of the Week: Using Profanity, Slang, and Pop Culture in Your Writing

Not to spoil the article from the start, but I believe that profanity, slang, and pop culture references should be used sparingly in your writing. Not that I have anything against these three items, in particular, it’s just that I feel that overuse can lead to distractions from the story, character, and other aspects of one’s writing.

Much like overuse of sex or violence, profanity, slang, and pop culture references can turn into a crutch that writers rely on too much when the creative wells run dry. Instead of working on writing something fresh and original, they can fall back on easy fixes to resolve problems in the story.  

Let’s have a look at each.


We all know what it is, and most of us are not afraid to use these four-letter words daily. In real life, they have become a ubiquitous part of our culture, but less is more when it comes to writing and profanity.

It especially has a greater impact and emphasis in your writing if used less frequently and for moments of real drama, excitement, horror, or grief.  

Too much can become boring, redundant, and eye-rolling to the reader. The last thing you want to do is distract the reader from the story to the point that they begin counting the f-bombs and using other profane words instead of focusing on the story.

This also goes for racial epithets and derogatory words for women. If you have a character that uses these words, that’s fine, but don’t let these words consume the character and your story to the point of overuse and distraction.

Impact, not interference.


Groovy. Awesome. Neat-o. Sus. Ah, the joys of generational slang. Each decade has it’s own style and flair when it comes to words and language the previous generation “just doesn’t get,” but how best to use it in your writing?

Much like profanity, slang should be used sparingly as well. A good rule of thumb is that if the slang has made it into other films, TV shows, and social media, it’s probably already outdated.

For example, if you are writing a novel based in the 50s, 60s, or 70s, don’t use sitcoms from the era as reference material. How did people actually talk back then?  

The great thing about living in the 21st century is accessing archival footage of interviews from those periods. YouTube has a lot of great interviews and other footage of regular people talking from these decades, and you can see that slang is not as commonplace as TV shows of decades past would have us believe.

In fact, I would guess that most TV shows from the 60s, 70s and 80s are satirizing the use of slang more than they are elevating it.

If you want to pull an Amy Heckerling and create your own slang like in Clueless, or like Tina Fey did in Mean Girls, go for it. Original slang is another way to use your creative muscles, and further dimensionalize your fictional world.

Pop Culture References

It’s impossible to escape pop culture in our everyday lives. From TV and movies, shirts, posters, toys, and hundreds of other things, what’s hot and big right now is shoved down our throats until we are screaming for it to go away.

It’s been like that for decades.

The use of pop culture in your writing is a bit trickier than the previous two. You want to ground your contemporary novel in reality, but what’s hot now may not be hot once the book is published. The last thing you want is to either describe the reference like a Wikipedia entry or cause the reader to stop reading to look up the reference.

Obviously, you should use the pop culture references that best fit your story and your characters, but references with a shelf life can help keep the reader focused and into the story.

Batman. Captain America. Disney. Harley Quinn. These are all known entities that people at least have a working knowledge of. Using relevant references is a great way to help connect your characters with the reader.

However, overuse can also seem like name-dropping. If your characters love Marvel movies and talk about them, that’s fine. But like profanity and slang, don’t use the references in place of storytelling. They should be integral to the plot and characters, not an aside and a distraction.

Final Thoughts…

This article is not a lecture about not using profanity, slang, and pop culture references in your writing. I wrote it as a friendly reminder to use them sparingly, ensuring that your real focus is on your originality and creativity and not these easy-to-use crutches. Use them as you see fit, but always make sure you don’t allow the reader to become distracted by their overuse.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Tip of the Week: Resolving Story Hurdles

We’ve all been there at some point. Your story or outline are chugging along, you know where things are headed, and then…BOOM. You get stuck connecting the dots of how you can logically get your character from Point J to Point L without it seeming forced, ridiculous, or taking the reader/viewer out of the story.

Welcome to the Story Hurdle.

A Story Hurdle arises when you can’t quite back the easy leap to how two events in your story can logically connect. There can be several reasons for this, so below I’d like to offer some tips on clearing your Story Hurdle and moving forward with your narrative.

Plot Hole or Story Hurdle?

Essentially, a plot hole is an unresolved Story Hurdle. Maybe the writer accepted the story problem and hoped no one would notice. Perhaps they loved their writing so much that they ignored anyone who pointed out the issue.  

You never want to leave the reader or viewer scratching their head trying to figure out how something happened or how a character could get out of a jam or into one. If there’s an open-ended question to be answered later (like in a mystery or thriller), that’s fine. But make sure if there is a gap in logic that it’s responded to at some point.

Your job as a writer is to sew up these issues and figure out how to jump over these hurdles effectively and entertainingly.  

Ask Why?

You have a story problem. You like both pieces of the story puzzle that happen before and after where the issues seem to be, but you can’t put your finger on what the problem is.

It’s time to ask yourself WHY there’s a problem.  

Is it because what happens doesn’t fit the story? Isn’t something the character would do? Doesn’t fit the genre? Is too extreme a leap? Not strong enough of a leap?  

Taking a step back and asking yourself why the Story Hurdle exists is a good place to start to work to resolve it. Ignoring the issue could cause more issues down the line if the impact of what happens at the unresolved story issue now causes more hurdles to pop up.


You know what comes before and what comes after. You’re having problems moving forward, so why not move in reverse? Take things step by step and backtrack one moment at a time and see if you can reverse engineer your way out of the Story Hurdle.

Sometimes taking this different perspective can be helpful since it gives you – the author – a new way to look at the problem and see the actions and events in reverse.  

What happened before? And before that? And before that? And before that? Can you make your way through the perils of “And before thats?” to get to where you started?

Options, Options, Options

As an author, you are the Creator. What you decide is what happens, so you have the power to write down 10, 20, 50, 100 different ways that this Story Hurdle could be resolved. There are endless options that can be explored, from the boring to the ridiculous. 

You have unlimited ways for things to go to get where you need to go. Once you’ve exhausted all the possibilities, go through and highlight the most interesting and intriguing ones. Then go through and decide which makes the most sense for your character and your story.

Taking the time to work through possibilities will help you create a stronger link between the two story sections.

Making a Change

Sometimes you may have to admit that Point H isn’t working, and that’s why you can’t seem to find the needed actions to get your main character to Point J.  If this is the case, you may have to rewrite the previous story point or the one after the Story Hurdle to resolve the issue.  

Again, you can write out all the possible options and choose the best one. The key is to make sure what you write flows, has logic within your story, and moves the story forward.

Final Thoughts…

Crafting a solid narrative takes time, energy, and creativity. All authors can fall prey to devious Story Hurdles that can affect their momentum and confidence. By working through the problem instead of avoiding it, you can ensure that a stronger and more creative story is written and that plot holes are nonexistent.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Tip of the Week:  Upping the Stakes

Whether it’s a Marvel movie or a Hallmark Channel movie, stakes for your protagonist and what they mean for the story matter. Your main character needs to have a goal, have a plan, and for there to be dire consequences for the main character if the goal isn’t achieved. This is where stakes come into play; making sure your hero – and the reader/viewer – know that what they are about to work toward won’t be a cakewalk.

Let’s talk about stakes!

Stakes in Perspective

What’s at stake in your story? Will the world be destroyed if the main character doesn’t win the day? Will grandpa lose his rose garden to evil developers if $50,000 isn’t raised in a week? It’s crucial to look at what’s at stake in your story to make sure they are realistic and proportional to the world you have created.  

Whatever the level of stakes, they should be a logical extension of the world you have introduced to the audience. If we are in a small town and you plan to tell a story that revolves around the small town, then the stakes should be things that could threaten the stability of someone’s world in a small town.  

If you’re doing a larger-scale story, the stakes for the main character could have statewide, nationwide, or global implications.  

Take the time to examine the stakes in your story and if they fit the overall narrative arc.

What is the Goal or Objective?

The inciting incident of a story rips the main character out of their calm, ordinary existence. It sets them on a new course toward a goal that hopefully will bring peace and a return to a possibly better status quo.  

So, what is that goal or objective for your protagonist? What do they want to accomplish, need to achieve, need to stop, need to conquer?  

What’s the Opposition?

The opposing force to the main character’s goal should be seemingly insurmountable and a definite problem that the hero must face and overcome. There needs to be a reason why the main character can’t just make a quick phone call, drive to a location, get a loan, pay the back taxes, or some other easy-to-solve problem.

Opposition must make the protagonist’s life harder, and ignoring it or running away from it will only make things worse for them or those around them.  

While a Thanos or James Bond-level supervillain may be too big in your story, there are other types of antagonists in real life that can make your character’s life and their desire to achieve their goals harder and more frustrating.

Who or what is the opposing force in your story? Is it strong enough to cause hardship and struggle for your main character?  

Inactions Have Consequences

What does the hero lose if the main character doesn’t take on the needed goal or objective? Do the consequences of their failure have a ripple effect that harms others in their life?  

While most of us avoid conflict and opposition, your main character cannot. The protagonist is an active participant in the story and must act upon their impulses to solve the problem set before them, even reluctantly.

This is where the question of What’s at stake?  comes into play. If Thanos gets all the Infinity Stones and snaps his fingers, half the universe’s population turns to dust. If grandpa loses his rose garden, he’ll be homeless or thrown in jail.  

These possible outcomes motivate and drive the main character forward toward defeating the opposition and achieving their goal.

Life or Death: Literal vs Figurative

The stakes should be big enough that if the main character fails, bad things will happen. This doesn’t have to mean millions will die. This can be a figurative life or death struggle for your main character, resulting in them achieving a goal that others doubted. To them, it’s personal and internal, not external, but the idea of them failing must feel like the end of the world.

If Elle Woods in Legally Blonde doesn’t graduate law school and become a lawyer, the world won’t end; but in her mind, it does. Again, it’s a matter of stakes perspective within the world of your story. Elle has something to prove to herself and those around her. She has a goal; she has opposition. If she doesn’t reach her goal, she will look foolish to herself, to those around her, and she’ll be – as she says in the film – “a joke.”  

On the other side of the stakes spectrum, if Eggsy in Kingsman: The Secret Service doesn’t stop Valentine from activating his free SIM cards in phones worldwide that cause people to violently attack and kill each other, millions could die.  

Both are life and death stakes for their respective main characters, but Elle’s are figurative, while Eggsy’s are quite literal.

What happens to your main character or their world if the stakes aren’t overcome? Will they alone suffer the consequences, or will others as well? Will people literally die, or are the deaths more internal and personal?

Many Roads

We are storytellers. Storytellers have a powerful gift to create and invent worlds, characters, stories, and stakes. Along with that power comes our ability to change things, add, subtract, multiply, and even divide stakes and consequences for our main characters.

As you work on your story, think about other possible stakes and challenges your main character could face. Don’t limit yourself, just see where your imagination and creativity take you. Too often we can become confined in a box of possibilities that can be very limiting when making the best creative choices for our story.

The sky’s the limit here. In the end, you’ll want to then go over the list and find the stakes that a) fit your story, and b) are big enough to seem impossible to achieve, and use those in your story.  

Have fun with this. Whatever the stakes are should be big enough, dire enough, and challenging enough to motivate and drive your protagonist forward in their pursuit of their goal and the defeat of their opposition.

Don’t Make It Easy

Never give the hero an easy out. There must be a clear reason why these stakes must be confronted, and the goal must be achieved. It has to be tough, and there have to be setbacks, doubts, frustrations, and thoughts of giving up.  

But a hero never does.

In the battle against Thanos in Avengers: Endgame, all hope seems lost as Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America are pummeled mercilessly by Thanos. But even with his shield shattered, his face bloodied, and his uniform ripped apart, Captain America tightens his shield around his arm and stands back up to face his seemingly unbeatable foe.

The stakes of not fighting back are too high.

This leads me to my final point…

Make Us Root for the Protagonist

Audiences want to see or read a good story, and they are looking for a strong main character to follow and root for. Most of the time, we know that the main character will win by the end of the story, but we are there for the ride.

The trials and tribulations, wins and losses, ups and downs. We are present and committed to seeing how the protagonist faces the stakes before them.

Our job as writers is to create a main character that the audience will root for throughout the story. This is why it’s important to craft a narrative that isn’t easy for the hero to traverse; the stakes have to feel like they might just be big enough to take down our main character.

Have you ever been in a full movie theater where everyone is so focused on what’s happening on-screen you could hear a pin drop? Or stayed up way too late to finish a book because you had to see what happened next? Substantial stakes lead to these moments. They are an essential tool that writers need to use to create strong, effective stories that suck people in and make them want the hero to succeed.

Final Thoughts…

This week, take some time to look over your story’s outline or your latest draft. What are the stakes for your main character? Are they big enough? Strong enough? What impact will these stakes have on your main character or those around them if they aren’t overcome? Are your main character’s goals and the opposition to their goals clear?

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Tip of the Week: Purposeful characters

No matter what type of fiction you’re writing, characters are essential to the story.  They engage the reader, generating empathy, sympathy, and connection.  Your characters must serve a purpose within the framework of your story’s world.

As writers, it takes time to craft, shape, and mold our protagonist, antagonist, and other characters into the overall story arc that we have created.  We shouldn’t be wasting creative energy creating superfluous characters who have no reason to be in the story.  

Here are some tips to help you eliminate aimless and purposeless characters from your story.

Take Inventory

Who’s who, and why are they there?  If you are in the beginning stages of writing your story, take time to establish your main characters, secondary characters, and background characters on a spreadsheet or piece of paper.  Do they serve an essential function in the story?

If you have already written your story, take inventory of your characters as you read through.  Do they all serve a purpose?  Is there anyone that doesn’t belong or isn’t really essential to the story?

By creating a spreadsheet, you can list who the characters are, their role, and how they tie into the story.  If you find characters that serve no critical function or role, you may want to cut them because…

More Characters = More Problems

Taking on an ambitious fiction project can be exciting.  Still, you also have to make sure that everyone you introduce has a reason for existing and serves an essential role in your story.  The more characters you bring into the mix, the harder it can be to keep track and keep things focused.

Limiting the number of characters can help keep the story and its conflict focused, so you don’t get lost in the weeds, which reminds me…

Where’s the Focus?

Your story has a main storyline with a protagonist working toward a goal amidst numerous obstacles.  That should be your primary focus as you write.  Find yourself deviating too much into subplots and side quests with other characters?  It may be time to either rethink the protagonist or move those other characters into their own story.

If the subplots tie directly back to the main character and their story, that’s fine.  But if you do notice that what they’re doing has zero impact on the main narrative, it’s time to cut it.

Superfluous Characters

Are there characters you’ve created that don’t really go anywhere or serve any real purpose within the story?  Maybe you wrote an elaborate backstory for a Starbucks barista that the main character encounters on their journey.  But, if they are in one chapter and never seen or mentioned again, you may want to trim out how they saved their grandma and her cat from a space heater fire in the fifth grade. 

However, if the barista’s backstory serves a key role in the story later on, and the character comes back to help save the day, they serve a purpose.  Just make sure that if you put in the time to provide lots of detail on a specific character, the reader has a reason to be given that information.

Elevate or Eliminate?

If your creative mind has crafted a complex side character who initially has no real purpose in the overall story, you have a few options:  

  • You can cut them out of this story and move them to one where they can play a more significant role.  
  • You can elevate them and combine their character and attributes with a less-than-stellar secondary character who may need some extra life.  
  • Or you can see how this character’s current role can be elevated through further interactions with the protagonist and the main story.

There are ways to make it work, but the character can’t detract or deviate from the main story.

Should My Protagonist Have a Pet?

I’ve seen this brought up before, and it’s an interesting question.  The answer is simple: only if you are willing to have the main character’s dog or cat be a part of the story.  You can’t just introduce the reader to the protagonist’s dog in one chapter and never mention them again.  Once you commit to your main character being a pet owner, you have chosen to keep that pet as a part of the story.

So, if your main character travels the world on quests, it’s probably best to keep the pets out of things. Otherwise, readers may wonder, “Who’s watching Rex?  Is the dog okay?  I know cats are independent, but she’s been gone for three weeks!”  

Read, Read, Read

Skim through novels and see how different authors set up and establish their various characters.  Some will be more detailed than others, but the key to this research is to identify how main characters, secondary characters, and others are described throughout the story.  

Whether you’re writing a short story or short film, a novel or a screenplay, knowing who your characters are and their purpose is essential to keeping the story moving and the reader or viewer engaged.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you in two weeks!

Writing Tip of the Week: Setting Writing Deadlines

Deadlines.  We have them at work, and our kids have them for school projects, and the government gives us one to pay our taxes.  Having a set, definite date to aim for with something major can be a great motivator for getting things done.

But are you setting deadlines for your writing?

Even if you’re not planning to publish or send your work to contest, giving yourself a deadline can be a great way to get things in gear and get the writing done.  This milestone can be a moment of celebration and excitement; the novel is done, and I can move forward with my next writing project.

Some people may prefer not to have deadlines.  They allow the Muse to decide when they write and when the project is done.  That’s all well and good.  However, if you want to write a lot and get a lot done and off your To-Do List, I recommend creating deadlines for your projects.

Here are some things to consider when setting deadlines.

Be Reasonable

If you are working on your first novel, setting a deadline of one month maybe a little too intense (unless you’re into that sort of high-octane writing thrill).  Creating a reasonable deadline that is manageable but not ridiculous is the key to making the deadline work.

Maybe you plan to have a six-month deadline for your first novel.  Then once you’ve seen what you can do with six months, shave a month off for the next one.  

I’m sure you’ve seen stories and videos of people who wrote a screenplay in 48 hours or a novel in two weeks, and if you want to aim for that as a personal goal, go for it.  But if you have a day job, kids, a family, and other obligations don’t add to your plate writing a 65,000-word novel in a month.

No one wins in that scenario.

Write It Down

It may sound silly, but writing a deadline down in a notebook, a journal, on a calendar, or on a whiteboard where you can see it as a reminder is useful to keep you mindful of the chosen deadline date.

It is better to have it written down than to make a mental note and forget it.  

You can also use this as a way to mark smaller milestones on your way to the big deadline by establishing smaller goals in the larger timeline. If your goal is to write a first draft of your novel in six months, breakdown ideally where you want to be in the process at the end of months 1, 3, and 5. Fragmenting the larger goal can help make it less daunting.

Beat the Clock

Let’s say you set a deadline of three months to write a play.  Can you finish a day early?  A week early?  Giving yourself personal competition can be a great motivator.  It always feels good to get something done before it’s due, and this is one way to see how much faster you can get the project done before your stated deadline.

Reward Yourself

You finished the novel early!  You did it!  Give yourself time for a reward.  It can be going to a movie, buying a book you wanted, or getting dinner out.  This is another great way to incentivize yourself to set and keep your writing deadlines.

In our world of instant gratification, delaying getting what you want by completing a major writing task first can make receiving that reward all the better.

Stay Positive

Life happens.  If your deadline has to change or you miss it by a week or two, it’s okay.  Keep going and still work to get the project done.  The key is the complete the project.  While the deadline is nice to have, if things prevent you from writing, sometimes there’s not much you can do.

Stay persistent and keep writing.

Have Fun

Writing should be fun, and getting a writing project done should also be a fun process.  Remember that you want to get this novel done to move on to the next one.

Give yourself permission to enjoy the process and the creative aspects of the writing.  You’ll be grateful that you did.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you in two weeks!