Keeping Your Characters Off-Balance

Should your main characters ever feel comfortable?  Should they ever feel like everything is okay and their life is going just fine?  Of course, the answer to these questions – especially when dealing with fictional characters – is an emphatic NO.  Over the course of the story, it is your job as a writer to keep them as off-balance as possible.

In the real world, we often have a strong desire for balance and calm in our daily lives.  Too much stress or anxiety can take its toll on the human mind, body, and spirit, so we often escape to places where we can refresh and recharge.  With fictional characters, this sense of calm should be a constant struggle to obtain.  It not only can make them more in-depth as characters, it can also make for a better story.

The old adage is that Conflict = Drama.  And drama is what drives the story forward.  Like most writers, I tend to want to protect my main characters from harm.  But in doing so you do a great disservice to your characters and your readers.  Putting your characters in harm’s way, giving them impossible situations to get out of, and relentlessly giving them obstacles to overcome makes for a better story and can help strengthen and add dimension to your characters.

This is where the concept of the Character Arc comes into play.  Your characters should evolve and change over the course of the story, and keeping them off-balance and having to find ways to try and resolve their problems helps them grow as characters.  Don’t forget that your main character should go through some sort of change or metamorphosis over the course of the story.

Granted, you want to give the reader a sense of what is a normal day for your characters before the inciting incident turns their world upside down.  That’s fine.  It’s what Joseph Campbell refers to as The Ordinary World.  But once that Ordinary World is thrown off, it’s time to take your characters on a very bumpy ride. 

Your main character’s primary goal – aside from the goals your set forth for them once the story gets underway – is to return to their normal as fast as possible.  Don’t let them get there.  And even once the goal of the story has been achieved and their world seems to be back to normal, the journey they have taken over the course of the story has forever changed them ion some significant way.

They can never return to the Old Normal they had before the story began.  And that’s a good thing.  They have grown as a character.  They have overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  And they have come out the other side a stronger, more realized person because of their journey.

It is often during times of great stress or trauma that real people show their true colors.  It is your job as a writer to create these types of situations for your characters to keep them off-balance.  It doesn’t have to be a life-threatening event, but it should be something that will forever change them for the better…or worse.

What do you think?  Leave a comment and let me know.

Also check out my article: “Don’t Be Afraid to Rough-Up Your Protagonist.”

When Writing a Novel, Don’t Rush Your Story

We live in a society where the majority of people want things fast, and they want them now.  From food to other products, people demand immediacy, and any time period above that can often result in one-star Yelp! reviews or complaints on social media. 

Even with entertainment or news we’ve become accustomed to soundbites, YouTube clips, and quick hits on the News app on our phones, giving us the gist with no real depth or further information.  And the majority of society is just fine with this.

So, what happens when you are planning out a novel or screenplay with that mindset of how the world is with its lack of attention and need to get things fast?  It can make a writer think they have to deliver story, character, and more at a breakneck pace, which is contradictory to what the point of a novel is.


Your story can be fast-paced, but if you start to rush through chapters just to get to what you think is the “fun stuff” it can cheat your reader – and yourself, the writer – out of delving deeper into the world you are creating.  Take your time and deliver chapters that have meaning to the story, develop character, and bolster the themes you want to communicate.  Don’t be afraid to slow it down a bit.

As a writer, I often find myself doing this, especially if I know that something really fun, action-packed, or exciting is coming up soon.  You get the feeling to just gloss over things in order to get to the fun stuff.  But if you cheat the story, you cheat the reader, and that’s the last thing you want to do. 

The big sequences should be earned, and the reader needs to feel that they have taken a journey with the characters where both get the big sequences when they are deserved in the story.  Not because the author got impatient and wanted to jump ahead.

That being said, if you are a writer – like myself – who likes to write those sequences when they pop in your head, don’t be afraid to just write them.  You can always write the connective tissue that comes before and joins the fun stuff to the rest of the story.  This can also help you as you write the chapters prior to the scene create momentum that drives the story and the reader toward the big event.

It’s also key when you’re writing to give your reader as much information about what’s going on as possible.  Utilize the five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.  And also the sixth: thought.  As the author you can describe all of these things and use them to teleport your reader into the world you have created for them.  Put the reader there with your characters, in their heads, and make them feel like they are part of the story.

Novels are meant to be long.  They are meant to take their time to tell stories that have a lot of moving parts, the delve into the psyches and inner-workings of the characters, and give the reader an immersive experience.  While we do live in a world where it seems like less is more and faster is better, don’t forget that novel readers don’t want to take a trip in a car going 150mph, they want to take the train with it slower pace and multiple stops. 

Take your reader on a journey they don’t mind being on for a while.  They’ll be happier when they get to the final destination, and as the writer you will be satisfied that you wrote them a quality that took its time a really delivered.

What do you think?  Does taking your time and developing story, character, and description still matter?  Or have readers become impatient with novels that take their time?  Leave a comment and let me know.

Check It Out: The Animated Book Cover of The Field Created by @byMorganWright!

I was on Twitter the other day and came across a Tweet about having your book cover animated by a woman named Morgan Wright (@byMorganWright).  I inquired, paid, and a few days later, I received this amazing animation of the cover of The Field!

If you are an author and would like Morgan to animate your novel’s cover, you can contact her the following ways:


I highly recommend her work!

The Field Receives Book Award Finalist Honor from Readers’ Favorite!


I’m excited to announce that The Field has received the Book Award Finalist honor from Readers’ Favorite in the category of Children – Coming of Age!  I am very excited and happy to have taken part in the contest, and look forward to seeing what happens next with the book!

Thanks to everyone who has read and enjoyed The Field!  I look forward to you reading the next adventure in the series coming early next year.

If you haven’t reead it yet, buy a copy of the paperback HERE.  Use the Promo Code BIKE25 and save 25%!

Also available as an ebook at BookBaby, Amazon, and Barnes&Noble.

You can also check out the Readers’ Favorite page for The Field HERE.


Drafting The Wizard of Oz (1939) – Ten Writers, Hundreds of Ideas, and One Classic Film


It’s crazy to think that MGM’s The Wizard of Oz is 80 years old this year.  For eight decades, audiences have enjoyed the story of a young girl from Kansas who is swept away via cyclone to the magical world of Oz where she meets three unique friends and must team with them to reach her goal of returning home. Adapted from the L. Frank Baum novel, this timeless and classic film went through quite a journey to become the film we know and love today.

The adaptation process that was used to write the screenplay for 1939’s The Wizard of Oz can be summed up in two words: disjointed collaboration.  Ten (yes, ten) writers had a hand in bringing the world of Oz to life.  Unlike today, these writers were assigned by MGM to work on the project, then removed at the whim of the studio and quickly replaced. These ten writers included: Herman Mankiewicz, Ogden Nash, Noel Langley, Herbert Fields, Samuel Hoffenstein, Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allan Woolf, Jack Mintz, Sid Silvers, and John Lee Mahin.


I recently read, and highly recommend, a great book – aptly titled The Making of the Wizard of Oz by Aljean Harmetz –  that breaks down how the iconic film was made.  One of the chapters discusses the writing process and the many drafts, changes, and edits that were made over a tumultuous year in the life of Oz’s screenplay.  For this post, I wanted to focus on a few aspects of some of the drafts that would have made the film entirely different from the classic film we know today.

Screenwriter Noel Langley is credited with creating the “forty-three page treatment [that] included much of what would be the framework of the finished film,” but that doesn’t mean all that he wrote was used (33-34).  While he added the concept of the two farmhands – Hickory and Hunk –  becoming the Tin Man and Scarecrow in the Oz sequence, the third farmhand, Zeke, was not in the treatment.  According to Harmetz:

“In Langley’s treatment, the Cowardly Lion was strictly an Oz character – handsome Florizel, fiancé of Sylvia, a beautiful girl held prisoner by the Wicked Witch of the West. Florizel had been transformed into a lion by the Witch in order to force the girl to marry her son, Bulbo.  It was Florizel, released from his enchantment, who killed the Witch by cutting her broomstick to pieces with his sword in a mid-air duel” (35).

Whew!  There’s a lot to unpack in that passage, but the main question I have when reading it is: Where’s Dorothy?  This seems like a totally different film in the same Oz universe, but has nothing to do with Dorothy’s journey through Oz and her objective to return to Kansas.  And who names their son Bulbo?


So, unlike Baum’s book where Oz is a real place, Langley’s treatment made it clear that Oz was a dream Dorothy had after being hit in the head during the cyclone.  Langley also follows Baum’s plot points – which are also in the completed film – up to a point in his treatment, then (like the paragraph above) he goes a completely different direction:

“The traveler’s [Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, the Wizard, and Lizzie Smithers] disguise themselves as a traveling circus.  They try to start a revolution against the Witch.  True love triumphs in the end” (36).  In case you’re wondering, Lizzie Smithers worked at the soda fountain in Kansas and told Hickory he was heartless.  Somehow, she pops up in Oz and falls in love with Hickory/Tin Man after he gets his heart.  At least Dorothy is a part of the story here, but still not the main driving force of the narrative.

Another interesting aspect of Langley’s script is the famous Ruby Slippers, which were initially silver as they are in Baum’s novel:

“They appeared in Langley’s March adaptation, but served no magical purpose.  They were not used – as they are in Baum’s book and the final movie – to enable Dorothy to return to Kansas.  He wrote them out of the script.  They were back in his second script as some vague magical object desired by the Wicked Witch” (40). 

Remember, Langley’s initial treatment became the blueprint for what would eventually become the film, so it’s crazy to think that the Ruby Slippers were at one point an afterthought. The fact that they were even written out of a draft is even more bizarre given their importance to Dorothy in the final film.


Again, based on what was mentioned above, Dorothy “was peripheral to much of the action” in Langley’s treatment and scripts, and “[t]he Witch seem[ed] much more interested in conquering the Emerald City than in doing anything to Dorothy” (43).  Here’s where the story takes a turn from just a fantasy to full-on epic:

“[The Witch] send ‘ten thousand men, four thousand wolves, and two hundred winged monkeys.’ The men are ‘dressed in Japanese ceremonial armour, the ugly wasp-like death’s-head type, which half suggests skeletons.’ The Witch is attacking the Wizard because she wishes to place her half-witted son, Bulbo, on the throne” (43-44).

So, now this simple story of a young girl who goes on a quest to return home had become a Lord of the Rings, Avengers: Endgame-level epic film with a monstrously huge final battle. But again, what’s missing is Dorothy being part of the any of it.  She’s merely a participant in the action, not the driving force of the action. Throughout the treatment and drafts she is passive and has no real significance to the story other than her being there and witnessing the drama and the battles taking place between the Witch and the Emerald City.


Plus, I can’t even imagine what the budget would have been to pull off this final battle in a film made in 1939!

As writers we can learn a lot from Langley’s treatment and script drafts.  He went there with his ideas.  He thought above and beyond what could technically be achieved by the filmmaking tech of the late 1930s, and yet we have proof that it was part of the drafting process for The Wizard of Oz.  Despite the huge ideas, the grandiose set pieces, and the giant battle sequence, the heart and soul of what became the classic film was buried in Langley’s initial treatment.

And that’s an important thing to take away from this: the heart of your story, the life force that gives it meaning and substance is in there somewhere.  Even if you have action sequences or fantastical battles, dig deeper into your material and find the heart of the story.

Langley also shows the importance of not sidelining your protagonist.  There seems to be no need for Dorothy throughout most of what is shown, and the deletion of the Ruby Slippers lessens her importance even more. As you write, whether it’s a screenplay or novel, keep track of your main character. 

It can be easy to go off on a tangent with another character, but ask yourself if that character’s story has significance to the overall plot and has any effect on the main character.  If not, you may want to create a new story for that character.  Or, if this character is far more interesting than your protagonist, switch out who the main character is.

Langley was one of ten writers who crafted The Wizard of Oz into the film audiences have loved for eight decades.  Through a disjointed collaborative process and the creative talents of everyone involved, the film has become a timeless classic. 

As you write, remember that even if your draft seems crazy, illogical, or isn’t working, you have the power and ability to rewrite, edit, and fix it until it’s at its best level of quality and entertainment value.

You can order a copy of The Making of the Wizard of Oz by Aljean Harmetz here, or grab a copy of the newest Oz book, The Road to Oz: The Evolution, Creation, and Legacy of a Motion Picture Masterpiece by Jay Scarfone and William Stillman (can’t wait to read this one!) here.


What’s your favorite scene, song, or line from The Wizard of Oz?  Leave a comment and let me know!

Citation:  Harmetz, Aljean. The Making of the Wizard of Oz. Chicago Review Press, 2013.









Happy 50th Anniversary, Scooby-Doo!


In 1969, a team of meddling kids and their dog first appeared on TV screens.  Since then, the mystery-solving antics of Scooby-Doo, Shaggy, Velma, Daphne, and Fred have continuously appeared either in reruns or in new incarnations around the globe.

With Scooby-Doo celebrating its 50th year on TV this year, I thought I would take the time to discuss a little about how a storytelling formula established with the original Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? series has led to over five decades of shows about Scooby and the gang.


As writers we are often encouraged to avoid formulaic writing.  It can be predicable, cliched, and oftentimes create a sense of boredom for the reader or viewer.  The consumer wants to be entertained, they want to have a sense of unpredictability in the stories being presented, and they definitely don’t want to be able to guess the end at the very beginning.

For some magical reason, Scooby-Doo and its multitude of series have used the same tried-and-true formula every single episode.  And it works. Every time.  We all know what the main story beats will be in an episode; how each character will react when things go awry; that there will be a chase sequence; that a trap will be set, the monster captured, and the old man/woman who was playing the monster will be revealed when their mask is removed.  And, of course, some derivation of the line “And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those kids…and that dog!”

Now, I know some will quibble that The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo doesn’t entirely fit the established formula, but the basic tenants of the storytelling are still present.

As a fan of Scooby-Doo, I think that it’s a great compliment to the series creators (Joe Ruby & Ken Spears, and of course, William Hanna & Joseph Barbera) that this formula has endured for fifty years.  I really can’t think of any other TV series that could use the same formula over and over again, make it work, then carry it over into new versions of the same series and find success.

And that’s exactly what Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? did in 1969: established a formula for success.

Even now, in 2019, a new Scooby-Doo series, Scooby-Doo, and Guess Who? is on the air.  Same formula.  Same story beats.  And it still works. 

As writers we can learn a lot from Scooby-Doo.  How to establish characters.  How to create effective character traits.  How to create an ensemble.  How to get creative when things may seem formulaic in your story.  Even with the formula in place, Scooby-Doo’s writers still manage to come up with creative ways to tell the same story.

So, the next time you have a moment, check out a few different Scooby-Doo episodes of the multitude of series and witness the genius use of a successful story formula.  And the next time you feel like you’ve placed your characters in a no-win scenario, maybe the gang from Mysteries Incorporated can give you the inspiration you need to find success.

Heck, they’ve been doing it for 50 years.  They have to be doing something right!

Check out the intros from 50 years of Scooby-Doo series below!

What’s your favorite version of Scooby-Doo?  Are there other series that also follow a similar formula with each episode?  Leave a comment and let me know!

Remember, Everything Begins as a Draft

As consumers of entertainment, we have become accustomed to seeing the best version of what is being presented to us.  Whether it’s a novel, a movie, a TV series, or a play, we are witnessing this project at its highest level of completeness and – for lack of a better word – perfection.

You may read a novel and think to yourself, I could never write something that good.  Maybe you’ve come out of a movie thinking, I don’t think I could create a screenplay that great.  This is the big mental block that can invade the minds of creative people in any medium.  We see what has been produced, printed, or staged and our minds begin to doubt our own creativity.  

We wonder if we can ever be that good at what we do.

Consider this: Every film we see, every novel we read, every play we watch started as a draft at some point. Whoever wrote it had to start just like you: with an idea.  They had to cultivate it in their mind, then begin jotting down ideas that bloomed into a rough outline that was then filled with things crossed-out and put in that were better.

We often forget that prolific authors like Stephen King or Judy Blume deal with creative highs and lows while they are crafting a story.  And everyone has to tackle a rough draft at some point in order to get to the next step of revision and editing.  Yes, even the greats have to go through the same process every time they write.

It’s easy to get hung up on what has been published or produced and be intimidated.  But you have to remember that even people who are well-versed in their craft often struggle the same way all creative people do.  It’s just how the creativity game is played.

Creating is hard work for anyone.  We look at artists we admire and think that it comes easy to them.  It really doesn’t.  They, too, put in hundreds of hours to create what we are watching, reading, or listening to. With that perspective in mind, it’s easier to realize that we also have the ability to do great works; as long as we are willing to invest the time, effort, and creative energy to do so.

So, the next time you finish reading a novel or watching a movie and begin to wonder how you could ever write something as good, remember that at one point that brilliant work began as a rough draft that evolved into what you just read or saw.  

You, too, can begin at the draft phase and watch it evolve into something greater.  You just have to take the first step and begin writing and creating.

You can do it!

The video below is a snippet of an interview with Wings and Frasier co-creator David Lee discussing the evolution of the Wings pilot into what it eventually became.  A perfect example of how even those we revere as talented creative types often have to work hard to create something that works.  Enjoy!

Enhancing Your Creativity

As creative people, we sometimes allow ourselves to get trapped in a particular box.  I’m a writer.  I’m an actor.  I’m a painter.  And while it’s always good to have a clear idea of what your primary creative skill and talent is, I also think it’s important to tackle other creative pursuits that can help enhance and influence what you already love to do.

If you are a screenwriter or playwright, consider taking an acting class to see how actors interpret and interact with the words on the page.  This can help you as a writer see how to make your writing clearer and subject to the interpretation you intended.  It also will help you gain a new perspective on the collaborative process that goes into filmmaking or producing a play.

I would also recommend taking a class about directing to see how a director reads and interprets a script. This can also help you as you refine your script to make sure what is being communicated is what you intend.

If you’re a novelist, you could take an improv class and develop skills that help you connect ideas and concepts quickly that can help you when writing a rough or first draft.  This can definitely help when your characters take the wheel when your writing.  One of the basic concepts of improv is the never saying no to concept that’s introduced; it’s always “Yes, and then what” instead of negating any ideas presented.  

I highly recommend the series Whose Line is it, Anyway?to see pro improv performers in action.  With practice, you can get to that level, too and enhance your writing along the way.

These are just a few examples, but it never hurts to explore an alternate skill-set that is related, or even unrelated to what you love to do creatively.  Maybe a class on cooking, or wine making, or music could give you the inspiration you need to give your primary creative pursuit an injection of excitement and energy.

I have taken acting classes, improv, and directing classes and they have definitely helped me gain greater insight into the writing process when it comes to the collaborative process.  And they’re also a lot of fun!

What types of classes or activities have you done to help enhance your primary creative interests?  Leave a comment and let me know!