Monday, 20 April 2015

Scenes: The Building Blocks of Your Story

"Scenes are what allow writers to abide by the timeless saying 'show, don't tell,"  (Justine Schofield)  

Scenes give us the opportunity to "create, exploit and flesh out" our characters.  "Scenes are just as important as the characters that inhabit them," according to blogger Justine Schofield (  Each scene is composed of dialogue, action, interior speculation or monologue and narration.  Scenes should advance the plot forward.  If not, cut them out.  You only need just enough blocks to build the scene, no more, no less.

What constitutes a scene?  Justine Schofield says that three things call for a scene change when a new character is introduced, a current character exits or the setting changes.

Author of The Plot Whisperer Workbook, Martha Alderson ( recommends that you generate a scene list.  What does the main character want?  What steps will she take to get it?  What is stopping her at every turn?  Is the protagonist moving the scene forward?  Title each scene, or chapter if its a book, to keep track of them.

Ms. Alderson maintains that scenes have different layers, each which has a function.  The first layer establishes the setting of the story.  Justine Schofield mentions an exercise:  write down ten items in a room.  See how you can use those items to advance the scene.  For example, the main character might be so worried, he eats a whole loaf of bread.  He might push his desk chair out from under him because he is so frustrated.  He might, in a rage, throw a cup of coffee at his sibling.

The second layer of the scene allows the dramatic action to unfold.  This scene should be filled with conflict, tension and suspense.  The conflict doesn't have to be overt, but it should be there.  Setbacks and failure experienced by the protagonist lead to suspense.  Will or will he not succeed?  A change in emotional development in the main character is the third layer of the scene.  The main character should have a emotional reaction to the dramatic action in each scene.  A fourth layer should ensure that the details in the scene support the dominant theme of the story.

So what are you waiting for?  Get out your building blocks and start building.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Plot Resolution: Tying Up the Loose Ends

"You tie up loose ends and bring completion to all the threads you so carefully laid out for the reader's entertainment." (Beth Hill)

Everything in your story or book leads up to this point.  The resolution is the final pages of your book that follow the climax or the final paragraphs of your story (also called the "denouement").  The resolution must fit the rest of your story.  You should have it in mind when you start writing, laying the groundwork for what is to come.  The warrior finds victory or defeat.  The hero and heroine declare their love for each other.  The detective catches the murderer.  

Where should you start your resolution?  Timing is everything:  if you end your story too soon, you allow the reader no time for reflection; if you drag out the ending, the reader loses interest.  How long should your resolution be?  According to Beth Hill, if it is a novella, it should only be two or three pages.  A series romance calls for a five page resolution.  A political thriller will likely need more pages to tie up all of the loose ends of the story (

Ms. Hill states that the resolution should be "satisfying".  It should "complete the puzzle, answer the vital questions" that the reader might have and give him or her a chance to digest the information.  The resolution should slow the story down and reduce the tension.  At the same time, it should "leave the reader wanting more".  

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Six Ways to Establish an Electric Atmosphere in Your Story

The atmosphere is the mood or tone of the story.  It should draw the reader into the story.  It should enable the reader to imagine the world the writer is creating.  It sets up the expectations for the story.

A novel like Harry Potter is suspenseful and whimsical.  Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities is bleak.  Alice in Wonderland, on the other hand, is both sensible and nonsensical according to blogger Angela Gentry (

How do you, as an author, establish atmosphere?  Here are six ways:

1.  Set the mood for the story through an object, according to Angela Gentry.  She gives the example of a Terry Tempest Williams story in which a piece of fruit helps to set a dangerous tone.

"We smother the avocado with salsa hot chiles at noon in the desert.  We look at each other and smile, eating avocados with sharp silver blades, risking the blood of our tongues repeatedly."

2.  Establish atmosphere through setting.  Angela Gentry quotes the book A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle.

"It was a dark and stormy night.  In her attic bedroom, Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind."

3.  Description is also a tool you can employ to establish setting.  Use powerful adjectives and adverbs, suggests Esther Newton (  She gives the example of a hotel.

"She eagerly hurried inside, her eyes soaking up the sumptuous sofas, gleaming floors and dazzling chandelier taking centre stage."

The reader imagines businessmen in suits and women in elegant dresses walking the halls of such a hotel.  Ms. Newton puts forward a second description which creates a very different atmosphere:

"She gingerly stepped inside, her eyes widening at the sagging sofas, the filthy floor and dull flickering lights."

The reader imagines a very different clientele at the second hotel.

When describing your scene, don't neglect all five senses.  Authors tend to centre on sight and sound, sometimes glossing over smell, touch and taste.

4.  Use weather to establish the atmosphere of your story.  Contrast a "cornflower blue sky with a bright sun" to a "grey sky with menacing clouds charging across it".

5.  Use the time of day to establish the mood.  If you are penning a ghost story, make it at night to darken the tale.  The season is also important.  If your story is about hope, make it in the spring, the season of renewal and rebirth.  O'Henry's The Gift of the Magi is set during the Christmas season, for obvious reasons.

"The Magi, as you know were wise men -- wonderfully wise men -- who brought gifts to the babe in the manger.  They invented the art of giving Christmas presents."

6.  Don't forget point of view.  Ms. Newton recommends the first person which enables the reader to feel like he is part of the story.  However, third person allows the reader to see the situation from the viewpoint of more than one character.

"It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived." (To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee)

Friday, 17 April 2015

How Conflict Fuels Your Story

"Conflict is denying the character his or her goal." (Rebecca Talley)

According to blogger Francis Reid Roland ( , each scene needs a main character.  Each main character needs a goal. Without a goal, without a villain or circumstance preventing the protagonist from reaching that goal, there is no conflict.  The reader wants to route for the protagonist to reach his goal. Give the reader what he wants.  

Ms. Roland recommends writing out each scene on an index card with three things:  a goal, a conflict (someone or something preventing the protagonist from reaching his goal) and a result (the regression or even disaster that ensues).  Lay the index cards out in order enabling you to see where in your story there is little or no conflict.  

Blogger Rebecca Talley lists seven types of conflict.  They are:

1.  person vs fate

The Odyssey is a good example of a book exemplifying this type of conflict.  Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut is another example.

2.  person vs self

The protagonist is fighting against his own prejudices, doubts or inner conflict.  Koala Lou by Mem Fox is a good example of this conflict.  Shakespeare's Hamlet is another example of person vs. self. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is yet another.

3.  person vs person

My Rotten Red Headed Older Brother by Patricia Polacco is one example.  The hero fights the villain in The Hundred Penny Box by Sharon Mathis.  The Nedley Papers by Scott Zibsendale is another example.

4.  person vs society

a.  triumph over corruption ex. Lewis R. Foster's The Gentleman from Montana (unpublished) which was adapted as the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  Number the Stars by Lois Lowry is another example.

b.  reject society ex. Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451

c.  succumb to corruption ex. George Orwell's 1984; Diary of Anne Frank; Suzanne Lieurance's The Lucky Baseball 

5.  person vs technology

The protagonist uses technology to gain power.  Technology becomes a bad influence on society as in Dr. Seuss' The Lorax.  Isaac Asimov's I, Robot is another example.  

6.  person vs nature

Robinson Crusoe features a family trapped on a desert island.  Moby Dick features a captain battling a whale.  Coyote Cry by Balor Byrd features the main character fighting a coyote.  Into Thin Air tells the story of a group of mountain climbers tackling Everest.

7.  person vs supernatural

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a good example of this type of conflict.

Layer the conflict into your story the way a scout layers his fire with twigs and brush.  Let the conflict fuel your story.  If you're lucky, a strong wind will pick up and before you know, you'll have a roaring fire -- the kind that everyone will pull up a chair and roast marshmallows at.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Literary Devices: Weave Them Into Your Writing

"The point isn't to memorize literary devices; the point is to become familiar with them, learn how to use them, practice using them and weave them into your writing, to make it brighter, more imaginative and filled with a richness that it won't get otherwise." (Leah McLellan)

Here is a list of literary techniques that you can incorporate into your writing whether it's fiction or non-fiction.

1.  alliteration:  a series of words which all begin with the same letter
ex. "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers."  Books with alliteration include Dr. Seuss' ABC and Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse.

2.  assonance:  similar vowel sounds
ex. "Don't pander to a panhandler named Dan the Handiman."

3.  metonymy:  similar to a metaphor
ex. "He supported his family with his own sweat and blood."

4.  onomatopoeia:  the word imitates the sound
ex.  "The rain plip plopped against the window pane."  Books that focus on onomatopoeia are Going on a Bear Hunt and Mr. Brown can Moo Can You?

5.  oxymoron:  two words that have opposite meanings 
ex.  Great Depression; jumbo shrimp; deafening silence

6.  personification:  inanimate objects take on human characteristics
ex. "The stars danced playfully in the moonlit sky."  Books that focus on personification are The Day the Crayons Quit and Charlotte's Web.

7.  asyndeton:  omit conjunctions in a list
ex.  "Write, revise, edit, proofread, repeat; that's your job as a writer."

8.  hyperbole:  exaggeration for effect
ex.  "He could have knocked me over with a feather."

9.  allusion:  referring to an actual historical event
ex.  "The Cold War was back on when I told the kids we weren't going to the movies."  Books that focus on allusion are Animal Farm and Harry Potter.

10.  anaphora:  repetition of a word/phrase at the beginning of successive clauses 
ex.  "If you don't dream, if you don't plan, if you don't act, if you don't take a chance, you'll never get anywhere."

11.  procatalepsis:  anticipates reader rejection and addresses it
ex.  "You might think these literary devices are silly or not worth your time.  If you ask any experienced writer however, you'll soon learn how valuable they truly are." 

12.  epizeuxis:  repetition of a word for effect
ex.  "All he ever did was whine, whine, whine."

13.  irony:  say one thing and mean the opposite; expect one thing and the opposite happens
ex.  A traffic cop gets his licence suspended for unpaid parking tickets.  Books that focus on irony are Pride & Prejudice and The Help.

14.  foreshadowing:  a hint of what is to come later in the story
ex.  Charles Dickens uses stormy weather to foreshadow changes in Pip's life in Great Expectations.  Little Red Riding Hood has good examples of foreshadowing.

Note:  For more information, visit

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Pacing is like a Dam: It Controls the Flow of Your Story

"Pacing is like a dam.  It allows the writer to control just how fast or how slow his plot flows through the riverbed of his story." (K. M. Weiland)  

Ansel Adams - National Archives 79-AAB-01.jpg

Hoover Dam, completed in 1936, controls the flow of the Colorado River.  Photo courtesy

Pacing is a powerful tool that an author can use to determine the impact of his story.  Length controls momentum according to K. M. Weiland.  "Short scenes, snappy dialogue and terse sentences" give your story intensity and speed whereas "long scenes, leisurely sentences and extended dialogue" give your story a sense of place and time (   

K. M Weiland recommends that you vary your pace.  Yes, a story requires action; without action there would be no conflict, and without conflict, no story.  However, a story also requires deliberate moments of quiet.  Without slow scenes, the reader has no chance to catch his breath.  Vary the ebb and flow of the story.  The length of words, clauses, sentences and paragraphs all contribute to the effect of the story.  

Pay attention to detail to help set the pace.  A movie director might film a scene in slow motion to create a slowing down effect.  However, a writer doesn't have that option.  A writer must pile on the details instead.  K. M. Weiland gives the example of a character being shot.  The writer could describe:  "the look on the gunman's face, the recoil of the pistol, the flash of the barrel, the horror that chokes the victim and the collision of the bullet."

Courtney Carpenter of Writer's Digest points out that pacing doesn't just build momentum but also creates rhythm.  "When driving a manual transmission car, you choose the most effective gear needed for driving uphill, maneuvering city streets or cruising down a freeway.  Similarly, when pacing your story, you need to choose the devices that move each scene along at the right speed." (

One literary technique to change the pace of your story is the cliffhanger.  End your scene with a revelation, threat or challenge.  I remember back in the late 1970's when the drama Dallas aired.  The producers ended the season with a cliffhanger:  Who shot J.R.?  People talked about it at the water cooler at work.  They even wore t-shirts with the famous question printed on them.

To change pace, prolong the outcome of an event, thereby building suspense.  For example:  "will the detective solve the case before the killer strikes again?"

How about changing scenes to change momentum?  Movie scripts are full of scene cuts.  However, it is a little harder to accomplish in a story.  

Courtney Carpenter recommends a series of incidents in rapid succession to accelerate the pace of a story.  Transitions between scenes should be minimal to avoid breaking up the momentum.

Use a summary to change the pace.  Rather than giving the reader a play by play account, tell the reader what has already happened.  You can also summarize "whole eras, description or back story". A good time to use a summary is when a significant amount of time has gone by.  

Don't forget to examine your word choice.  "Use concrete words (prodigy, iceberg), active verbs (zigzag, plunder) and sensory information that's artfully embedded," says Courtney Carpenter.

In conclusion, whether you compare your story's pacing to a dam controlling the flow of a river, or a driver controlling the speed of his car, you are in control.  Speed it up...slow it down...put it on cruise's up to you.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Theme: The Heart of the Story

"Theme is the prescription for living that the writer wants to give the audience or reader." 
(Michael Hauge)

Theme is the central idea of your story.  C. S. Lankin calls it "the heart of the story" (  The theme is connected to the protagonist's internal journey.  It allows the reader to relate to the characters and their struggles.  "Theme is the prescription for living that the writer wants to give the audience or reader," says Michael Hauge (

Picture books should have one theme while chapter books or novels can have more than one theme. The main character in The Polar Express questions the existence of Santa Claus; he takes a journey to the North Pole and finds out that if he can hear the bell, he truly believes.  He need only have faith is the theme of the story.  The protagonist in the novel Catcher in the Rye doesn't want to grow up; preservation of innocence is the theme.  Harry Potter feels unwanted wherever he goes; he wants to find a place to call home.  Joan McCord offers other examples of theme:

  • old ways are best
  • determination wins the day
  • the more you give, the more you get
  • faith will see you through
  • father knows best
  • crime doesn't pay
  • as the twig is bent, so grows the tree
  • man is the master of his fate
  • honesty is the best policy
"Plot, character, setting, point of view and symbolism support and create theme," says Joan McCord ( As you draft your story outline, as you string your sentences together, as you complete your chapters, keep theme uppermost in your mind.  Remember that the theme is usually inferred, rather than stated directly. Ms. McCord points out that your title, chapter titles, beginning, and particularly, your ending should all lead back to your dominant theme.  Write one sentence to sum up your theme.  Keep it in mind as you write the book.  It will also come in handy when you pitch your story to potential publishers.