Write a Sequel That Doesn’t Disappoint: Part I

Writing a series is a challenge. Writing a darn good series? That's even more challenging. Learn how to write a sequel or series that leaves readers satisfied.I have a confession to make, friends: I’m getting worn out on series.

I’m not sure when or how it happened, but in the last couple of years or so I’ve been seeking out more and more stand-alone novels and even writing my own. Which is weird, considering I used to snub my nose at stand-alones, and all of the stories I wrote (and planned to write) were plotted out as trilogies.

So what changed? Well, my theory is that I’ve come down with something I’ve dubbed “Sequel Disappointment Syndrome.” One day it struck me that I’ve read very few series that are actually well-executed and deserving of their 3-7+ volumes. To be honest, the majority of series I’ve read have a fantastic first book, but the sequels fall short in comparison and disappoint.

I can’t tell you how many series I’ve come across where I think to myself, “This really would have worked better as a stand-alone.”

And honestly, I would rather read a fantastic stand-alone than a trilogy where book 1 is amazing but books 2 and 3? Um…not so much.

These days, it seems like every book is a trilogy, if not part of a longer series. I can’t help but look back at the wealth of classics like Pride and Prejudice, Dracula, and Wuthering Heights just to name a few, and wonder if their authors were onto something by making them stand-alones. When did we start feeling the need to make everything a trilogy? If these books had been written today, would they have been series instead? And would their sequels have been as good as the originals? One has to wonder.

To Write a Sequel or Not to Write a Sequel?

If you decide your story does indeed need a sequel, I must advise you to write responsibly. As a reader who has been disappointed far too many times with trilogies and series, I can tell you that the last thing you want to do is disappoint your audience.

Why?

When a reader picks up your book, they are placing their trust in you, the author. A disappointing sequel can break that trust. It can make the reader question your abilities as a storyteller. If you break a reader’s trust, not only is there a chance they might not pick up the next book in your series, but they might not pick up any other books from you period.

Ever.

Now that may seem a little harsh, but I can attest to its truth. If an author bungles a series, I won’t rush to start their next one. How do I know this one won’t be any worse than the last? Reading a series is a huge time commitment, and I’m not keen to spend my time on an author who was disappointed me in the past.

As you can see, keeping your reader’s trust is crucial. And to accomplish that, you must show them you know what you’re doing. To help you navigate the treacherous waters of writing a series, here are my tips for disappointment-proofing your sequels.

1.  Make Sure You Have Enough Story

I can’t stress this one enough: Don’t write a series because it seems like “the thing to do”; Write one because it will require more than one book to tell your story.

Don’t approach writing a story from the mindset of “I want to write a trilogy” or “I want to write a 7 book series.” You need to shift your mindset to focus on your story first and foremost. Then ask yourself: “How many books will it take to tell this story?” and go from there.

So how do you know if you have enough story to justify a series? This brings us to point #2…

2. Plan it Out

Friends, this is SO important. You need to plan out each book in your series in as much detail as you possibly can. If you’re not a plotter, you need to learn to become one. I don’t believe a series is something you can “pants” with good results.

Now, I know a lot of writers say to plan out your first book in great detail and then have general ideas for the additional books in the series. I’m going to have to say that from my own experiences, I must disagree with this approach.

Why? Let me give you an example.

I used the above method for my first trilogy in high school. The book one came together well, but the next two? They were a complete mess. I didn’t plan them well enough and they were all over the place with no direction and too much filler.

Fast forward to today. I knew my next work-in-progress would be too long for a standalone, and I had roughly plotted it out as a trilogy. By “plotting” I mean listing some ideas for each book as I had in the past.

But based on my last experience with writing a series, I wanted to make damn sure I had enough material this time. I went back and *really* plotted out the story scene-by-scene, dividing each book into 3 full acts. And you know what I realized? My story was actually a duology, not a trilogy.

Now, if I hadn’t realized this until after I had started writing, you know what would have happened? I would have run out of story and had to add filler. That means not only wasting my time, but the reader’s as well. I’ve read series where it felt like the author didn’t plan ahead. This leads to distorted, jumbled plots without clear direction, random subplots, unnecessary characters, and so on.

Now, you probably don’t need to plan out each book scene-by-scene like I did–I’m a little intense. But if you want to write a solid, amazing series, I highly encourage you to plan as much material as you can as far ahead as you can.

3. Don’t Add Filler

When you’re planning your series, make sure every scene, subplot, and character has a purpose and contributes toward the story’s end goal.

Sometimes, it’s going to be hard to choose which characters to focus on. You might create characters who become personal favorites, but don’t really play a big part in the story. You have to learn to control your feelings towards your characters and not give them more page time than they deserve.

For example, although I enjoyed Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series, I felt the subplot of Mia and Jordan was unnecessary and felt more like filler. They didn’t contribute a lot to the main story and probably could have been cut (in my opinion).

In short, be purposeful and selective with your main/POV characters and accompanying subplots.

4. Don’t Rush the Ending

One thing I hate more than anything is when an author rushes the ending of a story or series. I always feel cheated when I’m taken on an emotional journey only to have it end with a flat, abrupt conclusion bereft of the emotion I had been enjoying throughout the novel.

The only reasons I can think of for why authors might rush their endings are 1) They were exhausted 2) They were bored with the story, or 3) They were afraid of making it too long.

These are all terrible reasons. Set the story aside and take a break, or write on something new for a while if you must. If books 1 & 2 were 60,000 words and book 3 needs to be 90,000 words to show the ending in-depth, then you write those extra 30,000 words.

But whatever you do, don’t half-ass your ending. You owe it to yourself, your story, and your readers to give your novel a proper conclusion with all the detail and emotion it deserves.

5. Focus, Focus, Focus!

Sequels usually work best if a common thread is woven throughout them. The books in your series should be connected by an overarching goal that ties them together, like so:

In Harry Potter, the goal is defeating Voldemort.

In The Lord of the Rings, the goal is destroying the One Ring.

In The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, the goal is stopping the evil Lunar Queen from taking over earth.

Each book in these series has its own subplots, but the main goal spans the length of the series, helping to tie the books together. As a whole, each of these series is one giant story.

Additionally, the climax of the final book in your series should be the resolution of the main goal. If readers get to your final book and the climax is not the resolution of this goal, it will likely lead to disappointment.

For example, in The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, **spoilers** there is a lot of build up regarding Khalid’s curse, and the end of book one sets up that the characters will try to break the curse in book two, The Rose and the Dagger. But in the sequel, breaking the curse wasn’t the climax of the story. The focus was elsewhere, which threw off my expectations and left me feeling disappointed. By having another event serve as the climax, I felt the story lost much of its power, focus, and emotion. **end spoilers**

Side note: The only series (that I know of) that I have seen deviate from using the same main goal throughout each book with success is C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis focuses on a new goal and story line in each book, and somehow it works well for him.

What disappoints you in a sequel? Do you prefer writing series or standalones? Share your thoughts below!

Stay tuned for Part II!

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Writing 101: Creating Effective Description

Writing description can be overwhelming at first. What do you choose to describe? How do you describe it clearly? How can you make your reader experience your setting? Find the answers with these techniques!The purpose of description is to help readers experience your story both with their senses and emotions. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not there to look pretty or be flowery. Sure some writers can write very beautifully, but pretty prose isn’t necessary to bring your story to life. Sometimes, beautiful writing can even get in the way of or distract from the story itself!

So what tools do writers possess for bringing a setting to life through description? Let’s break down the different techniques.

Sensory Details

First, the senses. You’re probably familiar with them: sight, taste, smell, touch, and sound. Sight is the easiest to write and the one we think of first when setting up a scene, but you want to get into the habit of putting yourself into a scene and feeling it with all your senses.

What might your character be hearing? Like the whistle of a kettle or a dripping faucet? What about physical sensations, like the warmth of the sun on his skin or the feel of damp sand between his toes?

Readers want to experience what your hero is experiencing. Going beyond sight grounds readers in the story and makes the setting feel rich with detail in their minds—and this in turn makes your fictional world feel more realistic.

Manipulating Mood through Word Choice

Now that we know how to make readers experience a story with their senses, how can we make them experience it emotionally using description? This writer’s magic trick is accomplished through the subtle power of word choice.

That’s right, friend, by being intentional about the words you choose you can make the reader feel whatever you want them too—without them even realizing it! Pretty neat, huh?

But you don’t want to choose any mood for your scene. Whenever you introduce a setting, your hero should have an emotional reaction to it, and this should influence the words you use to describe it. After all, readers want to experience what the hero is experiencing, right? This means his feelings about his surroundings too.

Does the hero find this place scary? Beautiful? Peaceful? Choose words that communicate what the hero is feeling—or even better, ask yourself, “What words would my hero use to describe this?”

Let’s take a look at the power of word choice with this quick example:

The castle loomed atop the cliff, its sharp spires slicing through the clouds. The iron bars of the gate had been wrenched open and now resembled the mangled ribs of a skeleton.

Notice how I didn’t say the castle was scary or creepy, though that’s likely the impression/feeling you got. Instead, I used words like loomed, sharp, slicing, wrenched, mangled, and the comparison to a skeleton’s ribs all help create a creepy, foreboding mood.

This is also an example of showing vs.telling. Instead of telling you the castle was creepy, I showed you through my word choice. Whenever you can, opt for showing over telling when appropriate.

Film Shots

“Wait, why are we talking about film?” you ask. “What does this have to do with writing?”

Allow me to explain.

A story plays out like a film in the mind, yes? Because of this, we can steal a few film tricks and apply them to our descriptions.

When you watch a movie and a new setting is introduced, it will usually be done with an extreme long shot that includes a large amount of the landscape such as a city or farm so the viewer can see where the action will take place. This is also called an establishing shot.

Then, the camera will narrow its focus to a normal long shot, which might show something like a house, kitchen, train station, etc. where the scene will take place.

Narrow the focus again to a full shot, and this allows the viewer to see more details of the character’s costumes and their surroundings.

Narrow the focus yet again to a mid-shot and we see the characters from the waist-up, allowing us to focus on their facial expressions and emotional reactions.

Narrow the focus one more time and we have a close-up of characters facial expressions or important objects.

So how does this translate into writing? We can use this technique to organize our descriptions and help them flow clearly in the reader’s mind. You do this by starting your description with a wide “establishing” shot, and then narrowing your focus.

For example:

The barn was tucked away in a meadow between two oaks, its tin roof rusted and black paint peeling. Sam shoved open the door and glanced over the rows of empty stalls and then upward at the vaulted loft filled with moldy hay. He kicked aside a rotting bucket and a mouse darted into the shadows. Wrinkling his nose, he crouched to examine the droplets of blood soaked into the earth among the spilled grain and mouse droppings.

Notice how I started with an establishing shot and kept narrowing the focus until we had a close-up description of the blood splatters. This not only helps the reader get their bearings in the scene, but it follows the natural way we experience a place—we notice the overall picture before we begin to zero-in on tiny details.

Specific Nouns

Getting as specific as possible with nouns in your description will make your world feel more realistic and create a much sharper image in the reader’s head.

Instead of “red flowers” say “poppies,” and instead of “fancy car” say “Lamborghini.”

Also, this requires you do your research. You should be able to specifically name things in your story no matter the culture or time period, such as the character’s clothing, the food they eat, the weapons used, etc.

If you’re writing a sci-fi story and your hero walks into a room full of “scientific equipment” not only is this a lousy mental image for the reader, but its lazy writing. What sort of equipment are they using? What is it called? What does it look like? It’s your job to find out.

Balance

Finally, one of the important parts of good description is balance, or knowing what to describe and when.

For example, the middle of an intense action scene is not a good time to unload a bunch of description. The reader simply won’t care and it will just get in the way. Save the description for the slower parts of your story where you are setting up a scene or introducing a new setting, character, important object, or what-have-you.

Also, you need to be discerning about what you choose to describe because you can’t (and shouldn’t!) describe everything. You’ll end up overwhelming the reader and weakening the description because they won’t be able to remember it all. So what should you focus on?

Here are 3 things to consider:

1) Choose the most important details, or the details that make the place interesting or different.

2) Choose specific details in order to set a certain mood.

3) Choose the details your character would notice. (For example, a hunter might admire a collection of rifles while a bookworm might admire a bookshelf in the same room. Different people notice different things).

But how much description is too much? This will vary based on your writing style and the type of story you’re telling.

For example, literary fiction can have longer passages of description because readers of that genre will expect and even enjoy it. But in a Young Adult action novel you’re going to want to go light on the description because your audience will have less patience.

Basically, a good rule of thumb is to tell the audience just enough to give them a clear picture and avoid any confusion. How much detail that entails, however, is up to you.

What’s your biggest challenge when writing description? What sorts of details bring a story to life for you? Let me know in the comments!

P.S. Behind on the Writing 101 series? Click to catch up! Part 1 (The Fundamentals of Story), Part 2 (Writing Term Glossary), Part 3 (Creating a Successful Hero & Villain), Part 4 (Unraveling Tension, Conflict, and Your Plot), Part 5 (Let’s Talk Dialogue), and Part 6 (Setting and Worldbuilding).

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10 Ways to Set a Scene With Sound: A Guest Post by Victoria Fry

Using sound in a scene will make it more vibrant for your readers. Here are 10 ways you can add more sound to your story!The following is a guest post from blogger and writing coach Victoria Fry.

One of our greatest aims as writers is to make our story come alive in the minds of our readers.  One of the best ways to do that is to imbue both its background and foreground with sensory details, though not so much that they take over and distract from the really important stuff, like whether our character will manage to wriggle out of whatever tight spot they’ve found themselves in.

When it comes to sensory description, it sometimes takes a bit of practice to think what to add, and we can fall into a trap of drawing only on cliches.  Push through that, though, and the results are worth it!

Sit back and think for a moment about how vibrant a scene could be if you used the ping of a metal baseball bat hitting a ball as your character has an emotional phone conversation in the park, or the abrupt roar of a lawnmower interrupt a romantic proposal.  It’s just that little bit richer, right?  Read on to discover ten ways (of many!) you can set a scene with sound.

1. Conversation

This is one of the aspects of sound we’re likely most familiar with as writers, but it doesn’t hurt to revisit this powerful tool, especially if you go against the grain.

Think how different a room and situation feels if people are arguing with hushed, clipped voices as opposed to wall-shaking yells, or if they’re flirting with raucous laughter instead of mincing giggles.  Pay attention to the inflections your characters place on certain words and phrases, too, and the rhythm of the conversation.

2. Weather

The emphatic pit-pat of rain on a tin roof, sliding down the flaps of a canvas tent (don’t touch the canvas or you’ll get soaked!), or crashing down in a torrent.  The howl of gale-force winds.  The gentle stillness that comes after a snowstorm, when everyone’s still tucked up at home, peeking out their windows at the thick blanket of icy white crystals.

Weather is conspicuous in both its “pay attention to ME!” and its “sssssh, you won’t even know I’m here” moments.  You don’t have to use it in every scene, but think about how its inclusion could layer into the backdrop for your scene’s setting.

3. Vehicles

I don’t know much about cars, but I know that several noises spark an uh-oh in my mind: a growling engine, a wet plop on the windshield, and a slow hiss.

Even if it’s not an “uh-oh” moment, the sound a vehicle makes is dependent on when it was made, how well it’s maintained, and what make it is (Prius, Vibe, Mazda, to give a few examples).  Some cars purr along the roadway, while others sound like they’re eating it up and spitting it out as they roar down the highway.

And don’t forget about the windshield wipers, the car stereo, the click of the seat belt …

4. Technology

If you don’t think technology has a soundtrack, then you’ve never heard a gamer frantically clicking the mouse button to take down a zombie or an online shopper spamming the refresh button in their browser to catch a flash sale. Different computer keyboards (both external and laptop ones) have different touches, some clunkier than others.

And let’s not forget the classic example of a phone slamming down on the hook, although these days it’s more likely to be a mild snick as you flip your cellphone closed or a “beep” when you hit the “end call” button (not nearly as satisfying).

5. Animals

Ah, the animal kingdom.  A snake’s rattle while walking in the desert; a deep, gruff bark from the next door neighbor’s chihuahua; a high-pitched squeak of a sneeze from a kitten.  The noise an animal makes can make a scene feel cozy and welcoming or foreboding and goosebump-inducing.

Play with the sounds your character’s pet makes when they’re being ignored, when they’re sad, when something scares them or kicks off their protective instincts.

6. The Great Outdoors

Chances are your story takes place at least partially outside (although even a story set on a space station could play on the silence beyond the station’s walls).  With that in mind, play up the natural surroundings.  Maybe it’s the ocean lapping at the shore.  Maybe dry grasses are whispering, poplars shivering in the breeze.  Maybe it’s a stone on the trail, being kicked along the path with a dull “thwok.”

7. Seasonal

If you’ve thought about outdoor and weather-related noises already, seasonal noises are a perfect way to round out a natural trio.  Have a think about where your story takes place and what time of year it is, what the weather’s been like, and then go nuts!

Your character might hear someone crunching through snow outside their window, or go for a walk in the forest amongst the crackling leaves.  Seasonal music might be playing on the radio.  A house next door to a high school will enjoy relative peace for the summer months.

8. Hobbies

Often we know that a character enjoys a particular hobby, but we don’t see them partake in it.  If that’s the case for your story, you could really be missing out.  Imagine a character seething about something as they whir along on a sewing machine, or finding a meditative rhythm in the rasp of a handsaw.  If they’re handy in the kitchen, consider the sound of pans settling in the oven or a knife cutting on a marble cutting board as opposed to a wooden one.

9. Sports

One sport alone can host all manner of sounds.

Take tennis, for example.  There’s the thwack of the ball against the tennis racket, and the way it sounds when it hits the edge of the racket versus the strings.  There’s the hush that descends over the court at professional matches.

Different tennis players make different noises after hitting particularly strenuous shots, too: some grunt, some hoot, some squeak.  Tennis shoes dancing across the court make a particular shff-shff sound.

10. Laughter and Tears

Chances are you’ve sat near that person in the movie theatre who guffaws loudly enough to drown out the sound from the film, or wrung your hands as someone you cared about burst into body-shaking sobs.  Don’t forget the silent criers, either, or the muffled laughter, the sniffly bouts of tears, the wheezing cackle.

These pinnacles of human emotion fall all over the map, and they’re incredibly hard to ignore. Someone who’s laughing or crying, no matter how quietly they go about it, will draw attention.

Observe Sound in Real Life

At the end of the day, the best way to catalog sounds for your stories is to investigate.

Watch a movie or a documentary and close your eyes for part (or all!) of it.  Go outside, sit on a park bench or at a bus stop, and document the sounds you hear.  Join someone in the kitchen when they’re making a meal and (so long as they’re not desperately in need of a sous chef!), write down all the sounds, especially the obscure ones.

Next time you’re writing, try incorporating some of these sounds into your story, and see how it feels when you read it aloud.

What are some of your favorite or most memorable sounds?  I get super nostalgic whenever I hear an ice cream truck dingling down the street!

About the Author

victoriaVictoria Fry is an avid writer and writing coach. She specializes in helping writers (re)discover the joy in their writing process through her blog, one-on-one coaching sessions, and free courses and workshops.

Her latest offering is the Create an Epic Character Foundation workbook, which she created to help writers dig deep and get to know their characters from the ground up!  Feel free to say hello on Twitter; she’s always happy to chat about gaming and knitting, along with all things writing.

Writing 101: Setting and Worldbuilding

Writers often tend to overlook setting, but a vivid, well-developed setting can be a powerful part of your story and bring it to life for readers. Learn how to set your story apart with setting and worldbuilding!What was the setting of the last book you read? New York City? Dublin? The wilds of Africa? Outer space? Where did the author take you?

Now, let me ask you another question: Did the author succeed in taking you there?

Sometimes, I read books where the setting is such an integrated part of the story and so detailed that I feel as though I’m really there.

But other times, I’ll read a book that says it’s set in Montana but the setting is so empty that it feels as though it could be taking place anywhere. Or, even worse, I’ll pick up a book and have no idea where the setting is or forget where I’m supposed to be halfway through.

When we read, we love to be taken on a journey to somewhere new where we can experience that place and its culture without ever having to leave the comfort of our home. So it’s a shame that we writers often tend to neglect setting in our stories.

Maybe it’s because we’re overwhelmed with all the other details of plot and character. Or, maybe it’s because we don’t think that setting could be that important or make that big of a difference. But don’t be fooled–setting plays an important role in your novel just like your plot and characters!

What is Setting?

A setting is the place where the story’s events unfold. Novels contain multiple settings, which can be categorized a little something like this:

  • Big picture location—the country, state, world, etc. in which your primary and small picture locations are contained.
  • Primary location—where most of the story takes place.
  • Small picture locations—additional settings where scenes take place.

Let’s look at a couple examples. First, from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:

  • Big picture location—The United Kingdom
  • Primary location—Hogwarts
  • Small picture locations—The Dursley’s house, the shack by the sea, Diagon Alley, Platform 9 ¾, the Forbidden Forest, the Gryffindor dormitory within Hogwarts, etc.

What about The Hunger Games?

  • Big picture location—Panem
  • Primary location—The Arena
  • Small picture locations—District 13, the Tribute’s train, the training center, the Capitol, the cornucopia within the arena, etc.

When you’re trying to figure out your story’s setting, first start the the “big picture” location. This could be a real place like Russia or California, or somewhere fictional like Westeros or Middle Earth.

Next, narrow your focus to the primary location. Where within this big picture will most of the story take place? This might be tricky to pin down if your story is split between locations, or if you have multiple story lines with characters in different locations.

For example, in Lord of the Rings the characters are on a journey and visit a variety of settings along the way. And in Game of Thrones you have many different story lines with characters spread out across a number of primary settings like the Night’s Watch, King’s Landing, Meereen, etc.

After you figure out your primary location, start exploring other settings your characters might visit during your story. These will be both within the primary location, and beyond it.

When done well, setting will make a story colorful and memorable. This is because the author is creating a place that feels real and that the reader wants to return to over and over again each time she picks up the book. You don’t want your setting to be a blank in the reader’s mind because this takes away from one of the pleasures and expectations of reading—to be taken to another place.

You should treat your setting like you would treat any other character in your story. Characters need to be developed or they will end up feeling like flat pieces of cardboard. The same goes for your setting! Take some time to sit down and get to know your setting, researching or thinking about things like:

  • The layout/geography
  • What’s beyond in the outlying areas
  • Politics, laws, and governing system
  • Culture and traditions
  • Weather
  • Local plants and animals
  • Jobs, economy, inports/exports
  • History, enemies, and allies
  • Folklore, urban legends, etc.
  • Details only locals would know
  • The hero’s feelings and opinions about the place

But now this brings us to the second point I wanted to talk about: worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding

The term “worldbuilding” is usually used when talking about fantasy and sci-fi novels. It’s the process of creating a fictional world from scratch that still feels realistic. This process could include creating races, religions, histories, currencies, mythologies, cultures, traditions, and so on.

Worldbuilding is an important part of fantasy because the reader is being taken to an unfamiliar place that doesn’t exist. That means the author needs to make it feel realistic by weaving a web of details so complex that we begin to feel that there’s no way the author could be making this all up, that this place must really exist somewhere.

One example of fantastic worldbuilding is J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world in the Harry Potter series. Her attention to detail is phenomenal—she gives the wizarding world its own currency (galleons and knuts), sweet treats (Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans, anyone?), newspaper (The Daily Prophet), drinks (Butterbeer), transportation (The Knight Bus), and sport (Quidditch), just to name a few of the many details.

Rowling creates a world that is so fleshed out that you can become completely lost in it to the point where if someone came along and told you she made it all up, you’d probably call them a liar (let’s admit it, how many of us are still waiting for our Hogwarts acceptance letters?).

That is how powerful worldbuilding can be, when done well. But a word of warning: although you can get away without too much damage from lack of setting in most genres, in fantasy and sci-fi worldbuilding is critical to your story. It’s an expectation of the genre since readers turn to fantasy to be taken to a new, magical world. If you only have a cardboard world to offer, your story is going to suffer.

Worldbuilding Isn’t Just for Fantasy

Now, even though we mainly associate worldbuilding with fantasy and sci-fi, this doesn’t mean it doesn’t apply to other genres. There is an element of worldbuilding within any story you write. The only difference is, when the story is set in the real world rather than a fantasy world, we are working with fact rather than fiction.

What do I mean? To use my own hometown as an example, let’s say your story is set in Louisville Kentucky and your hero is a jockey who will ride in the Kentucky Derby. You have two worlds to explore and build here: 1) The physical setting of Louisville Kentucky and the Churchill Downs racetrack where the Derby takes place, and 2) The culture of jockeys and horseracing.

First, your physical setting. Whereas in fantasy you would make everything up, in this type of story you’ll need to do research to learn about the layout of the city and Churchill downs, the history of these places, famous landmarks, the climate of Kentucky, how the locals speak, and so on. You’ll also need to uncover details that will bring your story to life.

For example, there are details about my hometown that outsiders likely wouldn’t know. Like we’re very picky about how you pronounce Louisville (it’s Loo-uh-vul, not Lewis-ville or Looey-ville, in case you were wondering). And even if you’re a local and you’ve never been to the Derby, you still know that Derby hats and Mint Julips are a big thing because the local news will inevitably run stories on both of these every year around Derby time.

Your job as a writer is to uncover all these quirky little details to bring the setting to life. Every place has its own culture, and your readers want to experience it. These are the details that are going to give your setting character and make it stand out.

The second “world” you’d need to delve into is that of the horse racing culture, and also the life of a jockey. You would need to get the inside information about these worlds so they’re accurate and believable.

“Worlds” like this exist all around us, and everyone belongs to one world or another. For example, you and I belong to the “world” of fiction writing. We have our own lingo, jokes, processes, etc. that outsiders wouldn’t know. Your job is to bring the reader into whatever specialized world you choose so that by the end of the story, they feel like an insider.

Either Way, There Will be Work Involved

As you can see, it doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a fantasy, contemporary, or even historical fiction novel—there’s going to be a fair amount of work involved to develop a realistic setting, whether you’re making up all the details or researching them.

Having written both fantasy and historical fiction, I don’t know that one tactic or the other is really “easier.” With research it can be challenging to find the information you need, especially if you’re writing about something set in the past where you can’t visit the place at that time period or ask locals for inside information. On the other hand, creating an original, interesting fantasy world that’s detailed and realistic is no small task.

Whatever genre of story you write, take the time to put the extra effort into worldbuilding. Not only will help your story come alive and give your setting character, but it will make readers want to return to your book time and time again for a visit.

What books have you read that created believable, detailed settings that made you feel as though you were there? Tell me in the comments!

P.S. Behind on the Writing 101 series? Click to catch up! Part 1 (The Fundamentals of Story), Part 2 (Writing Term Glossary), Part 3 (Creating a Successful Hero & Villain), Part 4 (Unraveling Tension, Conflict, and Your Plot), and Part 5 (Let’s Talk Dialogue).

Ready for Part 7? Click here to read about Creating Effective Description!

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The Novel Writing Roadmap: A Guest Post by Katja Kaine

In this guest post, writer Katja Kaine breaks down her process for writing a novel from developing an idea to editing the final draft!The following is a guest post from Katja Kaine, writer, blogger, and creator of The Novel Factory writing software.

When I first started writing a novel, I felt like I was stumbling around in the dark.

I wandered around for a while making a lot of false starts, finding dead ends, backtracking, and staring into the darkness. But slowly, I learned the lay of the land as I wrote my first novel. Rather than repeat this tedious and time-consuming process for each subsequent novel, I decided I needed to plan a more concise route for next time.

And so my Novel Writing Roadmap was born.

It describes each of the steps I follow to take my novel from concept to completed manuscript. It’s the guide I wish I had been handed when I first started, and I hope it will save a lot of headaches for new writers.

In this article I’ll be giving you an overview of my novel-writing process. To help make this process easier, I’ve also developed the Novel Factory software to give writers extra guidance and support, and you can learn the full details about that here.

It’s important to know that this method will not teach you to write well. I don’t go into a lot of detail about showing not telling, adverb use, punctuation and grammar, and all that jazz. It also cannot give you good ideas or write your novel for you. What it will do is teach you how to turn your story idea into a fully-fledged, well-structured manuscript. It is a map, and you will have to do the walking.

Here is an overview of the steps:

  1. Premise
  2. Skeleton
  3. Character Introductions
  4. Short Synopsis
  5. Extended Synopsis
  6. Goal to Decision Cycle
  7. Character Development
  8. Location Development
  9. Advanced Plotting
  10. Character Viewpoints
  11. Scene Blocking
  12. First Draft
  13. Theme and Variation
  14. Second Draft
  15. Final Draft

Now we’ll look at each step in more detail.

Premise

Right. Let’s get started. You’ve probably got an idea for a story. But if your idea is going to turn into a novel we need to make sure it’s got all its arms and legs. So take your idea and make sure it has:

Here’s an example:

  • a protagonist – Joanna the plumber
  • a goal – save earth from alien attack
  • a setting – Earth 2050
  • an antagonist – aliens
  • a disaster – the government turn on her

Put all those ideas into a single sentence, like this: When aliens attack Earth in the year 2050, can Joanna the plumber save the human race before the traitorous government manage to turn her into a scapegoat for the whole disaster?

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Outlining the premise in The Novel Factory

 Skeleton

There is an established set of story beats that the vast majority of blockbuster movies and books follow to create a satisfying story arc, so I recommend following these closely when you’re first starting out.

Each of these beats can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways, so don’t be worried that it means your story will be like all the others. Also, once you’ve mastered them, you can deviate to your heart’s content. Here they are:

Act 1

  • Introduction to the protagonist’s world
  • Call to action / inciting incident
  • Protagonist commits to the goal

Act 2

  • Mentor teaches the protagonist
  • First challenge
  • Temptation
  • Dark moment

Act 3

  • Final Conflict
  • Return home

Expand your premise to include each of these story beats.

 Character Introductions

Your characters are the life blood of your story, so it’s good to get to know them nice and early. For step three, make notes on all the major characters in your story. Don’t worry about getting too in-depth at this stage, we just need an outline of the key broad brushstrokes of their personality, appearance and motivation. I recommend making notes on at least the following:

  • Name
  • Age
  • Occupation
  • Physical appearance
  • Key character traits
  • Motivation
  • Summary of their role in the story
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Developing Characters in The Novel Factory

Short Synopsis

This is simple. Expand your story skeleton until it is about a page long. It should include all the key elements of your plot and anything else you think is important.

Note the word ‘short’. You will be tempted to put in much more, but the short synopsis is deliberately constrained to make you think hard about what is of key importance. You can add in more detail in the next stage.

Extended Synopsis

Now go through the Short Synopsis adding detail until it is about four pages long.

The Goal to Decision Cycle

Before you get too much further with the plot, you need to make sure it’s well structured, and not simply meandering around all over the place. One method of doing this is to pin each section to the Goal to Decision Cycle, which works like this:

Your character has a GOAL.

But when they are trying to reach that goal they encounter CONFLICT.

Things escalate and end in DISASTER.

Your character has an emotional REACTION to the disaster.

They are faced with a DILEMMA with no good options.

They make a DECISION.

Which means, your character has a new GOAL.

If you go through your story and try to identify or create each of these elements (GOAL, CONFLICT, DISASTER, REACTION DILEMMA, DECISION) then you will create a story that has momentum and feels logical to the reader, even if they don’t know why.

Note that these elements do not need to have equal weight, and how much attention you give to each of them will affect the shape and feel of your story. More exciting adventure stories will emphasize the goal to disaster section and only have a brief pass over the reaction to decision, whereas more philosophical stories will do the opposite.

Character Development

The story is really taking shape now, so let’s spend a little more time with our characters while that settles. There are a few methods you can use to get under your characters’ skin. Here are my favorites:

  • Consider their history, including: infancy, childhood, teen years, young adulthood etc., up to where they are now
  • Complete a questionnaire for them – this helps you think about new and interesting angles.
  • Think about what they ‘want’ as opposed to what they ‘need’

 Location Development

The title of this step is fairly self-explanatory. Take some time to make a list of all of your locations and make some notes about them. I like to think about all the senses, how each location changes in different scenes, how it reflects the mood and character, and I like to try to find some pictures and blueprints to aid inspiration and clarity whenever possible.

Advanced Plotting

During this step we take some time to look at the overview of our novel and make sure we have all our ducks in a row. Think about character development, plot threads, important items, clues, and foreshadowing. Make sure all of these elements tie in nicely, because it’s much easier to figure these things out now than to realize when you’re 50,000 words in that there’s a major flaw.

Character Viewpoints

The last step before you start sketching out your first draft (or pre-first draft, but we’ll get to that) is to go back and give all of your major characters their moment in the limelight. This means going through the story from their point of view.

This is a fantastic practice, because not only does it help you to develop each of the characters so that they are people in their own right and not just flat sidekicks for the protagonist, but you will add much more texture and depth to the story as a whole.

Seeing the story from the point of view of another character means you may see options the protagonist didn’t. Or you may realize that the best friend had a headache when the protagonist walked in, so instead of being clear headed and helpful, she is ratty and obstructive.

Scene Blocking

This is the last step before you actually start writing your novel properly, I promise. This is a sort of pre-first-draft. It’s not a first draft because you’re not writing actual prose; instead, you’re writing an outline about what happens in each scene beat by beat, sort of like stage directions in a play.

This stage means you can get the gist of each scene pinned down quickly, without worrying about what words you’re using or exact dialogue. Write the story all the way through in the present tense, without worrying about style. Just describe what happens in each scene, once thing after another.

First Draft

You made it! You’re ready to write your first draft. It may feel like it’s been a slog to get here, but the advantage of this is that you can probably get your first draft done in a month or so, and it will be in a hell of a lot better shape than if you hadn’t done all that planning.

When writing your first draft, don’t worry about good writing – just barrel on through as fast as you can and don’t look back. The purpose of the first draft is to get the words down. The purpose of the second draft is to make the words good.

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Story overview in The Novel Factory

Theme and Variations

You’ll probably have learned a lot during the process of writing your first draft, and hopefully made a bunch of notes. Although you may be raring to get started on your second draft, it’s worth taking a little break to let things settle.

During this time you could make sure all your notes are in the right place, revisit your sub plots, and also consider themes and foreshadowing.

Second Draft

Now you’re really getting somewhere. Go through your first draft and make it better. Sort out the grammar and punctuation, get rid of any clichés, cut repetition, make sure you’re showing not telling, and weed out unnecessary adverbs. Make it shine.

Final Draft

If you have access to feedback, then get it and use it. During the final draft you have to be patient, ruthless and have painstaking attention to detail.

Now it’s basically just a matter of editing over and over again until your fingers are bleeding or you’ve lost your mind. Once either of those two things happens, it’s probably time to draw a line in the sand and call the novel finished.

Summary

Hopefully you’ve found my novel writing process useful, and some of the stages might help you formulate your own process and achieve your dream of writing a novel that will make you proud.

What does your writing process look like? I’d love to hear about it! Let me know in the comments below, or you can chat with me on Twitter or Facebook.

About the Author

katjaKatja L Kaine lives in a hippyish commune in Yorkshire with her husband, two cats, dog, escapologist baby, a chess genius and a Pole.

She spends her time furiously writing novels and short stories at breakneck speed and then pedantically combing through every word to transform them into something vaguely readable.

She is also the creator of The Novel Factory, a writing software that helps writers structure and develop their novels. You can learn more about The Novel Factory here, or browse more useful articles on writing at The Novel Factory Blog.

Intro to Creative Writing: A Free Mini-Workshop

In this FREE workshop for new writers you'll be introduced to the world of novel-writing. You'll learn the writing & publishing processes, how to make a living as an author, how to find a writing community, and more! Plus, there is most definitely a free workbook involved. So, I have something a little different to share with you today, friend. As you’ve probably noticed I usually write my posts, but this week I decided to shake things up. Are you ready for this? *dramatic pause* I’ve created my first YouTube video.

Yep, an actual video. With me talking. And saying all the things. And stepping wayyyyyy outside of my comfort zone.

So what did I whip up for you?

Well, of course I couldn’t keep my first video simple, because that would make too much sense. Instead, I’ve created a 35-minute mini-workshop called Intro to Creative Writing, complete with a free 17-page workbook. (Excessive, yet epic, no?)

This workshop is meant to be a companion/prequel to my Writing 101 series. While the Writing 101 series teaches you the basics of fiction writing like developing your plot, characters, setting, etc., the Intro to Creative Writing workshop introduces you to the world of writing. It covers things like the writing and publishing process, how to make a living as an author, myths about writing a novel, and more.

Basically, this is everything I wish I had known about writing before I started my first novel.

Sound like fun? You can check out the full workshop below or on YouTube, and grab the free workbook here!

Also, as I’m still figuring out this whole video thing I hope you’ll forgive the imperfections ; )

Resources Mentioned:

So, what do you think? Did you find the video helpful? Would you like to see more workshops like this in the future? Please share your thoughts below!

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15 More Techniques to Write a Romance That Will Make Readers Swoon (Part II)

Need some more techniques in your romance arsenal? Here are 15 more ways to create a fictional relationship that will make readers swoon! Last week, I shared with you 15 Ways to Write a Romance that Will Make Readers Swoon. Today, I’m excited to bring you the sequel to that post! If you’ve been struggling to write an authentic romance and build a deep, meaningful relationship between your characters, this is the post for you, friend. Here are 15 more techniques to help you create that swoon-worthy romance–enjoy!

(More) Ways to Write a Romance That Makes Readers Swoon

1. Compliments–Let your love interests compliment each other, but don’t limit it to just looks–think about intelligence, accomplishments, skills, etc. as well. What do your love interests admire about each other? Let them say it!

2. Making Sacrifices for Each Other–Loving someone means putting their needs ahead of your own, and doing whatever it takes to keep them safe. Sometimes, this might involve sacrifice. But this doesn’t always have to mean sacrificing one’s life; a love interest might sacrifice something else that’s important to him/her such as a job/promotion, a prized possession, a dream, an opportunity, etc. When they give up something they want or love, it shows just how much they care for their love interest.

3. Accepting Each Others Flaws/Past–Love means accepting the bad along with the good, because let’s face it no one’s perfect. Let your love interests develop a relationship where they feel comfortable sharing anything with each other, now matter how dark or shameful, because they know they will be accepted and forgiven.

4. Encouraging/Supporting Each Other–Let your love interests support each other through tough times, encourage each other to reach their goals, and believe in each other even when they don’t believe in themselves.

5. Verbal Confessions and Affirmations of Love–This might be harder for some characters than others. Though its true actions speak louder than words, its still always nice to hear an “I love you.” Give your love interests an opportunity to verbally express how they feel about each other.

6. Humble Enough to Apologize–If a character has made a mistake, is in the wrong, or has started a fight, have them be humble enough to apologize to the love interest. I see this skipped over too often in films and novels, and it always gets under my skin. “I’m sorry” might seem like frivolous, unnecessary dialogue, but it’s not. It reveals a lot about the love interest’s character. It shows 1) that they are mature enough to take responsibility for their mistakes, and 2) that they are working to “fix things.”

7. Forgiving Each Others Mistakes–When one love interest apologizes for doing wrong, the other should (hopefully) forgive them, though it could depend on the situation. If the love interest has done something completely unforgivable, the relationship might have to end. But for a relationship to work, forgiveness is required. Don’t let your character carry a grudge or hold the mistake over the love interest’s head forever.

8. Sharing Their World with the Other–Have your love interests slowly start to share their worlds with each other. They might begin to introduce each other to friends and family, or share special places, stories, traditions, interests, pets, or possessions. Gradually, they will want to make their new love a part of their world.

9. Sharing a Life & Death/Traumatic/Emotional Experience–When you go through a tragic or traumatic experience with another person, it tightens the bond between you. You both experienced the same intense emotions and helped each other to survive, whether it was physically, mentally, or emotionally. No one else will be able to understand what you went through like that person who shared your experience. Consider putting your love interests through a life & death or traumatic experience to help create a stronger bond between them.

10. Sharing Hopes and Dreams–When you share your dreams, deepest desires, and passions with another person, it’s like sharing a piece of your heart. What do your characters want for their future? What are their dreams? Let them share it with their love interest.

11. Patience–You might not realize it, but patience can be extremely sexy in a love interest. Whether it’s patiently waiting for the other to fall in love, figure out their feelings, begin to open up, or become comfortable enough to move further physically, patience shows determination, dedication, selflessness, and respect. It shows that the character cares enough about their love interest not to pressure them, no matter what they might want themselves at the moment. They put their love interest’s feelings and best interests ahead of their own desires.

12. Devotion and Loyalty to Each Other–Are your love interests completely devoted to each other? Would they do anything for each other? Go to the ends of the earth, to hell and back? Devotion means constancy, unwavering loyalty, and commitment. Create opportunities for your love interests to show their devotion.

13. Showing Concern for/Worrying Over the Other–I always find it sweet in books and movies when a character shows concern or gets worried over their love interest. It shows that they care and the love interest is always in their thoughts.

14. When the Guy Pursues the Girl–I’m not saying a girl can’t pursue a guy, but there’s something about a guy who pursues a girl that’s pretty damn romantic. It shows he’s interested and cares enough that he’s willing to make an effort to win the girl’s heart. It also shows that he’s willing to make himself vulnerable and risk being turned down for a chance that she might like him too. Maybe it’s that combination of boldness and vulnerability that gets me every time.

15. Physical Displays of Affection–Last but not least, let your love interests use displays of physical affection to express their feelings. This could be small, flirty touches, tender embraces, a peck on the cheek, passionate kisses, hand holding, cuddling, etc. Physical touch helps to deepen the bond between love interests.

Have anything you’d add to the list? Tell me in the comments below!

Miss out on Part I? Click here to catch up!

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15 Techniques to Write a Romance That Will Make Readers Swoon (Part I)

Struggling to write a romance makes readers' hearts flutter? Here are 15 ways you can create a deep, authentic romance readers won't be able to resist falling for! I’m a sucker for a good love story. Whether it’s in a book, film, or TV show, I just can’t seem to help myself. I’ve encountered a lot of fictional romances over the years, some that made me swoon and others that made me roll my eyes (or resist the urge to gag). But lately, I’ve become more aware of just what it takes to write a romance that makes readers swoon.

You see, romance is so much more than candlelight dinners or passionate kisses. It’s more than reciting poetry or making love. In order to write a romance that really gets readers in the heart, you must develop a relationship between your characters that is authentic, deep, and raw. You must go beyond physical attraction and cute romantic gestures. You must reflect upon what it truly takes to love someone, such as trust, devotion, sacrifice, and putting another before yourself.

I’ve spent time analyzing several of my favorite love stories to try to figure out what it was about them that made my heart flutter. I’ve made a list of my observations, which I’ll be sharing with you in two parts. Keep reading for Part I, and check back next week for Part II!

Ways to Write a Romance That Makes Readers Swoon

1. Cute & Memorable First Meeting–Everyone loves a good “How did you guys meet?” story!

2. Rocky Beginnings–Consider having your love interests start out as enemies, disliking each other, or not trusting each other. This allows for more growth in the characters and creates more tension.

3. Similar Backgrounds/Common Interests–Give your love interests some common ground so they can bond and develop an understanding of each other. Maybe they both grew up in foster care, or enjoy the same hobby.

4. Complimentary Personalities–How might your love interests’ strengths and weaknesses balance each other out? Maybe one has a temper while the other is patient. Or, maybe one is a martial arts master while the other is a clever intellectual.

5. Taking Care of Each Other–Give your love interests opportunities to see to each others’ needs, or to put the others’ needs before their own.

6. Protective of Each Other–Give your love interests opportunities to defend each other against danger, or to stand up for each other in a social situation.

7. Respectful of Physical Boundaries–Don’t let one love interest pressure or coerce the other into moving further physically in the relationship than what they’re comfortable with. Show that if one isn’t ready to move further, the other is respectful of their decision and willing to wait.

8. Learning Quirks and Habits–Everyone has them, though you don’t often realize it until you begin to spend more time together. What might your love interests find endearing or annoying about each other?

9. Learning Likes and Dislikes–When you get to know a person, you become familiar with their tastes. If one of your love interests decided to surprise the other with coffee, would they know what to order for them? Or if they went on a trip and bought a gift, would they know what to pick?

10. Thoughtful Surprises–Have one love interest surprise the other with something they said they enjoy or said they had been wanting. It not only shows that the love interest listens to and remembers what the other says, but that they are always thinking of them.

11. Learning to Trust–Can your love interests trust each other to keep a secret? To be honest? To be faithful? To not abandon each other? To not play games with or break each others heart? You must first trust someone before you can become vulnerable with them.

11. Being Vulnerable with Each Other–Revealing secrets, emotional scars, pain or tears, insecurities, fears, flaws, mistakes, embarrassing moments–the things we would normally prefer to keep hidden–these all require vulnerability. Sharing them strengthens the bond between the love interests. A first kiss or confession of love are also acts of vulnerability because there is a chance the feelings might not be reciprocated.

12. Rescuing Each Other–Whether it’s the guy saving the girl or vice-versa, everyone needs help sometimes, and when you love someone you don’t abandon them. Though modern trends might say otherwise, I think it’s fine to have a guy rescue a girl. I don’t think think it shows the girl is weak, but rather, it shows the guys cares enough to risk himself for her.

13. Learning to Depend on One Another–This is especially challenging for stubborn, independent, or proud characters, but as a couple your love interests need to learn how to accept each others’ help and work together as a team. They might have to learn that it’s okay for someone else to do something for them, even if they’re capable of doing it themselves–and acts such as these might even be how a character expresses their love.

14. Comforting Each Other–When one love interest is upset, the other should be there to console them and help them through the situation. Someone who truly cares will share the pain of the person they love, and will hurt because they hurt.

15. Making the Other Laugh–Whether it’s to try to cheer them up or just because they like to see them smile, your love interests should know how to make each other laugh.

That’s all for Part I, stay tuned for Part II coming next week!

What is it in a fictional relationship that makes you swoon? Tell me in the comments below!

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How to Write a Short Story (That’s Actually Short!)

Want to write a short story but struggling on the "short" part? Learn my top tips for trimming down your story!Most people probably think that it’s easier to write a novel than it is to write a short story. In reality, however, it’s actually harder to write a short story than a novel. Well, for many writers anyway. But how can this be? How can it be harder to writer 7,500 words or less compared to 50,000+ words?

Let’s say you go on a two-week vacation to the exotic location of your choice. When you get home you want to tell your best friend all about it, but she’s running short on time. You have two minutes to tell her about your two-week trip. How can you cram everything you did into a two-minute conversation? The thing is, you can’t.

You see, the short story is an art. Condensing a story into a compact form that is still functioning, interesting, and creates emotional impact is no small feat. It’s harder to tell a good story with fewer words, and this is why many writers find short stories so challenging.

The Short Story Trend

Lately, I’ve noticed a, interesting trend in Young Adult fiction. It seems the short story is making a comeback of sorts. I’ve noticed authors publishing short stories that relate to their novels that are prequels, sequels, tell a character’s backstory, or explore what a certain character was doing “off stage” during the events of the novel.

Some examples of this trend include Sarah J. Mass’ The Assassin’s Blade novellas, Cassandra Clare’s The Bane Chronicles, J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore website, and Marissa Meyer’s collection Stars Above. These are just a few examples–there are many more out there and I seem to be running across more and more every day, so this trend definitely seems to be growing.

And it makes sense. Not only to these short stories give readers more of their favorite tales and characters, but they’re great for the 21st century attention span. Readers can snack on these short stories without having to commit to a whole series of sequels or prequels or what-have-you.

I think we very well may see short story collections such as these grow in popularity in the near future, perhaps even to the point where we see more stand-alone collections that aren’t attached to novels! And with this growing trend, it might be worthwhile to learn how to write a short story even if you’re a novelist at heart.

Why Write a Short Story?

So why should you bother trying to write a short story? For me, I just wanted to take on the challenge. I wanted to have the skill, and it bothered me that I could write a 160,000 word novel but not a measly short story. I wanted to challenge myself to get outside of my comfort zone as a writer.

Here are some other reasons you might consider writing a short story:

  • A short story can be used to promote a novel and attract new readers
  • Publishing a short story in a magazine or online can help you build some publishing credibility for your novel
  • You can use a short story to give your readers more of a novel without having to write an entire series, or expand on a series (Ex. J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore stories)
  • Short stories allow you to experiment with writing styles and genres and allow you to explore new ideas without committing to writing an entire novel
  • Short stories challenge you to write succinctly, and help you learn how to say more with less

As you can see, even novelists can benefit from short stories! Ready to write a short story for yourself? Before you do, keep reading to get my top tips I learned during my own short story practice and study!

My Top Tips For Short Stories

1. Focus on a Turning Point

One of the first challenges you face when you set out to write a short story is figuring out a plot. What do you want this story to be about? How do you keep the story you want to tell to the length of a short story, yet still have it qualify as a true “story” and not a random scene?

First, let’s look at the elements you need for a story–a hero, goal, conflict, and growth. A story is about a hero who wants something (goal), sets out to attain it, but faces an obstacle that stands in his way (conflict), and as the result of achieving or failing the goal, grows or learns something.

So how can we pack all this into a short story? In terms of plot, you need to think tiny. Which is extremely hard if you’re a novelist like me. It’s my instinct to plot novels, so my short stories would always end up being too long. I’d make the plot too complicated and try to include too many scenes. I’d create conflicts that were so large and complex it would take an entire novel to resolve.

But after taking a Literature class in college in which we studied short stories, I was finally able to figure out the “secret” to creating a short-story-sized plot. The trick is to focus on a turning point in the hero’s life. Since a short story can only portray a moment, you need that moment to have an impact. A turning point provides you with the emotional significance you need to make the story matter and not seem random or pointless.

So what do I mean by a turning point? This is a moment in the character’s life where something happens that makes them grow, change their perspective, challenge their beliefs, realize something important, or impacts their life.

For example, in the Hunger Games the scene where Prim’s name is drawn and Katniss volunteers in her place is a turning point. Katniss’ life won’t be the same after this. Another example of a turning point is when Hagrid shows up at the sea shack in the first Harry Potter novel and says Harry’s a wizard.

With a little tinkering, these scenes could be fashioned into short stories. They are both turning points with emotional impact and force the character to make a decision and overcome an internal obstacle–Katniss must find the courage to volunteer for her sister, and Harry must take a leap of faith and decide if he’ll believe magic is real. Of course there’s much more to both of these tales, but a short story is simply the tip of the iceberg.

Find your character’s life-changing moment and then tell that story of that turning point.

2. It’s Okay to Tell

One piece of writing advice we get drilled into us all the time is show don’t tell. While that’s good advice for a novel, it’s not going to work for a short story. Showing takes longer than telling, and we don’t have time for that. Of course, this doesn’t mean you have to tell everything, but just realize that in a short story not only is telling acceptable, but it’s expected.

Think of fairy tales, Greek mythology, and other folklore. These are are types of short stories, and if you’ve ever read any of them, you will quickly notice that they involve a lot of telling. For example, take this opening paragraph from the Brother’s Grimm Red Riding Hood:

“Once upon a time there was a dear little girl who was loved by everyone who looked at her, but most of all by her grandmother, and there was nothing that she would not have given to the child. Once she gave her a little riding hood of red velvet, which suited her so well that she would never wear anything else; so she was always called ‘Little Red Riding Hood.'”

This is all telling, and in a novel it wouldn’t be acceptable. We would be expected to show the reader this information, which could take several scenes or an entire chapter. But in a short story we can get away with telling because we have a limited amount of page space and the reader knows this.

Bottom line: Don’t be afraid to tell!

3. Don’t Start With Fantasy or Romance

If you’re just starting out trying to write a short story, I’d highly recommend staying away from the Fantasy, Sci-fi-, and Romance genres until you get some practice. Why? These are some of the most challenging genres in which to write short stories because Fantasy and Sci-fi require a lot of world-building, which requires more page space, and a romance is very hard to pull off without lots of page space to develop the characters and their relationship.

Unfortunately for me, Fantasy and Romance are my favorite genres to write, especially with the two mixed together. So of course these were the sort of short stories I attempted to write, and it was extremely difficult and frustrating. Once you get better at short stories you can start experimenting with these genres, but for now try to get the hang of things with genres that work well for short stories like mystery/crime, thriller, horror, and contemporary.

I will note though that the exception to this would probably be Fantasy that takes place in the modern-day world that involve story lines like time travel, super powers, magic, and mythical creatures that require little explanation because audiences are already familiar with them. Because it takes place in our world, the audience is also familiar with the world and how it works so little world-building is required.

4. Be a Minimalist

When you write a short story, the key is less of everything. Fewer settings, scenes, and characters; bare-minimum backstory, world-building, and plot; succinct description, dialogue, and word choice. If you can make do without it, then it needs to go. Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Recommended Short Stories to Study

I’ve found the best way to learn how to write short stories is by reading them yourself, just like you learn how to write a novel by reading novels. At first I tried to write short stories without reading them (confession: I was being lazy), but I didn’t “get it” until I started studying them. It’s always harder to create something without seeing examples of it first.

I’ve compiled a list of some short stories for you below. I would also recommend buying (or obtaining from the library) a book of short stories from modern writers. The stories below are classics (with the exception of “The Lottery”), and while they’re extremely helpful for learning how to write short stories, it’s also a good idea to study modern short stories because the writing style is different from the classics to cater to modern readers.

Recommended Short Stories:

1. The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe

2. The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant

3. The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

4. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving

5. A Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury

6. Three Questions by Leo Tolstoy

7. The Nightingale and the Rose by Oscar Wilde

8. The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs

9. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce

10. Snow White and Rose Red by the Brothers Grimm

Need More Help With Your Story?

If you need more help, you might want to check out my $5 workbook Zero to Story. It breaks down how to find an idea and develop it into a short story (or novel!) step-by-step. Learn all about it here!

What’s your biggest challenge when writing short stories? Let me know in the comments below!

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Is Your Character a Mary Sue?

Is your character a Mary Sue? You might be writing one without even realizing it! Learn the warning signs and how to fix them to create a character with more depth and realism. It’s hard for writers to be hard on our characters, to tell them no or make them suffer or give them flaws. Like proud, doting mothers, we want them to be our perfect children who can do no wrong. We want them to be successful. We want to spoil them, and we want readers to love them. Heck, we might even want them to inherent some of our own qualities. But unfortunately, this type of attitude often leads to the creation of a Mary Sue.

What Does a Mary Sue Look Like?

A “Mary Sue” is either a female or male (sometimes called a “Gary Stu”) character who embodies the perfect hero/heroine. Often, she is an idealized version of the author herself. Mary Sues are usually beautiful, talented, have few or no flaws, and are loved by everyone.

The problem is, all this is bestowed upon them without them having to “earn” it. They are effortlessly beautiful; they have special abilities or prodigy-like skills they don’t have to work to develop; other characters want to be their friends or lovers or lavish them with admiration without them doing anything to deserve it. Not only is this unrealistic, but it serves to irritate the reader and often turn her against the Mary Sue.

As for examples of Mary Sues, it’s been argued that characters like Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Rey, Superman, Eragon, Bella Swan, and Edward Cullen fall into this character type.

I’m not going to debate in this article whether they do or don’t, but I would like to point out that some of the characters on this list are loved by many, while others are despised. So a Mary Sue character doesn’t automatically spell doom, but I do think it’s wise to avoid creating one if possible.

Mary Sue Signs and Solutions

Okay, I’m going to share a secret with you: the heroine of my first novel was a Mary Sue. It wasn’t intentional, but as a new, 14-year-old writer I did end up putting a lot of myself into the character. She was also beautiful, talented, and fit into nearly every one of the categories below. When I realized the mistake I had made I gave her a major over-haul in later drafts.

Sometimes–especially if you’re new to writing stories–you might create a Mary Sue without realizing it. But with a little bit of work you can re-shape your character into one with much more depth and realism.

Below are 6 warning signs of a Mary Sue and how to fix them. Note that if your character fits one or two of these categories, that doesn’t mean they’re a Mary Sue. The real trouble comes when your character fits a bunch or all of these categories. So don’t panic if your character has a special talent or is a chosen one!

1. Beautiful, Yet Plain

A Mary Sue usually sees herself as plain or average, but really she’s beautiful or even gorgeous. Guys don’t fail to take notice, and her friends and family reassure her of her beauty even as she laments about how plain she is. Often, she’ll have a special hair or eye color to make her more unique, or exotic features.

Solution: Try to avoid words/phrases that describe characters as beautiful/handsome  unless it’s important to their character or the story. Also, if it’s not important don’t give your heroine gold or violet eyes in an attempt to make her more unique. Not only do these colors not exist in real life, but I feel like it screams trying to hard to make the hero “special.”

Now, when you’re describing a love interest through the eyes of the character who loves them, it’s fine to be more biased about looks because of course when you love someone you’re going to be attracted to them! But don’t go crazy with it. Try to avoid creating a cast of supermodels.

2. Talented

A Mary Sue is extremely talented, often in more than one area. She doesn’t have to work at her skill, it just comes to her naturally.

Solution: This doesn’t mean that you can’t give your hero a talent. It’s good for heroes to have a strength, and in real life people usually have something they’re really good at. But it’s usually one thing, and they have to work very hard at it. Often, there are others who are better at it than they are.

Try to limit your hero’s talent to one thing, make him work for the skill, and consider not making him best person in the world at it. Also, offset his talent by showing other areas in which he struggles. For example, he may be good with a sword but can’t shoot a bow to save his life.

3. Destined

In Fantasy, it’s not uncommon for Mary Sues to have some sort of destiny or prophecy to fulfill. They’re often “The Chosen One,” the only one who can stop the villain or save the world.

Solution: This is the hardest issue to fix because it involves changing your plot. See if you can avoid making your hero The Chosen One. Instead, try to find a way to make him commit to defeating the villain, saving the world, etc. without being cornered into it by destiny.

For example, in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo chooses to take the ring to Mordor and destroy it of his own free will. This makes him a much more admirable and brave character than if some curse or prophecy had made him the only one who could destroy it.

4. Without Flaw

Mary Sues have few or no flaws. They can do no wrong, and are often very moral or “goody-goody.”

Solution: Give your characters real flaws. Being ugly or clumsy are not real flaws. This is often one of the hardest parts of creating a hero because we’re afraid of making him unlikable. But strangely enough, a flawed character is actually more likable because he’s more relatable and more interesting. He has layers, different sides to him that contrast and conflict. Need ideas? Check out this list of character flaws.

5. Loved by All

Mary Sue characters are surrounded by people who adore them–except the villain, of course. They might even have several love interests clamoring for their affection. It doesn’t matter what they do or how rude they’ve been, everyone will still love them. The Mary Sue doesn’t even have to give them a reason or earn their trust/friendship/admiration.

Solution: Of course your hero will be loved by friends, family, and maybe a love interest. But not everyone they meet should automatically like them. It’s just not realistic. Give them enemies besides the villain, or have them meet people who just aren’t fond of them. And make sure there’s a reason why people like him–whether it’s friends, a love interest, or strangers.

6. No Struggle

Everything is easy for the Mary Sue character. She doesn’t have to work for anything. Everything she wants falls into her lap, and defeating the villain is a breeze. If she makes a mistake or does something wrong she doesn’t have to face consequences for her actions.

Solution: Don’t make things easy for your hero! Let him struggle, fail, and make mistakes. Don’t give him everything he wants like some spoiled child. Make it difficult for him to defeat the villain so that he “earns” his happy ending.

Have you come across any Mary Sues in books or films? Have you written any yourself? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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