What Has The Character In Your Novel Learned? Part 4

Now that we’ve identified who our people are, what they face and how they travel through the storyline, we circle back to what we learned about them in the beginning (especially the Protagonist).

Kid Creativity Education Concept, Child Learning Art Mathematics Formula, School Boy Ideas on Black Chalk Board

What has he learned?

The who of the Protagonist included her foibles, no?  Those things that have plagued her since, well, childhood probably but come to fruition as she’s embarking on her journey.  We learned of her true nemesis early in Part 3 of this series—it’s the reason she refused the call in the first place.

Sometimes this is somewhat hidden from her as well.  She may have a bit of the unreliable narrator in her.  And the things that hold her back grow slowly more apparent to her as the plot moves along (even if the reader identified it early on).

Or, she can know full well to begin that public speaking makes her quake in her boots to begin with.  Which is why when she’s propped up to the podium she freezes.

But the important part of that is, why is she so terrified of public speaking?  What true fear underlies that?

And it may take us the course of the novel to find that out.

But you, as the author, have to dig deep and discern it, hopefully as soon as possible.

Of course, if you’re writing from discovery, it may take you the entire course of the first draft to identify it.  Which is perfectly fine—you can go back and add texture and layers and foreshadowing in revisions.

This often becomes starkly apparent as she’s going through the midsection of the book—where she faces trials and tribulations, gains allies and meets foes.  That’s what the middle section does: In meeting challenges, more and deeper issues come to light within her.

Memories, flashbacks, perhaps even including bits of that short story about her childhood or youth that you wrote in Part 1 arise.  They surface organically through what she’s going through now.  And your reader learns pieces of her past that become apropos to the storyline, the plot, and her character development.

Real life is like that, no?  When you’ve embarked on a quest, a journey of the unknown, aren’t you sometimes surprised when something arises from your deep self you didn’t even know existed?

If you do this skillfully, this becomes a true “ah-ha” moment for your reader.

Think of the books you’ve loved, and how when finally the hero descends (usually kicking and screaming) into that inmost cave (whatever that is for him), his greatest fear awaits him.  That thing that’s held him back all this time.

A stark example of this is Tom Wingo in Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides.  A brilliant man, acerbic just to the point of no return, but hilarious in his insights and spot-on commentary, teeters on the edge of a failed life.  His equally brilliant and much more successful wife is having an affair.  His career is stalled.  We sense through the course of the book that some nameless something is holding him back.

His sister’s nth-suicide attempt propels him out of his comfort zone (literally and figuratively, as he must leave his comfortable Southern existence to go tend her in NYC.  He has, indeed, entered into a strange new world).

And in his willingness to help her psychiatrist find the root of her suicidal tendencies, he must come face to face with his own.  Even if his played out as suicide on the installment plan.

And what finally comes out is a doozie indeed.

But didn’t it make his character and the storyline all fit together?  Once we finally learn the “family truth,” in all its blazing horror, we know exactly why his life has played out as it has. What he and his sister had stuffed from childhood, by decree from their mother, helps all the jagged pieces fit back into one whole.

Now, that’s the key—that whatever lurks beneath fits with our characters and storyline.  All of them.  The brilliance of Conroy was that the beast in his story effected all the main characters—in ways that fit who he’d already portrayed them to be.

This thing, this internal beast, this monster that owns a person until he finally faces it, is the critical essence of your character.  And, by proxy, your story.  Because remember—the external conflict must mirror the internal one.

Now, all characters of course aren’t stuffing something as earth-shattering as Tom Wingo’s monster.  Thank goodness.  But everyone has a neurosis, large or small.

Find the one that owns your Protagonist.

Finally, choose this with the utmost of care.  Remember: A book is a slice of a person’s life (unless you’re writing Historical, Epic, Family Saga, etc.).  And it must contain the most seminal moments that have turned him one way or another.

Whether your story works on not hinges on this, and indeed, everything in the entire book does.  It’s what makes a book satisfying.  Or not.

And it holds the ultimately key of how your plot influences your character, and your character propels the plot.

How Do Characters Travel the Course of the your Story? Part 3

Okay, so now you know your characters pretty danged well.  You know what they go through to get from point A to point Z, and how you’re going to structure the scenes.

Valkyrie on winged horse flying over fiord where a Viking longboat burns as a dead hero funeral pyre

Characters traveling through the story

Whew!  You’re far down the Yellow Brick Road at this point!  Pat yourself on the back and take a breath.

Because we still have a long way to travel.

So, let’s get down to exactly how your characters, and more to the point, your hero skips down that road.

Although the scene structure from last time helps you frame a lot of the story, the main all-encompassing shape is something different. It’s the forest, where the scenes are the trees.  I.e., this is the plot, where the scene structure forms the storyline.

And the best way I’ve ever found to address this all-encompassing plot is to follow the hero’s journey from mythology.

Because there’s a reason follow the same plotting structure: It works.

Mastering this keeps the story moving, the plot points coming at specific places, all of which helps you avoid those dreaded sagging middles (link to that blog).

So, let’s dissect this.

You know that the idea of polarity and opposition needs to run through the entire story.  That’s what causes conflict and friction, making the story interesting, and causing things to happen.

The thesis and antithesis, with the reality somewhere in the middle–synthesis–but not quite the center.  Under a pressure situation, you find out a character’s true nature.

You’re basically looking at three acts, or movements in the story.  The “thesis” if you will, comes in the first quarter. The vast majority of the book–the middle two quarters–holds all the movement that we call antithesis.  Then the final quarter holds the synthesis–where it all comes together and change in the characters is made.

Realistic characters don’t make whole-scale changes, but stay in the middle zones. Though they sometimes go to the opposite poles, they come back a bit.  But they’ve tasted the experience and don’t go all the way back—they’ve learned and grown.

Throughout the three acts, turning points–called plot points–occur.  I.e., something happens that turns the story in a different direction.  This brings conflict, and forces the characters to choose, going in one direction or another, and taking the story with them.

Basically, these come at 12 stages along the way.  I’ve paraphrased Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey (link) for this, as it’s an excellent resource:

Stage 1: The entrance.  This is “real life” for the character, as it is now.

Stage 2: The call to adventure (whether internal or external).

Stage 3: The refusal of the call.  Your character will give a laundry list of excuses as to why he or she can’t accept whatever challenge.  This brings up the polarity, the duality, of the character, and raises the question of whether the hero can actually master this test. You want to leave doubt in the reader’s mind at this point.

Stage 4: Meeting the mentor.  Here some wise voice comes in–the wise old woman archetype, etc., although we can also learn from fools, and it can even be the intuition.  This speaks clearly, with no ego in the way.  It gets the hero’s own ego out of the way so that God’s voice (or however you perceive a higher power) can speak to him or her.

Stage 5: Crossing the Threshold.  Here is a major plot point.  The commitment to the journey–whatever that journey is–has been made.

This is the end of Act 1. It makes the transition from one world to another.  In myth and metaphor, the character would go through an actual gate, often with a guardian in front of it, and have to pass some test to do so.  The hero is stepping into the brink of the unknown, and some have to be kicked through it!

Stage 6: Tests, allies, and enemies.  Here the hero faces little tests, which train her in specific skills.  Many have to do with the formation of a group, or allies.  The polarity/duality again rises as the hero aligns with one side or another.  This is the place where the hero learns about the other world.  He’s a freshman here, and learns the idea of grace under pressure.

Stage 7: Approaching the Inmost Cave.  Somehow the hero must penetrate this.  It will test her defenses.  The masks of everyone also shift at this stage. It’s a shifting of power.  Sometimes people rise and fall here.  It’s also about preparation, reconnaissance, rehearsal, planning. Many doubts and fears arise.  The hero braces himself, and calls all resources together.

Stage 8: Going into the depths–the inmost cave. Here the character faces all of the stuff she’s been denying. Her greatest fear. This is the heart of the story, and the most important piece.  It’s the borderline between life and death (literally or figuratively–for example, when an addict truly decides to become sober), and puts a different focus on life.  The character may even experience a metaphorical death.  It’s empowering.  The hero is painted into a corner, and has to face what she doesn’t want to face about herself.

Stage 9: Rebirth.  This is the reward stage.  Metaphorically, the hero finds the sword, and it’s usually broken and is up to the hero to fix it.  The sword is symbolic of will power.  After confronting the most fearful thing though, the hero can now pick up the sword and use it effectively.  The story comes to a point–this recalls the point of the story!  When the hero gets through the preceding ordeal, many possibilities present themselves.  He can turn back, go sideways, forward, etc.  But it’s a pause for celebration, and remembering what he’s been through.  It’s a feeling of reprising the story just a bit, so your reader can catch up, along with the character.  This is often an opportunity for a love scene.  She gleans her reward–new insight, intuition, new self-realization, etc.

Stage 10: The Road Back. This is the turn for home.  The character may straddle the threshold of the two worlds, but it’s a commitment to finish.  Finishing energy.  This can come from inside, internal, or outer, external.  Sometimes a counter attack comes from the villain at this point, which propels the story to its conclusion.  In an action/adventure film, here is where you’d get a major chase scene 🙂

Stage 11: Resurrection.  This is the supreme ordeal.  To go home, you have to be purified.  This is the last test.  It’s a test of every skill, mask, archetype, threshold guardian, etc., which the hero has absorbed.  Another death and rebirth occurs in order to purify the hero.  Time to readjust.  At the threshold of home, the hero is confronted by the Supreme Test–whether mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual.  This dramatizes that the hero got it; changed.  You can show this by appearance, verbally (the weakest, this is telling), but best by her behavior.  We get a sense of climax.  And the outcome could go either way.  But through this ordeal comes true transformation.

Stage 12: Return with the Elixir.  This is the time of denouement.  Untying the knot.  The last little threads are tied off, cut off, put into place. We have closure here.  We have a final sense of bringing him back to rest.

Now, don’t get hung up on the exact timing. The timing is important, but you have some flexibility.  Just know that the further off the road you veer, the more slogging it will take to come back.

But the main thing is that your hero go through these steps.  Doing so will add depth, layers, and again, you’ll find out things about him you never knew in the beginning.

Hard folks to draw well, these protagonists!  But you can do it.


What Is The Scene For Your Character? Part 2

What do your characters go through?

Lonely girl with suitcase at country road dreaming about travel.

Scenes & Characters

Now that sounds straightforward enough, no?  What they go through is your plot.

But how do you make sure they experience what matters—to both plot and characters—and not get bogged down in superfluous action?

Therein lies the key to a great novel.

But we’ve gotten to know our hero well, right?  Done the exercises from part one, identified strengths and weaknesses, found seminal moments in her history or her story.

Now, how do we bring all of that out through the course of the novel?

Novels are created through scenes, and therein holds the true key to what our characters go through.  In essence, we can’t truly divorce plot and characters, although we veer toward one or another when dissecting them.  But characters drive the plot, and the plot changes the characters.

Whether you outline the entire novel, or write from discovery, or anything in between, it makes all the difference in the world to at least have an idea of where your people and storyline are going.

And that all comes back to scenes and how those are structured from Once Upon a Time to The End.

This can be easier to effect once the first draft is down—especially if you write from discovery.  So, once you have that big blob of an initial draft, we can get to the nuts and bolts.

A note on revision here: It’s not polish.  Revision is rewriting, restructuring, and where you see the holes, the belabored or unnecessary parts, and reshaping the entire thing.

Structure is a bit different from shape and form, as Structure is what holds your story together.  It’s flowing, not rigid, and this isn’t about paint by numbers.  Rather, it’s like the infrastructure of a bridge—the concrete and steel that hold it up.

The shape, on the other hand, is what you build around the structure.  And whatever the shape—novels of all genres, short stories, memoirs, narrative non-fiction—the structure is the same.

Scenes just form the building blocks of this structure.

Stories are comprised of a series of interconnected scenes.  That’s how you plot a novel, or work of narrative nonfiction.  This forms the Arc of the Storyline.

And most importantly, a Scene has conflict at its very core.

We’re talking about Cause and Effect (and you have to have both).  The cause is the background of the scene.  How it came to be.  And the effect is the plot development or plot point. This is how you keep a story moving.  Otherwise, we end up with those dreaded sagging middles.

So, let’s talk about Scenes.  This is really a bit of a misnomer, as it really should be called Scene and Consequences.  And every one has to have both (albeit not always at the same time).

A    Scene has five basic parts.  But as above, only the first 3 compose the Scene.  The last 2 compose the Consequences:

1). First, you set the scene.

You create the people within it–their roles, their feelings, etc.  Evoke metaphor and imagery to evoke this.

Don’t think scene setting involves your narrator?  It actually accomplishes two main things:

  1.  It places the reader smack dab in the scene, using sensory input.  The more sensory input, the more real the scene is to your reader.
  2. Again, you evoke the emotion of your viewpoint character.  USE this.  That way you don’t have to tell me what the viewpoint character is feeling.  Again, use metaphor, imagery to evoke that.

This doesn’t necessarily come in to begin the scene.  If the setting is important, say, you open on a boat in the middle of the Atlantic with a hurricane approaching, and the motor has died, showing me immediately the immensity of the waves is helpful.  On the other hand, in most cases I want to be dropped into something that is already happening.  Again, enter late.  And then weave the scene setting in.

This is where you show how the viewpoint character’s mood changes through the scene, by evoking metaphor and imagery, etc.

2). Then, you create conflict.

Conflict should comprise 95% of the scene.  Conflict encompasses five main themes: Man against himself.  Man against man.  Man against environment.  Man against nature.  Man against machine.

How did the conflict come about?  What were its roots?  How is each person within it involved?  How is the reader involved?

Conflict has very little to do with guns firing.  It is rather what blows apart within a character.  However, this conflict has to be external.  Something has to give.  Something or someone has to get.  Something has to be happening in your story.  The protagonist is in conflict with an antagonist while enroute to a goal.  The character must resolve his conflict–within, without—for the story to have meaning.

Ask yourself going into the scene (before you write it):

  • How did the conflict come about?
  • What were its roots?
  • How is each person involved?
  • How is the reader involved?

Get a 3X 5 card for each Scene.  Write on it:

  • Who, Where, How long in Story time is the conflict to last.
  • We need at least 4 twists and turns
  • What is the Disaster at the end of the conflict?

This is of VITAL IMPORTANCE:  For both the whole story, and for each scene:

Establish right off the bat what the Story Question is to begin the first scene of the book.  This is your main point of the story.  And each scene has to have a piece of this main Story Question.

Craft your inciting incident (your Story Question) with care. This event upsets your main character’s equilibrium and arouses his desire to restore balance—and creates a bond with the reader by arousing her curiosity as to whether the protagonist can achieve his goal.

Not sure? Ask: What is the worst thing that can happen to my protagonist? This can reveal to you his deepest desire, and point you toward his story goal. In turn, this will help you construct an inciting incident that carries the story through to the end–and provides the tension for readers to keep turning the pages.

This question brings a significant change in the character’s reality—it challenges his status quo, and knocks him out of his comfort zone. Under any sort of pressure—from beginning to end—we find out what our hero is made of.   

This question also gives the reader something to worry about—which keeps him reading.

NOTE: the reader will lose interest with everything but the Story Question, so make sure every scene has a piece of that—something which relates to it, and the character has to manage to get to the Holy Grail at the end of the book.

3). Then within each individual scene, the conflict comes to a climax.

With this conflict/climax, the external conflict must mirror the internal core conflict of the character.

This must lead to a Disaster.  But it’s a tactical disaster of some sort.  Which brings up a new setback for our character.

But not so complete a disaster that it dooms his quest.  If it’s too trivial, it won’t matter.  If it’s too huge, the reader won’t believe it.  But the character is now in worse shape than when the scene began.

The character can either: withdraw from the conflict; accept the conflict as unresolvable; resolve all or part of the conflict.

Depending upon pacing, you can end the scene here, especially to leave us hanging.  But eventually, you have to come back for the next two parts.

Now, the Consequences part comes in.  This is the internal part.  The process is, in this order: Feelings, Thoughts, Decisions, Actions.

4). Denouement.

The scene slows down.  The smoke begins to clear.  What is left after the conflict’s fire can be seen.

Even if you’ve ended the chapter/scene at the conflict’s climax, you have to return here for these consequences at some point.

We get the Feelings of the character first.  Then his Thoughts about it.  Then Decisions he makes.  And then Actions.  

5). Resolution.

Something is learned from the conflict, even if the knowledge is that the character knows he cannot resolve it.  Or, that he now has a piece with which to resolve it later.   Our character can:

Withdraw from the conflict.

Accept the conflict as unresolvable (but if it speaks to the central conflict, help must come in a bit to cause our character to dive back in).

Resolve part of the conflict.

But something has to be gained.  Something is learned from the conflict—a piece to resolve bigger questions later.

This leads to decisions, which then leads to action.  Which sets up the next scene.

Zero-in on emotional turning points. We want tight, concise writing everywhere but lavish word count on emotional turning points, which are crucial both to character development and the reader’s sense of story movement.

As things go from good to bad or bad to worse, what does your character learn about himself, and how has he changed?

Example: A daughter risks losing her mother, realizes that she will not always be cared for, and now sees herself as more than just a dependent. Turning point!  Now, choose powerful words to end that scene and let the impact resonate across the white space.

Any scene that does not compose these elements should be omitted from the book. Every single scene must enhance the characters, further the plot, or both.

In essence, the Consequences part is expanded internalization.  It’s what links your scenes together.  Again, what’s happening outside mirrors what’s happening inside.

Keep upping the stakes.  Keep plot points coming.  A book needs conflicts in every scene, on every page.

The thing is, we need an objective, through which the hero is driving the plot, rather than just reacting to events in the story.  But the plot is also changing the character—they work hand in hand.  We need something to be at stake—something for which if the goal isn’t reached, the grail not achieved, the consequences are dire.  And we need confrontation, whereby the characters grow.

Yep, a lot goes into what your people go through during the course of a story!  But this is how you flesh out fully human, multi-sided, flesh-and-bone characters rather than cardboard cut-outs.

In essence, you’re creating who they are by what they go through in the story, rather than telling your reader about them.

And that makes all the difference as to whether we love/hate/remember them, or they fall off into the sea of obscurity.

How Do You Get To Know Your Characters? Part 1

About 10 gazillion ways exist to begin a novel.   Some folks start with a plot idea.  Or, a place. Some with outlining the entire manuscript.  Many just sit down and begin writing.

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get to know your characters

But for me, everything begins with the characters.

Specifically, the Protagonist.  Because that’s the person around whom the entire novel swims through the choppy seas of the storyline.  Or, sinks.

Nothing is as imperative to a book as the main character, driving the plot.  The plot will change him, but he will drive the entire bus—from beginning to end.

A lot is resting on his or her shoulders.

But does that mean your Protagonist has to be perfect, or that you know her fully well to begin?


Yep, you have to know him completely, from stem to stern and everywhere in between, in order to fashion a fully formed character who is three-sided, flesh and bone, someone your readers will remember for years to come, by the time you’re finished with the tome.

But you don’t have to in the beginning.

Many writers pen from “discovery,” getting to know the story, the plot, and the people as they go.  This is a more completely creative way to go about writing a novel, but it comes with many perils.

Chief among them may be that when you finish the first draft, who you thought this person was is far different from whom he became.

I’ve found that often in my own works.   And I see it all the time in the manuscripts I edit.

And that translates into lots of revisions.

But then, revision is the name of this game anyway, so don’t let that daunt you.

I give my writers many exercises in order for them to get clear on plotting and characterization. And one of the best ones we do is this:

Write a short story about each of your main characters (Protagonist, Antagonist, and any viewpoint characters you have), not to be included in the book.  This is for your own edification only (which has the added plus of just letting creativity soar).

Here you want to:

֎   Find a seminal moment in his history—a rite-of-passage of some sort; an event that changed him; something that turned him in an entirely different direction or made him who he is.

֎   Notice the other players in this drama.  Some of them may make appearances in the novel itself (even if only in a flashback scene), and now you know who they are and the parts they played.

֎   Identify the issues your character faced then.  Note which ones still exist.  We rarely resolve our foibles in one fell swoop, and this Achilles’ heel may end up as the driving force for our hero.  Or villain.

֎   See what part or parts did get resolved.  This should now be a big character strength.  What we overcome makes us stronger.

֎   Find what turned our villain into such an awful person.  Or why the anti-hero, who does have strengths, still falls back into weakness.

֎   This will also help you see why your hero has the alliances that she does—those folks were there for her when she needed them.  Ditto the enemies.

What also works well, especially for your Protagonist, is to write a series of these—childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, failed marriage, etc.

And what you’ll end up with is someone you know quite well.  Then you can portray her on the page in much more depth, in many fewer words, and she’ll become as real as my next-door neighbor to me.  

As you go, keep notes on him.  Not just hair and eye color, but where that crescent-shaped scar under his chin came from.  And why he loves Cocker Spaniels so much. And how hard (or easy) geometry is for him.  And why he loves red-headed girls.

And, well, just a litany of parts and pieces of him you would never have known otherwise.

As you then go through revisions, all of those things and so many more will work up through you and into his character as he travels through the course of this novel.

Major revisions?


But again, the name of this game is revision, so you’ll be doing that anyway!

How do you get to know your characters?

Do You Know Why The Character In Your Novel Exists?

How to create a charcter for your novelWhat is the central point of characters in your novel?  Their raison d’etre?  The essence of why they exist?

We can answer that in myriad ways.  Because of course, characters can be anything from of tertiary importance to the entire reason the novel exists.

And everything in between.

But when boiled down to the very essence of their beings, characters are there to drive the plot.

Yep, we talk in terms of character- or plot-driven novels.  And yep, books do lean one way or another.  But just like talking about good vs evil within people, we are all, and novels are all, mixtures of both and everything in between.  As Elisabeth Kubler Ross says, “There’s a little of Hitler in all of us.”  Including your good-to-the-bone hero.

And even the most plot-driven book must have believable, memorable characters.

Otherwise no one remembers it.

Now I, too, can point to many bestselling books and authors with flat, unimagined characters.  We all can. But they are the exceptions to the rule, and not what an aspiring novelist wants to emulate.

So, what goes into creating fabulous folks on the page?  How do you get from first inception to The End, with people populating your story whom readers remember long after that final page?

How do you actually ensure that your plot changes your characters, and your characters drive your plot?

We’ll discuss all of that in the coming weeks, dive deeply into what makes all of the characters work, from the Protagonist to the Antagonist, from the secondary folks to the minor ones.  From what makes them believable as well as memorable, to the pitfalls we can easily avoid.

With some planning.  And more importantly, some understanding.

To begin we’ll dissect who, actually these people are.

What makes them tick?  What do you, as the writer, need to know about each and every one?  How do you find out the cores of their beings in order to portray them on the page without writing a tome on each one?  How, exactly do you get to that?

Then we’ll ask, where do they go?  Not just in the physical travels of the book, which is of course the plot.  But deeper than that—where do they go within?  What are the central issues of your Protagonist as he navigates the rough waters of your story, whether those seas are the windswept deserts of the Old West or the glassy rivers of a kayaker training for the Olympics?

In other words, all-genre inclusive.

How do they get to where they’re going?  That seems simple enough, no?  But it’s through the trials and tribulations, the meeting of allies and enemies, that your character’s metal is tested.  That’s where secondary and even tertiary characters become of paramount importance in either aiding or thwarting his quest.

And mastering that will ensure you never end up in those dreaded sagging middles.   Because you’ll have too much going on—both internally and externally—with your characters and story to ever create that lulling bog out of which no one comes back.

What do they learn?  This deals with who they are, from Part One.  All people have central issues—core fears, beliefs, desires, failings.  And through the course of this story—where they go, how they get there, the issues and demons they face—they’ll either master or they will fail in their outer conquests as well.

The internal conflicts do of course mirror the external ones, and we’ll talk about how to make that all work.

What do they achieve?  Does your hero find the Holy Grail, whatever she deems that to be?  Does she find a piece of it (if this is a series), to come back and fight another day?  Does he scale that mountain?  Swim that sea?  Slay that dragon? Die trying?

All of those work, depending upon what sort of novel you’re writing.  In a Tragedy our hero pretty much has to die.  But he reaches the Grail before doing so, as Augustus McCrae in opening up the Montana territory for cattle ranchers.

Then does he reenter society and bring back the boon, or is the promise implied that he will do so?

All heroes must, in the end.  Although this part is quite short and sweet.

And last but not at all least, how does he change and grow?

Remember those failings, those issues, those less-than-stellar traits we learned of in Part One?  Which of those has he bettered, mastered, like the alchemist turned the brass into gold?

And how did that influence the climax?

Because it must, you know, for your novel to be satisfying in the end.

The simple reason is that for a story to work, the characterization and plotting can’t be divorced.

And although we dissect them somewhat separately in order to understand how to make all this fit together into one whole, plot and characters are forever married, for better or for worse.

So, come along for this journey as we whittle away at the mysteries of unforgettable characters, and how you can create them for your own story.

It’ll be a fun ride!

49 Professional Tips On How To Write A Book

So much goes into a well-written book.  We’ve settled on 49 tips here, but it could go into the thousands.  As I often say when speaking at Literary conferences: “Writing well really is Rocket Science.”

49 TIps On Writing

And as with anything, learning to write fabulous fiction begins at the beginning, and continues one step at a time.

So, let’s break this up into sections, and dive in!


Style encompasses so many things.  And all intertwine.  But we can piece a lot of it out.

  1.      Voice.  Finding yours may take a bit.  Honing it will take a long time.  You find your voice by writing.  And writing a lot.

First book?  Maybe.  Second?  You’re getting closer.  It takes an average of 3 books to truly hone your voice.  Which is why so many successful authors thank their lucky stars their first books weren’t published . . .

Voice is about syntax and flow and the way your string your words together to paint beautiful images on the page.  But most importantly, it’s that whole package that causes a reader to love your work. And, recognize it.

The Litmus Test: Can a stranger hear your voice as uniquely yours?

  1.      Tighten.  Wow, we can write an entire book on this!  And yep, so much goes into truly tightening your prose to make it sing, to uncover the jewels from under the mounds of mud.

The Litmus Test:  Every word counts.  Every single one

  1.      Create, create, create rather than tell.  Everyone’s sick of hearing this these days, but the old Show Don’t Tell rule is paramount.  This isn’t a film—you’re not spoon feeding your readers.  So you have to create those images on the page in order for your reader to have the experience of the novel.

The Litmus Test: Can your reader see, hear, feel, etc., the scene?

  1.      Tell don’t show.  Yep, you read that right.  The thing is, if you created every single image, your book would be 1,000,000 words.  So you need to find the balance between where you create, and where you tell in order to bridge a gap that doesn’t need to be shown.

The Litmus Test:  Zero-in on emotional turning points. We want tight, concise writing everywhere but lavish word count on emotional turning points, which are crucial both to character development and the reader’s sense of story movement.

  1.      Do not both show and tell.  Seems like a no-brainer, right?  But what I see most is the author telling what he’s fixing to show, and then showing it.

The Litmus Test: Have you done both? Nix the telling and let the showing stand on its own.          

6.     Give your reader some credit. This applies to the above, but goes further.  Are you beating your reader over the head so she’ll “get it,” whatever it is?  I mean, if she’s reading your book, she has a brain to begin with, no?

The Litmus Test: Are you treating your reader like an idiot? 

  1.      Never underestimate points left between the lines.   This is similar to the above, but not exactly the same thing.  If you have created, showed, evoked, then your reader is getting what you intended.  But take that a step further—allow space for your reader to draw her own conclusions.  Let her have a space to think, to visualize, and most importantly, to feel.

The Litmus Test: Did you leave enough dots—and no more—for the reader to connect? 

  1.      Passive voice.  Yes, you can use it.  But the point is, we want to use passive voice to slow down the narrative, or for effect.  Not as a constant fixture in your prose.

The Litmus Test: Are you using passive voice when you intend to? 

  1.      Use short, snappy sentences in action scenes.  Carrying on from passive voice, are you using the way you string together words to enhance the storyline?  Using staccato-like sentences will cause the reader’s eye to move more quickly down the page, raising the heart rate, and evoking that sense of urgency, panic, fear, etc.

The Litmus Test: Do you vary your prose for the content of the scene?

  1.      Discern your favorite words and phrases.  All writers have them.  Those pesky ones that keep popping up, sometimes numerous times on one page.  Find yours (do a search).  And then eliminate them.

The Litmus Test: Are you using the same words over and over?

  1.      Does your prose fit your genre?  This one surprises many writers.  But different genres call for different styles of writing.

For example, Thrillers (except when they’re ebbing!) use a more staccato style.  On the other extreme, Literary works are often told in long, flowing sentences.

This has to do most with pacing—revving it up or slowing it down.

The Litmus Test: Do you know which style fits the genre you’re writing in? 


12.     Establish viewpoint.

POV is whether the story is told in first, second, or third person.

Viewpoint, on the other hand, is which character is narrating this book.

Again, another book-length topic!  And a huge one of misunderstanding.

Study the differences before you write your book.  Viewpoint is truly the hub around which the entire book revolves.

The Litmus Test: Do you understand POV?  Viewpoint?  The nuances?

  1.      Do not give a laundry list of character traits up front—those are author’s notes, for you, in order to flesh out the characters on the page.

Weave these in through action and as the course of the story goes along—just as you would meet someone in real life.

The Litmus Test:  Do your characters come on-stage and read like a list?

  1.      Can your reader see your characters?

Don’t tell your reader what your character looks like.  Instead, show the character through actions and mannerisms.

The Litmus Test: Does your character come across clearly, without your reader being told? 

  1.      Avoid these tags:

He saw x.  He heard y. He smelled z.

Doing so points out, again, that we’re in his head.  Which paradoxically keeps him at arm’s length from the reader.  Instead, write what he saw, heard, smelled, felt.  Evoke the senses.

The Litmus Test: Did you create what your narrator is experiencing?

  1.      Is your dialogue real?

Or is it stilted?  Does the 5-year-old speak like an English Professor?  Or the English Professor talk like a hooker?

Get quiet and listen to your characters.  Hear their speech patterns.  Write what you hear, including slang and favorite words.

But do be careful not to overdo.

The Litmus Test: Can you tell who’s speaking without the identifying tags?

  1.      Don’t describe your dialogue.

I.e., when you write, “she said anxiously,” then the dialogue itself is lacking.  Your reader should “get” her anxiety by the words she speaks, by her inflections and mannerisms and expression while doing so.

The Litmus Test: Have you told your dialogue? 

  1.      No real characters are all good or all bad.

The most memorable heroes have flaws.  His Achilles’ heel is part of the story question—whether he can achieve his goal—and also what he must overcome in your story.

And the worst villains have redeeming qualities.

As Elisabeth Kubler Ross said: “There’s a little of Hitler in all of us.”

The Litmus Test: Are your hero and villain a mix of good and bad traits?

  1.    Does your Protagonist have enough conflicts to face?

Most novels need conflict on every page.  It’s through conflict that the Protagonist moves through the course of the story.  Overcomes his foibles.  Uses those in mastery to save the day.

The Litmus Test: Do you have constant conflict to keep your character growing?

  1.      Does your Hero grow and change?

He must.  It’s through those conflicts, through the mastery of them, that the story has teeth and becomes satisfying to your reader.

But leopards don’t entirely change their spots.  We’re not talking wholescale change, but movement in a positive direction.

The Litmus Test: Does he change, and in a believable way?

  1.     Does your Hero save the day?

It’s amazing how often she doesn’t.  How someone else in the novel does.  And, well, that just can’t be.

One way or another, your Protagonist has to be the one who finds the Grail, whatever that Grail is in your novel.  That’s why she’s the Hero, no?

The Litmus Test: Who actually IS the hero of your novel? 

  1.    Does your hero achieve the Story-Question goal?

He doesn’t have to achieve all of it—especially in a series.  But he must attain at least the central one—answering the Story Question, in the end.

He can achieve it and then die—this is a Tragic Story.  But in all others, he must successfully answer that Question.

The Litmus Test: Is the beginning Story Question ultimately answered?


23.     What is the central theme of your novel?

This is different from plot or storyline.  It’s the essence of your book, and one to which you need sharp focus.  This comprises your essential Story Question.  And every single scene has to have a piece of it.

The Litmus Test: Can you say in 1-2 sentences what the theme of your book is?

  1.      Did your novel begin with that main Story Question?

It’s the one that propels your Protagonist on to begin with.  The same one that keeps him going.  And the one he finally answers—at the climax of your book.

The Litmus Test: Is the Story Question clear and consistent?

  1.      Is the timeline clear through the course of your story?

Sometimes this is vaguer than you think.  After all, the when of things happening is crystal clear in your head, right?

But not always so in the reader’s.

Did you give your readers signposts as to the passage of time?  And not dates stamped to begin chapters, but woven in unobtrusively through the story?

The Litmus Test: Do you readers always know where they are in the book?

  1.      Have you gotten a grasp on Ebb and Flow?

You don’t want your readers gasping for air with too much constant, staccato action.  Conversely, if they start yawning, they’ll quit you.

Even Thrillers have to have down times, when both the characters and the readers get to catch their breaths.  And even literary works have to have stressful conflicts, which propel the plot forward.

The Litmus Test: Does the storyline include both, at the proper times?

  1.      Do your Scenes contain the 5 elements that must go into them?

Scene setting, creation of conflict, climax of conflict, denouement, resolution.

Every scene must contain these elements.  They are what make a scene.  And a satisfying novel.

The Litmus Test: Are your scenes full and complete or are they missing aspects?

  1.    Are all of your scenes vital to the book?

Or do you have scenes, which you might just love, but have no real part of the Story Question?

Every single scene must propel the plot, characters, or best both forward in order to remain.  Otherwise, it sadly goes onto the cutting-room floor.

The Litmus Test: Can you explain why every scene must remain?

  1.      Does your scene take off right from the get-go? 

Or do you come into the room early, setting up every segment, and are paragraphs or even pages into it when something happens?

You want something to be happening with the first word of a scene.  Plunge us into the action.

The Litmus Test: Enter the scene late, leave it early.

  1.    Do you ramble on at the end of a scene?

Easy to do!  In real life, the gist of something is over and we keep talking about it.

But on the page, you want to leave the scene or chapter with the punchline—the part that matters.  This keeps your reader turning the page.

The Litmus Test: Do you leave it with the important part? 

  1.      Never underestimate the use of symbols and imagery to enrich your story.         

Remember the glasses on the billboard in Gatsby?  Pretty much everyone who read it gets a chill when those are mentioned.

You can evoke so much emotion through an image, a symbol, in so few words.

The Litmus Test: Does your symbology fit your story? 

  1.      Have you evoked enough tension in your tale?

Time constraints, applying pressure, dilemmas, complicating matters, and many more tools up the tension and drama.  And a book with no drama is a real yawner.

The Litmus Test: Does tension keep your Protagonist moving through the storyline?

  1.      Do your subplots flow into the main stream?

Sub-plots are great!  They enrich the plot, give it texture and layers, and help your characters learn and grow.

But a huge problem is that these often become tangents.  And those are book killers.

Be careful of sending your readers down roads that go nowhere—they’re liable to take those roads and not come back.  I.e., lay the book down, never to pick it up again.

The Litmus Test: Does every single sub-plot feed into the main Story Question? 

  1.    Does your story have a well-defined beginning, middle, and end?

This basically translates to Set Up, Confrontation, and Resolution.  You get here by outlining your story structure—whether before or after you’ve written the book.

Roughly, you’re looking for the Beginning (Act 1) to go from midnight to 3 o’clock.  The Middle (Act 2) to go from 4-8’o’clock. And the End (Act 3) from 9-midnight.

The Litmus Test: Are you long in one and short in another? 

  1.      Are you a victim of the dreaded sagging middles?

This is a trap so, so many writers fall into.  They set the book up perfectly, even end it well. But the vast middle section is a wasteland where not a lot happens, and we all get bogged down in never-ending quicksand.

The middle is actually where most of the ins and outs, plot points, allies, enemies, the mastering of tasks and even the very root exposure of the Protagonist’s nemesis occur.

The Litmus Test: Did you get caught in the bog?  If you did, then your readers have already fled.

  1.    Does your story have twists? And are they believable?

The point for a novelist is to create a story and people that surprise the reader in the end.

If your reader knows what’s going to happen, then you haven’t created your plot skillfully enough.  Worse, however, is to toss in a huge twist at the end that doesn’t fit the story or the folks in it.

The Litmus Test: Did you surprise your reader, but he say in the end, “Ah!  I didn’t see it coming but I should have!”

  1.    Are you writing what you know?

If you’re a secretary, is your main character a renowned neurosurgeon?  Or vice-versa?  To write rich, believable characters, they have to arise organically. I.e., that’s the essence of the idea that all the characters in a novel are parts of the author.

When your Protagonist is far afield from your real life, it shows. 

Every profession draws into it certain people.  And people are changed, at least somewhat, by the professions they go into, and the rigorous (or not) requirements of getting and staying there.

Yes, you can research into different fields.  But save that for ancillary characters.

The Litmus Test: Do you know of whom you write? 

  1.     Have you taken the time to learn your craft, before you send out your first manuscript?

I.e., have you joined a writer’s workshop, taken classes, worked with a professional editor, written some more, revised some more, studied some more, before thinking this manuscript is actually ready to go to publishers or print?

Writing well takes a long time to learn. And we don’t want you looking back years down the road and being embarrassed by what you published in the beginning.  Remember: Even Hemingway was grateful (albeit years later) that his first 3 manuscripts were lost on the train . . .

The Litmus Test: Are you trying to publish your first, or even second, or even third manuscript without having truly learned the craft? 

General Tips

39.    Read.  Just read.  Nothing serves an aspiring writer more than reading widely.

And while reading in your genre is a must, in order to know intrinsically the specs, reading widely is a huge plus.  So, start with your genre, then what’s selling in others, to the more obscure Literary, and even the classics.  All will serve you well.

And read critically.

The Litmus Test:  Are you starting to see what works in other authors’ stories and what doesn’t? 

40.   Schedule your writing time.  Not anybody else’s.

You’ll get lots of advice on the best way to be productive, but it honestly doesn’t matter if you write every day at 4 AM or 10 PM, you only write on weekends, etc.  What matters is that the schedule works for you.

The Litmus Test:  Have you found a writing time when you’re at your best? 

41.      Commit to it.  Oh, how easy it is for anything and everything to get in the way.

And while sometimes real life just does, if you commit to your schedule and only let the kid’s hair being on fire get in the way, you’ll write your way to success.

The Litmus Test: Are you consistently productive?

  1.     Settle in for the long haul.  Writing well takes a long time.  Take all pressure off yourself as per when you’ll perfect it.

The Litmus Test: Are you stressed about not being famous yet? 

  1.      Are you writing for the market, or what you love to write?

There is no wrong answer here.  But a chasm as big as the Grand Canyon spans the answers.

If your point is to be published, to have a career in writing, to make your living doing so, it’s possible that this will happen if you’re writing what your heart longs to write.  But that route is longer, more circuitous, and may or may not make you a household name.

On the other hand, many genres are crying out for new authors.  So if you want to become rich and famous in the most timely manner, write for the market.

The Litmus Test: Have you consciously made this decision? 

  1.      Outline your book.

Many, many successful authors do this.  It helps to give you a framework, keep you on track, make sure the story structure is right.

If you’re of a more analytic mind, this works great.

The Litmus Test: Does your outline fit with novel structure?

  1.    Don’t outline your book.

Many, many others write from discovery, letting the characters take them through the story at will.

Which is great if you aren’t daunted by revision.

And don’t mind tossing away half the book and rewriting it.

The Litmus Test: Do you have the fortitude to look brutally at what you have and chop off limbs if need be? 

  1. Know your Genre.

Genre rules are specific—for a reason.  They’ve been honed by publishers over decades, and they’re what readers in that genre expect.

While it may be tempting to write cross-genre, and seem logical that this may bring you a wider readership, the opposite is actually true. Readers expecting a book in the genre they are comfortable reading will be turned off. And you’ve just lost both sets of readers.

The Litmus Test: Does your book conform to the genre? 

  1.      Have you set your first draft aside for a few months?

One of the oddities of the writing life is we can’t see what’s on the page in front of us, after having gone over it many times.

So once that first draft is finished, set it aside.  And yes—for 6-8 weeks.  Give it time to settle not only on your desk, but also away from your mind.

THEN when you go back over it, the cream will have risen to the top, and you can clearly see it.

The Litmus Test: Have you kept yourself entirely away from it?

  1.      As you go into revisions, are you rewriting or are you polishing?

So often, especially new writers, think of revision as polish.  And it is surely that—at the very last stage of the game.

But revision is rewriting. Sometimes entirely—from word one.  Sometimes it’s writing new scenes, once you realize you’ve left holes.  Sometimes it’s trashing entire segments, and writing bridges between chapters.

The point being, revision means rewriting.

Once that’s done—and it sits again—then you go into the polish stage.

The Litmus Test: Have you actually rewritten your first draft, or just polished it? 

  1.      And finally, do you love to do this?

Writing well is difficult.  It’s an exacting endeavor, and takes a very long while to learn how to do well.  That blood, sweat, and tears idea?  It’s quite real.

This will also humble you to your knees.  As I often say, we’re not selling bread dough here, but parts of our very souls.

There is no shame in walking away if you find that your heart’s just not in it.  Or can’t take the pain.

The last thing we want is for you to be John Kennedy Toole, and off yourself from the excruciating nature of publishing.  Especially since his book went on to publication and a Pulitzer after his death.

The very best Litmus Test I know:

“In the deepest hour of the night, confess to yourself that you would die if you were forbidden to write. And look deep into your heart where it spreads its roots, the answer, and ask yourself, must I write?”
― Rainer Maria RilkeLetters to a Young Poet


3 Quick Tips That Will Keep You Writing


3 Quick Tips That Will Keep You Writing


Ever noticed how it’s both? Anyone who has undertaken the daunting task to actually write and complete a book knows that no choice really exists. I talk a lot about Inspiration, but this one is more about her evil twin: Work.

Yes, you need the initial inspiration to even talk yourself into starting.

And often, that beginning breath of the gods will take you a long way—through the opening, into the major conflicts, your oh-so-well-drawn characters jumping to life and racing around the first turn and even (hopefully) into the backstretch.

Ah, we love that muse, and prime her in every way we can think of! We feed her with all the sweet nothings whispered into her ear, with the promise of carrots at the end of our writing day. And she always responds. At least, initially.

And then, often, we run smack dab into a soft spot on the rail. You feel like you’re hitting your head against a wall, and get that awful feeling of a bogging down. Where did all that momentum go?

It jumped straight off the track and landed in the soggy infield of slaughtered dreams.

I can’t begin to recount all the stories I hear from writers regarding this. Some try to press through, floundering as if with one leg tied behind their backs. Jockey-less. That writing muscle cramped up as in a lactic-acid meltdown. We’ve all done it.

So very many writers quit here altogether, or begin another book, only to at some point stop that one and begin another . . . I hear, often, “I was so inspired, I wrote 20,000 words in nothing flat. But then the trail went cold and now I can’t write until I get another breath of it.”

Phooey! As professionals, we all know this is when the perspiration part comes in. We know all too well that while amateurs rely on inspiration, professionals know that fortitude and courage must now take over. If a deadline exists, well, we whip ourselves on the rump and spur that pony on. The feed bill has to be paid!  And you’d be right 🙂

And I actually think this is the best-case scenario—you have no choice but to press on. Because it’s oh-so easy to stop and bemoan the lack of inspiration to write. But that is only a trick of the mind.

A few jumpstarting exercises work great here.  Let me show you how! 

1).    To begin with:  The very best is to take one of your major characters out of the book and into a scenario that occurred a decade before. Or in childhood or adolescence. This piece isn’t to be included in the book, but it can be a short story you can sell down the road.

Just take her away and include none of the rest of the characters, putting her into a scenario with a huge conflict. Begin writing and follow her where she takes you, with no attention to your prose or structure or anything, but rather, stream-of-consciousness. Not only will this cleanse your palate, but you’ll also learn something about her you can use in the book, once you get back to it.

2).     Next: Just write something entirely different, even if it’s a response to Dear Abby. Just write.

3).     FinallyAnd then, circle back to your book. Write. Take the last passage you have, and go. It may be awful. It may take your story a way you ultimately toss. None of that matters. You don’t care that this workman-like prose doesn’t have the zing of the inspired brilliance of before. That’s not the point. The point is you’re doing it.

Somewhere, along the far turn, you’ll find yourself racing again, getting ready for the homestretch, the breath of the gods back in your face, the finish line in sight. And often, you won’t even remember when you turned back on.

So what’s stopping you? Take the next step!  Go out there and finish that book.

Because as Thomas Edison said, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

How Do People Get Published In Today’s World?

Breaking into Traditional publishing has always been tough. Always.

How to get traditionally published

In this day of instant publishing, sometimes we forget that in days of yore, a writer could struggle for years, even decades to finally sell that manuscript and become a real book author.

Indeed, if that ever happened at all. This road has always been long and perilous, with the vast majority of writers dropping by the wayside, later if not sooner. Monsters and gargoyles and trolls block every single turn, both internally and externally. But then, grasping for the brass ring has humbled the greatest of us to our knees.

And, nothing has changed, really. Although the technology and the business model and all of that have taken off in directions unforeseen when I began in this business,

Getting Traditionally published is every bit as difficult today as it always has been. In fact, more so.

Due to sinking print sales and burgeoning self-pubbed books, the Traditional market has shrunk. Lists are tighter. Competition more fierce. As a book editor buddy of mine at a major house is fond of saying, “We’re only publishing existing authors—and preferably if they’re dead.” He says this with a straight face too. And their sales numbers bear it out.

Yet and still, folks are getting Traditionally published every day. So, how do they do it?

Hard work, fortitude, and persistence. Is it that simple? Yes.

The hard-work part comes in up front. It’s tough to write well. It’s really tough.

The vast sea of self-pubbed work out there is actually pretty awful. I get complaints from readers every single day: “I can’t find anything decent to read.”

And while this has been the case for some time now (don’t get me started on the Bestseller’s List), it’s a million times worse now. Literally.

As I’m fond of saying: “Writing really IS rocket science.”

And this hard work never ends—you must keep growing and learning and improving as a writer. Mastering book development is a life-long process.

If you don’t have fortitude, you won’t have the persistence to keep at it. I know so, so many writers with talent who finally quit, unable to bear the soul-wrenching rejection time after time, year after year. Yes, humbling. But we all know fifty stories about famous authors who wallpapered their offices with rejections.

It really does, in the end, just take one “yes.”

I began working with a new novelist a few years ago, Randy Denmon, whose novel, Lords of an Empty Land, was published by Pinnacle Books (an imprint of Kensington) in 2015.  In the days of reconstruction after the Civil War, a wild strip of land in northern Louisiana remained unconquered by troops and untamed by the law. Captain Douglas Owens of the Union 4th Calvary is given orders to reclaim this God-forsaken land from its murderous outlaw gangs. With his options dwindling, the Captain takes a squad of soldiers under his command–in a last desperate bid for freedom and justice that would change the course of history. . .

It’s a great story, beautifully written.

And you know what?  It just won a 2016 Spur Award!

We are beyond thrilled!

Great job, Randy!

About ten years ago, I began working with a talented young man (he was just a kid at the time. Okay, so he’s still just a kid to me, at 30!). Kevin Porter had written a good YA novel, and had worked and worked to learn the craft. We never got that one sold, but Kevin kept writing. He wrote a Mid-Grade novel, which is indeed beautifully done. Unfortunately, it has no vampires or werewolves in it. Which of course made his battle a steep uphill one. Did that bother Kevin? All I can say is he never whined or complained. He kept querying and kept sending and built up a social media presence with his blog at The Examiner

And his wonderful Mid-Grade novel, Missing,  was published by a Traditional house to wonderful reviews!

Great job, Kevin!

Did it take ten tons of work for both of these talented writers to get published? You bet’cha. Did they succeed, seemingly against all odds? Oh, lordy yes. But the point is, they did it.

Never, ever let anyone tell you it can’t be done. You have two great guys right here who say it can.

This Is Why Love And Lust Is Important In A Novel

Why do characters fall in love? Other than begging the question of why any of us tumble head over heels, what purpose does doing so serve for either a novel or narrative nonfiction?

This Is Why Love And Lust Is Important In A Novel

Why is this of such importance to a great book? Or in the words of the song, what’s love got to do with it?

Many new writers want to gloss over this part of human existence, focusing instead on “deeper” or “more profound” pieces of the human condition. And while that’s all fine and good, even if you’re not writing Category Romance where love and lust provide the backdrop to whatever else occurs, matters of the heart bring with them all sorts of luscious twists for your characters.

Characters drive your story. Faced with all manner of psyche-bending events, your hero undergoes trials and tests that force him to change and grow, force her to tackle problems on the outside, which mirror those on the inside. This turns the plot in another direction, bringing with it a new host of problems our hero has to face.

The best characters have to solve the inner before resolving the outer, and those tribulations form opposite sides of one whole coin. And nothing turns a character inside out more effectively than a love situation. For other than a few freaks of nature, the Bard hit the essence when saying that the course of true love never did run true.

Everything, in any book, has to be there on purpose. We use love won or lost to propel our hero onward. Often loss happens in the beginning of a story; it’s what causes the main character to sign up to drive the herd to Montana. Or to board the Starship Arugula for the outer reaches of the galaxy. And even though she may be running from her heartache, in the end, she must find resolution for that sorrow, or drift endlessly at the mercy of the Intergalactic pirates.

Because it’s in the very efforts required to heal that shattered heart that our hero finds his own essence, his own strength, and lives to fight the bad guys (or his own neurosis) another day.

Many plot threads run through any book. That’s what gives a story layers, richness, texture, and depth.

Each and every one of those threads must weave together into the main theme throughout the course of the story, ultimately tying up (or failing to, on purpose) in the end. The cowboy doesn’t always get the girl. If he doesn’t though, and you’re worth your salt as a writer, you intend to set him up for book two in the series.

Love, lust, whatever you want to call it tends to lay bare all of our fears and hopes and shortcomings. It causes the strongest man, or the most sensible woman (or vice versa) to come undone, to act in ways contrary to normal. To have their friends shaking their heads and saying, “What the bleep is wrong with you!” And it gives you, the author, that plethora of ways to plunge them into chaos—the essence of what makes a book tick.

Your Political Thriller will have more meat if the morning the President’s hand covers the red phone, he’s just learned his wife had an affair with, well, whomever—pick a pivotal and hopefully antagonistic character in the novel. Your Literary novel will resonate as the geisha falls in love, destroying not only her livelihood but likely her life as well. Your Fantasy will be enriched as our witch must save not only the town from evil, but the man who kept her from being burned at the pyre as well.

Love ups the stakes. And upping the stakes is what makes your story move. Keeps it going. Causes the characters to grow.

Finally, it never dies. Okay, so love can be killed (again, bringing with it that whole new Pandora’s Box of plot twists), but the impetus to love never dies. We go to our graves with it. A good friend had to move her ninety-two-year-old mother to a nursing home. After finishing with the paper work, she went to find her mom—who was stepping down the hall, an elderly man (of about her age) holding her arm. Once inside her new room, my friend asked if this man was helpful.

Her mom said, a gleam in her pale eyes, “He let me use his walker.”

Ah, yes, that’s what love’s got to do with it.

What Makes A Great Novel

Stories are the backbone of what makes us human. So it’s as natural as the sun coming up that we tell them, write them, listen and read them. Hemingway said he’d let go of many things through writing, and readers worldwide have learned great truths through the literature of our history.

on the floor and read a great book

What Makes A Great Book?

But if you go at writing a novel from that standpoint, it’ll get so bogged down in “seriousness” that everyone (agents, editors, readers) will quit it faster than you can say Pulitzer Prize.

Because in essence, novels are meant to entertain.

Haven’t you ever picked up that new, “big,” important novel and after a chapter gone, “Blech!” And for a variety of reasons. Because if a novel doesn’t grab you up and transport you to a different world (even if that’s within the main character’s mind), your loyalty to it will disintegrate like a Hollywood marriage.

To entertain is something of a nebulous term itself, as we all have different tastes. Which is one reason we have so many different genres and subgenres of fiction. While you may not be caught dead reading a category Romance, Chick Lit might tweak your fancy all day long. You might hate Westerns, but love literature set in the West.

Case in point: my author, Randy Denmon, just won the prestigious Spur Award for his novel, Lords of an Empty Land.  http://www.amazon.com/Lords-Empty-Land-Randy-Denmon/dp/0786035366/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1458143785&sr=8-1&keywords=Lords+of+an+empty+land  It’ a post-Civil War novel set in Louisiana, about a history I never knew.  While the Spur is awarded by Western Writers of America, the book simply transcends the genre.

Although not apparent on the surface (or in the bookstore), publishing operates through very rigid lines.

The point being, the novels you love to read, and more importantly for our purposes to write, might have meant a host of things to you, but first and foremost, they entertained you—if only in your own head.

So, how do we do that?

What you, as a writer, know is that you must have the elements of great fiction to begin with. That takes time, study, guidance, and lots of writing. The tools of great writing—whether fiction or non—can be learned.  And, they simply must be.

Characterization, plotting, organization and structure, voice, tone, etc.—all of these must be there in order for a novel to fly. And the devil truly is, as they say, in the details.

Because it’s by mastering these elements (so deceptively simple, no?) that we bring the magic forth from great fiction.

I could write a book on each of these topics, so we’ll save them for subsequent months. But you have to learn those skills first, before your okay or even good novel will be great.

The elements of great fiction provide the foundation upon which you stand to launch that fabulous story into the heavens of bestseller-dom.

From there, the intangibles come in.

Ask yourself:

*        Did I have fun writing this passage/chapter/book?

*        Do I care about my characters? (So often cardboard characters are mouthpieces for one belief system or another, and the author quite obviously didn’t like them to begin with. If you, as the author, don’t like your folks, how can we, as your readers?)

*        Am I bored when going through revisions? (Be prepared to read your own book a thousand times, as you rewrite/revise/polish. If doing so bores you, just think how jaded agents and editors will react.)

*        Does the middle drag? I.e., is your book the victim of ‘sagging middles’? http://www.maloneeditorial.com/structure-and-the-novel-those-dreaded-sagging-middles/

*        When you read it aloud, is the prose ratchety, awkward, stumbling? Or does it sing with poetry if Literary, or move at a crisp pace if genre?

*        Is the book all of one piece?

The key is to keep these questions in the front of your mind (taped to your monitor will help). Revisit them regularly.

Most importantly, with all of these tools solidly in your arsenal, then let your creativity run. Give that horse its head, hold on, and enjoy the visceral thrill of the ride.

That’s what makes for great fiction.