If at First You Don’t Succeed,
Write Smut

Absolute Blank

By Ana George (Broker)

Writers’ block is a fact of life. There are a great many reasons for it, and the remedies are as varied as the causes. Stay tuned for some words about a remedy that often works for me: Smutwriting.

Now sex is a part of life for real people. It informs who they are in subtle ways. On the other hand, many fictional characters are flat, cardboard creations, caricatures of people, who appear, play their role, and disappear without a further thought from reader or writer.

In a novel with many incidental characters, most of them might be forgettable. But as Michael Cunningham once remarked at a reading, each of those people is the main character in his or her own novel. He also said that his fiction is autobiographical in the sense that he tries to be true to each character, her own needs, and fictional life course, even if he only tells a small part of the story of that character.

And sex is a part of that, for many people. And not, for others, but that’s also taleworthy. Perhaps even more so.

Let me be clear: I’m not (or at least not necessarily) saying all writing should be smutty or even contain romance or overt sexuality. Backstory, what happens to the characters off stage, the part of the story you don’t put in the book, is also important. It helps the author get to know the characters, so they behave more like real people, so you as the writer are not surprised by their motivations. Hemingway pointed this out in his Iceberg Theory.

So you’re stuck, trying to figure out where the story should go from wherever you left it. You have an idea for another plot element, but getting from there to there is not something you can see from where you’re standing.

Follow the characters home. Write everyday details of their lives. She comes home, wonders why her partner’s car in the driveway inspires such dread. She fixes supper, but one of the kids won’t eat it. Familiar, well-worn arguments, advanced incrementally, because, after all, you’re only writing one Tuesday night. And maybe she’s randy come bedtime and he’s not. Next morning when she reports to work in your novel, she’s grumpy and tired but for no reason she’s going to tell you, because it might end up in the book.

Or there was this guy she saw on her lunch break that had that certain dreamy hurt puppy look in his eyes that always made her knees weak, but that she’s ignored for years in an effort to keep her life together. Does she miss the feeling? Or is she grateful for being delivered from the need to pay attention to it?

In a way it’s like writing fan fiction (or even slash fiction) about your own universe. I suppose fan fiction is an examination of (usually someone else’s) a canonical text, asking what-if questions, what happened before this, what happens next. These two characters are so luscious, I want them together, dammit, and I’ll write the story myself if I have to. The resulting stories are in no way part of the canon: the actual story that’s in the book, on the screen, whatever. And yet, for the fanficcer, the existence of these backstories (erotic or otherwise) enriches the experience of the canonical story.

Sex is also a way people in real life express rebelliousness. It might be a way for fictional characters to do that, as well. You have this nice life all plotted out for them, a nice plot arc, and then in chapter twelve, they break the fourth wall, walk out of the book and into the writer’s studio, sit down, and say, “No, I’m not doing that for those reasons.” Is that rebellion because of some facet of their lives you haven’t written (or even thought) about? What would a teenager do in this situation? For another take on this, see Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas of the Carnival and grotesque realism.

It is perhaps a truism that disappointment and regret are great sources of story ideas. If nobody does anything regrettable or disappointing, the story is the poorer for the lack. And, for many people, sexuality is rife with disappointments and regrets. Again, it’s not necessarily the case that you need to write about it explicitly (or if you do, to include it in the book) to reflect on the lifelong regret caused by an off-stage broken romance.

I recall being told as a young writer that sex scenes in stories must always advance the action, and significantly change a character. I set out to break this rule, if only because it’s not true of real-life people. Why is sex different from other biological needs and wants, such as eating or sleeping? Sex is something people do, some of them fairly often, and having life-changing experiences every time is just not in the cards. It may be true that the reader only wants to be in the bedroom on those rare occasions when something like that does happen, but the characters are there whether it does or not. Perhaps it’s our job as writers to convey this aspect of our characters’ personalities. For example, their familiarity (or lack thereof) with each other could convey a lot of information to the reader. I’m not convinced I’ve written a sexy scene that’s not transformative that is also worth keeping. So maybe the rule is a good one, but it’s a boundary and writers exist to push at the boundaries.

This past year has been a difficult one for me, largely because of events in my personal life. Sometimes I feel like writing, and sometimes I really don’t. Sometimes writing is therapeutic, or cathartic, and sometimes it’s just fingers moving, putting symbols in little rows on a computer screen.

Recently I found an erotic picture on the internet that was very engaging, for a variety of reasons. Certainly one of those was that the woman in the picture was strongly reminiscent of the way I imagine one of the characters in an ongoing saga-in-progress. Her body was mostly hidden behind her partner’s, and it was clear she was taking charge of the encounter.

And I found I had to write the story of a time my character did just that with her partner, whatever the larger context might have been. How did she feel about it beforehand? Was the experience memorable enough that she thought about it the next day? Was it wonderful? A disappointment? Forgettable? What about his feelings? Are they the same as hers (surely not entirely?) and if different, are the differences important? And which two scenes should I set this encounter between? How does it fit into their lives as they move through the story?

And so now it makes sense that she snaps at another character the next morning, that she seems distracted, that her eyes keep straying to her cell phone, wondering if she should wait for a call, or call her partner, and wondering what she’d say if they did talk. I’m sorry, what was that you said?

Backstory is important, and people’s (and characters’) sex lives are part of the backstory that forms their personalities. Characters will ring true if their authors think about who they are, beyond what appears in the story. When in doubt, write smut!

Final Poll Results

Toasted Cheese Success Stories:
Ryan Potter

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

Seven years ago, Ryan Potter submitted his first short story, “Dale’s Night” to Toasted Cheese. It was chosen as an Editor’s Pick by Boots (me) in June 2004. This February, he submitted again, with a very interesting cover letter.

Dear Toasted Cheese Editor(s),

My name is Ryan Potter. I basically owe my writing career to Toasted Cheese. I wrote my first short story back in 2003 and Toasted Cheese published it as an Editor’s Pick (Boots’s) in June 2004. That important first published credit led to others and, eventually, a solid agent who represented my novels. My debut novel, Exit Strategy, was released by Flux back on March 1, 2010, to good reviews. I’m still writing short stories and recently completed one that I think would make a nice fit with Toasted Cheese. With that, please consider for publication the enclosed 4,500-word story, “When God Bowls Strikes in Heaven,” a tale of one memorable summer morning in the life of a suburban father and husband.

Thank you for publishing my work seven years ago, and thank you for considering my current submission. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

Ryan Potter

This letter certainly caught our attention. Since this year we celebrated Toasted Cheese’s 10th anniversary, we wanted to explore Ryan’s relationship with TC and asked him to take us down memory lane.

Toasted Cheese: Can you remember how you found Toasted Cheese?

Ryan Potter: I found TC via Writer’s Digest in 2003. TC was listed as one of the best sites for writers that year or the year before, so I knew I had to check it out.

TC: What attracted you to TC?

RP: I was a new writer with no experience or publication credits. I’d just finished what I felt was my first story worth submitting. I liked how TC was so open to new writers. I wasn’t intimidated and felt very comfortable with the submission guidelines.

TC: Did you become a member of the community? If so, why? If not, why not?

RP: I did not become a member of the community, but it had nothing to do with not liking the community concept. Basically, I was having so much fun writing stories that I didn’t want to slow down for anything. Any free time I had was spent in the chair, writing as much original material as possible.

TC: What made you decide to submit that first story?

RP: Ah, that’s an easy one. That particular story, “Dale’s Night,” was the first story my wife actually liked.

TC: How did you feel about being published?

RP: Being published (“Dale’s Night” was my first credit) validated all of my hard work. I can’t describe the feeling of receiving positive feedback on my fiction from fellow writers and other people in the publishing world. It’s still an amazing feeling when it happens, and I don’t think that will ever change. That first credit gave me the confidence to keep writing.

TC: What did you do when you were told you’d be featured?

RP: Let’s see. That was almost seven years ago. I don’t keep a personal diary or journal, but I remember telling my wife right away and sharing a celebratory toast not long afterward. I’m a fairly private person, so I didn’t tell very many people.

TC: How many stories did you publish after that?

RP: Around seven to ten, I think. Again, I’m so bad at keeping records. Of course, I wrote a lot more than seven to ten stories. Some worked. Most didn’t. It’s all part of the process.

TC: When did you start and finish your novel?

RP: I started Exit Strategy (Flux, 2010) in June of 2005 and completed the first draft in September. Although it only took three months, there were several major revisions after that.

TC: Tell us a little about the book.

RP: Here’s a quick synopsis:

Looming above Zach Ramsey’s hometown of Blaine are the smokestacks of the truck assembly plant, the greasy lifeblood of this Detroit suburb. Surrounded by drunks, broken marriages, and factory rats living in fear of the pink slip, Zach is getting the hell out of town after graduation. But first, he’s going to enjoy the summer before senior year.

Getting smashed with his best friend Tank and falling in love for the first time, Zach’s having a blast until he uncovers dark secrets that shake his faith in everyone—including Tank, a wrestler whose violent mood swings betray a shocking habit.

As he gets pulled deeper into an ugly scandal, Zach is faced with the toughest decision of his life—one that will prove just what kind of adult he’s destined to be.

TC: How did you find an agent?

RP: I found my agent five years ago through one of those mass query blast sites. I’ve since heard many agents criticize that kind of approach, but it sure worked for me. However, I did my homework first and didn’t query anybody until I had a solid cover letter and a polished manuscript.

TC: I’m not familiar with “mass query blast site”. What kind of site* is that?

RP: I found the mass query service through ScriptBlaster. They specialize in screenplays, but they also offer an “agent blast” for novels.

TC: When was your novel published?

RP: Exit Strategy came out on March 1, 2010. It’s been over a year and so far it’s been an incredible experience. I’ve learned so much about the business side of writing and publishing. I feel much more prepared for future projects as a result of my experience with Exit Strategy.

TC: You’re still submitting to publications—didn’t you get instantly rich?

RP: Ha! Not quite. Even if I did, I’d never stop writing and submitting short stories. You never know when one of those short story ideas might blossom into your next novel. Actually, that’s exactly what happened with the project I’m currently finishing up (and hoping to sell).

TC: What brought you back to TC?

RP: TC gave me my start. I’ll always be grateful for that. I know for a fact that the TC story credit for “Dale’s Night” caught the eye of my original agent.

TC: I know your recent submission didn’t make the cut for the June issue—will you submit to Toasted Cheese again in the future?

RP: Yes, I have a polished story ready to submit to TC and will do so as soon as I finish the revisions for the young adult novel I’m wrapping up.

TC: What would you tell an unpublished author?

RP: Three words: Never give up. Okay, maybe that’s too cliché, but it’s so true. Find your story and write it. Don’t worry about agents and publication credits until you have the best piece of work you can produce. It all starts with your original material. Once you have a polished product, then you can start researching agents and checking out submission guidelines for agencies and/or publications.

Oh, a little about rejection. It’s going to happen. A lot. Get a thick skin and deal with it. The best way to deal with rejection is to smile, breathe, and try to learn something from it to make you a better writer. I realize you can’t learn much from form rejection letters, but if you’re fortunate enough to get some detailed feedback from people in the business, pay attention to it. These people are trying to help you.

TC: What other online sites should authors be submitting to or visiting?

RP: I think AgentQuery is the best place to start researching agents. It’s free and has an excellent reputation. Also, I make a point of checking the bestseller lists for the New York Times and Amazon weekly. It keeps me fresh on what’s selling. What else? Gosh, there’s so much out there online. Twitter is a great way to follow editors, publishing houses, agents, and writers. Having said that, I tend to use it only when I have a new project completed. The internet’s helpful in many ways, but for me it’s a huge distraction during the writing process.

TC: What are you working on now?

RP: I mentioned that I was finishing up something. It’s a young adult paranormal novel about demons, ghost hunters, and rock bands. That’s about all I can reveal at the moment! I’ve had a lot of fun writing it, so hopefully the right things will happen and it will make its way out there to the world.

Toasted Cheese looks forward to more stories from Ryan in the future, both at the site and in the bookstores.


Do you have a success story to tell? Email us (editors[at]toasted-cheese.com) or post it on our Chasms and Crags forum (which you don’t need to be registered to use). We love to hear how the community has helped authors!

Note: After some research at the suggested site, it’s basically a kind of “speed dating” for writers who need agents. At the site Ryan mentions, it’s a paid-for service and they send your query letter out to a number of agents (depending on cost). They also have some tips on query letters and as Ryan says, don’t query unless both your cover letter and manuscript are polished and ready. Remember you should research all agencies of this type thoroughly and understand the consequences before you pay for a service that you can do yourself for free.

Final Poll Results

Interview with a Dark Lord:
Creating Villainous Characters

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

In my never-ending quest for good writing tips, I, intrepid Toasted Cheese Editor, braved the Dark Lord’s lair to get some first-hand insight into what makes a good villainous lair.

Unfortunately, this editor fell into the first trap in the first Dark Tower. In order to gain enough time to escape, I used the old “get them talking about their evil plans” trick. So, change of plans. Instead of a piece on the villainous lair, a piece on the villainous character, gleaned from our conversation.

TC: So, Evil Villain Character, how are you feeling these days?

Dark Lord: Frankly, I’m feeling a little flat. But what do you expect when you are continually described as “The Lord of Evil” or “The Ultimate Killing Machine” and never given any other motive or depth in your evil doings?

TC: Well, labels are a quick way to identify a character type. What do you have against that?

Dark Lord: Look, I know as the Antagonist I’m playing second fiddle to the Lord High Fully-Realized Protagonist, but that doesn’t mean I’m just a cardboard cutout villain. Your standard protagonist comes complete with a past, motivation, and a flaw. Why can’t I get the same kind of attention?

TC: A flaw? You want a flaw?

Dark Lord: Damn right, I do. People are complicated. Look at Darth Vader, for example. First movie he is the ultimate in villainy. Black cloak, black mask, kills anyone who gets in his way. A stereotypical Lord of the Sith, if you will. And then what happens? Give him a little popularity, and suddenly he’s the protagonist’s father, and much more complicated than anyone ever imagined. And then we see how he was lured into evil, and how his flaw, caring too much, turns him into the evil guy we all know and love, or maybe hate. But why couldn’t we see some of that in the original movie? Was he really designed with that flaw? Not much evidence of it at the beginning.

And that’s what is bugging me right now. I’m just this evil dude. No one knows I was tortured as a child, no one knows I believe I am doing the right thing for my people, they just think I’m evil, and that’s the end of it. Take Sauron from Lord of the Rings for example. he is a total cardboard Dark Lord. He sits in his dark tower and sends his minions forth to do evil. You don’t really know why, or if he’s anything more than evil. He is just there to be defeated. Maybe I was good once, but became so proud that I turned into a dictator, thinking I knew better than everyone else. Like that Boromir dude in Lord of the Rings, who might have turned into something awful if he had survived. I mean, he just wanted the ring of power to save his people, but he was proud, and his pride would have been his downfall. Or maybe I loved a woman who ditched me for another, and I swore my revenge on her family. Or maybe I have good intentions, but can’t see the dangerous consequences of my actions, and don’t notice how I made it all the way to hell.

TC: So what kind of flaw do you want?

Dark Lord: Well, the best kind is a flaw that is either similar to the protagonist’s, so that the reader can see how “there but for circumstances goes the hero” or one that is opposite to the protagonist’s, so they can play off each other and feed each other’s weaknesses and strengths. Either of those choices makes for good dramatic tension.

TC: But what about the ultimate battle of Good versus Evil? If you are complicated, and have a flaw like the protagonist’s flaw, doesn’t that make things messy and uncertain?

Dark Lord: Life is messy and uncertain. That’s the joy of fiction, to explore the mess and uncertainty. The best villains are the ones you love to hate. No one loves a stereotype. Really. Look at Shakespeare. None of his villains are cut and dried. They have their own agendas, and they do very evil things, but in the end, they are only human. Take a look at Richard III for example. All twisted evil, but why?

“I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”

That’s really all I am asking for: to be human. I just can’t be interesting if I am not human. Even if I am an evil monster, even if I control millions of evil minions, even if I am a mass murderer, or even if I am just a schoolyard bully, and yes, even if I am some weird sort of alien, I am still human. If you prick me, do I not bleed? Why can’t I bleed meaningfully, instead of stereotypically?

TC: So you are saying you don’t want to be an archetype?

Dark Lord: Not at all. Nothing wrong with an archetype. But don’t confuse that with a stereotype. People are comfortable with archetypes, the various character types that permeate our literature. We expect, in the ultimate battle of good against evil that there be a villainous Dark Lord. That’s why we have them. But stereotypes are shortcuts, cardboard cutouts, and the lazy writer’s way out of understanding a character. Nothing wrong with making me a Dark Lord. But make me a specific Dark Lord, with my own personality and my own issues. Then I will be an archetype. But if you can’t tell me apart from a host of other Dark Lords out there, I’m a stereotype.

TC: So, what is it that you are asking your author to do?

Dark Lord: Just give me the same amount of thought as you give your main character. It’s fine to make me evil, but keep me human. Make me more than just Dark Lord #21,403. Use the same character development lists for me as you use for the protagonist. You can even base me on people you know the same way you might your protagonist: what might drive you or someone you know over that line between good and evil? What characteristics of good do you or others have that could get twisted into something hideous, or even just into something twisted?

TC: Wait, I’m not evil… how can I base something evil on me?

Dark Lord: Mwahahaha! I think that is one reason I tend to end up so two-dimensional. Totally evil people are far removed from our own flaws. We might have cracks, but hey, we aren’t totally evil like that character, so that’s ok! People are often afraid to acknowledge their own flaws, their own cracks. Afraid that if they admit to having a bit of the beast in them, the beast will win. That’s human, too. But we all know there is a dark corner in everyone. If you allow your villain to have a bit of the hero inside, and your hero to have a bit of the villain inside, then both characters can connect with the reader on a much deeper level.

TC: Well, I think it is time to free myself from this trap now. Thanks for the long backstory and lecturing while I undid my bonds and let my friends in…

Dark Lord: Eh, well, some conventions are still hard to overcome. But be careful on the way out: my evil minions actually practice aiming and hitting their targets.

Final Poll Results

Stage and Scene:
Finding Writing Tips
in Acting Techniques

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

I’ve had the good fortune to take several acting classes from the Piven Theatre Workshop. While the classes are are fun and interesting in themselves, I find they also have offered me insight into writing well-constructed and interesting scenes. Here are some of the techniques I’ve learned that apply to writing as well as to acting.

Keep Passing the Energy

A significant part of the Piven technique centers on theater games. Many of these games focus on keeping the energy in the room high, by passing it from person to person, trying to grow it with each pass.

Written scenes also need to keep passing the energy, or they start to feel flat. Have characters in a scene pass the energy between each other as they interact. This will keep the scene immediate and draw in the reader more than just dumping the energy into a single character until it fades, taking the reader’s interest with it. If a scene with multiple characters isn’t working, see if one of the characters is dropping the energy instead of passing it. For instance, if two characters are having a fight, keep the anger flowing between them somehow. An easy way to do this is to alternate the action and dialogue between the two. As they argue back and forth, let the energy grow. Escalate the verbal and physical actions in response to this growing energy. Don’t make the fight so one-sided that one of the participants might as well be out of the scene.

You can also pass energy from action to tension and back again. There is usually a natural point at which the impulse of the action changes. Let the shift grow organically from what is happening in the story. Don’t drop energy if the action slows. Instead, shift the energy into internal tension rather than external action. This is another way to keep the energy flowing and keep the reader engaged in the story. Consider our arguing couple. Perhaps one of the participants is yelling, and the other is sitting there not saying anything. That doesn’t mean they aren’t reacting. Think about how this situation might look on a stage. The person who is not responding could be fidgeting, deliberately hiding behind a newspaper, tapping a foot. Let your character do that sort of thing too, and grow the tension. An actor isn’t just standing frozen if he or she doesn’t have any lines. Even if there is little or no action, there is always some kind of interaction.

Interrupted Destination

When you are writing a scene with more than one character, you are probably focusing on just one of the characters in the scene. This is usually the scene’s point of view character or the main character of the story. This character has a set goal and encounters setbacks, and overcomes obstacles present by the other characters. But what about the secondary characters in the scene? Their goals and setbacks are not usually very well defined. How can you round out their actions?

One of the techniques I learned in scene study was the idea of interrupted destination. If you don’t have a clear action goal determined by the plot, find one. But make it one that is constantly interrupted by what is going on. For example, the scene may be one in which you are having an argument with another character. You set yourself a goal of putting on your coat and walking out the door. But each time you start to make progress with this, the argument gets in the way. You may only make it half-way to the closet, or end up with your arm through one sleeve, or, quite possibly, manage to open the door. It doesn’t matter that you don’t succeed—having the goal gives your character an immediacy that he or she wouldn’t otherwise have just standing there screaming at someone else.

The idea of interrupted destination can be used to add a lot of depth to your secondary characters. Think of each character as an individual actor in a play. Even if they only have bit parts, they need to do something other than just stand and speak lines. They don’t need to have a complex goal for the scene, but if each one has some action they want to achieve, and they are interrupted and interrupt each other, the scene will take on an amazing richness. Your secondary characters will also take on additional depth. You can also use the interrupted destination technique to give a major character a physical goal in a scene where the major goals are internal.

Staying in the Moment

When you have memorized lines that you recite multiple times, it becomes very easy to only act, and never react. You know someone is going to make you angry, so you act angry. You know someone will surprise you, so you act surprised. It’s easy to just say and behave the way you know you are supposed to rather than reacting to what is going on. Most people do this with conversations, too—rather than listening to what is being said, most people are thinking ahead to what they want to say. But if you allow your character to be in the moment, instead of anticipating what is ahead, suprising things can happen, and you can build a more genuine interaction.

This applies to writing as well. Your character needs to react as well as act. Your character needs to genuinely respond rather than always anticipating.

Good scene structure stays in the moment. A well-structured story alternates between doing and responding. Stories aren’t just a string of scenes. They are an alternating strings of scenes and sequels. The scene is the action, the sequel the reaction.

A good scene has the following structure:

  • Goal—What the main character wants to achieve.
  • Conflict—The obstacles the main character must overcome to reach the goal
  • Disaster—The character fails to reach the goal.

For example, the main character wants to avoid an argument by putting on her coat and leaving before her husband notices (goal). Her husband comes in, and asks where she is going (start of conflict). She doesn’t respond, and continues putting on her coat. Her husband starts to argue, then yell at her. Finally, he tells her if she leaves, she can’t come back (disaster).

Then the character reacts to the disaster in the sequel. The structure of the sequel is:

  • Reaction—This is what keeps things immediate. The character has an emotional reaction to the failure before taking further action.
  • Dilemma—The character faces some tough choices because of the failure. Have the character react genuinely to the situation, and work through the options.
  • Decision—None of the choices are ideal, but the character has to go with one of them anyway. Time to decide. And that leads the character to a new goal, and a new scene.

In the sequel to the argument scene, the wife is shocked (reaction). She has to decide if she will still leave, or stay and participate in the argument she is trying to avoid (dilemma). She finishes putting on her coat and walks out (decision).

Even on a smaller scale, the character still has to react to what is going on. There is nothing more boring than a play where it feels like the actors are reciting their lines in a set way, regardless of what other actors are doing. Shake up things for your characters so they can’t anticipate ahead of the action. Keep your characters in the moment. Foist an external event on your characters and see how they react first. Then have them act on that reaction.

The “What’s Between”

Another scene study concept that is useful to look at from a writing perspective is something called the “what’s between.” This is, in essence, an actor’s version of “show, don’t tell.” The idea is to act the scene with a hidden tension in it. There’s some secret the actors know that they aren’t sharing, and it comes out in the tension of the interaction. Think about the hidden things in your story whenever two characters interact, and see how you can use them to add tension and energy. For example, suppose you have a father meeting a son for the first time. The mother has agreed to this meeting on the condition the father does not reveal the truth. In what ways would the father act differently under these conditions than he might otherwise? In what ways does the strain of the secrecy come out in the dialogue? In the father’s actions? What tension does the son pick up on? What tension does he miss entirely? Thinking in this way, exploring the “what’s between” in your story and how you can use it to build tension and character, will add that extra dimension and depth to your scenes.

There’s a lot to be learned by studying good actors and good acting techniques. Next time you watch your favorite TV show or movie, see if you can pick up other ideas for enriching your writing.

Final Poll Results

Writer’s Glossary, Part II: Genres, Subgenres and Supergenres

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Part two of our “Writer’s Glossary” series concerns what we write, specifically genre. The examples given are by no means all-inclusive but are designed to give an overview of genre, subgenre and supergenre. This article is meant to answer general questions about genre and to inspire exploration of new-to-you themes, character motivations, settings and more. If you’d like to talk about additional genres, subgenres or supergenres, join the discussion on Just the Place For A Snark or create a new discussion on our genre board.

The liquidity of genre allows for hybrids of any kind the writer can imagine. Think of genre as banks that guide the river of your story as it goes along, maybe merge with other rivers to create vivid new bodies of work, branching off in new directions or staying a central course. For ideas of melding genre or exploring new-to-you genres, try our A Pen In Each Hand exercises that accompany this article.

Click here for more information on any of the books mentioned in this article.

Writer's Glossary, Part II

Background Photo: SpeakingLatino.com/Flickr (CC-by-sa).


Genre: the style, form or content of the work. Examples include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Adventure: Physical danger and risk are main themes with strong focus on the hero’s actions.
    • Treasure Island, The Three Musketeers, Hoot
  • Biography: An account of someone’s life (an account of the author’s life is an autobiography).
    • The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Theodore Rex, Lulu In Hollywood
  • Comic books: features a story told using art as visual narrative and relying more heavily on dialogue.
    • Seduction of the Innocent, The Killing Joke, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers
  • Creative non-fiction (CNF): Uses literary technique to tell a true story (compare to journalistic writing); when the story follows a fiction-like arc, it is sometimes called “narrative nonfiction.”
    • Coming Into The Country, The Accidental Buddhist
  • Crime: Criminal activity, motive and detection are main themes.
    • The Big Sleep, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Get Shorty
  • Diary / journal / personal weblog writing: Meant as a method of personal reflection, often only available to the author.
    • The Diary of Anne Frank, The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery
  • Epic: Action takes place over a long period of time, centered on a heroic character or group of characters and exceptional events. Compare to epic poetry.
    • The Lord of the Rings (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King), War and Peace
  • Erotica: Uses literary technique to tell a story with action centered on sexual arousal and activity.
    • Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Story of O, Delta of Venus
  • Essay: “A literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything, usually on a certain topic. By tradition, almost by definition, the essay is a short piece”[1] Essays may be non-literary, such as photo-essays. Narrative essays use literary techniques like arcs and transitions (compare with academic essays).
    • Dress Your Family In Corduroy and Denim, James Baldwin: Collected Essays
  • Fan fiction (fanfic): Uses established characters to tell original stories not written by the creator of the characters.
    • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
  • Fantasy: Uses magic and supernaturalism as central to the plot and setting. Compare to science fiction and horror.
    • The Wizard of Oz, The Mists of Avalon, The Hobbit, The Earthsea novels
  • Horror: Uses literary techniques to frighten, unsettle or horrify the audience; employs macabre and/or supernatural themes. Compare with fantasy and science fiction.
    • Dracula, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, Frankenstein
  • Journalism: Conveys news without opinion. News conveyed with opinion is “editoral journalism” or “op-ed.”
    • The New York Times: The Complete Front Pages: 1851-2008, The Best Newspaper Writing series
  • Literary fiction (lit fic): Character-driven—this story could only happen to the characters in it—often appealing to a narrower readership than mainstream fiction but is not aimed at any specific audience.
    • The Great Gatsby, Beloved, The Corrections
  • Literary realism: Everyday activity and experience are central to the story.
    • Middlemarch, Sister Carrie, The Jungle
  • Mainstream fiction: Closely identified with literary realism, mainstream fiction appeals to a general audience and is plot-driven—the action of the story could happen to any character—as opposed to character-driven (literary fiction). Mainstream fiction may coexist in a single work along with another genre.
    • The DaVinci Code, The Lovely Bones, The Poisonwood Bible
  • Memoir: Differs from autobiography in that autobiography is an overview of the subject’s life whereas memoir is focused on certain aspects of the subjects personality or experience.
    • On Writing, The Glass Castle, Wild Swans, Running With Scissors, Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper
  • Romance: Main theme is the growth of romantic love between two main characters, with an upbeat ending. Sexual activity is less graphically described and intrinsic to the plot than in erotica. “Category romances” or “series romances” are shorter and rotate out of print at a faster rate than “single-title romances.” Specific guidelines about word count, shelf life, etc. vary by publisher; generally category romance runs 60,000 words or less.
    • The Flame and the Flower, Daddy, Sweet Starfire, A Knight In Shining Armor
  • Science fiction: Uses imaginary yet possible elements as aspects of the plot or setting, such as space or time travel, alternate timelines or dimensions, psionics or technology. Compare to fantasy and horror.
    • The Handmaid’s Tale, The Time Machine, The Man in the High Castle, Starship Troopers, The Road
  • Speculative fiction (spec fic): Explores new/imagined worlds that are unlike the real world, generally an umbrella genre for sci-fi, fantasy, horror, etc. Slipstream: combines spec fic and mainstream/lit fic. For examples, see entries for cited genres.

Subgenre: more specific distinction within the genre. Examples include (but are not limited to) the following:

Action subgenre examples:

  • Western: set in the American frontier (usually west of the Mississippi River), often with an antihero as a main character.
    • Lonesome Dove, The Leatherstocking Tales, Riders of the Purple Sage, No Country For Old Men
  • “Space Westerns” are spec fic pieces that use “western” themes and characters but are set in space or in alternate worlds.
    • Time Enough For Love, the TV shows Star Trek and Firefly
  • Thriller: Uses action and fast pacing to thrill the audience. The hero’s journey climaxes with his defeat of the villain (compare to mystery).
    • The Bourne Identity, Lazarus Strain

Comic book subgenre examples:

  • Graphic novels: a type of comic book using narrative and dialogue more like traditional novels.
    • Watchmen, The Sandman series, Maus, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
  • Manga: Japanese comics, which may be any genre and are often published as serials. Manga outside Japan may be written in any language but the art maintains a strong Japanese aesthetic; manga translates to “whimsical pictures.”
    • Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon, Ronin, The Dirty Pair, Oh My Goddess

Erotica or fan fiction subgenre example:

  • Slash: fan fiction that depicts romantic/sexual homosexual relationships. Slash is almost always between two male characters; the terms “femslash” and “saffic” have come into use to distinguish slash fiction about female characters.

Crime subgenre example:

  • Mystery: Plot is a puzzle to be solved by reader and protagonist; climaxes with the solution of the crime (compare to thriller).
    • A is for Alibi, Murder On the Orient Express, the Nancy Drew series, The Maltese Falcon

Horror subgenre examples:

  • Gothic: Combines elements of horror (the supernatural, the grotesque, etc.) and romance to create suspense.
    • Wuthering Heights, The Shining, Rebecca
  • Southern gothic: Uses the same devices to explore social issues rather than to create suspense. The setting is usually (but not always) the American south.
    • The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Wise Blood, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Green Mile
  • Paranormal: uses ghosts, hauntings and other supernatural elements.
    • Carrie, Interview With The Vampire, The Shining, The Amityville Horror

Journalism subgenre examples:

  • New journalism: movement in the 1960s for journalism using literary techniques. Compare to “creative nonfiction” today.
    • In Cold Blood, The Right Stuff
  • Gonzo journalism: subjective journalistic reporting using a first person narrator and blends fact and fiction, favoring style over accuracy.
    • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Paper Lion

Sci-fi subgenre examples:

  • Hard SF: emphasizes scientific detail; hard science (chemistry, physics, etc.) is intrinsic to the story.
    • 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Ringworld series
  • Soft SF: emphasizes character, emotion and story; sciences intrinsic to the story are generally social sciences (sociology, economics, etc.).
    • Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Handmaid’s Tale
  • Dystopian/utopian: Setting is an alternate society, either ideal (utopia) or nightmarish (dystopia), that serves to reflect elements of contemporary society.
    • Gulliver’s Travels, Brave New World, The Time Machine, V For Vendetta
  • Steampunk: Set in a time when steam power is still used, often in Victorian England; may additionally use alternate history.
    • The Difference Engine, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
  • Cyberpunk: Combines cybernetics and technology with societal breakdown, often in a “near-future” time period.
    • Necromancer, Blade Runner, Trouble And Her Friends
  • Alternate history: plot concerns a deviation in actual history that creates an alternate society.
    • Men Like Gods, The Man In The High Castle, Night Watch
  • Apocalyptic/post-Apocalyptic: explores “end of the world” scenarios and society.
    • The Last Man, The Road, The Stand, Oryx and Crake

Fantasy subgenre examples:

  • Dark fantasy: combines fantasy and horror.
    • Coraline, Imaro, The Vampire Chronicles
  • High Fantasy: an entire imagined world at stake. Compare to S&S and Epic.
    • His Dark Materials, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia
  • Low Fantasy: uses the real world as a setting but adds supernatural elements.
    • The Borrowers, The Indian in the Cupboard, Pippi Longstocking
  • Note: The Harry Potter novels and The Chronicles of Narnia combine low and high fantasy. The “world within a world” of these series is high fantasy, with an entire world at stake, but the frame of the stories is low fantasy; the high fantasy world is entered through a portal in the real world.
  • Sword/sorcery (S&S): combines adventure and personal stakes. Compare to high fantasy.
    • Sword and Sorceress, Conan the Barbarian
  • Urban fantasy: set in real world contemporary urban society; cities may be real or imagined.
    • War For the Oaks, Dreams Underfoot, The Heir Trilogy

Romance subgenre examples: Note: romance has many subgenres, most of which are hybrids with other genres (ex: paranormal romance, mystery romance); these are fairly self-explanatory.

  • Contemporary: set after 1945.
    • A Love Of My Own, Perfect Match, The Trouble With Valentines Day
  • Historical: set before 1945 and includes many subgenres (ex: Regency romance)
    • Dedication, The Ruby Ghost, November of the Heart, Company of Rogues series

Some subgenres can be found under any genre. Examples include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Comedy: uses humor to amuse the reader and has an upbeat ending. Dark/black comedy utilizes taboo subjects for humor (ex: death, rape, war, disease). Blue comedy utilizes crude or sexual topics or risqué language.
    • A Confederacy of Dunces, Summer Lightning, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Slaughterhouse Five, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Discworld novels
  • Coming of age (found most often in YA, mainstream and literary fiction): concerns the transition from adolescence to adulthood.
    • The Catcher In The Rye, The Secret Life of Bees, Treasure Island
  • Historical fiction: Attention is paid to historical detail and accuracy and may utilize historical figures or situations.
    • Ivanhoe, A Tale of Two Cities, The Remains of the Day, The Outlander series
  • Pomo: “post-modern”—after 1945—often parodies the “modernist” movement, which employs literary realism. Pomo is likely to use metafiction and magical realism.
    • Howl, Naked Lunch, Catch-22, Fight Club
  • Metafiction: the conscious address of fiction devices within the work.
    • Misery, Wicked, From Hell, Atonement, Slaughterhouse Five
  • Magical realism: illogical action or settings juxtaposed with real world action or settings; originated in Latin American and Spanish literature.
    • One Hundred Years of Solitude, The House of the Spirits
  • Satire: “Artistic form in which human or individual vices, folly, abuses, or shortcomings are held up to censure by means of ridicule, derision, burlesque, irony, or other methods, sometimes with an intent to bring about improvement.”[2] Satire often employs humor.
    • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Animal Farm, The Discworld series.
  • Tragedy: dramatizes human suffering—which could be avoided by different choices by the characters rather than external influence—with a downbeat ending, often the death of the protagonist and other principal characters.
    • King Lear, Hamlet, Phaedra, Antigone, The Crucible
  • Transgressional: Features characters who live outside the mainstream of normal society and often deals with taboo subjects.
    • American Psycho, Naked Lunch, Trainspotting

Supergenre: based on intended demographic rather than the work itself. This is a relatively new term and not yet widely used. Works in a supergenre may be part of a genre as well, such as horror, biography or sci-fi. Examples include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Children’s literature (kid lit): Targeted at readers age 12 or younger, Often divided into the following categories:
    • Picture books (ages 0–5)
      • The Big Red Barn, Goodnight Moon, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom
    • Early Reader Books (age 5–7)
      • The Dick and Jane series, Where The Wild Things Are, The Cat in the Hat
    • Short chapter books (ages 7–9)
      • The Winnie the Pooh series, The Little Bear series, the Fancy Nancy series
    • Longer chapter books (middle grade novels) (ages 9–12)
      • Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Heidi, Coraline, the Little House series, the Goosebumps series, the Heir Chronicles, the Harry Potter series
  • Young adult literature (YA): Targeted at teenaged readers.
    • The House On Mango Street, The Outsiders, Forever, the Twilight series, the Uglies series
  • Chick lit: Targeted at women (increasingly including teens), usually light in tone and often humorous.
    • Good In Bed, The Shopaholic series, Trust Me, Bridget Jones’s Diary
  • Christian lit: Targeted at Christian readers, religious faith is intrinsic to the plot, themes and characters.
    • The Left Behind series, The Purpose Driven Life

Societal, political and personal constructs and experience are explored in several genres. In addition to major genres, this fiction may also be subcategorized according to the sex, race, ethnic identity or country of origin of the author. These works are not targeted at any specific audience and are not compromised by the primary genre under which they are categorized. Within the examples cited above, you will find feminist, African-American, Chicano, LGBT and similar subcategorizations.


[1] Aldous Huxley, Collected Essays, “Preface”
[2] Encyclopedia Britannica: Satire

Final Poll Results

Writer’s Glossary, Part I: Elements of Fiction Construction

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Welcome to the first of Toasted Cheese’s new “Writer’s Glossary” series.

This article defines elements of fiction construction (characters and story elements). These are some of the most common storytelling elements, ones that writers and readers use when speaking about the story. If you don’t know what an editor meant when she said “the narrative didn’t work for me” or “I enjoyed the relationship between the nemesis and the antagonist,” this article might be the resource you’ve been hoping to find. Of course this glossary is not all-inclusive but it should give you a good foundation for you to perform further research.

The second Writer’s Glossary is scheduled for October 2009 and will be about the business of writing and publishing.

Writer's Glossary, Part I

Background Photo: SpeakingLatino.com/Flickr (CC-by-sa).

People in the Story

Narrator: the voice within the work telling the story.

  • Nick Carraway, The Great Gatsby
  • Holden Caulfield, The Catcher In the Rye
  • Scout Finch, To Kill A Mockingbird
  • Chief Bromden, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  • Unreliable narrator: a narrator whose credibility is compromised.
    • Patrick Bateman, American Psycho
    • Dr. James Sheppard, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Protagonist: the main character.

  • Scarlett O’Hara, Gone With the Wind
  • Jake Barnes, The Sun Also Rises
  • Celie, The Color Purple
  • Hero: a protagonist who faces and overcomes extraordinary challenges.
    • Harry Potter, the Harry Potter series
    • Frodo Baggins, The Lord of the Rings
  • False protagonist: a character who seems to be the protagonist until he is disposed of and a new protagonist takes over.
    • Bernard Marx, Brave New World (new protagonists: Helmholtz Watson, John)
    • Mary Crane, Psycho (new protagonist: Norman Bates)

Antagonist: a main character (or group) working against the protagonist.

  • Mister, The Color Purple
  • Randall Flag, The Stand
  • Nurse Ratched, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
  • Villain: a main character who works in opposition to a hero.
    • Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series
    • Sauron in The Lord of the Rings
    • Jame Gumb in The Silence of the Lambs
  • Nemesis: A character who creates trouble for the protagonist but is not necessarily opposed to his goals.
    • Fagin, Oliver Twist
    • Gollum, The Hobbit, The Two Towers and Return of the King
    • Severus Snape, the Harry Potter series.

Foil: a character whose contrast with another character, usually the protagonist, underscores aspects of the other character’s personality. The characteristics they share are often superficial, such as appearance or a shared history.

  • In Hamlet, Laertes acts as a foil to Hamlet in that both men experience the loss of their fathers via murder (Polonius by Hamlet and King Hamlet by Claudius, respectively) but while Hamlet has spent the play deciding what to do to avenge his father, Laertes acts immediately by challenging Hamlet to a duel, underscoring Hamlet’s indecision.

Archetype: a generalization about individuals as created and reflected by the whole of a culture.

  • Father/Mother Figure (Sirius Black/Molly Weasley, The Harry Potter series)
  • Trickster (Peeves the Poltergeist, The Harry Potter series)
  • Mentor (Remus Lupin, The Harry Potter series)

Stereotype: a generalization about a group of people, which varies among cultures often based on prejudice. Common stereotypes tend to be applied to ethnic, racial or economic groups or classes.

Stock character: more narrowly defined than archetypes, stock characters can act as shorthand for an author to introduce a character about whom the reader already has an expectation or knowledge.

  • The hooker with the heart of gold, the ugly duckling or the “redshirt” (i.e. an expendable character who appears only to be eliminated, referring to the red shirts worn by undeveloped Star Trek characters who appeared as part of the crew for away missions during which they would be killed).

 

Elements of the Story

Narrative: the telling of the events of the story by the narrator; the way in which the narrator communicates the story to the reader

Prose: a free form writing style which uses full sentences and paragraphs, reflective of everyday language.

Voice: the unique way in which a writer uses elements like syntax (word order), character development, plot structure, etc.

Plot: The main sequence of events. (See also.)

  • Subplot:a secondary storyline, usually involving secondary characters
  • Plot hole: a gap in the logic established by the story
  • Plot device: an element introduced in order to move the story forward. Examples include deus ex machina or a MacGuffin.
    • Deus ex machina: literally “God from the machine” – an unexpected event which serves to alter action in the story or solve conflict
    • MacGuffin: an object that is not as important as the motivation of the characters to acquire it. Examples include the Maltese Falcon or the “papers of transit” in the film Casablanca.

Act: a unit of the overall story. There are usually three acts: the first act establishes character, place and scenario, the second introduces and perpetuates conflict and the third includes the climax and dénouement (ending). Acts tend to take up ¼, ½ and ¼ of the story respectively.

Pace: the rate of flow for the action.

Theme: an idea or message conveyed in the work, usually conveyed in an abstract way. Themes may be simple or complex and there may be several minor themes in addition to a main theme in a long work.

Atmosphere: the mood of the story

Symbolism: something in your story used to evoke something else. Symbolism may be cultural/universal or contextual/authorial.

Tone: the feel of the work.

  • serious, humorous, sarcastic, playful, etc.

Cliché: a saying or expression that is so common it lacks substantial meaning.

  • cuts like a knife
  • thick as pea soup

Dialogue/dialog: words spoken by characters; written conversations.

Dialect: speech patterns, determined by factors like region or social class, including vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar.

Flashback: shifts the action of the story to a previous point in time and then back to current action.

Foreshadowing: hinting at an event which will come later in the story.

Frame: “surrounds” the main story as a narrative technique that provides context for the story within.

  • Frankenstein
  • Wuthering Heights
  • Heart of Darkness
  • The Turn of the Screw

Metaphor/simile: connects seemingly unrelated objects (simile uses “like” or “as” to accomplish this). Specific metaphor types include:

  • allegory: an extended metaphor that illustrates an important attribute of the subject
  • catachresis: mixed metaphor, one that connects two disparate identifications (ex: While looking for the needle in the haystack, make sure you don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater)
  • parable: extended metaphor that teaches a moral lesson

Persona: usually refers to a unifying force throughout a book, linking different situations and narratives and guiding the reader through the work, sometimes subtly suggesting conclusions or opinions the reader should have about characters or situations, in the opinion of the author. The persona is not the same as the narrator.

  • Authors who have used regularly personas include James Joyce (Ulysses) , William Faulkner (As I Lay Dying) and Charles Dickens.

Exposition: Opening narrative used to orient readers in the story.

Rising action: Narrative leading up to the climax.

Crisis: a turning point; a moment of decision; there may be several crises in long works of fiction or drama.

  • Celie standing up to and leaving Mister, The Color Purple
  • Janie shoots Tea Cake, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Climax: The height of action, the ultimate crisis or turning point where several elements combine to create “fireworks” (even though the climax may be a quiet moment with little action).

  • The fight over Daisy, between Tom and Gatsby, The Great Gatsby
  • Holden gives his red hunting hat to Phoebe, The Catcher In The Rye

Falling action: Narrative following the climax, leading to the dénouement.

Dénouement: the resolution of the plot (sometimes called “catastrophe” in tragedy).

Catharsis: purification, cleansing or purging, often symbolic in literature.

  • Brutus’s death in Julius Caesar
  • Gatsby’s body floating in the pool, The Great Gatsby

POV: Point of view. Point of view is either first person (“I” or “we”), second person (narrative voice addresses the reader as “you”) or third person (calls characters by name). Third-person POV may be limited (action shown through one character) or omniscient (action may be shown through any character’s experiences).

  • First person POV: Rebecca; The Great Gatsby
  • Second Person POV: Bright Lights, Big City
  • Third person limited POV: Harry Potter series
  • Third person omniscient POV: The Lord of the Rings

Narrative mode: encompasses POV and includes elements like stream of consciousness or the reliability of the narrator

Sequel/prequel: The events of a sequel fall after the events in a previous work. The events of a prequel come before the events of the previous work.

  • The Silence of the Lambs (sequel to Red Dragon).
  • The Magician’s Nephew (prequel to The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, both part of The Chronicles of Narnia).

Info dump: A chunk of information, usually exposition, not integrated into the story, usually superfluous to the action

AYKB: “As you know, Bob…” Implausible dialogue often used to explain something to the reader that the characters already know; an “info dump” disguised as dialogue. Here are some examples from Dracula:

“It is the eve of St. George’s Day. Do you not know that to-night, when the clock strikes midnight, all the evil things in the world will have full sway? Do you know where you are going, and what you are going to?” She was in such evident distress that I tried to comfort her, but without effect. Finally, she went down on her knees and implored me not to go; at least to wait a day or two before starting. –Bram Stoker, Dracula, Ch 1

When all was ready, Van Helsing said, “Before we do anything, let me tell you this. It is out of the lore and experience of the ancients and of all those who have studied the powers of the Un-Dead. When they become such, there comes with the change the curse of immortality. They cannot die, but must go on age after age adding new victims and multiplying the evils of the world. For all that die from the preying of the Un-dead become themselves Un-dead, and prey on their kind. And so the circle goes on ever widening, like as the ripples from a stone thrown in the water. Friend Arthur, if you had met that kiss which you know of before poor Lucy die, or again, last night when you open your arms to her, you would in time, when you had died, have become nosferatu, as they call it in Eastern Europe, and would for all time make more of those Un-Deads that so have filled us with horror. The career of this so unhappy dear lady is but just begun. Those children whose blood she sucked are not as yet so much the worse, but if she lives on, Un-Dead, more and more they lose their blood and by her power over them they come to her, and so she draw their blood with that so wicked mouth. But if she die in truth, then all cease. The tiny wounds of the throats disappear, and they go back to their play unknowing ever of what has been. But of the most blessed of all, when this now Un-Dead be made to rest as true dead, then the soul of the poor lady whom we love shall again be free. Instead of working wickedness by night and growing more debased in the assimilating of it by day, she shall take her place with the other Angels.” –Bram Stoker, Dracula, Ch 16

Final Poll Results

Plot + Emotional Journey = Good Story Structure

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

For a long time, I’ve known that a good story is just as important as good writing. Or possibly more important. But what makes a good story? In search of what makes a good story good, I took an online class that focused on story structure and development. I found that just as good writing has some basic rules that writers should be aware of, good stories have a standard structure.

Most writers know that stories need a good plot. Plot is the sequence of physical events. Aristotle proposed a basic plot structure that should be present in a good story: the inciting event, the complications, the climax, the dénouement, and the resolution. Writers depending solely on Aristotle’s incline, however, risk missing half of what makes a story a good story.

Also critical to a good story is the emotional journey undertaken by the character. This journey is usually defined by the protagonist’s character flaw. And like plot, the emotional journey also has its defining moments. There is the backstory, where we are introduced to the protagonist, the crisis, where the protagonist’s main flaw sends the protagonist into inner turmoil, and the epiphany, where the protagonist confronts the flaw head on and either overcomes it or fails to overcome it. A story in which the protagonist fails to overcome the flaw is a tragedy.

The plot and the emotional journey do not work in isolation. Events drive the character, and the character’s emotional reactions drive events. The plot sequence meshes with the emotional journey sequence to form a solid story. A well-structured story will contain the following checkpoints, in order:

Plot + Emotional Journey = Good Story Structure

Act 1:

  • The Hook:
    Start the story with an exciting introductory action to draw the reader in.
  • The Backstory:
    Introduce the main characters and reveal the protagonist’s flaw (through action, not exposition!).
  • The Inciting Event, or Trigger:
    This is the defining event that starts the protagonist on both the emotional and physical journey. This event is generally instigated either directly or indirectly by the antagonist, the person or force acting against the protagonist.

Act 2:

  • The Crisis:
    The crisis is an inner moment of emotional turmoil caused by the triggering event and the protagonist’s flaw.
  • The Complication, or Struggle:
    The physical action that occurs as a result of the triggering event and the crisis is driven by external events and the character flaw. The action is mostly directed by the antagonist.
  • The Epiphany:
    This is the inner moment when the protagonist realizes he or she needs to change, and makes the conscious decision to overcome the character flaw.

Act 3:

  • The Plan:
    The protagonist has confronted the flaw, and can now move in a new direction. This ends the struggle, and allows the protagonist to find a potential solution to the main problem confronting him or her.
  • The Climax:
    The protagonist confronts the antagonist. The insight from the epiphany allows the protagonist to use the antagonist’s own character flaw against the antagonist. Whether protagonists ultimately triumph or fail in a climax depends on whether or not they were able to overcome their own character flaws.
  • The Ending, or Resolution:
    The effects of the climax are shown, and both the emotional journey and the plot are brought to a satisfying conclusion.

These acts are structure points, not space guidelines. They are not each meant to be one third of the story. Writers can spend varying amounts of time on each act. An act and a checkpoint should only be as long as they need to be.

In one story, Act 1 might be a paragraph, while in another, it might be several chapters. The crisis could be several paragraphs, or it could be a single sentence.

For most stories, the bulk of the writing will probably be in Act 2, with the struggles. The struggles should escalate until the character reaches the epiphany.

Act 3 is often short as well. Generally, you don’t want the plan to drag out. Once the character has reached the epiphany, things start to move quickly toward the climax, and then quickly from the climax to the end.

Putting it In Action

Let’s see how this structure works for one of the more popular stories of our time: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Here’s one way to break the story down into its checkpoints. (Disclaimer: These checkpoints are my interpretation of the story after the fact and may or may not agree with anything J.K. Rowling has thought about.)

Act 1 (3½ chapters)

  • Hook:
    The wizarding world is celebrating the defeat of the evil Lord Voldemort, and the infant Harry is left on the doorstep of his aunt’s house.
  • Backstory:
    Harry is bullied by his family, particularly his cousin. Also, strange things happen around him that make his aunt and uncle very angry. He is unsure of himself.
  • Trigger:
    Hagrid the giant reveals that Harry is the son of a wizard and a witch, and that he is to go to Hogwarts, a school for wizards. Harry’s Aunt Petunia accidentally reveals she’s known his past all along.

Act 2 (8½ chapters)

  • Crisis:
    Harry is shocked to find out the truth about his parents. He struggles to reconcile people’s expectations of him because of his past, and his own self-doubt and confused identity.
  • Struggle:
    Harry tries to find his place in the wizarding world. Mysterious events related to the Sorcerer’s stone occur, each one more dangerous than the last. Eventually Harry finds the Mirror of Erisid, which shows him his parents, and he becomes caught up in the identity he never had.
  • Epiphany:
    When he is caught at the Mirror or Erised by Dumbledore, Harry eventually realizes he has to learn to depend on himself and be who he is rather than the person he never was.

Act 3 (4 chapters)

  • Plan:
    Harry and his friends find out that Voldemort is back and is trying to steal the sorcerer’s stone. When they can’t find Dumbledore, they resolve to save the sorcerer’s stone themselves.
  • Climax:
    Harry and his friends navigate a series of magical challenges. At the end, Harry must leave his friends behind to face Voldemort by himself. Voldemort, who has possessed one of the teachers, tries to kill Harry, but touching Harry sends him into agony, and Harry defeats him simply by being who he is.
  • Ending:
    Harry becomes a hero to the school, and shows that he will not be as easily bullied when he returns home. This highlights his new-found confidence in himself.

Viewed through this structure, the story hangs together. There is a strong theme of accepting yourself for who you are that becomes apparent when you look at the different checkpoints. Notice, too, how the checkpoints related to Harry’s flaw of self-doubt about his identity. A lot of Harry’s struggles are directly related to his self-doubt and how it affects his interactions with the external events perpetrated by Lord Voldemort and his minions. He ultimately realizes his lack of identity (as represented by his parents) is fueling this self-doubt and that he must learn to accept himself as he is. And it is because of who he is that he is able to win in the end.

A Backbone, Not a Ball and Chain

I’ve heard people complain that using a story structure like this takes the creativity out of writing, and makes all stories sound the same. But the structure is actually very flexible, and not all checkpoints must have equal weight. For example, an action-adventure story would focus more heavily on the plot checkpoints than on the character’s emotional journey checkpoints, while a work of literary fiction would focus more heavily on the emotional journey checkpoints. The amount of time spent in each checkpoint can also vary widely.

Remember: This structure is the backbone of your story, not the flesh, and not chains wrapped around the flesh. Use the checkpoints to shape your story, not as your story. It should be deeply embedded in your writing rather than brought to the surface and made obvious. The emotional journey checkpoints should evolve naturally from the character flaw and plot checkpoints. When you plan for this to happen, your story is stronger and more satisfying.

Final Poll Results

Best Advice, Worst Advice:
Why Good Writing Advice is Sometimes Bad

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

When it comes to writing advice, there’s bad advice and then there’s good advice that sometimes goes bad. Plain bad advice is easy to spot; it’s the stuff that makes you roll your eyes or laugh out loud, as TC Editor Stephanie Lenz (Baker) did once upon a time at a “a public writers’ get-together sponsored by a major magazine.” Baker recalls: “The instructor spent ten minutes advising people on what font to use for manuscripts. She said that ‘Lucida Handwriting’ is on the ‘acceptable’ list of fonts to use for your manuscript. And I only remember that out of her bag of bad advice because it’s where I laughed out loud and got dirty looks.”

Bad advice is notable only for its wackiness; it’s easy to identify and even easier to dismiss. Bad good advice is more complicated. This is the kind of familiar writing advice that does seem to have merit—if only because it’s so frequently repeated—but at the same time may feel oppressive when you try to put into practice. You know the kind of advice I’m talking about—standard writing maxims like “write what you know,” “eliminate adverbs,” and “show, don’t tell.” Pervasive advice like this often feels like it’s a rule rather than a suggestion. And therein lies the problem.

Beware of Always/Never Rules

The main difficulty with popular writing advice is not that it’s inherently bad, but that it’s presented as an absolute: you must always do this; you should never do that. Additionally, most of this advice has been boiled down to such pithy phrases that the meanings have often become unclear.

  • Write what you know

One oft-heard refrain is “write what you know.” This advice can be perplexing since, as TC Editor Ana George notes, “the point of fiction is making stuff up.” If writers were to follow “write what you know” literally, then all anyone would ever write would be memoir. Of course, that’s not the case. “Write what you know” doesn’t mean that you can only write your personal life story; it means you need to draw on the things you do know to create a realistic fictional world.

Better advice: make sure you know your fictional setting and characters inside-out. As Baker says, “Set your story in a place you know. You don’t have to have been there but you need to know it, from how it smells in the morning to what the people who live there do in their free time.” Ana adds, “In order to have a setting that sounds realistic, you do have to make the details consistent, but it’s fine to have the whole thing invented.”

  • Eliminate adverbs (also adjectives, similes, metaphors)

This purpose of this advice is to encourage writers to choose better—more specific—verbs and nouns. So “sprinted” is a better choice than “ran quickly,” “raisin” is better than “dried grape” and “industrious” is better than “busy as a bee.” A few original similes and metaphors will always have more impact than many overused ones—as TC Forum Host Faith Watson (fmwrites) says, “Best advice I ever received was actually a command from a boss when I used to write marketing copy: ‘Quit it with the extended metaphors. It reads lazy.'” That said, you’ll never get rid of every adverb—”always” is an adverb, and sometimes “always” is the word you need.

Better advice: eliminate unnecessary adverbs, adjectives, similes, and metaphors.

  • Show, don’t tell

“Show, don’t tell” is another familiar mantra that can be confusing—after all, aren’t you telling a story? Like “eliminate adverbs,” this one is meant to discourage writers from taking lazy shortcuts. Instead of telling the reader: “Bob was sad because his dog had died.” you could show the reader that Bob was sad by writing, “Bob pinched back tears as he caught a glimpse of Rover’s bowl, still full of kibble.” Showing generally has more impact on readers because it allows them to figure out what’s happening for themselves and make their own judgments; it makes them a participant and thus invests them in the story. However, showing everything would make for an unnecessarily long (and most likely boring) story. Telling is perfectly appropriate in some circumstances, for example, summarizing what happened during a leap forward in time—just as montage sequences in movies do.

Better advice: be sure to show the important scenes.

  • Avoid passive voice

In general, using active voice (“Jack threw a rock at the window”) is a good idea; it’s more direct and therefore more engaging than passive voice (“A rock was thrown at the window by Jack”). However, sometimes passive voice is appropriate, particularly in situations where the subject of the sentence is unknown or unimportant. For example, if your narrator was unaware who threw the rock, “A rock was thrown at the window” might be preferable to “Someone threw a rock at the window,” especially if you want the focus to be on the rock rather than the unknown rock thrower.

Better advice: use active voice most of the time. Keep in mind that the related advice to seek out “was” and “were” to eliminate passive sentences can be misleading; the presence of was/were is not a definitive indicator that a sentence is passive. For example, “Jack was throwing rocks at the window” is an active sentence.

  • Always use said

Also good as a general rule: using “said” as your primary dialogue tag. Said is unobtrusive and even when used frequently, doesn’t become annoying in the way that more effusive tags like “shouted,” “cried,” and “whispered” can. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should never use a different dialogue tag. Like metaphors, descriptive dialogue tags can be very effective if used sparingly. A single use of “whispered” will stand out if it’s the first deviation from “said” in some time, whereas it is less likely to have any impact if it just one more in a series of creative dialogue tags (yelled, bellowed, coughed, guffawed, whispered…).

Better advice: use dialogue tags other than said only occasionally.

  • Don’t write in first person / Stick to one point-of-view

While it’s true that writing in first person has limitations that writing in third person doesn’t and that switching points of view is more complicated than sticking to one throughout, there is no reason not to write in first person and/or have multiple viewpoint characters if you know what you are doing (why you are using a particular point-of-view, how to switch points-of-view without confusing the reader).

Better advice: always be aware of whose point-of-view you are telling your story from and know why you are using it. As TC Member Sparky99 says, “A writer who has published a number of novels led a discussion at a conference I went to. One woman in the audience kept asking him questions like ‘I’ve been told you can’t switch voices in the same chapter. Is that true?’ To each of her questions, he kept saying the same thing… it doesn’t matter as long as you tell a good story.”

Always Good Advice

  • Just Write

Ana says, “Just write. Don’t worry about how good it is. Edit later. Write in the now.” Baker concurs, “Allow yourself to write crap. It’s how successful NaNoWriMo participants win. Don’t edit as you go and don’t feel that the first draft has to be gold. Write like a shark—you stop moving forward, you die.”

TC Editor Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman) adds, “Best writing advice I ever got was from my very first creative writing teacher (Martha Grimes, who had at the time just published her first novel so was still teaching community courses): ‘The rewriting is more important than the writing.'”

  • Keep Writing

Sparky99 says, “Keep writing. I don’t necessarily talk to too many people who are already writing. I talk to a lot of people who wish they could write and I always tell them to sit down and try. To go to places like Toasted Cheese and look at some of the prompts and see what they can make happen.”

TC Editor Lisa Olson (Boots) adds, “Write for yourself,” which is a good tip to keep in mind particularly for those times when you’re discouraged (not another rejection!) or when the people in your life aren’t being as supportive of your writing aspirations as they could be. If you write for yourself first, you will always have a reason to keep writing.

  • Create Enthusiasm

Baker suggests, “Don’t stop for the session unless you have at least an idea of what will happen next. It’ll save you time at your next session and you won’t dread sitting down to write. It creates enthusiasm.” Boots has a similar strategy: “Write little markers to follow the next day. I did this all during NaNoWriMo this year and it really worked. It’s like a mini outline. While I didn’t always stay on track, it gave me a path to follow.”

While these specific tips might not work for you, the important thing is find something that does. Why do you put off sitting down to write? What gets you excited about getting started (or back at your work-in-progress)? Do whatever it takes to minimize procrastination and maximize enthusiasm.

  • Trust Your Voice

Writers often hear “you should write like [author/style/genre/book]” or they’re encouraged to write whatever is currently popular, or to not write anything too unique. Beware of anyone who advises you to make drastic changes to your style or thinks you should write chick lit when your genre is fantasy. TC Member mikemunsil says, “Never accept just one opinion; hear it at least three times before you even take the opinion into consideration.”

Boots notes the importance of trusting advice-givers: do they know what they’re talking about? Do they have your best interests in mind? Above all, trust yourself, and trust your voice. Your writing should sound like you wrote it, not like someone else did (even if “someone else” is a rich and famous author).

  • Break the Rules

Whether it’s hearing that you must join a critique group (or participate in NaNoWriMo or take a writing class or get an MFA…), that you absolutely need to outline your story or novel, that dedicated writers write every day… writers are constantly bombarded with well-meant advice. But remember, it’s just that. Advice.

If the “rules” help you, great. If not, break them. Just make sure, as Ana points out, that you “know what rules you’re breaking and why.”


Thanks to everyone at the TC forums who helped with this article!

Final Poll Results

The Virgin Page: A Peek at Writing Erotica

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

People are sexual creatures. It’s not something everyone is comfortable admitting, much less exploring through creative writing, but it’s something we need to acknowledge about our characters. Whether you want to write flat-out erotica or just spice up your “vanilla” fiction or poetry, some of the tips and tricks for writing erotica could come in handy for developing your work.

Background Image: CC-by kori monster/Flickr

Background Image: CC-by kori monster/Flickr

What is erotica?

Erotica is sexually explicit literature and may be fiction or poetry. It can have several purposes but what makes it erotica is that it arouses the sensuality of the reader. There is nothing inherently “dirty” about erotic writing but unlike romance fiction, for example, the curtain is not drawn and words are not minced. Erotica is written for and by both men and women, although the majority of the audience for erotica is female.

Erotica is a hot, growing genre and erotica markets can be lucrative. Publishing houses like Ellora’s Cave are dedicated solely to publishing erotic work. There are several online and in-print journals devoted to erotica; Duotrope’s Digest and Erotica Readers and Writers Association are great places to begin searching for markets (and there’s a list at the end of this article). Some erotica journals and publishers run contests, if you’re looking to test the waters.

The world of erotica writers and editors is welcoming and as professional as other genres. Erotica writers take their craft very seriously. Note, however, that not every writing community allows erotica to be posted for feedback (this includes Toasted Cheese, but you are welcome to post a request for feedback via email); ERWA has forums where you can get critique from writers familiar with the genre.

Many mainstream writers also publish erotica under assumed names. In fact, many erotica authors use pseudonyms; this is something to consider if you’re concerned about maintaining your anonymity. Another benefit of using a pseudonym for erotica is that you can keep your credits and portfolios separate. Although things are changing, erotica writers aren’t always given the same respect as other genre writers. Sometimes listing your erotica credits isn’t a bonus to a mainstream editor, agent or publisher. I’ve learned that it’s best only to mention your erotica credits when submitting erotica and if you want to hint at it, say something like “other publications” in your queries and cover letters.

Are there any restrictions involved in writing erotica?

Most erotica journals and writing communities are restricted to those 18 and over. That doesn’t mean you can’t write erotica or use erotic elements in your work if you’re 17 or younger. You can write whatever you like. Publishing your work may be difficult, however, as some journals require that the author be over 18 and to see your work in print you would have to violate the journal’s rules. Getting feedback might be difficult as well but it’s not impossible.

Just about anything goes in erotica; you’ll find niche markets for certain kinds of erotica (bondage or BDSM erotica for example) so if you think something is verboten, you might be surprised. The erotica reader isn’t looking for pornography however. That’s not to say that your erotica can’t be raunchy or smutty. What it means is that she expects well-crafted writing alongside what’s lighting her fire. It’s certainly possible to write beautiful smut (or to write smut beautifully).

There isn’t really a good, clear-cut definition of pornography. What one person finds pornographic, prurient or obscene might not bother or even excite someone else. But the one thing that sets erotica apart from pornography is the artistic nature of the work. For example, a “letter to Penthouse” is likely to be labeled “pornography” rather than erotica. A short story in Clean Sheets might use the same subject or sexual acts as the “letter” but its execution sets it apart as literature and, therefore, erotica. Erotica is artistic and expressive first, sexually exciting second (or simultaneously). Pornography is meant to be sexually exciting without using artistic expression to achieve that end. Of course there are exceptions to these guidelines but in general, that’s how to differentiate.

Usually the restrictions you’ll come across are by publication. One publication might say “no S/M (sadomasochism) please” while another only publishes S/M. Some publishers have to obey the laws of other countries and are legally bound. In the US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand—generally speaking—anything goes. For example, it’s not illegal to write erotica featuring underage characters or erotica with homosexual acts. Write without boundaries, no matter what you’re writing.

What sets erotica apart from other writing?

Erotica is just another genre, like sci-fi or horror. There are conventions and expectations. The basics of erotica writing are the same as any creative writing: rounded characters, a plot, action, dialogue and so forth.

It might feel silly to think about dialogue in erotica but when it comes down to it, it’s not the SAT. Silence is not required… or maybe it is and that’s an idea for a story right there. In general though, sexual partners speak to each other before, during and after sexual activity.

In fact, an erotic story doesn’t even need sexual action but it, like most any story, it will need some kind of action. All that means is that there is a journey between opening and closing paragraph. Your protagonist need never get out of her seat on the subway to have an erotic experience.

If you want to add erotic elements to an existing story, go for it. You know these characters better than they know themselves. What gets their engines stoked? Write some erotic scenes and if they don’t fit with your story, you’ve still gotten to know those characters that much better.

Erotica can exist alongside another genre in the same work (erotic western, erotic fantasy, erotic crime, erotic graphic novels, etc.). All you need is some sexuality and, hopefully, some sex. Erotica can also be an ingredient in a work that’s mainly in another genre (think single scenes in mainstream or literary fiction). You know, the “good parts” where library books have dog-eared corners.

The main thing about using erotic elements in mainstream work is that they need to fit with the feel of the remainder of the work. Use language that’s conducive to the language already in place. If your narrator wouldn’t use certain terms, save them for a stand-alone piece.

Speaking of four letter words…

Erotica embraces language—all elements of language, including words that some find offensive. The flip side of the offensiveness is that the words are also titillating. Erotica readers generally don’t care for pieces that use euphemisms like “member.” They want to read the blue words, especially the “Queen Mother of Dirty Words.” Erotica readers don’t want to dance around the sex; sex is what the reader expects.

It’s okay to be embarrassed about language or situations. Same goes for your characters. Not every written sex scene has to be the World’s Best Experience. Like a conversation, it can be bad, mediocre or fantastic. They might be embarrassed about what they’re doing so why not write that? Or if they’re uncomfortable, let us know. It develops your character.

If you’re not writing stand-alone erotica, it’s important that your scenes mesh with the surrounding work, not just in tone but as part of the story. Make sure you’re not shoehorning in some sex just for the sake of sex. The scene can change the dynamic between characters, reveal a secret, turn the plot 180 degrees, etc. It’s likely that your sex scene won’t just be a sex scene. If it is, you can always lift it and edit it into a stand-alone.

Back to the embarrassment factor…

You might worry about what people will think. The people who know I write erotica aren’t really surprised and are more intrigued than anything. If people don’t like it or don’t want to talk about it, they change the subject or clam up. In my experience, the reaction is more often, “Tell me about it.” People ask for copies of the stories and want to know when I’m writing more. Then again, I’m not terribly concerned about the opinions of others. You can be a highly successful erotica writer and no one need ever know it’s you. However, I’ve also found that when you’re “out” about writing erotica, you have a legion of volunteer editors happy to read your latest work.

How do I get started?

One way to get started is to do some exercises to help determine what you want to write. Do you want to write something new or add to an existing work? For a new piece, think about what you find erotic. Maybe it’s a dream or a fantasy you’ve had. Maybe you’ve had a real experience you could turn into a story. Hrm—that doesn’t sound so unlike regular fiction or poetry, does it?

Anyone can write erotica, whether you’re a virgin or sexually experienced, a great lover or a lousy lover. As I wrote in the opening paragraph: people are sexual creatures. Everyone has something that excites him or her. The key is not to be shy about it. If it works for you, chances are it works for someone else. Besides, you can always deny that it’s something you dig. That’s the beauty of fiction—you are not (necessarily) your narrator.

An excellent way to get started is to read erotica journals. There’s a list on online journals at the end of this article. Reading other work can help you learn what kinds of words are not only acceptable but expected. Even better: it’s fun to read! Erotica has a determined goal: to excite the reader in a sexual way but also in a literary way. What’s happening in the action of the story might not be your cup of tea but the literary effect could be quite stimulating. Writers are naturally turned on by words; after all, the primary sexual organ is the brain.

Write with emotion and passion. We don’t need to know whose foot is where or how they moved from position A to position B (unless it’s relevant). Sex is within and without, physical, emotional, and mental. Let us know what’s happening inside your character’s head and heart as much as between her legs or on her skin. How does she feel about what’s happening?

Of course we all want to be shown what’s happening. The best advice I can give on how to do this is to trust yourself and your writing. If it feels good, write it. The pieces you find in other journals can also help guide you in terms of how to set up your scene and what details you should include. Work at your comfort level but don’t be afraid to challenge your boundaries.

One great thing about writing an erotic scene is that you have a natural plot arc; erotica stories (and some poems) follow the pattern of sexual arousal, complete with climax (a term that’s the same in sex and plotting) and resolution. Of course you don’t have to follow that kind of plot arc. You can have a character’s climax in the first paragraph (or none at all) but if you’re anxious about getting started, it’s a convenient tool to help you structure and complete a story or poem.

You’re also likely to have a myriad of options for sensory detail, which is another reason we don’t need to know whose foot is where. Unlike real-life intimate moments, your writer’s eye can linger on spots, freeze images and pick and choose what is noticed by and conveyed to the reader. Again, your reader expects this kind of detail—it’s what makes your scene or poem erotic and sensual.

If you’re still a little wary or shy about writing erotica, remember that you don’t need to show your work to anyone. You can password-protect your work if you don’t want anyone else to read it. You might be pleasantly surprised by the freedom of writing in a genre anything goes with an eager audience on the other side just waiting to embrace your work.

Recommended reading:

Anthologies and collections:

Websites that offer must-subscribe newsletters:

Books About Writing Erotica


Stephanie Lenz writes erotica as Eden Lenz and Ceilidh Lindsay. Her erotica has appeared in Amoret, Mind Caviar, Abby’s Realm, Asexystory and Best Women’s Erotica 2003. Her mainstream fiction has appeared in “other publications.”

Final Poll Results

Show and Tell 101

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

As a writer, you have probably at some point been given the advice to “Show, don’t tell.” What do people mean when they say this? What is showing? What is telling? When do you show and when do you tell?

There are two ways to create a scene. One way is to tell the reader what is happening outright. For example, suppose you are writing about a man who is worried because his wife is late, you might write:

John was worried. His wife had never been late for dinner before.

This is telling. Instead of saying telling the reader that John is worried, you can show it:

John glanced at his watch, then yanked the door open and looked out for the fifth time. Still no car. Where was she? Dinner grew cold.

When you show, you are conveying the worry through the actions and the specific thoughts, rather than through the label “worried.”

Why “don’t tell”?

Historically, many writers relied heavily on narrative summaries, which are “telling” in nature, to get information to the reader. Writers would often introduce a lot of back story, or information about things that happened before the main action of the book. For example, in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, the narrator introduces the reader to a complete history of the family in the first few pages:

Being Southerners, it was a source of shame to some members of the family that we had no recorded ancestors on either side of the Battle of Hastings. All we had was Simon Finch, a fur-trapping apothecary from Cornwall whose piety was only exceeded by his stinginess. In England, Simon was irritated by the persecution of those who called themselves Methodists at the hands of their more liberal brethren, and as Simon called himself a Methodist, he worked his way across the Atlantic to Philadelphia, thence to Jamaica, thence to Mobile, and up the Saint Stephens. Mindful of John Wesley’s strictures on the use of many words in buying and selling, Simon made a pile practicing medicine, but in this pursuit he was unhappy lest he be tempted into doing what he knew was not for the glory of God, as the putting on of gold and costly apparel. So Simon, having forgotten his teacher’s dictum on the possession of human chattels, bought three slaves and with their aid established a homestead on the banks of the Alabama River some forty miles above Saint Stephens. He returned to Saint Stephens only once, to find a wife, and with her established a line that ran high to daughters. Simon lived to an impressive age and died rich.

So if all these famous authors start out telling instead of showing, why should you show instead of tell? Styles change over time. The rather static but flowery language of previous eras has slowly shifted to the lean, dynamic writing today’s readers and editors prefer. Generally, you should start your story in the middle of the action to hook in the reader and bring them into the story. If you make readers wait for action, you run the risk of losing them before your story really starts. Large quantities of narrative summary do not work effectively as a hook.

Writers who are advised to “show, don’t tell” often overuse narrative summary, which makes the writing seem flat by today’s standards. Think of it this way: How long would you watch a movie where all that happens is a character sits and tells you stuff? No flashbacks, no visualizations, just the character sitting in a chair explaining things. If the explanations are interesting, you might watch for a while, but eventually you have to ask yourself, “Why isn’t this person doing anything?”

Why Show?

Generally, showing has far more emotional impact on the reader than telling does. Remember John, who is worried about his wife. As the reader watches John fidget, it’s possible to fidget with him. You give the reader the opportunity to feel the same worry and to identify with the character. By showing, you give the reader specific actions on which to focus the emotion. If you just say “he is worried,” the reader is more likely to think, “Ok, he’s worried,” and leave it at that.

Show, don’t tell, isn’t just good advice for conveying emotion in your narrative. You can also “show” in description and via dialog.

For example, consider this exchange between Dudley Dursley, Harry Potter’s obnoxious cousin, and his mother from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:

Dudley, meanwhile, was counting his presents. His face fell.

“Thirty-six,” he said, looking up at his mother and father. “That’s two less than last year.”

“Darling, you haven”t counted Auntie Marge’s present, see, it’s here under this big one from Mommy and Daddy.”

“All right, thirty-seven then,” said Dudley, going red in the face. Harry, who could see a huge Dudley tantrum coming on, began wolfing down his bacon as fast as possible in case Dudley turned the table over.

This exchange effectively paints Dudley as greedy and spoiled.

Dialog can be used to reveal people’s characters. It can also be used to give information to the reader. This kind of dialog, if not handled well, can become a clunky form of telling. Consider how much information Van Helsing is giving the reader in the following exchange from Dracula by Bram Stoker:

“Here, there is one thing which is different from all recorded. Here is some dual life that is not as the common. She was bitten by the vampire when she was in a trance, sleep-walking, oh, you start. You do not know that, friend John, but you shall know it later, and in trance could he best come to take more blood. In trance she dies, and in trance she is Un-Dead, too. So it is that she differ from all other. Usually when the Un-Dead sleep at home,” as he spoke he made a comprehensive sweep of his arm to designate what to a vampire was ‘home’, “their face show what they are, but this so sweet that was when she not Un-Dead she go back to the nothings of the common dead. There is no malign there, see, and so it make hard that I must kill her in her sleep.”

This turned my blood cold, and it began to dawn upon me that I was accepting Van Helsing’s theories. But if she were really dead, what was there of terror in the idea of killing her?

He looked up at me, and evidently saw the change in my face, for he said almost joyously, “Ah, you believe now?”

When dialog tells too much, it’s often referred to as “As you know, Bob” dialog. “As you know Bob, I’m about to reveal some important information in a long piece of dialog.” (For tips on avoiding “telling” dialog, see Something to Talk About.)

How to Show

Showing is a powerful technique. How do you turn a “tell” scene into a “show” scene? One key is in using powerful verbs and nouns. In general, the fewer adjectives and adverbs you use, the less “tell-y” your writing will be.

For example, take John again, waiting for his wife. Compare the following sentences:

John looked nervously at his watch, then opened the door and looked out impatiently.

John glanced at his watch, then yanked the door open and looked out for the fifth time.

In the first sentence, the reader is once again being told how John feels. He feels nervous and impatient. While this is an improvement over the terse “John was worried,” it is still telling the reader what the emotions are. The second sentence moves the emotion right into the action. He glances, he yanks. He’s done this four times before.

Another way to show instead of tell is to invoke sensory description. Involve touch, sight, sound, smell, and taste where you can. The more you can draw the reader into the moment, the more powerful the scene will be.

Recognizing When You Tell

A big clue that you are over-telling is if you find yourself using the words was and felt. John was worried. He felt anxious. These are telling statements. Another is if you are using a lot of adverbs. John said anxiously, “Where is she?” He paced nervously. Look for places where you are explaining emotions. If they are important emotions, or important scenes, work on showing in these places.

It’s also possible to show, and then undercut your showing by summarizing what is going on. For example, if you wrote:

John glanced at his watch, then yanked the door open and looked out for the fifth time. Still no car. Where was she? Dinner was getting cold. John was worried that his wife wasn’t home.

you would be following your showing with a telling summary. When you are writing for adults or young adults, they already know John is worried because of the way he is acting. Telling the reader he is worried doesn’t add any new information. don’t underestimate your readers—don’t pull them out of the moment by explaining what you’ve already shown.

(Note: Writers will often both show and tell when they are writing for young children. Young children are not able to infer things the way adults and teens can. If you both show and tell what is going on in a scene, you help children to learn how to infer what is happening.)

When to Show and When to Tell

Most beginning writers rely heavily on telling to get their point across. This robs them of the immediacy that will pull the reader into the story. Because of this, “Show, don’t tell” has become a basic mantra for writers. But it isn’t always practical or even desirable to present an entire story by showing it all. An action movie with all action scenes will quickly exhaust the viewer. There need to be down times between the excitement to make the excitement meaningful.

In general you should SHOW when:

  • You want to make an emotional impact
  • You want to convey an image with your words
  • You want the reader to feel “in the moment”

In general you should TELL when:

  • You want to summarize relatively unimportant events
  • You want to convey events over a long range of time
  • You want to give the reader information the characters don’t know

Dos and Don’ts

  • Do show important scenes.
  • Do show more than you tell.
  • Do tell when it is appropriate
  • Don’t tell using dialog.
  • Don’t undercut your showing by summarizing the scene with telling sentences.

Final Poll Results