dissect writing

InboxWednesday – Dialogue Construction

Hello and welcome to InboxWednesday, where I use the carnival claw machine on my inbox to pull out a question and answer it for public consumption. If you have a question you’d like to see answered (I should point out that if you submit a question, you also get an answer in email, I don’t just leave you hanging), you can email me.

Today’s question comes from Mark, who asks:

Hey John, got a question for you. I’m writing a lot of dialogue, and don’t want to keep saying, “Bob says,” before every quoted thing. What are some things I can do, and how can I keep it interesting, not just for the reader, but for me as I keep writing?

There’s actually a name for this issue, and it’s constructed repetition. Normally it’s a speaking concept where a person references the same phrase to establish it as a buzzword or theme for their discussion. Partner that with a physical gesture, and you’re looking at one of the tenets of neurolinguistic programming.

But since Mark isn’t asking me for a recipe on how to rally loads of people into action or organize disparate minds into a frenzy, we’ll just look at the constructed repetition that causes boredom.

To get into this, we’re going to have to first talk abstractly about what it means to read. I’ll spare you the load of science I know, and condense this down to one idea — reading is about pattern recognition, where the patterns are shapes and lines that have a sound associated with them. We call them letters, and groups of letters are called words. We see the same words over and over again, and we intuit and then understand their meaning.

This is how we know that a “dog” refers to a domesticated pet, and not that thing with a peel you eat as part of a balanced breakfast. This collective understanding is called context.

Pattern recognition works because our input system (eyes, braille, hieroglyphs, cuneiform, etc) processes the same symbols over and over again, and we derive meaning from them. (We call this reading.)

The tricky bit about reading is that it’s also about sameness in those patterns. We see the same letters forming the same words repeatedly, and we get lulled into less careful processing. We realize that all the paragraphs are going to start with “So”, and then we skip that word, because we’re used to seeing it, and we’ve built this momentary expectation that it’s going to be there, so skip ahead and get to the new bits.

When we get to dialogue, we need to focus, because not only can that dialogue convey new information (I mean stuff we didn’t already know, not specifically plot-stuff), it’s an opportunity for us get insight or access to the character doing the talking.

The two words Bob says are called a dialogue tag, because they tell us who is expressing themselves and how. The who is most often a proper noun, though it can be a pronoun, and the how is a combination of the verb, but also any adverbs hanging out nearby. Remember that verb choice carries with it an expectation and a context, so that we can distinguish saying and yelling by different volumes, for instance.

Dialogue tags can be found in three places: pre-line, mid-line, and post-line. Let’s take a look at each of them. And it’s important to think about a dialogue tag as two+ words functioning as one item. It’s not just the “said” or “Bob”, it’s their combination that we’re talking about here.

Bob opined, “Why can’t anyone pay attention?”

The sentence opens with a tag, using the comma to indicate a pause, and the quotation marks to trigger a switch from exposition/narration to character. All dialogue tags mark and make obvious this transition.

By setting this on its own line, as you should always be doing, you’re making a paragraph.

Giving Bob two more things to say, we can create this example:

Bob opined, “Why am I an example?”
Here is a sentence about something happening in the room.
Bob huffed, “I’m not sure I like being this example.”
Something else happened in the room.
Bob spoke, “I’m glad this example is over.”

Remember that Brady Bunch complaint about “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” ? That’s what you get with a proper noun + verb dialog tag as a sentence or paragraph starter. It sounds whiny. It reads monotonously. It’s not striking visually. It seems safe and simple.

Is it wrong? No. It’s sort of like setting the cruise control at one mile under the limit then sticking to the center lane – you won’t get a ticket, but you’ll only aggravate the people around you.

There are uses for it, sure, but to have it dominate the text is to get a bit formulaic. Here’s another point about pre-line tags – where do you want me to focus. You’ve name-checked Bob, but to what idea within this line of letters am I supposed to be rapt? Should I care who’s talking and how they’re doing it, or am I supposed to care about what they’re saying?

“This,” Bob said, “isn’t much better.”

Don’t let the ‘mid’ fool you, the tag doesn’t need to be precisely 50% of the way in the line to have the effect I’m about to describe. It could be one word (most common is one to three), it could be a whole sentence, then a tag, then another heap of words. So what’s wrong with this?

First, it makes the text look like a pair of bubbles or wings, with the tag between them. My second writing professor referred to them as “swimmies on a toddler”, meaning those blood pressure cuff inflatable pontoons you lash to a kid’s biceps before putting them in water.

Second, and more critical to me, you’re breaking up the line of dialogue just to tell me who said it. It’s a sometimes unnecessary pause. If the context is clear enough, I should be able to figure out who’s saying what, particularly if you’ve only got the two characters and they’re going back and forth. Bob, then Alice, then back to Bob … even if you don’t name check a character with a “Holy dicksnot, Alice” or “By Zeke’s flowing beard, Bob!” So long as each line of dialogue gets its own line, trust me to be smart enough to know who’s saying what to whom.

Again, this has its uses, particularly if your swimmies run long and technical (I’m looking at you, SF/F manuscripts redolent with technocrunch), or if you adding a bit of weight to the moment the dialogue speaking creates. As in:

Now,” Bob loaded the shotgun, “this is where I stop being your monkey.”

“I think I really love Janice from the examples in the draft,” Bob said.

Here the dialogue tag is hanging out at the end of whatever’s been said, and that’s often vestigial. Again, context should help the reader figure out, so sometimes we don’t need any tags.

The tag at the end can render the whole line in a kind of decay, where all the good stuff happens (long) before the period, which means I don’t need to be paying complete attention at the end of the sentence, since I’m only there to see what the character says and move on.

So What’s The Fix?

The fix is pretty straightforward – mix and match. A combo of pre-and mid-. Throw in a few post-. And stop relying on the same verb. There’s nothing wrong with “said” but there’s nothing wrong with changing up the word while still being specific as to what’s happening.


Loads of words exist, and use them. Place tags where you like and need to, but also be willing to not have any. Remember, you’ve got revisions and editing and beta readers to tell you if something does or doesn’t need a tag.

Break the repetition. Make a conscious effort to try and not go with that first instinct with “said.” You might just surprise yourself.


Mark, I hope that answers your question. It’s a kinda crunchy one, and I’m hoping the examples streamlined it a bit. Let me know how it goes.

I’ll see you all back here Friday for more bloggity goodness.

Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus in dissect writing, grammar, inboxwednesday, just write the f--king thing, living the dream

Show vs Tell, Emotion vs Information

Welcome back to your work week. I know, I know, weekends always seem so short and the hours you do other stuff seem to vastly outnumber the hours when you don’t have to put on pants. And as a guy makes his living doing the opposite of that – I only have to put on pants when I’m not working – I get it. So let’s dive into making good art and we’ll get through this.

There’s a big deal made about “show versus tell” and it’s worth the big deal, for sure, but I ask a lot of writers what they think it means, and I hear a lot of differing answers. They’re not all wrong, some are just incomplete, or vague. Today, I want to give you another definition for it, maybe you’ll find this more applicable or understandable than how I normally talk about it.

But that means we need to give the usual definition first, so we can build a point of comparison. Usually, I talk about show vs tell as a way to give the reader a sense of investment, or “room” to be a part of the story, as the writer doesn’t over- or inflexibly explain the elements in text, so the reader is drawn deeper and forward into the fiction.

And that’s not a bad definition – you show the canvas, you don’t have such a rigid sense of what’s been painted on it, and you had the reader a little brush and a little color and say, “Yeah, I know I’m talking about a coffee table, and it’s not that critical that I need to be so controlling, so you picture whatever table you want, it’s cool.” A fair definition and explanation, but it’s hard to grasp if you’ve never done it well.

Here’s the new way to come at this. We’re going to talk information transfer theory, but rather than get super technical and duller than bad paint, we’re going to stay simple.

Information transfer theory is the idea that one person has something to convey to someone else, and how they choose to do that. Maybe it’s spoken, maybe it’s a gesture, maybe it’s written. Maybe it’s smoke signals and arranging rocks. Whatever it is, info goes from one person (the creator) to another (the receiver), and we use have very declarative verbs to express that transfer: speak, say, yell, write, draw … tell.

Telling is all about conveying information. And yes, when we relay information, we don’t want there to be any wiggle room, we want our meaning and our specifics conveyed, especially when the information relates to something critical. Would you be okay with playing the telephone game if the original message is “Your house is on fire!” or “Would you like medical attention for that gunshot?”

We learn a lot of telling in school. We tell the class about the book we read. We tell the teacher the answer for question 18. We tell the attractive person that we want to go to the dance and then she tells two people she doesn’t want to go with you, so they tell you her message, with their fists. (8th grade was a very strange experience for me).

We learn a lot of telling from our media. The television tells us the news, weather, sports, political atrocities and traffic updates. Those blogs you subscribe to tell you all kinds of stuff about whatever you’re interested in.

Telling lets the receiver be very passive in the transfer relationship. You sit there, the other person does all the work. Telling is the lapdance of writing. You get an experience … but is it really the experience you want? Save some dollar bills and keep an eye on how much telling you’re doing.

Showing though is the champagne room. You get past the expositive bouncer, and you have some ability to feel something (that’s some wordplay for your Monday). The flip side of information transfer theory is emotion prioritized over information. We feel however we feel based on the information, but we can be steered towards some emotions over others based on context.

A writer has a responsibility, though I’d call it a duty and obligation, to make the reader feel something.

But, you say, if I’ve got information to convey, and I can’t control whatever the reader feels upon hearing that the sky is overcast on a particular day, how can I make my reader feel anything?

Well, writer, assuming they feel nothing doesn’t speak very highly as to what you think of your readers. What you’re subcutaneously asking is how you can make them feel “what you want” when they read that the sky is the color of pigeon wings.

Which is why we need the combination of show AND tell when we create art. No, you can’t and don’t want to be all one or the other.

All tell, and you’ve got a dry stack of words with minimal warmth and interest. You’re Spock telling me about planetary life signs. After a while, we need to go find another crew member to interact with.

All show, and you’ve got words with greater width than depth. You can go on and on, adding adjectives and flourish to same ideas, making them more ornate or being more specific, but you’re not combining them with other information to build a complete picture. It’s a teenage love letter, happy to be repeating “I love you” a thousand times, but not having a depth to the idea. And after awhile, it loses its meaning.

But telling serves a critical role: it gives us a boundary, or more like several boundaries. It establishes the perimeter within which we can do all the emotion-evoking we want. And the more definite the boundaries, the more detailed we can get within them.

For example, let’s look at the room I’m sitting in while I’m writing this. It’s Sunday, at 1 minute past noon as I write this sentence, and I’m in an office chair, a bottle of water on my left side, next to my phone that I’ve plugged in to charge while it streams Spotify. The blinds are up on the windows to my right, and the windows are closed. I can hear morning doves. My feet are cold.

That’s a whole lot of telling. I’ve put together quite a few boundaries:

  • The time of day, and the day of the week
  • The chair I’m in
  • Some of the items to my left and right
  • The state of the window blinds and windows
  • What I hear
  • A physical sensation I’m experiencing

With those things defined, I don’t have to qualify additional boundaries. You have enough there to picture me sitting here writing on a Sunday afternoon. What I can do now is add in elements I think will help you feel something in the ballpark of what I intend the text to feel. I can add character and color and shading and narration so that we see a completed picture that tells you a story, not just a set of facts.

Like this: It’s Sunday, just after 12 noon, and as I write, there’s two thoughts at war with the writing – first, I want a shower, second, I want it to be about ten degrees warmer and ditch this grey sky. It’s a downer, no matter how loud I play swing music or think about delicious food. The chair creaks under even the gentlest strains, locking me into a posture like I’m stuck in an economy seat next to some shoe salesman named Earl. Checking wordcount, I’m through 1260 right now, so I’m pretty satisfied. My feet are cold, and I wish I had something other than water to drink as I stare out the windows.

No, the above facts didn’t all make it, because when you aim to evoke emotion, you’re not going to need all the facts to stay, because narration isn’t recitation.  Nor will there be a perfect 50-50 balance that you can always strike.

But you need to define the sandbox somewhat before you go play in it. Information is the basis upon which we educe emotion from our audience, whether we’re writing a touching eulogy or using green on a canvas to make someone remember the lawn of a childhood home.

Consider your boundaries. You control the focus and camera movment, so why do we need THAT piece of information in THAT spot at THAT time? Is it to get us to feel a particular way in a particular moment? Or are you building towards something in word-increments so that when we soon reach another point, we’ve got this whole context in hand so we can appreciate what you mean?

Consider the emotions. How intensely do you need us to feel them? Do we need to feel them as intensely in every sentence, every time? Is that going to yield diminishing returns, constantly keeping the reader cranked to 11? Don’t forget you also hold the ability to push/pull, to vary the words and the emotional triggers and state. The audience has come to you for a whole story, and you’re leading people through the experience a word at a time.

I know, it’s one thing to talk about it, another to do it. So go practice it. Draft after draft. Paragraph after paragraph. You’ll get better at it, the more you do it, and the more you push yourself to do it in ways and places you didn’t think you could or should (yes, you can and should do it all over the place).

See you back here for #inboxwednesday. Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus in art hard, dissect writing, living the dream

FiYoShiMo Day 18 – Plot and Time

Today, we’re talking about time, and how it relates to plot.

Time is one of the story elements that sits in a very unique position – either the story is built around it, or it doesn’t get mentioned outside of passing details that end up being of little consequence. You can’t say that about other elements like setting or description of objects. Time is at once critical and not, flexible and fixed, static and dynamic.

Wrong franchise, but valid idea here.

We need to know the time. It provides a boundary over the scale of a story, it helps gives actions and characters a significance. If we’re telling the story of a kidnapping, knowing the time of certain scenes and beats help us map out the events of the story, even if it gets all chopped up Rashomon style. If we’re telling the story of a planet being forged out of starstuff and gravitic forces, we’re less concerned about the congealing of hydrogen on a particular Tuesday, and more interested in the zoomed out galactic view of millions or billions of years.

The nice thing is that as storytellers we have an infinite supply of it. Even if our storied is bounded within the confines of a single day or a weekend or a few hours, no matter the boundaries we can set up the pacing of the story to allow for lots of actions to be occurring simultaneously within our chronological windows. As I write this post it’s early afternoon. I’m willing to bet that while I’m writing this post, there’s someone elsewhere who is answering a phone, or pouring a glass of water, or thinking about pickles. I’m comfortable with that bet because there are so many people and places in the world that I can’t easily conceive or count them all, so I’m chalking a lot up to possibility.

As a creative, you have such enormous control on what’s possible in your world. How much can someone do in a day?

Well, Die Hard (the movie that’s on in the background while I’m typing this), takes place over one night. John McClane does a lot of things, if by a lot you mean shoot, run, and quip.

I pick that film because it shows a stretching of time. Over the course of an evening, Gruber and his forces infiltrate, take hostages, begin a robbery, and get foiled, all before the sun rises. Outside of a few plot demands that people be released or actions be taken at certain times, you don’t really know how long it’s been from shooting that security guard to the Rickman plummet. And you don’t have to. In Die Hard, time is immaterial. It takes time to do these things, but whether it’s 3, 5, or 7 hours doesn’t matter to you.

Contrast that with Ghostbusters. There’s a pretty generous collapsing of time. How long does it take for the busters of any g-h-o-s-t to build a following, make radio and television appearances and get a small business in New York City off the ground? Sure, it’s all montage with cuts back to Sigourney Weaver, but that montage represents weeks or even months.

Between those two films, you can see the flexibility of time as applied to story.

Ask yourself how critical time is in your story. Do we need to track time as if it’s finite (as in a kidnapping or heist story)? Do we need to stop considering time altogether, because there are more important things at work (like in high fantasy where it’s all warfare and drama)?

Ask yourself what benefit time has in your story. Are your characters challenged by a lack of it? Is time so abundant they can procrastinate without any consequence?

Ask yourself if time is bound or unbound. Bound time is the period of time the story takes place in as a range of days in sequence, but we don’t look past it. A story about a weekend bachelor party where we’re only concerned about Friday to Sunday, is bound time. Yes, we have an idea that time exists beyond and existed prior to the story, but we’re only asked to focus on a specific range of contiguous time.

Unbound time is the period of time the story takes place in, but it doesn’t matter if the days are in sequence or not. A story told in non-linear chronological order, or a story with inconsistent stretches of time (a weekend here, a Tuesday over there, a Monday to a Wednesday later on), gives us a sense that time is a thing, and it’s “sort of” acting as a boundary in our story, but it’s more of a guideline than some concrete rule.

We’ll end today with this – managing time in the story goes a long way to giving it credibility and a feeling of groundedness. Even if you don’t use our Earth-based calendars or time metrics (any of them), even if you rename all the days and months and give them irregular lengths or durations, you’re still giving the story one additional layer that people can hold onto and invest in.

Don’t dismiss time. Don’t put it off. Some of us have waited many many years for some stories to get advanced, so don’t think it’s not important to us.


See you tomorrow, where we’ll conclude our discussion of plot with Plot Crutches.

Posted by johnadamus

FiYoShiMo – Day 15 – Plot Sustenance

More plot today on FiYoSHiMo Day 15. I hope you’ve been finding this series helpful. Plot is one of the more abstract and variable elements in storycraft, since we can all come up with a different one even if we start with the same components.

Let’s keep at it today, where we talk about plot sustenance.

You have to be able to keep a plot going once you get it started. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking main plot (the big conflict in the book) or a subplot (a lesser conflict in the book) or a character arc (the evolution of the character over the course of the book), because whatever you start, you need to keep it going.

It’s sort of like running. If you stop moving your legs, you’re not running anymore. Thinking about it now, without moving your legs while running, I think you’d be falling. Someone go test that for me.

Or maybe you’d see it like a fire. You have this nice stack of small pieces of wood and then you introduce this spark, and it catches and burns, continuing to do so for as long as there’s wood to consume.

Either way, you need to keep the plot moving.

This breeds three questions:

a) How do I move the plot forward?
b) How much do I move the plot?
c) How quickly do I move the plot?

So let’s look at each question.

How Do I Move Plot Forward?
The nice thing about plot is that it only has one intended direction (forward) and two possible speeds (moving or immobile).

Plot is driven by scenes, and scenes are driven by character decisions and any consequences that arise from those decisions. Any reactions that other characters or the world has to those initial decisions are also decisions, which is also bear consequences, and around the cycle turns. Basic algebra tells me then that plot is driven by character decisions.

And since a plot can only be acted on by the characters involved in it, the number of decisions is actually pretty small. Which means you get to map them out. Go get your opening scene. I’m going to go get a cup of tea.

Ready? Cool. List me all the characters in this scene. All of them. In any order, doesn’t matter. Just make a list.

Now put a star by the main character(s). Include any antagonists. These are your decision makers in this scene.

What decisions can they make? Write them down too. If any characters can make the same (or similar decisions), make sure they each get it on their list.

As an example, let’s say I have 3 people: A, B, and C. They’re going to go holiday shopping. A and B arrive together in B’s car. C meets them there. The mall is crowded, noisy, and busy. A and B get into an argument about a gift. C is tangential to it.

So what can they do?
Both A and B could work out their problems.
Both A and B could concede their position in the argument
Both A and B could use a variety of tactics to win the argument.
Both A and B could drag C into the argument
C could jump in to defend or attack either A or B
A, B, or C could walk away from this scene at any time.

I’m not talking about what could happen, I mean, I could easily introduce D through Q into the scene. Hyperintelligent dinosaurs could attack the mall Santa. Asteroids could strike the parking lot. There could be a sale on handtowels. Tons of things could happen.

But I want to see the decisions that the involved characters could make, because those decisions are going to make this scene feed into the next. The scene needs to resolve itself, but not all resolutions are pretty things with bows on top. Resolution just means conclusion. It doesn’t always need to be satisfactory, it just needs to be over so the next thing can start.

To move plot, make decisions.

How much do I move the plot?
Since we agree you have to move the plot along over the course of however many words and pages you’re writing, now we start to look at pacing.

Pacing is the flow of plot. The first part of pacing is called “plot division” which is a measure of how big each package of plot is. Do you give out plot every (I’m making numbers up here) 3 scenes? Every other chapter? Every tenth page?

There isn’t a single “you must do it this way” answer. Whatever speed at which you choose to lay out the plot, you just need to be consistent about it. Why? Because if you’re inconsistently delivering plot pieces, then you’re not establishing how important each piece is. And your plot is supposed to be important.

This is usually where someone asks, “What about unimportant pieces of plot?” and I have two responses:

a) Why are you giving the reader unimportant plot?
b) If there are many similar items that can be grouped together (like all the evidence at a crime scene, for example), why aren’t they coming all in one package?

As you build your story through the first two acts, as you reach the climax, your rollercoaster should be gaining momentum. The pacing of details and scenes should reflect the chug-chug-chug of the car up the tracks until we have no choice but to rocket down the slope. And on the downturn, the pacing can slow back down until we’re off the ride.

How fast do I move the plot?
We just talked chug-chug-chug. Now it’s a question of how many chugs, how quickly.

How quick a pace can you maintain? That’s an important question to consider, because you have to be writing this thing, and invariably there are going to be moments that are slower than others. And knowing your own development, even a little, can provide a lot of insight as to how you’ll plan to write. And I’m not just talking about the time you’ll spend sitting and writing, I mean the scenes you right as well. Do the intense scenes take more out of you? Does knowing that you have to do the dull scenes tempt you more to procrastinate? You’ve got to do all the scenes either way, but how you view getting them done is going to affect how you write and what you write, even if you don’t realize it.

Move the plot at whatever speed works best for your production and whatever speed works best for the development of the tension you want to build. Rush me through something, I’m going to assume it’s not important. Take your time and set up something, I’m going to look for a proportionally large payoff.

All of this is up to you: based on your plot, how you divide it, how you choose to dole it out, and how large a story you’re telling. Try out a few different pacings, see what feels comfortable. Practice. Try again. Keep trying.

Tomorrow, we’re going to talk about plot filler. See you then.

Posted by johnadamus

FiYoShiMo – Day 14 – Plot Negligence

Let’s go FiYoShiMo Day 14, there’s a good topic on our plate today. Onto more plot goodness!

We’ve all been there – we left a light on in the kitchen, we forget to replace the toilet paper, we skip items on the grocery list. It’s easy to overlook and forget things, especially when we’re stressed (it is the holiday season after all), or when we’re already so busy worrying about whether or not some fascist with a combover might be a legitimate political presence sans a Hugo Boss leather trenchcoat.

Today we’re going to talk “plot negligence”, which is the collective term for all those plot elements that get introduced but don’t get resolved.

It’s so easy to write a thing and forget about it, when page counts climb and larger plot things kick off. “Oh I’ll get back to it,” you say, but then the minor point falls to the wayside. Or maybe it’s not a minor point. Maybe it’s a big deal, but due to time or space or energy, you don’t address it when it needs addressing.

The good news is that you can learn to curb the habit. I can’t promise you’ll never do this again, not without miniaturizing myself and navigating your mind. And I’m not sure you want that, especially if I find out where you store your weird freaky thoughts about that one teacher you had, or the people you work with. Yeah, you should totally give that person your number. And give them my number. Hell, give them all the numbers hashtag ifyouknowwhatiamsaying.

So we begin by figuring out what you’re leaving unresolved. We have to talk about that, we can’t talk plot and not talk about plot construction. A plot is built out of a scenes, like we talked about yesterday, and these scenes are scalar, to some degree.

In shortest, simplest terms, plot is a set of scenes strung together because they represent an arc, or a progression of ideas that show some kind of change from beginning to end. The change doesn’t have to be all positive – you can show someone diving face-first into a habit or addiction, you can show someone on the decline – but there does have to be change and it has to be “visible”, meaning the reader can pick up on it. To be visible, you have to put it into words, because readers read text not minds, so if you don’t say anything about a thing, who’s going to know about it?

An arc has parts we all recognize to some degree: a beginning (inciting action), a middle (rising action), and an end (climax and conclusion). It has to start somewhere, it has to travel to some other point, it has to end at that other point.

Usually the negligence happens during the middle. It’s easy and even exciting to start stuff, but when it’s revealed there has to be a middle, screw that, let’s do something else exciting (you may have heard this same idea expressed around diet, exercise, doing your job, or cleaning). So what is it about arc-middles that makes us not followthrough?


These guys know all about followthrough.

Maybe we can come at this from the ends. What makes plot-start exciting?

New is always exciting. New toys, news people, new experiences. Since we’re early in our exposure to a thing, we’re not sick of it yet. There are things left to discover, and often a lot of unknowns to make known. Plot-starts, also called inciting actions, are interesting to write, because we’re usually writing them as an alternative to what we’ve been writing already. We take a break from the middle of something to introduce something else.

These introductions can happen any time, though they’re best when started in the first act of whatever you’re making, because the later an element is introduced, the less time you have for a payoff and the less native it will feel to the story. Imagine reading hundreds of pages about a questing knight, and only in the last fifty does the knight get a sword, but not the sword he’s been hearing about all book, just a plain old magical sword. If that sword suddenly becomes the go-to weapon that kills the dragon he’s been battling all book, whatever weapons he’s had pre-sword get cheapened.

An inciting action (or incident) has two pieces: a tension, and a release.

The tension is the moment or event the character sees happening that prompts action or intervention. It isn’t the moment where they act (that comes next), this is the moment that leads to them doing something. For a budding superhero, this is the mugging they see and think they can stop.

Tension prompts action. They see the mugging, so they go do something about it. Whatever they do (and if you’re showing a character’s first attempts at something, barring superpowers, that first attempt is often played for comedy. With superpowers it’s played for amusement or excitement), they do something, and that leads to the release of the inciting action (beat). Yes, it’s our old friend, the action beat, making an appearance.

The release is the character doing something about it. They see the mugging, they intervene. The payoff, the reward for seeing action is taking action to do something about it. It’s a cycle of beats. It doesn’t have to get more complicated than “see a thing, react”.

An inciting action (beat) to your character is some other character’s climax, or their conclusion, or whatever, it falls somewhere on their arc already in progress. The mugging our proto-hero stops, if we look at the mugger’s arc, maybe that’s the height of their (the mugger’s) story.

These inciting actions are exciting to write, because they’re new, because they’ve got stuff going on, because it’s a chance to show the character doing something. Doing stuff is a chance to show off your writing skills. It’s also a chance to show off the ideas you have for the character, at least in part.

Once things are started though, they do have to be sustained, and that’s where we start to lose interest. Because it’s work. Because the newness has worn off. Because once you rescue one cat out of a tree, the idea that you have to rinse-and-repeat for all the cats in the forest is tiring, and you haven’t even started yet.

We’re going to talk about plot sustenance tomorrow in more detail, but let me lay out some foundations here – nothing has changed so drastically since the inciting action, just your view and expectation of the idea.

Sustaining an arc is not the same as furthering it or developing it. Sustaining the arc means it doesn’t do anything other than progress at its current pace in its current direction. It doesn’t speed up, it doesn’t slow down, it doesn’t rise or climb, it flattens out and stays in that direction. How could that not be duller than watching hair move?



Yes, I hear you, doing things the same way over and over is how we build a habit. But we’re not talking about writing everyday or not eating that candy bar, we’re talking about showing your character do stuff in your story. The specifics of what your character does are immaterial at this point, so long as the character is doing something.

It’s still work, I know. It takes up space and words, and you have way more exciting things to talk about. It’s way cooler to use the computer than to build it, I get it. But you have to get through this stuff to get to whatever you think is the more exciting part.

Here too, I question you, why isn’t talking about a character’s arc exciting you? Why is the arc here? Yes, you need one, but if it’s not interesting, compelling, or exciting to you, why are you writing it, and do you think it will excite the reader if you’re not jazzed by it either?

When I look at discarded arcs, I see either a deficit of excitement, or over complication.

The second part of an arc, the rising action, is a build-up to a climax. This consumes the second act of the arc. It’s what happens after the hero discovers powers, before they go confront the big bad. This is often a montage, but since we’re writing, we get to detail the montage.

Look, complicating a thing doesn’t necessarily make it better. Think about cell phones and your parents. You know they’re just going to use it to make calls and barely listen to voicemails, so why bother explaining to them that they can make a WiFi hotspot or that it can listen to all the music ever?

The climax needs to be reached no matter what, so why clutter up the route to it? I don’t mean get to it quickly (not A-B-done), I mean why make so many digressions? Why dilute the progress with detours? Are you just showing off that you can write? Are you hunting for someone to say “Good job <YOUR NAME HERE>, you’re officially a writer now. Take off your pants and relax” ??

You have the whole second act, so use it. Keep each action beat functioning as the cog in the machine it is. You don’t have to escalate the power level so drastically every step of the way, the increase comes in the potential for success. Just like the montage, the outcome is mastery and confidence, progress from unknown to known.

The last part of an arc is the climax and resolution. In larger terms, if we zoom out, this is just a release for the tension of the first two acts.

A climax is the height of story experience. It’s where all the groundwork of the previous parts gets acted upon, which is why a climax often lives in the back of act 2 or start of act 3. It needs that much time to germinate, it needs that much prep in order to get a proper delivery. Rush your climax, and no one is satisfied.


You get what I’m saying?

But your climax is built on your prep work. Skimp on the development, and it will read and feel like things are missing (because they are). Diligence, here, dear writer. Keep your focus small and keep going, a beat at a time.

That’s all you’re doing. Yes, you’ve got your outline, your character study, your developmental notes. You’ve got a queue of beta readers, you’ve got all these things in a row like little ducks … but they all come AFTER the part where you tell the story a beat at a time.

Post-climax, there must be resolution. Resolutions are the other part people skip, and I think it’s because it’s either perceived as boring to wrap things up (remember how weird it was that so many 80s cartoons ended with characters in a group all laughing?) or there’s some fear that if this thing ends, you won’t be able to generate a next exciting idea? I know that fear really well, it has kept me from finishing a lot of things in my life.

Ideas are always there, as is your ability to craft and shape them into story. We all got this. We can all do it. We just have to keep at it.

Tomorrow, we’re talking plot sustenance, see you then.





Posted by johnadamus

FiYoShiMo Day 12 Secondary Characters

Today’s the final day of character development on FiYoShiMo, and honestly, the topic today almost didn’t make the cut. When I started mapping out the ideas you’ve been reading about for the last twelve days, I was worried that several of the days weren’t as strong as other days – that the topics weren’t as exciting, they weren’t as well developed. I’ve tried not to worry about it, but today was a particularly tough topic, because there are a lot of examples, but not a lot of definitions behind them. I hope what I’ve presented below helps clarify something I think we all take for granted.

Have you ever noticed the number of “and”s when we look at characters? Batman AND Robin. The Lone Ranger AND Tonto. Riggs AND Murtaugh. Tango AND Cash.

‘And’ is a potent word, when you think about it, because it creates a relationship. We don’t always know what kind of relationship, whether it’s as equals (see Riggs and Murtaugh) or superior-subordinate (Batman and Robin), but there’s a relationship to consider. We have to find out which relationship is present in the story, and adjust our expectations accordingly. It’s not bad that it works out that way, but setting expectations in power dynamics between characters is critical, because as a reader, we want to follow the most compelling character, even if they’re lower on the hierarchy than another character.

Power dynamics sit at the heart of today’s FiYoShiMo, because we’re talking about secondary characters. A secondary character is any character in a story who isn’t the main character, who contributes something to the story, and who isn’t a cameo. Steve the barista isn’t a secondary character if he makes one appearance to pour our weary protag some macchiato. That’s a cameo. Steve the barista becomes a secondary character when the story becomes about people hiding in the coffee shop because aliens have landed and are shooting humans under orders from their leader Donald Trump. (Topical!)

A power dynamic is how a relationship gets expressed between characters. For binary relationships, there are two:

a) A Superior/Subordinate relationship, where the subordinate is reduced in role and is often portrayed as younger, less knowledgeable, or to some degree lesser than the superior. Often the subordinate is a “sidekick”, which comes from pickpocket slang, as a kick is a pocket safest from theft, and a side-kick is the inseparable companion to the kick.

b) A Partner relationship, also called a “two-hander”, where each partner often typifies a particular archetype or mindset or approach and while they’re at odds with each other, they work together well.

These hinge on the idea that you’ve got two characters coordinated together. Manipulating that power dynamic is often a source of story tension, as you can lead the subordinate to chafe against the superior (see Robin against Batman, becoming Nightwing), or split the partners up only to get them back together (see any buddy cop movie).

But what about where you have way more than two characters you need to focus on? Then we get into what are called secondary role characters, where each character has a function to serve or aid the protagonist (or antagonist, but I’m going to use the protagonist, since I have better examples). There are plenty of secondary role characters:

The knowledge proxy (or sage character) is the character who supplies the protagonist with information or items the protagonist could not easily get themselves. This is Q from James Bond, or the old wise man in town who gives the knight the magic item to use at a later time. They know something relevant to the story, and they share that knowledge so the protagonist can go do stuff. There’s an assumption here that the secondary character couldn’t do what the protagonist could do, and an agreement that the knowledge proxy fills their role and nothing more.

The comedic secondary character is the character who brings levity to the story, often at their own expense, or within a subplot. This is Ralph Malph and Potsie from the early Happy Days seasons, this is the wise-cracking character who is there to lighten the mood, usually has the funnier lines, and when the plot requires it, is often put in danger to highlight that they’re still a contributing member of the team, even when their technical role is unclear (I’m looking at you CBS shows).

The romantic secondary character is the character who provides sexual or emotional tension to the story by giving the protagonist a possible love interest or relationship. This is the character the protag will eventually end up with as a couple, either for good or ill, either successfully or not. This often comes up on television when you need an emotional cliffhanger, or when you’re trying to stress a will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic.

The mentor secondary character is the character who provides the protagonist guidance through previous experience or teaching. Obi Wan Kenobi. Old Bruce Wayne to Terry McGinnis. There comes a point in this mentor relationship where the protag and mentor have to part company for one reason or another, and not doing so can lock the characters in a permanent superior/subordinate relationship. When this happens for Batman, they find a new Robin. Or the Doctor finds a new Companion.

The ingenue is the character that allows the protagonist to be a mentor. This is character is new to the experiences of the story, often it’s their first day on the job, or the first case. It’s the rookie, and while it’s common to make this character a protagonist on their own (so that the audience gets maximum exposure to the world, see Harry Potter), when the ingenue is a secondary character, you get a chance to see more of the protag’s philosophy and motivations, in addition to their actions, as in Arrow when Oliver adds Roy Harper to the retinue.

The oppositional secondary character is a character that opposes the protagonist but does not prevent them from taking action, because plot. This is your angry chief of police in any cop movie, or Malfoy for Harry Potter. They’re not exactly the antagonist, but they don’t make the protagonist’s life easier, which is probably why so many cops are loose cannons in 80s movies and why Malfoy shows up intersectionally with whatever the hell Harry is doing.

All these secondary characters provide the protagonist either conflict to work against, or aid while working through conflict. That aid isn’t always direct (sometimes the comedic secondary just makes a joke before the scene ends), but it’s present. And that’s because the secondary character, regardless of type, exists in the story for their role above all else. Ages ago, these characters were called “service” characters, though now the only one of those older titles that exist is “fan service”. A secondary character performs a role and gets out of the way. And when you need filler, you take a secondary character and give them a subplot. The highest level of story production a secondary character can accomplish is subplot. If a secondary character affects primary plot, they’re a protagonist. (We’ll talk subplots on Day 16)

I want to stress these roles aren’t story permanent. You can promote or demote a character as story evolves. The possible red flag there is that doing it too quickly or doing it too frequently will make it difficult for the reader to invest in the character, and possibly make it harder to follow along in the story. Wait, they’ll ask, is this character a big deal or not? Am I supposed to care about this? You see this sometimes in two places with television shows – early on, when the show is still finding its footing, so a character changes and then locks into that change (like Fonzie becoming more central in Happy Days) or later on in a show, where in order to advance an arc, or provide an arc, an established character makes a huge and unclear change in their nature (like Parker in Leverage going from a crazy fun character to a sort of level-headed leader after a few rounds of dialogue, a change in wardrobe and a change in setting).

You also run the risk of invalidating your primary protagonist by adding more protagonists through promotion. It doesn’t make sense to suddenly make Q and M extra worried about Spectre, they’re already worried about Spectre, and it makes Bond less Bond if he needs to call in allies to handle opposition that he’s supposed to be capable of defeating. Secondary characters are already invested in the protagonist’s efforts, you don’t need to double down.

Do you need secondary characters? No. You can do perfectly fine telling a story of without a lot of extra pieces (see the movie Phone Booth). They do serve a purpose, they can broaden possibilities in story, they can give you extra room to stretch and new risks to take. But they’re not critical the way the protagonist is. You can tell a Batman story without Robin (in fact, some of the better ones, do).

To build a secondary character, look at their function. Ask what purpose they accomplish in the story. Then build outward from the purpose to see where you can plug it into the larger story. The arms dealer in chapter 6 is interesting, but he’s there just to give out explosives. When he shows up later, it’s for more explosions, not to opine about his mother’s failing gallbladder. The sudden reveal of his mother is more strange than appealing, and it doesn’t help endear us to the character.

The purpose of the secondary character is to serve the story, not appease the audience. Story always comes first, and secondary characters are personified routes of advancement.

Tomorrow, we start looking at plot. Write your plot down somewhere and have it ready to go.

See you then.


Posted by johnadamus in dissect writing, fiyoshimo

FiYoShiMo – Day 11- Protagonists and Antagonists

Here we are, Day 11 of FiYoShiMo. We’ve come out of the basics of character development, and now we get to look at the biggest character types in writing.

A protagonist is a story’s main character (from the Greek, protagonistes). It’s who we follow throughout the course of the story. I think we can all agree to that. Sure, you can make a point that the protagonist (also called a protag) is the character who interacts with the story’s plot, but since we’re following the plot over the course of the story, it seems obvious.

The protag’s opposition is the antagonist (called an antag), and when you look closely the antagonist is often placed in direct opposition to the protagonist. I say “often” because the plot isn’t the only point of intersection between protagonist and antagonist, but we’ll talk more about that in a few paragraphs. Let’s start with a breakdown for both protag and antag.

Note: Why don’t we refer to them as tagonists? Hmm.

Protagonists are not only our main characters, but they embody the beliefs and motivations the audience or reader is meant to see as “good”, because we make a binary assumption that protagonists are on the positive side of things. Maybe because they both start with p, or maybe because the majority of protagonists sit at the far end of the spectrum for good versus evil. What the protagonist believes, what the narrative reinforces, what their dialogue demonstrates, is a character philosophy and a set of motivations that we’re to agree with and get behind over the course of the story. The tricky part here, as we’ll talk about, is divorcing yourself from the idea that protagonist equals good, antagonist equals bad. A protagonist is the main character, period.

There isn’t a lot of flexibility in that binary, even if you subvert the assumption that all protagonists are good guys. Television shows like Leverage, or a movie like Payback feature characters who are on the face of it, bad people. They’re criminals, but because they go against other criminals, or help the greater good, they’re our goodguy protagonists. This leads to the question – what makes a protagonist a protagonist?

The protagonist needs the majority of attention in the story. We’re over their shoulder, maybe we’re in the head, we follow their actions closer than any other character, and depending on the POV you create it, we lens the plot through their descriptions and their reactions. Because we experience this character more than any other, this is who we invest in as a reader and an audience. It’s their roller coaster on which we’re passengers. In part then, “screentime” or “storytime” makes the character a protagonist.

A sympathetic protagonist is a character who we can relate to and agree with whatever they’re doing in the story. We want to see them succeed, because we can project ourselves into their place, and possibly, we’d make the same or similar decisions. The agreeing part is critical, because when we can’t agree with the majority of their decisions (we’re never going to be 100% in line with them, there are too many variables), the protagonist is termed unsympathetic. Whether or not we relate to them is secondary, because it’s possible that many elements exist in the story that makes it difficult to do so. We don’t easily relate to Yoda, because we’re not Muppets, we don’t have the Force, and we generally don’t live in a swamp talking to ghostly Alec Guinness.

One of the challenges I pose to writers when I give seminars is this: could they take a character we relate to on some level, even if we don’t agree with them, and build them as a protagonist, but not a good guy? Where some people stumble is on the “relate” part, because they make an assumption that relate can mean to agree with, but relating to someone means being able to put yourself into their experience, consider their thoughts, then viewing their actions. As we talk more about it, I take it one step further, by posing a question – Could you make Stalin (or Hitler, or any dictator) a protagonist, without creating an alternate history?

This is proof of how ingrained our protagonist-is-the-good-guy assumption is. It’s hard to perceive a guy who killed millions as a good guy (hint: he wasn’t, he killed millions), but since protagonist just means main character, it’s possible to center the story around him. How? Think about a biography. Yes, even non-fiction has protagonists.

Going to the other side of things, the antagonist is in the story to oppose the protagonist. I move A, they go B. A lot of assumptions and binaries dominate the protag-antag relationship. Let’s look at a few:

Assumption: The protagonist has to do something to counter everything the antagonist does. No, they don’t. If the antagonist has their own plan, and it has a series of steps, not every step has to correspond to whatever the protagonist has done. Yes, the protagonist’s later steps (any step after the first point where the antagonist and protagonist cross paths) will be somewhat in reaction to the antagonist, but some steps won’t have an opposing partner. Some can’t. If the antagonist is robbing banks, and stops to also rob an armory to get weapons, the protagonist can secure the last bank without also stopping to defend the armory. The lack of direct parity (the name for the move-countermove concept) gives a story extra tension and increased stakes for later conflict.

Assumption: Both the antagonist and the protagonist need to be complete opposites. No, they don’t. This is a holdover from early media, where the good guys wore white hats while the bad guys wore black. Again, the binary here is at times true, where you have a criminal and a lawman, or a victim and an attacker, or something with a power dynamic. However, there’s interesting story fodder in the space where the characters aren’t diametrically at odds. I tell people, “Every character thinks they’re the protagonist, and you can too,” which is an effective tool for avoiding the more moustache-twirly cliche packed baddies.

Binary: The antagonist can only do bad things, while the protagonist can only do good. Not true. What a character does is based on their motivations, philosophy and skills. All three of those things are a wide range of variables. Also, this is the binary where we seem to forget that “good” and “bad” are subjective. You might think my dislike of peas is bad, while I think your liking cheesecake is stupid.

Binary: Ultimately, a protagonist will always defeat the antagonist. Nope. It’s nice to see. It’s encouraging and rewarding (I just saw Creed, and I do love an underdog-makes-good story), but media where the good guy wins aren’t the only media out there. Look at the first Rocky movie. He doesn’t win the fight. He may win over the crowd, he may impress Apollo, but he doesn’t beat Apollo. The protagonist only needs to complete their arc and resolve the plot. Resolve isn’t a synonym of “win”.


The same way we’ve mapped protagonists over the last few days, do the same for the antagonist. But PLEASE, PLEASE don’t hold them within the goodguy-badguy dynamic while you do it. The antagonist is a character just like any other.

Where the two characters intersect tells a reader a lot about what sort of story to expect. Many of us are taught that at the climax of the story, the two characters have to square off: Luke duels Vader, the scrappy sports team faces their rivals for the championship, the previously fired lawyer squares off against his old employers in the big court case. This set up is called a direct opposition, or direct confrontation. While it’s not always a physical brawl, it is an encounter that puts both protag and antag in the same space and sets them against one another.

In order to reach direct confrontation, the plot features many scenes and developments that set the characters on a collision course. As the story unfolds, one character is often one step behind, or analyzing consequences to predict future events (a detective at a crime scene, for instance, since the crime already happened, but it may leave indicators for what comes next). While the antag may not be in the same space for the these moments, the antag’s presence is felt through what is said and described. In keeping with the idea that an antagonist perceives themselves a protagonist, make sure the antagonist is somehow looming or is felt in any scene where they’re not directly involved.

Sometimes though, there isn’t direct confrontation. Often this happens because the antagonist isn’t personified, or because the antagonist is conceptual. In a story about civil rights, the primary antagonist isn’t the town mayor, it’s the concept of segregation. Our racist bigoted mayor is an agent of the antagonist, someone who buys into the set of beliefs and takes appropriate actions to further those beliefs. This kind of development is an indirect confrontation. People run the mayor out of town, or stage protests, or change the legal system somehow, so the mayor is out on her ear, and segregation suffers defeat. Eliminating the agent doesn’t eliminate the antagonist fully, it only reduces the danger the antagonist poses. Think of antagonist-agents as horcruxes: it won’t stop Voldemort, but it does make things easier.

Note: If you’re wondering now if the protagonist has agents, we’ll talk about them tomorrow on Day 12, since they’re not called agents.

It’s through the plot that the protag and antag have the most intersection, either in quantity or quality. An example of a quantity of intersection is a detective stopping a serial criminal, since there are a number of scenes where they oppose one another, it’s the cat-and-mouse atmosphere. An example of quality intersection is Moriarty against Holmes, where you don’t see Moriarty until practically we’re at the Falls, but we see Holmes’ reactions to Moriarty’s presence throughout the story.

By reducing dependence on polar characterizations, by challenging binary assumptions and hopefully shedding cliches and archetypes, you’re opening yourself up to create characters that feel vibrant and dynamic, not just static templates. They occupy a world wherein they have agendas that conflict, and from that tension, a story arises.

Spend some time today mapping your antagonist. After we talk secondary characters tomorrow, it’s onto plot for a few days after that.

See you tomorrow

Posted by johnadamus in dissect writing, fiyoshimo

FiYoShiMo Day 10 – Character Goals

Hello! Welcome back to FiYoShiMo. Today’s Day 10, and it’s the last day we spend on character development. The next two days of character stuff we’ll focus on types of characters based on the information of the last four days.

Having covered all the whats and hows so far, we can look at the whys of a character. The tricky part here is that the character’s goal overlaps too closely with their motivations.

A goal is what the character wants to specifically accomplish, earn, receive or have at the end of the scene, story, arc, or series. A motivation is a driving force that puts momentum and a vector under their efforts.

There are goals to every unit of storytelling. In a beat, scene, or chapter, every involved character has a goal. In a book, every character has a goal. In a series, every character has a goal. And sometimes those goals are shared by other characters, and sometimes the goals parallel other elements of storytelling (a goal within a series may mirror the goal within a beat, but on a larger scale, for instance)

If you’ve got unclear goals, then the moment in the story isn’t going to fit in with the other moments around it. Two people have been arguing all day in other scenes, so it makes sense for them to continue arguing if they’re not near resolving anything. It would not make sense for them to suddenly be all chummy when they get to the frozen food aisle of the grocery store.

To help distinguish the goal from the motivation, you need to look at where the element of storytelling is taking you next. So we have these two arguing characters, they argue when they wake up, they argue over breakfast, they argue after breakfast, they argue in the grocery store. Looking at their activities, we’ve got them starting their day together and needing to go shopping.

Each character’s motivation doesn’t determine whether or not they go to the store, it determines the reasons for the arguing. They’re going to the store because the plot needs them to be shopping. It’s the arguing that’s the variable here, so here we have motivations informing their actions so they can get their goal – each character wants to be right, each character wants to be heard, each character wants to “win” this argument.

Where this gets tricky is when we start to see the plot tree branch away from the main storyline (the villain is going to strike again!) and give us subplots and character arcs (the villain is going to strike again, but we’re over here bitching about cauliflower). When we write, we are aware that we can get off track. We can get distracted while we’re putting the words on the page, as well as within the story as we’re building our worlds and telling our stories. Those deviations from plan affect us in many ways. We start to feel like we’re bad writers, we start to lose readers when story meanders. So we buckle down and we overcompensate. The story gets streamlined and we lose some of the secondary stuff because we didn’t want to risk losing anything.

This gets done a lot. Like your friend’s mom. And like your friend’s mom, it’s not always a good time.

What’s the fix? Clarity.

Yes, the writer has a goal of finishing the story and getting it published or read. Or to make a living as a writer. Those larger goals are important, for sure, but they’re not what we’re talking about here. We’re just cover to cover here, so we have agree that we as humans have that bigger goal, and it’ll get talked about later.

Inside the story, everything has two goals – to keep the reader engaged and to do whatever storycentric thing it has to. Here the tricky part is not inducing panic that any misstep will immediately send the reader running away, because they won’t. Yes, too many mistakes will send them away, but your reader would have to be a complete ((word deleted because while it is one of my favorite words to use, it makes people upset, and probably not because it rhymes with “stunt”)) in order to look at an unclear sentence and declare your work awful.

And frankly, if your reader is that difficult, I don’t think you’d mind seeing them next Tuesday.

Every sentence is a brushstroke in the painting of the mural of your story in the mind of your reader. Whether that sentence is part of a beat, or the closing of a chapter, or a piece of dialogue, or whatever it is, the sentence has to deliver the reader some information. It has to connect the previous one to the one that comes after it. It has to all cohere in a way that makes sense when expressed both individually as as the greater whole.

That’s why we place a premium on structure. That’s why you label your beats, why you map so many facets to your characters, that’s why your characters have something to do. The goal of a character is as big or as small as it needs to be within the confines of the pages, but to that character, it’s a big deal. If it’s not a big deal, why hasn’t it been accomplished yet?

For instance, it’s really important to me that I communicate clearly. It makes my job easier, it makes my relationships with the world easier, it makes good things possible for me. It’s how I get nachos, cocoa, time to play video games, clients, whatever. Wherever you live, my communicative skills aren’t as big a deal to you. You have whatever you have in life. My ability to describe my headspace isn’t going to pay your mortgage or keep your kids from complaining about how grandma smells, or get your boss off your back after you said that you’d handle the Johnson account last week. But if we’re looking at my story, then communication becomes a big deal. If we’re looking at your story, my goal is minor, if not negligible. If we’re looking at our story, my goal has to split time with yours, assuming we’re both protagonists. Seriously though, you said you’d handle the Johnson account. Go do that.

Here comes push-pull again as we move the characters nearer to and then away from their goal. That dynamism is what keeps the reader engaged. Will they accomplish their goal? How hard will it be? What will happen next?

You have to adjust the path of the character to their goal. Keep it too easy, too linear, you’re removing the doubt they could accomplish it, even if you challenge all their weaknesses. Even with objects of weakness, you’d still have to find a way to shoehorn it into the story (how many times does kryptonite just show up because Superman has to have a page of difficulty in a comic?), and that still doesn’t mean the character won’t come out ahead.

Make it too hard, or slow the character’s progress towards the goal, and you’re not making the accomplishment “more worth it”, you’re actually devaluing it. We have a fundamental understanding that the amount of hard work is proportionate to the accomplishment. A doctor performs a difficult surgery to save a life. A cop goes all over the city to catch the criminal. The harder something is, the more satisfying the payoff is.

When we build up a goal and then too quickly pay it off (like in those moments where we realize we’ve written 20K and just now get around to putting in an action scene), that payoff feels out of place, unless you’re going for comedy – all this guy’s hard work, and he just wants a Coke.

In role-playing games, there’s often a difficulty assigned to a goal. Want to get that treasure chest? You need to roll a die and get a certain value or higher. This is a really elementary solution to the problem, but it requires there be a scale for any difficulty a character encounters. How would you compare picking that chest’s lock to finally working out their relationship to their dying parent? Not everything can be made mechanically comparable and still hold impact.

A goal should not only have a reward, but it should carry some element of necessary change to it. Sure, the cop can catch the killer, but along the way they’re going to learn to be okay with their new partner. Yes, the defense attorney can finally find time for love, but she’ll learn this moment while in court, right at the peak of her toughest case. A goal that doesn’t require effort and change to accomplish is not a goal that tests a character.

I have a weak heart, and it’s tough for me to be as active as other people. (Forget for a minute that I’m not supposed to be that active in the first place) I have to do a lot of sitting and breath-catching in the course of anything that isn’t sitting and typing (although lengthy bouts of typing do exhaust me). This stress makes what I say and how I blog it important, a premium over the simple text messages that I send or notes to myself about needing bread on the grocery list. So when I go write 1565-ish words, that’s a big deal to me. The amount of satisfaction I feel is relative to the hard work I had to do. It’s important to see though that the character is the arbiter of the work-satisfaction relationship, not the reader. Too many books make the reader handle the judgment about what is and isn’t good enough, and that leads to softer weak characters and weak actions.

Take the reader along for the ride by demonstrating over the course of the story what the character wants and what they’re doing about it. Be clear and expressive about it. Use the best sentences you can muster. The reader will buy in, and doesn’t need to (or want to) be the boss of your story’s decisions.

What are your character’s goals? How do their motivations and philosophies influence their approach? How do their skills and weaknesses make that goal easier or harder to accomplish?

Tomorrow on Day 11, we’re going to look at what it means to be a Protagonist and an Antagonist. See you then.

Posted by johnadamus

FiYoShiMo Day 7: Character Philosophies

Welcome to Day 7 of FiYoShiMo, and welcome to the end of the first week! How’s it going for you? Ready for this?

Today you’ll need your protagonist and antagonist in mind, although later you’re going to apply this to all the major characters, we’re just starting with the primaries. If you don’t know, a major character is a character that interacts with other characters AND the plot through both dialogue and action. So this isn’t the story of guy filling the gas tank on the police chief’s cruiser, just because he has a name and he pumps gas in chapter two. We’re looking at bigger characters than that. People who matter to the story. Sorry gas station guy, you don’t really cut it (but we’ll see you again on Day 12, I promise).

We can sum up today’s lesson with this image:


and I could just stop there, but you know I won’t.

I want you to stop thinking about your characters based on their labels. Forget protagonist and antagonist for a second, consider them as characters in your story. They’ve got plans, based on their goals (we talked about that yesterday with motivations), and now we’re going to marry those plans, motivations and their personal philosophy together.

If their plan is what they’re going to do, their motivation is why they’re going to do it, and the philosophy informs how they’re going to do it.

A person’s code is developed based on both their experiences as well as their ambitions and interests. I have a distrust of lawyers, stemming from a number of bad relationships and experiences, so I believe that the law, on the whole, does more to pervert honesty than preserve it. You may believe that everyone should own six attack dogs and have a room full of munitions, based on whatever your experience and beliefs are. These ideas form the core of who we are, and they help determine what we’re going to do or not do, or how we react to events and other people.

It’s no different for characters. Just because you label a character as an antagonist doesn’t mean they have to go be the most evil of evil characters doing only evil things to earn evil points they can trade in at the evil prize booth. A label on a character only exists so that characters can be compared to other characters. Over time we’ve let that label stretch out so we have a set of expectations to go along with it, but there’s no reason you can’t muddy the waters and subvert expectations.

I don’t always think there should be a clear line between protagonist and antagonist. Yes, I admit to having a deep love for the “we’re not so different you and I” moment in stories, but as I’ve gotten older and been working with more writers, the stories with really clear white-hat/black-hat distinctions are boring. We live in a world with a whole lot of grays. (If you ever want examples, listen to a conversation between family members about hot-button issues. Once you get past the intensity of belief, there’s tons of nuance there)

To blur those lines for the reader, you as a writer need to have crystal clear blueprints. The reader will never see them, but the sharper your image of the character, the easier it will be to present a smudged projection of the character. So let’s build a blueprint.

I’m going to assume we’ve already got the character physically described. Height, weight, race, sex, all the visual elements. That’s the easy stuff. Now we’re going to look at the interior elements, the stuff not seen directly, but the stuff that’s expressed directly … sometimes.

See, a character can express their philosophy directly, like this:

That’s actually a line in the comics, and I think in the first movie. (The one where Superman doesn’t snap a dude’s neck). That line gives the reader/audience TONS of information about what the character believes in and sets up the expectation for how they’re going to act (or not act). The visuals (or in text, the description) help sell that idea. He appears strong, credible and honest. Wholesome.

There’s a fine line between clearly stating the philosophy and jumping all over the place with it. Here’s another example:

I’ll wait here, you go tell me the character’s belief system. See, if you say “anarchy”, or “he doesn’t have one” I’m going to tell you to look again. Every iteration of the Joker has some kind of philosophy. You can’t have a not-flat character and not have a philosophy. And no, psychopathy is not a philosophy, it’s an influencer on philosophy. Everyone believes in something, even the nihilists and solipsists.

This comes down to making decisions. You’re going to build a box and put the character in it. The four walls of this box reflect the character’s limitations, regardless of whether they’re self-imposed or not.

Here’s today’s project:

1. For every major character you have, draw a box. Put the character’s name in the box. (This box is gonna be big, so plan accordingly)

2. On the left side of the box, that’s the hopeless boundary. That’s what it would take for a character to lose all hope regardless of opportunity. Would they have to be rejected romantically? Would they have to lose their family and income? Would they need to be accused of a crime? What makes the character lose hope?

3. On the right side of the box, that’s the hostile boundary. How far is “too far” for this character? Will they kill? Will they kill a child to prove a point? Will they blow up a city to get one person? Will they torture? They might be comfortable going pretty far, but even the most ardent killer has a limitation in terms of environment, interest or external factor (time, attention, that it might slow her from her agenda, etc)

4. The top side of the box, that’s the success boundary. What does success look like for this character? No, not just in terms of this plot, but what’s their relationship to success? Do they say they want to succeed, but if they ever did, they wouldn’t know how to handle it? Do they know they’re capable of getting an A, but the pressure scares them so they manage to do straight B+ work? Do they think they will always succeed? Do they reject all notions of success?

5. The bottom side of the box, that’s the failure boundary. What does failure look like for this character? How do they handle it? Sulking? Do they go have a burrito, watch a lot of porn and then cry while playing video games? Do they swear vengeance and then go push old ladies down stairs? Do they expect failure no matter what?

A character and their philosophy exists larger than the plot. The plot is just the snapshot during which we encounter them.

Box out your characters. When they’re all done, see if you have characters whose boxes share a boundary (if they share more than one, I challenge you as to whether or not you can’t collapse the characters down, so pick one), and then put their boxes next to each other, redrawing them if you need to.

When I say “Share a boundary” I mean where one person has a hopeless boundary, that’s practically another character’s hostility boundary. Or someone’s success boundary is someone else’s failure boundary.  There’s no rule that says you can’t rotate these boxes to see how character philosophies conflict or connect.

And it’s through those conflicts and connections that you have reasons for tension in your story. Two cops, one who follows the rules while the other hates Jews:


Nailed it

brings inherent tension that can extrapolated across the story as an arc unto itself. We’ll talk arcs on Day 13.

Tomorrow, we’re going to look at character skills. Go draw some boxes.

Posted by johnadamus

A Roadmap Of An Outline

Well, it’s Sunday night as I write this, so you know what that means – yes my fantasy football team completely went out and sucked. So rather than mourn the inability of grown men to satisfactorily run up and down a field or catch a ball, let’s talk about something really exciting.


No, seriously, we can make them exciting again. But first, we need to cover the not-exciting basics. Which means I get to talk about my relationship to outlines.

I hate them. I hate them the way I hate peas. I hate them the way I hate snow. I hate their stupid preoccupation with order and structure. I hate their completely dull way of sucking all the joy out of my art.

Ever since high school, where my English teacher embarrassed me publicly for not writing one to meet her standards, I have battled outlines both in the practical sense (they take too damned long) and the cerebral (if I have to use one, does that mean I’m not as smart as I think I am, that I just can’t whip up an idea from the top of my head). It’s an ongoing war, and many publishers have routed me on the battlefield for my guerrilla approach. It may be too cavalier, too arrogant, too disorganized, too needing someone else to give me structure.

No, I don’t know why I’m still not making friends with outlines.

But, know your enemy … I think the Wu-Tang Clan taught me that. So let’s meet our foe.

Our first encounters with outlines are probably academic ones. In fact, the majority of outlines you’ll write (assuming there’s not a template for you, but more on that later). The academic outline has Roman numerals, capital letters, and then subdivisions under it. Like this:


I swear I’m going to work on my anger issues.

This builds a staircase of ideas, breaking things down to smaller and smaller units of idea, and keeps it all orderly via indentation. It’s not a bad system, but it can be rigid, and it’s easy to lock in and end up lost if you have to jettison some parts of it later.

The other significant shortcoming in this system is the lack of clear segue between Roman numerals. In all other cases, the letters and subdivisors share a connection, as they’re all facets of the larger idea. But if we’ve stepped on and down this hierarchy for several divisors, and then we jump back up to the next Roman numeral, might that be a little confusing, especially if you revisit the outline after a few days away from it?

Enter the columnar outline. This method doesn’t rely on indentation as a structure giver, it just has lots of small chunks kept under one umbrella idea.

2015-11-22 18.27.03

This is the outline for today’s blogpost.

If this method seems familiar to you, it’s also how we write to-do lists or grocery lists, or if you’re me, practically any thought I need to keep straight beyond binging Netflix or scouring the internet for British televisions shows involving science fiction and people with accents.

If there’s a downside to it, it’s the presumption that all the information on it has equal value. In our example, it’s about making sure all the outline types have equal importance to the topic (they do), but if this were my listing of things I want to do before going to bed, I’d juggle the order around so that my usual evening phone calls and emails to people take precedence over things like making art notes for Noir World, or figuring out a Spotify playlist.

Additionally, there’s the idea that the elements fall in order of priority. Again, for the photo above, they do, but if I put up my to-do list for tomorrow, the coaching sessions with clients, therapy, and paying the cable bill have much more immediate priority to me than making sure I put away the socks I washed today, even if I put socks higher on the list because I was thinking about it while writing.

The structure is pretty baked into the academic and columnar outlines. Let’s look at one that isn’t so linear.


Bonus: I didn’t capitalize or punctuate this idea

This is a visual outline, also called a mind map or mind web or a spatial mapping. This method works really well for visual thinkers (if that’s you, go check out a program called Scapple), but for people like me who don’t process things like they’re CGI elements in Minority Report or an Iron Man movie, this leaves me feeling confused.

With a focus on connections, a visual outline can seem like a great compensation for the janky segues (or lack thereof) in the academic outline model. Here, it’s all segue – how do the ideas connect?

But, when you fail to capitalize or punctuate, it’s tough to immediately get a sense of starting or ending points. Or how to move from connection to connection in a way that I can explain to other people. I mean, I get it, but that’s because I wrote it … hold onto that idea, we’ll come back to that later.

So let’s take this in a different direction. Here’s the method I’m a huge fan of, but that’s because it’s not structured thanks to fancy word processing.

There’s this model of outlining called structured storyboarding. It helps you picture the scene as though it’s paused in your mind, then you Socraticly dissect it and help build it. Like in those movies where people move fast, so everything slows down around them, and they can make adjustments to things.


Like this.

I love this model, because it gets a writer not just thinking about what happens in the moment they’re writing, but also how to describe that moment with some manner of detachment, so they can later apply that same writing to pitches or queries or just plain old talking about what they’re doing.

To do it, you start breaking down the scenes and chapters of what you’re writing into small moments, called beats. We’re gonna talk about beats early on next month in #FiYoShiMo, so for now, let’s say that beats are the foundational element in your story. All the actions, all the stuff people do or think or all the stuff that happens, those are beats. And this method has you writing them down.

There’s a bit of structure here, but it’s designed to get the you thinking. You can check out the nice PDF I made all about it, right here: JOHNBEATBREAKDOWN.

In this beat/slice model, you package your thoughts as more complete constructs than just as items next to letters or numerals, and in a chrononarrative order (meaning: the order they happen in the story) rather than just a vertical columnar to cross off as you write.

You might find many similarities between this method and my preferred note card method, for good reason – they work well together.  So use them. Bring structure to your chaos. You can do this. It’s helpful. Yes, it takes time, but it’s time well spent if it makes writing happen with less difficulty, right?

The negative strike on this method is that it requires time to do, and it asks you to be objective and descriptive about what you’re writing. That might not come easily to you sometimes, but I can stress how critical that skill is when it comes time to query or discuss your work with interested people. Don’t fall down the rabbit hole that you need a lot of research or a lot of prep, since both can become a stall or procrastination, and ultimately an excuse to keep you from writing.

It doesn’t matter which (if any) outline method you use. One is not superior to all of them (we’re talking outlines, not Rings or Highlanders).

I confess to enjoying writing out the beats into chapters or larger chunks of text (called slices, as in slices of pie, because old slang is totally how writing and old Hollywood described anything). It lets me straddle that line between wholly creative and illustrative enough that I’m letting someone see how the story-sausage gets made, without risking my ego that if I show people how this gets done, I somehow lose my value to them.

We’re all tribal primates, organizing information and showing it off informs everything we do from painting on cave walls to sexting to enduring political debates to game playing.

It’s not that stories die in the face of structure like they’re plunging face first into an electrified fence of limitation, but that given structure story can flourish, like the plant you have to tie to a stick so it can support its own weight while it bears fruit.

So find good structure for yourself. And then use it to kick ass.

Do you have a preferred method of outlining? How do you map out the ideas? What works for you? What doesn’t? I’d love to hear from you, either below in the comments and/or on Twitter or Google+.

On Wednesday, we’re going to talk Jessica Jones’ opening five minutes. Bring a legal pad. See you then.

Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus