Cliffhangers for Novelists—Tips to Use Them Effectively

Cliffhangers for Novelists—Tips to Use Them EffectivelyThanks to by Cindy Sproles @CindyDevoted for posting this blog.  

It was a fast read. I couldn’t put it down.”

Nothing rings sweeter to an author’s heart than these words. The moment a reader becomes so invested in a story that nothing is more important than reading to the end – It’s monumental!

We call these page turners “cliffhangers” – remember “who shot J. R.?” The 1980s season cliffhanger for Dallas kicked off a new era for television. More so, it kept watchers drooling to know what happened next, assuring Dallas a knockout for the next season’s opener.

There are different schools of thought on the subject of cliffhangers, but for me… I love them and I practice them at the end of most chapters of a novel. Why? It’s a challenge for me as a writer and a ring-in-the-nose for my reader that allows me to clip on the rope and continue to pull them deeper into the story.

Some authors insist cliffhangers are unnecessary if you write a compelling story, but a compelling story should be filled with exhilaration and “take-your-breath realizations” that drive your reader into a deeper investment in the characters. Carefully placed cliffhangers are the icing on an already compelling story.

The question is, exactly what is a cliffhanger and how do you insert them into your chapter without leaving a cheesy taste for your reader? First off, a cliffhanger is not always something earth shattering. In fact, the most effective cliffhangers come when the author leaves the reader holding on to a character’s thought or motivation. It’s the “what if” factor or ratcheting up the tension—something unexpected happens… or fails to happen, a new thought or change of thought process.

Practical Application

For example, your character makes a decision: Owen knew the answer. He held the key in his hand all along… talk to Ericka. Just talk to Ericka.

With a cliffhanger like this at the end of a chapter, the reader suddenly experiences the same “ahhh” moment as the character, wetting their desire to know what follows the decision to talk to Ericka.

Perhaps it’s a moment when the character realizes something important.

Example: I flipped open the worn pages of his Bible and pressed my finger against the words. I had my proof. My vindication right in the lines of the Good Book. An eye for an eye. “How’s this Daddy? An eye for an eye . . .”

A good cliffhanger acts as a lure. It proves to be just as valuable as the opening hook in paragraph one of the first chapter. Sometimes the perfect cliffhanger is a simple statement from a character that reinforces the chapter’s tension.

For example: There was nothing left to say. When the gavel hit the desk, guilty rang through the courtroom.

Beware of overuse.

Beware of Overuse

Equally as important as utilizing a cliffhanger is knowing not to overuse them. Remember, when your reader is deeply invested in your story, their heart races, they wiggle in their chair with the intensity of the scene so there are times, very important times, that you give the reader the opportunity for a breath. Let them relax for a second.

I loved the television show 24. But after two seasons, I began to say, “Just how many more times can Jack Bauer save the world?” Instead of my interest growing stronger, I began to feel like there was no end to the dire situations that the nation faced. I was tired and frustrated when the show ended. And poor Jack Bauer, how could the man ever rest? This was the result of never allowing the watcher to experience a moment of hope. Angst is wonderful, but too much… gives your reader ulcers.

As you place cliffhangers at the end of chapters, carefully assess the intensity of the chapters prior and post. Ask yourself the question, “Can my reader take a breath?” If not—give them one. As much as we love drama and action, we need to experience some hope and peace. These strategically placed sentences, enrich your readers experience.

Bottom Line

In a conference class under the late Ron Benrey, he shared his thoughts on the importance of a good cliffhanger. “A good story… a really good story, piques every sense and emotion of the reader, not once, but over and over. Carefully placed cliffhangers bring the story to life. It’s like the character reaches from the pages of the book, takes the reader by the wrist and yanks them into a fictional bubble which refuses to let them escape. This, and this alone, gives the reader an experience they long for.”

As you study your chapters, carefully assess how you can apply a good solid cliffhanger. Decide what type of emotion you need to tweak and then jump on it. Learn to make your readers hunger for the next page and give them the pleasure. When they purchase your book, read it, and close the cover, they should have received reading experience they deserve. Your best hope as a writer, is an email that asks you for “more.” When that happens—it’s a win-win for you and for the reader. 

TWEETABLE.    Cliffhangers for #novelists – tips to use them effectively by @CindyDevoted 

Your Novel’s First Scene: How to Start Right

This weeks blog is really appropriate to me, being in the process of re editing may novel. From some readers reports the first part is too long – and slow. Therefore this information is useful to me – maybe you as well.

Thanks for your blog Paula Munier.

Your Novel’s First Scene: How to Start RightPosted on November 28, 2016 by Paula Munier 

Today’s post is an excerpt adapted from A Writer’s Guide to Beginnings by Paula Munier (@PaulaSMunier), recently released from Writer’s Digest Books.

There are a number of tricks to making sure that you get your story off to a hot, hotter, hottest start, no matter what your genre. I know, I know, all of you people out there who are writing literary fiction are thinking, “I don’t need a hot start to my story.” Well, think again. Even beginnings for literary stories must aim for, at minimum, a slow burn.

I live in the Northeast, where winters can be brutal. (As I’m writing this, New York City is digging out of some two feet of snow.) When I moved here a dozen years ago after nearly twenty years in balmy California, I learned that the secret to staying warm as the thermometer plunges is to keep the fires burning on all fronts. I discovered the cozy beauty of cashmere sweaters, fingerless gloves, and glowing woodstoves.

But I also learned that sometimes you have to break down and leave the house. Go begin a journey, even if it’s only to the grocery store—which means venturing out into sub-zero temperatures to a frigid vehicle that may or may not start. It was a cold prospect I dreaded, until I happened upon two spectacular tools: remote car starters and heated car seats.

With a remote car starter, you can start your car from inside your warm house, wait until your automobile is revved up and ready to go, and then slip into a warm seat in a warm vehicle with a warm engine and hit the road. This is a beautiful thing.
You want to do the same thing with your story. Every reader starts a story cold, and you want to warm the reader up to your story as quickly as possible. You want the reader to slip into a warm seat in a hot story with a blazing beginning and take off for parts known only to you, the writer.

The good news: There are literary equivalents to remote car starters and heated car seats. Let’s take a look at these, one by one.

Start With the Scene That Introduces Your Story Idea

This is the easiest and most efficient way to get your story off to its hottest start. So if it’s at all possible to begin this way, you should, just as Peter Benchley did in the first scene of his classic horror novel, Jaws. Yes, the terrifying film was based on the equally terrifying New York Times bestseller by Benchley. The details of the novel’s opening scene and the film’s opening scene differ—the couple in the book are a man and a woman sharing a beach house rather than a couple of teenagers at a beach party—but the action is the same: The woman goes for her last swim in the sea while her drunken companion passes out. And there we have it, the big story idea of Jaws: a monster great white shark terrorizes a seaside resort town.

Start With the Scene That Foreshadows the Story Idea

If you believe that it is not possible to start your story by introducing the story idea, then you can do the next best thing: Start with a scene that foreshadows the story idea. For our purposes, a foreshadowing is an opening scene that prefigures your story idea.

The most famous example of this might be the opening of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in which the three witches appear as a bad omen, especially for Macbeth. Many fairy tales begin this way as well. In Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty, a king and queen who’d waited years for a child celebrate their new baby princess’s christening with a celebration. They invite the seven fairies of the kingdom to the feast. But an eighth fairy shows up, one long thought dead, and she curses the baby. This is the scene that foreshadows the day when, years later, the princess pricks her finger and falls into a long sleep … and, well, you know the rest.

To use a more contemporary example, consider the tender and funny New York Times bestseller The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. In the opening scene, thirty-one-year-old book saleswoman Amelia Loman is stepping off the ferry to Alice Island, on her way to her first meeting with A.J. Fikry, owner of Island Books. She takes a call from Boyd, her latest “online dating failure,” determined to let him down gently, only he’s insulting, apologetic, and finally, weepy. Finally, she tells him that it would never work out because he’s “not much of a reader.” She hangs up and remembers her mother’s warning that “novels have ruined Amelia for real men.” And as she nearly walks right past the purple Victorian cottage that is Island Books, Amelia worries that her mother might be right.

In this scene, the foreshadowing is subtle but clear: Amelia needs a man who reads, and she’s about to meet one who may seem unsuitable in nearly every other way save that one … but still, the possibility for romance is there.

Start With the Scene That Sets Up the Story Idea

We’ve seen this one a million times. Think of the opening scene of the original Star Wars, in which Princess Leia hides the plans for the Death Star in R2-D2, setting up the story idea.

In Jeannette Walls’s shattering memoir The Glass Castle, she opens with a scene that begins with the unforgettable line, “I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a dumpster.” She goes on to describe this encounter with her mother, setting up the rest of the novel, which tells the unsettling story of her harrowing childhood, beginning at the age of three.

Beware of Too Much, Too Soon

Even when you’ve got an opening scene that either sets up, foreshadows, or introduces your big story idea, that scene can still fail to capture the reader’s attention. One of the main reasons so many opening scenes fail is because the writer tries to tell too much about the story too soon.

Tell is the critical word here. The writer is telling—rather than showing—us the story. Many scenes are overburdened with backstory, description, and the characters’ inner monologue, which leaves little room for the action that should be driving the story forward.

Remember: What the readers need to know to read the story is not what you needed to know to write it. Because the beginning is usually the first part of the story that you commit to paper, you are just getting to know your characters, setting, plot, and themes. You’re exploring your characters’ voices and histories, your setting’s idiosyncrasies, your plot’s twists and turns and detours and dead ends, your themes’ nuances and expressions. You’re thinking on paper, stretching your way into your story, and that stretching is a critical part of the writing process, but just as stretching before you run is paramount, it’s not part of the run itself. It’s preparation.

So you need to go through and trim the parts of your opening that are obscuring the action so you can get to your big story idea sooner. You need to prune back your writing so that the inherent drama of your story idea is highlighted.

If you’re finding it difficult to edit your work, then try this trick. Print out your opening pages, and go through them, marking up the text in different colors to distinguish between backstory, description, and inner monologue.

Backstory: This is wherever you talk about what happened in the past, before the present action of your opening scene began—childhood memories, past relationships, etc. Mark these lines/paragraphs/sections in blue.
Description: These are the lines/paragraphs/sections where you describe your setting, expound on theme, detail backstory, etc. Mark these lines in pink.

Inner monologue: These are the parts where you record your character’s thoughts and feelings. Mark them in yellow, and underline the sections in which your character is alone as well.

I know that you’re tempted to skip this exercise. But don’t. You only have to flip or scroll through it to know where you should edit your opening scene. This is one of the most useful exercises you’ll ever do and the one my students, clients, and writing friends always most applaud me for.
Turn to Page 50

(This was my revelation – at page 50 I’ m only half way through the issues – much to slow to hold the readers’ interest)

For many writers, their story’s warm up lasts about fifty pages (or around the 15,000-word mark).  – ( oh no, that’s me)

What happens on page fifty of your story?

******.  Writers Guide to BeginningsPage fifty is where many stories truly begin. Turn to page fifty in your story, and see what’s happening there. What’s your protagonist up to? How does that relate to your story idea? Don’t be surprised if this is where your story really begins. And don’t be reluctant to toss out those first forty-nine pages of stretching if that’s what it takes to get your run off to a good start.

(With colour pens in hand I’m doing a work on my novel  – expecting to learn some truths along the way.)

See next week, Glennis 

My favourite software for organising a book

Another informative blog by Mary Carroll Moore- artist, author, teacher. Mary is one of my favourite bloggers.

Before I wrote books, I wrote stories, essays, poems, columns, and articles. Short stuff. Short stuff doesn’t require that much organization. I had a good word -processing software. I kept files of the multiple versions of my short stories, for example. I used a spreadsheet to track where I sent writing and what happened to it.

Then I began writing books. Within months, pages accumulated. Way beyond anything my short stuff generated. I was swamped in paper, with no great way to organize it.

I began struggling with my trusty word-processing software. How hard it became to keep track of each version, the corrections I made, and what I’d missed. I literally had to print each draft to double-check it. Sure, I could do a whole-document search for word repetition, for example, but it was beyond clumsy. I began looking around for something more streamlined.

Twelve books got written and published before Scrivener came along. It has saved my writing life. And many of my students’ and clients’ as well.

There have been a lot of programs that try to help writers both organize and write. Some of them include WriteWay Pro, Z-Write, WriteItNow! and Rough Draft. Some writers swear by a program called Ulysses. They offer a list of contents or topics on one side of the screen and an editing or writing desktop in the center. But many are plain text, no formatting ability.  

Scrivener was developed by a writer in Cornwall, UK, who was unsatisfied with the mechanics of what was out there. He wanted to be able to import images, different fonts and text, and other options into his documents–easily–and still have the ability to keep track of the overview via a sidebar list.

To me, Scrivener is light years beyond anything I’ve used–and you may agree if you’ve tried it. It does take setup time, to import your current document, but for the way I write books, it’s perfect. I can craft “islands” or scenes and log them as individual documents on my sidebar list, then begin to group them into folders as my chapters build. If I am missing a scene, I can easily create a placeholder for it on the sidebar list. Best of all, if I decide scene 2.4 really belongs in chapter 10, not chapter 2, I can move it on the sidebar list and it automatically moves in the document itself.  

Scrivener also takes care of the multiple versions of any scene, chapter, or act. The feature called “snapshot” allows you to take a picture of each version. They are stored with the current version and can be accessed in a click. You can decide part of an earlier draft was way better and paste it in with no trouble. Try doing that in Word–yikes.  

Another thing I love about Scrivener is the ability to bring in visual or written research and view it either in the notes or in a split screen as you work.  

There are so many features of Scrivener that I haven’t even tapped, even though I’ve taken four classes on it. I use what I need, and when I’m ready to learn more, I go for another class.  

Scrivener for ipad recently came out. I’m still learning it, but there are tutorials if you’re interested. All versions are available at both for PC and Mac. They offer a 30-day free trial, so you can test drive before buying.  

It’s good to set aside 2-3 hours to set up your draft in Scrivener. You are given different templates to start with (I use the fiction template). Then you basically copy and paste in your islands, scenes, or chapters from Word or Pages. It helps to sit with someone who knows Scrivener, as I did, while you get set up. There are also some good tutorials here.  

I also recommend taking a class from Gwen Hernandez, who wrote Scrivener for Dummies. Gwen is an excellent instructor and her online courses take you through basic setup and use of Scrivener tools, through advanced levels. Check out her Scrivener Classes when you’re ready to get started.      

I wish I’d found Scrivener many books ago–I’ve only been a fan for four years. But it’s changed my writing life. I can’t recommend highly enough (and I don’t get paid to say that).  

Your weekly writing exercise is to download the free trial, if you haven’t tested it out. If you already use Scrivener, check out the tutorial link, above, and try working with snapshot or one of the other extras. 

Post note by Glennis- I am using Scrivener for my current book. There is an excellent instructional video on how to learn to use Scrivener. 

If wanting more information mail  

Or go straight to-

 Happy writing., editing, researching friends. As for me, I’m preparing to update my manuscript of The Fortune Seekers. Major re edit underway to transform it from a novel by a new author to a polished novel. 

See you next week. Glennis Browne

Writing first drafts and after: 7 tips for stronger rewrites

Writing first drafts and after

 – by Now Novel – the easiest way to get your novel done

Writing first drafts of novels is challenging and completing your manuscript is a major achievement. Even so, if you end NaNoWriMo with a manuscript in hand, or you finish a book at your own pace, this is only a first step. 

Read 7 tips for crafting a strong rewrite in the editing and revising process and turn a perfunctory rough draft into a cracking page turner:

1. Make a list of words, phrases and scenes to cut

2. Make sure every part of your first draft contributes to the whole

3. Revise your rough draft to make the 5 W’s of story stronger

4. Get feedback on the cohesion and clarity of your first draft’s scenes

5. Use hindsight to fix incongruous details of plot, setting or character

6. Rest after writing a first draft so you can reread with new eyes

7. Type your novel’s first draft out anew and read aloud
Let’s delve deeper into each of these post-drafting ideas:

1. Make a list of words, phrases and scenes to cut and replace

The purpose of drafting is to get the story down in its most elementary, functional shape. Incidents of plot and characterisation and the basic flow of your story are there. The language isn’t necessarily burnished, though. Perhaps it doesn’t shine – yet.

When your first draft is complete, make a list of words and phrases to cut or substitute. If you have specific adjectives you typically reach for when describing certain characters or types (e.g. ‘beautiful’ for love interests or ‘cruel’ for villains), think of some alternatives that could add variety and specificity to your descriptions.

Words and phrases to substitute or cut:

‘He/she/they said’ – if you can show who is speaking within a scene through other means, keep dialogue tags to a minimum. Make tags carry descriptive weight (e.g. a sulky character could ‘mumble’ rather than merely say their lines). Avoid getting too creative with dialogue tags, though. Let characters’ words themselves convey tone and mood as far as possible.

Wordy phrases – the most compact phrase is often best. Make sure you say. ‘She returned’ rather than ‘she went back’.

Cut the adjectives-plus-weak-adverb combo. Although adverbs such as ‘very’ have their place, they often lesson descriptive ‘oomph’. Instead of saying a character speaks ‘very slowly’, you could use an all-in-one verb, e.g. ‘drawls’. Example sentence: ‘While he drawls at the lectern, she peeps at her watch’.

See the excellent guide Janice Hardy shared with us on cutting words from a manuscript that’s too long. Even if your manuscript is a good length, it should help you tidy your first draft.

Besides individual words and phrases also think about non-essential scenes that could be cut. This means ensuring every scene serves a purpose for the overarching story:

2. Make sure every part of your first draft contributes to the whole

Tom Stoppard quote rewriting and revisionOften a first draft contains scenes that aren’t completely clear in intent. A conversation between characters might circle around a plot point without saying anything particularly useful or telling the reader anything new or edifying. After the first draft, you have the opportunity to modify or remove these scenes that slow down pace and weaken narrative tension.

As you revise your novel’s rough draft, ask yourself for every scene:

Why is it necessary to show the reader this scene?

Does this scene answer a previous question about the events of the story or raise any new ones?

Am I bored?

This third question is important. If you get bored while reading through your draft, it could be that the scene is indeed boring (and not simply because you’ve read it over many times). Two ways to liven up a dull scene are to give a greater sense of purpose and direction through action (‘x’ surprising or dramatic event happens) or dialogue (characters converse on an important or illuminating topic).

If you do feel at all bored while reading through your first draft, strategize how you will strengthen the 5 ‘w’s’ of story and make them more interesting:

3. Revise your rough draft to make the ‘5 W’s’ of story stronger

Many of the greatest stories ever told have this in common: They treat all of the ‘5 W’s’ of story – who, what, why, where and when – with equal care. Charles Dickens’ London, for example, is as much a character as his characters are. In a novel by Toni Morrison or Margaret Atwood, characters’ choices and actions unravel sequences of events with all the inevitability of natural law.

As you revise your first draft, keep these 5 elements in mind. Ask yourself:

Is my setting clear? Can you picture where my readers are and does this backdrop contribute to the overall tone and mood?

Are the reasons for story’s events clear? Does the ‘why’ of characters’ actions and choices make sense in light of their motivations, goals and backstories? (We feel confused when characters act ‘out of type’ with no explanation)

Is the ‘what’ of the story clear (are its themes and subjects consistent and developed? For example, in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series he teases out themes of power and corruptibility over the entire series arc)

Is the cast of the story’s characters fitting (do minor characters’ parts add to rather than distract from the main plots and subplots that form the core narrative)?

Does the ‘when’ of the story make sense (is the time setting consistently shown through description and narration? Are the events of the story in the most logical or interesting order or sequence?)

As you reread your manuscript, note in the margin wherever one of these elements needs improving. Keep a list of any necessary fixes to make for each – who (characters), what (subjects and themes), why (reasons or cause and effect), where (setting) and when (time setting and story event sequence).

4. Get feedback on the cohesion and clarity of your first draft’s scenes

Getting from a first draft to a final draft is possible without external insight. Yet having a second (or third) pair of eyes to give you honest feedback often helps you see where clarity and cohesion is lacking.

This is where getting critiques (from your offline or online writing community) is valuable. One of the advantages of online critiques is that you can share your work anonymously if you feel uncomfortable attaching your name to something that is not yet in its finished form.

Often when you’ve finished writing a work of fiction it all makes sense because you’ve lived with the characters and the story’s events. You may have supplied any missing links in your own mind. Another reader who doesn’t have the author’s access, however, might spot gaps and missing explanations you’ve glossed over due to your own deep involvement.

5. Use hindsight to fix incongruous details of plot, setting and character

Susan Sontag quote on first draftsThe advantage of rewriting after you finish writing your first draft (rather than as you go) is that you have the long view of the story, from start to finish. With the sweeping overview this affords, you can take events that occur towards the end of your first draft and weave in their foreshadowing and their origins earlier in the book.

Being able to work backwards and forwards in time like this lets you turn a linear story into something with a more interwoven, complex structure. A good example of this type of storytelling (though not a book) is the TV series Arrested Development. The writers cleverly placed humorous incidents early in the series that only become funny in retrospect, once their significance is revealed by later events. In this way the series rewards re-watching.

Similarly, you can place earlier incidents in your novel’s plot that make new sense or add layers of meaning in light of later events. This deep structure rewards re-reading.

Being able to look back over your whole first draft makes it easier to spot plot developments, setting details or character actions that don’t quite fit with the whole. To truly understand any gaps or inconsistencies, outline your novel after the fact. Create a summary, chapter by chapter, of what you’ve written. Condensing events this way will give you a clearer perspective of your story’s total structure.

6. Rest after writing first drafts so you can re-read with new eyes

It’s vital to rest between completing the first draft of a novel and starting to revise and rewrite. A short break gives the details of your story and your characters time to settle and sink in. The partial forgetting that happens makes it easier to put on an editor’s glasses and think of your story more objectively than when it is still new and recently-formed.

Take a week or two to focus on other projects. At the end of an intense drafting process like NaNoWriMo, you’ll likely need a rest from intense mental activity. Don’t leave the rewriting too long, though. Another way to shake yourself out of a habitual process of reading your draft is to read from end to start or last page to first. This is useful for proofreading, as you’ll focus more on the sentence structure and language and not be distracted by the linear flow of narrative events.

7. Type your novel’s first draft out anew and read aloud

When you rewrite your book’s first draft, actually type your rewrite into a new document. This will help because you won’t simply move around existing text but will think about each line due to the retyping. This might sound time-consuming, but it is an effective way to catch any glaring faults.

Also read aloud often, especially when you rework dialogue. This will help you catch any awkward or clumsy turns of phrase. Small revision and rewriting strategies such as these will make writing first drafts and polishing them a creative and intentional (rather than autopilot) process.

How to describe a person – 7 tips

How to describe a person – 7 tips

Blog from with appreciation.

Learning how to describe a person so that the reader forms a vivid impression of your characters is essential for writing compelling stories. Read 7 tips for describing characters so they come to life:

1. Focus on details that reveal characters’ personalities and psychologies

2. Prioritize unique character features

3. Describe characters’ body language and gestures

4. Allow internal contradictions

5. Read writers renowned for their characterization

6. Create character sketches to inspire you as you write

7. Use exercises and prompts on how to describe a person to improve your craft

Let’s dive into each of these points:

1. Focus on details that reveal characters’ personalities and psychologies

A portrait of Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881)

A character’s hair or eye colour doesn’t tell the reader much. When you introduce a character, focus on details that reveal personality or psychology. Here’s Dostoevsky describing his character Katerina Ivanova (who has tuberculosis) in Crime and Punishment (1866):

‘Katerina Ivanovna had just begun, as she always did at every free moment, walking to and fro in her little room from window to stove and back again, with her arms folded across her chest, talking to herself and coughing.’

Dostoevsky conveys the fraught mental state of his character as well as her restless nature. The coughing is a reminder of her life-threatening condition. The fact she continues to pace despite her discomfort suggests her determination.

The acclaimed short story author Alice Munro compresses powerful narratives into short forms. Here, in her story ‘Free Radicals’, Munro describes a recently-widowed woman coming to terms with her husband’s death:

‘She thought carefully, every morning when she first took her seat, of the places where Rich was not. He was not in the smaller bathroom, where his shaving things still were, along with the prescription pills for various troublesome but not serious ailments which he’d refused to throw out.’

Munro creates emotional affect by describing details (Rich’s shaving tools that remain in his absence) to create an impression of the now-absent character.

‘He was of course not out on the half-scraped deck, ready to peer jokingly in the window – through which she might, in earlier days, have pretended to be alarmed at the sight of a peeping tom.’

The details Munro introduces combine character behaviour (Rich’s joking at the window) and setting detail (‘the half-scraped deck’) to simultaneously create a sense of character and place. These details are effective as they show Nita’s process of remembering the mundane as well as touching and characterful elements of her late husband.

2. Prioritise unique character features

A large part of learning how to describe a person convincingly is showing what makes them unique or distinctive. The Victorian author Charles Dickens, a master of characterization, did this expertly. Here Dickens describes the schoolmaster Thomas Gradgrind, ‘a man of facts and calculations’ in his novel Hard Times (1854):

‘The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s mouth, which was wide, thin, and hard set. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s voice, which was inflexible, dry, and dictatorial. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s hair, which bristled on the skirts of his bald head, a plantation of firs to keep the wind from its shining surface, all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie, as if the head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard facts stored inside.’

Although Dickens describes his character’s hair, he uses a striking visual metaphor (‘a plantation of firs’). This leads quickly back to description showing the schoolmaster’s fact-obssessed nature (‘…as if the head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard facts stored inside’).

Dickens takes the description of Gradgrind as obstinate and fact-obsessed further:

‘The speaker’s obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square shoulders, – nay, his very neckcloth, trained to take him by the throat with an unaccommodating grasp, like a stubborn fact, as it was, – all helped the emphasis.’

Thus a single, defining detail – Gradgrind’s bullish nature (signalled by his ‘dry’ and ‘dictatorial’ mouth) becomes the basis for most of the description.

If Dickens had simply said ‘he was balding and inflexible and would lecture the students about facts’, this would create some sense of character. Yet the unique details Dickens brings in make Thomas Gradgrind especially vivid.

3. Describe characters’ body language and gestures

Showing characters’ gestures and actions is an important part of bringing characters to life. A character’s movement, body language and gestures can describe a lot about their personality and psychological state.

In the example from Dostoevsky above, Katerina Ivanovna’s anxious pacing conveys her mounting fear over her husband (who drinks away the little money they have). In Hard Times, Dickens uses movement and body language to reinforce the impression of Gradgrind as domineering and forceful:

‘Girl number twenty,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger, ‘I don’t know that girl. Who is that girl?’

‘Sissy Jupe, sir,’ explained number twenty, blushing, standing up, and curtseying.’

Dickens’ extends Gradgrind’s ‘squareness’ through his pointing. The pupil’s responding behaviour and gestures show the schoolmaster’s dominance. The girl’s own body language conveys both her own bashfulness and the fact that Gradgrind wields stern authority over his pupils.

Dickens could simply use dialogue for the schoolmaster’s inquiry. Because of Gradgrind’s gestures, though, we get a clearsense of his dominant, demanding persona.

4. Allow internal contradictions

How to describe a personInternal contradictions make many characters fascinating, because they show human complexity. The tough talker has a soft side they reveal to a select few. The anxious worrier reveals surprising strength at a pivotal moment.

In A.A. Milne’s beloved children’s classic, Winnie-the-Pooh, the character Piglet is full of fear yet he accompanies his friend on a daring mission to spy a ‘Heffalump’ (a fearful monster of their own imagining).

Similarly, in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings cycle, it is Frodo’s simple and faithful friend Samwise who accompanies him into the villain’s heartland, long after characters who seemed more fitting for the task have departed.

When describing characters, think about the small contradictions and inconsistencies people often contain. As a result you will avoid creating ‘stock’ character types, for example, the brave warrior who is invulnerable and unstoppable. Give every Achilles his vulnerable heel.

5. Read writers renowned for their characterization

To learn how to describe a person brilliantly, collect strong character descriptions. Read authors who are particularly noted for their characters. Russian authors such as Anton Chekhov (along with the likes of Dickens) are good examples.

Here, for example, is Chekhov describing his character Mihail Petrovitch Zotov, an old man, in his story ‘The Dependents’:

‘Mihail Petrovitch Zotov, a decrepit and solitary old man of seventy, belonging to the artisan class, was awakened by the cold and the aching in his old limbs […] Zotov cleared his throat, coughed, and shrinking from the cold, got out of bed. In accordance with years of habit, he stood for a long time before the ikon, saying his prayers […]. To whom those names belonged he had forgotten years ago, and he only repeated them from habit.’

Chekhov conveys the age of his character well via his aching with the cold as well as his patchy memory. Chekhov deepens his character description by sharing Zotov’s thoughts in a later paragraph:

‘ “What an existence!” he grumbled, rolling crumbs of black bread round in his mouth. “It’s a dog’s life. No tea! And it isn’t as though I were a simple peasant: I’m an artisan and a house-owner. The disgrace!” ‘

Chekhov combines this portrait of the character’s psychological state with description of his appearance:

‘Grumbling and talking to himself, Zotov put on his overcoat, which was like a crinoline, and, thrusting his feet into huge clumsy golosh-boots (made in the year 1867 by a bootmaker called Prohoritch), went out into the 
Start keeping a journal where you collect character descriptions that strike you as effective. 

Categorise and create sections such as ‘description – clothing’ or ‘description – faces’. This can become a useful source of inspiration to page through when you are sketching out your own characters.

6. Create character sketches to inspire you as you write

It’s easier to describe characters comprehensively when you have character sketches to crib from. The ‘character’ section of Now Novel’s idea finder helps you flesh out characters in greater detail so that you have a blueprint for each actor in your story. Whether or not you use this tool, create a sketch for each character. 

Note down their:

Biography (where were they born? What is their occupation? What were the most formative experiences in their life?)





These are only some of the details you can work out to draft with a fuller portrait of each character in your mind’s eye.

7. Use exercises and prompts on how to describe a person to improve your craft

If there is an area of craft you struggle with – such as how to describe a person so they come alive – use exercises and prompts. Practicing each element of physical description along with using movement and gesture will help you give characters authentic-feeling depth.

Here are some exercises to get going with character description:

Describe a woman’s face in a moment of anger. Use at least one metaphor (‘Her mouth is a…’)

A woman finds out she has won the lottery. Describe her emotions using body language and movement as she moves from elation to anxiety and back again.

A man has found out his friend has committed a great deception. Describe him approaching from the friend’s viewpoint. Show the friend realising he’s been found out.

Create your own exercises around scenarios from your actual story. This is a useful way to focus on showing the underlying emotion or drama of a scene effectively.

What does engineering a novel mean?”

HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL – By Larry Brooks

It’s fair to ask, “What does engineering a novel mean?”

To paraphrase Webster, to engineer is to create and design large structures or new products or systems by using scientific methods.

But writing a novel is art, not science… isn’t it? Many writers develop their novels in ways anything but scientific.

Which isn’t necessarily the right way to go about it.

Storytelling: Art or Science?

A novel may have 100,000 moving parts that combine in a structured manner, so perhaps we should look at storytelling as both artful and something driven by natural laws (another name for science!).

Which natural laws, you ask?

Laws regarding what compels us, what moves us, what holds reader interest, and what constitutes drama versus the static imagery and analysis of a still photograph.

If you accept that understanding readers lies at the core of what makes an idea interesting, then you’ve signed up for the science of writing novels.

But which brand of human-or literary science is this, and how do we apply its principles to storytelling and writing success?

How do we make our novels work?

When we read a novel, we have no idea how the author got there, how the words actually reached the page in the order they did.
And so, using a sea of craft textbooks, workshops, online forums and word-of-mouth resources, we are mostly on our own to determine how the novel we are writing will actually get written.

And here is where the room divides. Twice, in fact.

Because there are actually two conversations where writing a novel is concerned. Two realms of knowledge the writer will experience, because both are unavoidable.

The first is the story development and writing process.
Writing Success Through Process: Plotter, Pantser, or…?

Process, at one end, could be a detailed outline (which can take many forms, none of which is an actual draft) that identifies each scene in context or goes all the way to a full awareness of the entirety of the story’s character and dramatic arcs.

The other end of the process continuum is the absence of any specific awareness of the forthcoming story, a void from which the author embarks on a draft seeking to discover the story’s beats and arcs, and even the ending, as they go along.

The former is a story planner or plotter. The latter is an organic writer, or pantser (from the term seat of the pants).

Most writers eventually do some form of both (even as they lean strongly towards one), a writer’s place on the continuum may vary from project to project.

The liberating news is that neither is right or wrong… because of the other realm that you will face eventually.

Again, that first realm, planner or panstser, is one’s process.

The second realm of the writing experience is an objective assessment of how well the process works from the reader’s perspective.

The first is like interviewing for a job. The second is whether or not you get the job.

This second realm is how the story ends up playing out across its pages. It consists of benchmarks, standards, editorial and reader reviews and the metric of market performance itself, beginning with whether a novel lands an agent or a publisher—or not.
The good news is that there are specific elements, sequences and criteria for all this, the sum of which forms the core of what is known as the craft of writing a novel.

Be clear: your process is not your craft.

Your process is the pursuit of craft. When your process gets you there, and the story is judged competent, it works. And vice versa.
Because there are so many valid ways to write a competent story, your process is not story engineering. Rather, it is the collective menu of natural laws and literary devices that are at your disposal, and how you apply them to the job, be you planner or pantser.

In other words, what you write, and why. The sum of those essences and elements is your own personal version of story engineering.

Process–any process–makes no guarantees.

Putting 80,000 words on paper, with a bare minimum of engineering–a beginning, middle and end–does not mean the story will work. Indeed, if that’s all you believe is involved, success will set a very high bar.

Too many writers, however, believe their process is all the engineering that’s required. They neglect the raw qualitative grist that will render the process effective.

Your process isn’t the thing that gives you access to those qualitative criteria and tools.

There are as many successful organic make-it-up-as-you-go novelists as there are ardent story planners, and neither can lay claim to a “this is how it’s done” winner.

A seductive trap awaits the new writer here. Because when you hear a famous keynote speaker at a conference say something like “I can’t wait to get to my office every morning to see what my characters will do today,” it’s easy to think you’ve just heard the Holy Grail of storytelling, the golden key to your own optimal process.

Certainly what works for Stephen King does indeed work… for Stephen King. That and only that is beyond debate. Unless you are Stephen King, with his experience and innate story sensibilities. Even then, his process may or may not be your best choice. Truth be known, while King is the most famous pantser on the planet, his first drafts are very much like the evolved outline of many a successful story planner.

Choose your process wrong, though, and you distance yourself from the second realm: story engineering that will make your story work.

Whatever gets you there is the best process, because that’s your best shot at optimizing the requisite engineering of a story.

It shouldn’t be about which is more fun or which feels more flexible and creative in the moment. An outline is every bit as pliable in the writing moment as no outline, and only someone who hasn’t tried it can claim otherwise. Even then, they speak only for themselves; it’s not the deciding vote on which process is best for everyone.

Thus, the enlightened writer looks beyond process to understand the true nature of form and function.

And that is what makes such a writer a story engineer.

A lack of this understanding is why so many new writers too often write themselves into a corner or need a dozen drafts to reach a professionally high bar.

The more you know about story craft, the better your process will be. You’ll likely use some of both approaches along the way. And you’ll need fewer drafts to get there.

But what is this engineering?

Story Engineering: The True Nature of Form and Function
We live and work in a largely genre-driven world. Each genre has its own expectations about the nature of the story world, the role of both hero and villain, and the depth and flavor of dramatic tension that form the essence of a story.
Even literary fiction benefits from engineering versus random tinkering. Because like genre fiction, literary fiction writers also deliver stories about not just a protagonist, but a protagonist with something to do, a problem or need or situation that demands a response, driven by stakes and potential consequences (motivation and risks), and in the face of some form of active opposition (antagonism).

These are natural forces of dramatic fiction. Your process doesn’t excuse you from them; in a perfect world, it brings you closer to them.

These elements are rarely in dispute. What is more often the subject of debate is the nature, place and pace with which these elements are introduced into a story, and how they evolve over the arc of the narrative to optimize the reading experience in terms of emotional resonance, empathy, and the rise and fall of dramatic tension.

And that’s where the truest form of story engineering comes into play. It’s called story structure, and while it thankfully remains a fluid and flexible author obligation, it is also built upon a core sequential flow that looks pretty much the same every time.

It’s like gravity, that way–a force you can harness, or if not, it can make you crash and burn. It doesn’t care what you call it, it just is.

This flow is the starting point to an understanding of story structure, and therefore, writing success.

It is more than just beginning, middle and end. Overlaying that obvious hopscotch blueprint is a more precise model for the unspooling of a story.

Basic story engineering gives us a four-part story flow which, when stated, won’t surprise you because of its natural, organic obviousness.

Yet it remains the most commonly fumbled aspect of storytelling among authors who haven’t yet developed a story sensibility to know the length and contextual mission of the four parts themselves.

Story Structure: The Four-Part Flow

Here then, is story engineering 101, expressed as the contextual mission of four roughly equal segments of a story.

Every scene within these four segments is driven by a mission that aligns with that context, which is that the hero needs to work for their desired outcome, they can’t succeed too soon or too easily, and the motivation and consequences that drive the progression of it all need to be artfully introduced and spooled out as part of the dramatic reveal.

It looks like this, in roughly equal quartile lengths:

1. Setup

Introduce your hero in pursuit of a goal, present a story world (time, place, culture, natural law), inject stakes and set up the mechanics of an impending launch of (or twist to) the plot (your core dramatic arc). This is what your hero will spend the rest of the story investigating, pursuing and wrestling with.

2. Response

After the setup, the story needs to launch (this is the First Plot Point) and then settle into a lane that shows your hero responding to a new or altered path with stakes in play and some form of obstacle (antagonism) causing the hero to react to something they may not understand (pursue more knowledge). Or if they do, they need to deal with it in a way that keeps their ultimate goal on their horizon.

3. Attack

If the hero is too heroic too soon, there isn’t much drama for the reader to engage with, so we wait until this third quartile to show our hero evolve from a seeker/wanderer/responder to become a more proactive attacker of their problem or goal, both relative to the goal itself and the presence of an equally-evolving obstacle (a villain, storm, disease, approaching deadly meteor, or whatever is the source of tension and drama in the story), moving closer to a showdown and some form of…

4. Resolution

This is where all the moving parts of your story converge to put your hero face to face with their goal, and whatever blocks their path to getting what they need to get.
If this smacks of formula, ask yourself when was the last time you read a genre novel that didn’t play out like this, to some degree.

Nearly every published (and successfully self-published) novel today aligns with this four-part flow to a significant and usually obvious degree—something you can test yourself, now that there are labels and missions attached to the four parts.

Like athletes playing on an identical-sized field within their sport, or painters having only the borders of a canvas to work within, or sculptors having only so much marble or clay to work with, genius and creative freshness is measured on what does fit within the parameters of this model.

There are, of course, other story engineering tools on the writer’s craft bench, all fueling the author’s conceptual appeal, dramatic tension, hero empathy and dramatic tension with understandable, reachable, and predictable paths and outcomes.

If you are a beginning novelist, this four-part structure flow­–the story engineering model–will never steer you wrong; you’ll have the opportunity to see your narrative soar and achieve writing success.

Pablo Picasso said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” This is exactly the lane in which story engineering puts you, once you align with these principles.

You no longer have to guess what goes where, and why.

It’s still on you to conjure up the grist–from the original idea, concept and premise, to the specific story turns and twists. But they now have a place waiting for them to land.

How do you use story engineering for writing success?

If you liked this post, do share it on social media!

Today I suffered the awful emotion of doubt. 

Negative doubt. _______________________________________Those demoralising feelings of doubt. 

Doubt that I could write. That I could really be an author worthy of publishing.

My first book has been published and the painful doubt has now dawned… should I have published? 


It wasn’t ready as the editing was crap! Hours upon hours of editing ended up showing me up; as a poor writer.

Why do I say this?

Today I began counting the negatives. From those thoughtful people who believe I need to know my writing faults. Who haven’t asked if I really want their opinions. Their negative opinions I mean.

There are those who I know, who have read my novel, but who have said absolutely nothing about it. 

Today I have read that as a negative.

Honestly, why do this? 

Surely some of the silence is – they can’t be bothered talking about the books they read. Or they haven’t even read it. Or their lives are all consuming with more important things than telling me they have read it.
For today one person told me he had read my book. He said he wanted to talk to me about it, with a voice sounding of disapproval. Not looking me in the eye. The ‘higher than thou’ attitude.

What did my mind do? 

Tell myself he hated it; hated my writing style. 

Disagreed with my theology, my interpretation of history. 

Perhaps it is my grammatical errors he wants to talk to me about?
I processed, until I felt the black cloud pass over me. Smothering  my enthusaiam and desire to write. Freezing my creativity.

How rational a response is that ?

What happened to the majority of reviewers who enthusiastically told me they loved it? 

Who can’t wait for the next one. 

Saying,’Keep on writing. I loved to hate the bad guy. Felt for the main female character. Wept at the marriage….’

Those –  the majority, who told me they loved my style of writing. 

Saying, ‘Don’t change anything.’ 

Who didn’t even notice the punctuation marks incorrectly positioned. 

Didn’t see the lack of verbs. 

Loved the large space between lines, paragraphs. Which made reading easy, especially for elderly eyes.  


Some were short. Some were longer –  ‘Loved it. It flowed naturally. The first part wasn’t slow for them…’
It’s these readers I am really writing for

Those who genuinely like what I am attempting to do. 

As for the self appointed editors –

 – do they read to enjoy the story?

 – or to correct the author? 

            Am I writing for them? 

            No! Definitely not.


Tonight I have decided I will continue writing for my ravers. I love them as they love my uniqueness. They enjoy my ability to tell a story; my way. I love this feeling of being appreciated. I love being an author for those who love my work. 

As for the negative reviewers?

Grammar police –

 I love them as well, but in a different way. I will love them when I ask them to help me editing my second novel. And they agree to help. As this is when their abilities to edit and correct are needed. Yes, I need them. This is when I need those who critique.

Tonight I read my favourite blogging author’s weekly letter.

 Once again she has reassured me of the great writing I am doing. 

 – My ability to pace well. 

 – Have easy on the eye white  spacing in my manuscript. 

 – And more. Thank you Mary Carroll Moore. 

I invite you to enjoy Mary’s blog below. 

May it help you in your writing as her blogs help me. It’s a continual process of learning the craft. 


Paragraph and Line Lengths–How They Affect Your Story’s Pacing 

 by Mary Carroll Moore.

I never paid much attention to paragraph or sentence lengths. I just wrote, felt satisfied if I got the story down. Then, in the late eighties, I got a job as a editor at a publishing company in the Midwest.  
As an editor, I noticed that I had a visual reaction to a person’s writing: how it looked on the page, how dense or light. How much white space or how much text. Even before I began to read, I had a sense of whether I would be engaged, just by how the text looked.

Blocks of dense text turned me off. I was paid to read them, so I did, of course. But I had to work harder to get engaged.  

I learned about pacing: how fast a story moves for the reader. Pacing is half mechanical. Long or short sentences, big or short words, all affect pacing. Shorter sentences and shorter words usually read faster. Longer sentence require the reader to slow down and work harder.  
Seeing writing from an editor’s eyes–what a change that was. Writing became much more than just telling the story. I began looking at my own writing and changing the sentence and paragraph lengths.  
Whenever I read a piece of writing with same-length paragraphs, I noticed a sleepy feel. Another clue!
A blog reader wrote me about this: “Paragraph [length] must be terribly important because as I read and change them the adventures seem to grow in importance.” She’s absolutely right.  
She wanted me to share any rules I knew about how to work with paragraph lengths. There’s aren’t really rules–it’s a kind of rhythm you begin to catch as you gain in writing and editing skill, but here are a few guidelines I picked up as an editor. See if they are helpful. If so, try one as your writing exercise this week.
Working with Mechanical Pacing 

1. Print your pages and lay them side by side. Squint at them. Notice where you have large blocks of text. Notice the white space. (Thanks to writer Alex Chee for this tip.) This is very hard to see on the computer screen, easy to see in an e-reader or printed out.

2. Go back into your document. Read the dense paragraphs out loud. Look for any natural pauses where you could break them.
3. Break out dialogue. Any place you have dialogue embedded in a paragraph of other text, separate it out.
Here’s an example from a recent class–a before and after so you can see the difference. The writing is still rough, but the paragraph changes made a big difference in pacing.  


Sandy climbed the stairs and felt her belly heave. Pregnancy made her feel like a sea mammal, only she didn’t have the luxury of water to buoy her up. Swimming through the hot Alabama air wasn’t her idea of blissful motherhood. She could hear the phone ringing inside the apartment down the short hallway. It was probably her sister. It had been weeks since she’d promised herself to call Jeannine and get someone to come for a couple of hours in the afternoon, just to help with groceries or laundry. Jeannine’s idea had rankled at first, and Simon wouldn’t hear of it, but her sister said she’d even pay the first few weeks, an early birthday present for Sandy. Sandy didn’t want to buck Simon but as she grabbed the top of the railing at last and pulled herself up to the landing, she promised herself she’d call as soon as she got inside and turned on the a/c.

Sandy climbed the stairs and felt her belly heave. Pregnancy made her feel like a sea mammal, only she didn’t have the luxury of water to buoy her up. Swimming through the hot Alabama air wasn’t her idea of blissful motherhood.  

She could hear the phone ringing inside the apartment down the short hallway. It was probably her sister. 

It had been weeks since she’d promised herself to call Jeannine and get someone to come for a couple of hours in the afternoon, just to help with groceries or laundry. Jeannine’s idea had rankled at first, and Simon wouldn’t hear of it, but her sister said she’d even pay the first few weeks, an early birthday present for Sandy.  

Sandy didn’t want to buck Simon but as she grabbed the top of the railing at last and pulled herself up to the landing, she promised herself she’d call.
As soon as she got inside and turned on the a/c.