Hello, writers. It is review time again. Every week I provide you with at least one writing tip, and I have put together a clip show of the last 10 writing tip segments as a refresher for you.
We have been reviewing Act 1 of a three-act book this season, and next week, we will begin working on Act 2. If you have a writing or publishing question you would like me to answer, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or send me a message on Instagram at @writingbreakpodcast.
Now, let’s settle in at the Writing Break cafe and get started on a full episode of writing tips.
From Episode 23: 5 Brainstorming Tips for Writers
During a brainstorming session, the big question is, what should I write about? Here are 5 tips for brainstorming:
Write about things you care about. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t think you need to write what you know but what you’re willing to find out. What do you care about enough to research well?
Know your genre. Understand what your readers care about. What are your ideal reader’s passions? I’ve talked to you before about identifying your ideal reader, so check back on previous episodes for more on that.
Choose a time and place that best supports the story you want to tell. Yes, we all love a good New York and California story, but maybe those are not the best places for what you want to say.
Make it real. Even if you’re writing sci-fi and fantasy, your story has to feel real. Step out of the way of the story and let the reader become the protagonist.
Don’t chase the market. Yes, I fill you in on what the market is doing, but let that inform you rather than mislead you. Make your particular manuscript unique.
From Episode 24: Plot vs Story vs Premise
While we often use plot and story interchangeably, strictly speaking, plot and story in literature are not interchangeable terms.
An easy way to remember the difference is that story is internal and plot is external.
Going further, story tells us about the characters, their backstories, and their current conflicts. The book’s setting is also part of the story.
Plot consists of actions that take place during the book.
Let’s take Romeo & Juliet, for example. Warning: spoilers ahead.
The protagonists are a teenage girl and a teenage boy. Their relevant backstory is that their families have been feuding for generations. Juliet’s conflict at the beginning of the story is that her family wants her to marry Paris, but she isn’t interested. Romeo’s conflict at the beginning of the story is that he wants to be with Rosaline, but she isn’t interested in him. The setting is 14-century Verona.
That is the story. Secondary but still important parts of the story are the friends and relatives they care for and who care for them. All of the characters have personality traits that are part of the story and drive the plot. For example, the protagonists are passionate and impulsive. Their personalities cause them to react to the plot in certain ways, and their reactions are the story, not the plot.
So, what is the plot? Plot is the meaningful action that happens during the story. We don’t need to know about every meal or wardrobe change in Romeo and Juliet, but we do need to know about the upcoming ball during which the protagonists meet, the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt, the secret marriage, and the delayed messenger.it did if you read it before:
Getting back to plot versus story:
When Juliet awakes and sees Romeo is dead. That is plot. Her reaction, which is to decide she no longer wants to live, is story. Her action, stabbing herself, is plot. The families learning of the deaths is plot. The families deciding to end the feud is story.
Remember, plot is your character's physical journey and story is your character's emotional journey.
Now, we move on to the premise. When people ask you, “What is your book about?”, you should be ready to respond with the premise.
This week, I want you to work on the premise of your work in progress. This is an important part of the brainstorming process we began last week. As you get further into your novel writing, you’ll be able to look back at your premise and make sure that you are keeping true to what you want your work to be about.
So, what is the premise of a book? This is the summary of a story’s main plot. We know that story is internal and plot is external, so is the premise a summary of the internal’s external? Mmmm, let’s figure this one out.
Start by writing one sentence about the plot.
Then write a second sentence about the story.
Now edit the two sentences into a paragraph until the relationship between the plot and the story makes sense.
Bonus points is you can edit the paragraph down to a one-sentence premise.
Going back to Romeo & Juliet, Shakespeare gives us the premise in the prologue:
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.
In modern English, Two doomed lovers commit suicide, thereby ending their parents’ feud.
From Episode 25: 5 Things Great Protagonists Have in Common
Two weeks ago we began working our way through the writing process for a three-act novel, so go back and listen to the past two episodes if you missed them.
This week we’re going to start working on your protagonist, also known as your main character, also known as your MC. As you might have noticed, I prefer saying ‘protagonist’.
To start us off, here are five things all great protagonists have in common.
Great protagonists are introduced at the beginning of the story. This might seem obvious to you, but it’s not so obvious to everyone.
Great protagonists have a greater cause. This does not have to come right at the beginning of the story, but it should be fairly soon to keep the reader engaged.
Great protagonists have inner conflicts. In addition to the plot happening outside, protagonists should be conflicted about something within themselves. For example, something is expected of them, but they aren’t sure they can accomplish it.
Great protagonists are complex. This is where many authors struggle. New authors sometimes write characters that always say and do the right things, which is unrealistic. Nobody is perfect, and perfect characters are boring. Great protagonists have strengths and weaknesses.
Great protagonists stay in character. Although you, the writer, might feel a certain way or want to say a certain thing, the protagonist you created might not behave the same way. In fact, if you’ve done a good job creating your characters, they will not agree with you a good deal of the time. Make sure that your character’s dialogue and action is consistent with that character. That’s a good tip for all of your characters. Inevitably, your life will inform some of the plot and the story, but remember that fiction needs to be more dramatic, more exciting, and have a more cohesive theme than real life.
So, those are 5 things all great protagonists have in common. Let’s go further. What about your protagonist will create sympathy in the reader? Is your protagonist in danger? Is your protagonist sacrificing something? What are their virtues? Are they clever? What is it about your protagonist that makes them memorable?
Physical appearance is not a strong tool for creating sympathy, so skip over that for now.
Now decide your protagonist’s flaw or flaws. Do they doubt their abilities or self-worth? Are they insecure, naive, prejudiced, or stubborn, perhaps? Are they unable to face the past or put the past behind them?
Again, physical appearance is not a strong place for finding flaws, so skip over that for now too.
Clarify your protagonist’s goal and what they need to overcome in order to achieve their goal.
Think about your protagonist this week and write a one-paragraph character sketch that includes your protagonist’s name, age, gender, goal, flaw, back story, and physical description.
How much physical description you include in a book in general depends on your genre. A lot of the times, it’s not necessary, and your readers might not want it. So, do a little bit of research on your particular genre before you start giving way too much physical description.
From Episode 26: Writing Characters We Love to Hate
You now know how to create a protagonist, and the process for creating an antagonist is almost the same. The fun part is that you can have more than one antagonist in the same story, and an antagonist doesn’t have to be human. In a survival story, antagonists might be animals. In a science fiction story, antagonists might be machines.
One of the reasons I like to say “protagonist” instead of “main character” is that “main character” gives a skewed perception of the role of the characters. Yes, all of the other characters, whether friend or foe, are not protagonists, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the other characters are minor characters. The other characters are necessary, and writing complex antagonists is essential to writing an interesting book.
Writers often pull characters from people in their lives. When an antagonist is based on someone in the author’s past, the result is often a weak character because the author tends to have less empathy for this character. They make the antagonist cruel or stupid throughout the entire book, and then they write trite scenes where the antagonist gets what’s coming to them and everyone sees what horrible people the antagonists were all along.
Revenge writing of this sort is forgettable and will bore the heck out of your readers. I do recommend getting your thirst for revenge out on paper, but maybe it needs to stay in your private files. Your manuscript would be better served by writing antagonists who are not based solely on one person you know. Change them up. Create a whole new person in your mind’s eye who will serve as the antagonist. Remember that in the antagonist’s mind, they are the main character. They are not walking around thinking they are your protagonist’s antagonist. You get me?
In the last episode, I asked you to identify your protagonist’s goal. That’s important to know from the start because an antagonist is a character who works against your protagonist’s goal. They’re not just mean and nasty people. They are actively working against the thing the protagonist wants most. Note that I say “actively”. It is important that the antagonist be an active character. Not a bureaucrat setting up red tape but a character who fills up a scene and makes the reader’s blood pressure rise. This antagonist is such that your protagonist’s weaknesses and flaws might get the better of them.
When I say that they are actively working against the protagonist’s goal, that doesn’t mean that they are plotting ways to interfere. Well, sometimes it does. But often what it means is that their goals, personality, and/or actions conflict with the protagonist’s ability to achieve their goal.
In fact, the protagonist often mirrors the antagonist. They might hold the same position in a company or rank in an army. They might have had the same tough circumstances growing up, and one took the high road to survive, while the other took the low road.
The antagonist is often disguised. They could be two-faced, cunning, and manipulative. The protagonist might think the antagonist is a friend. This is common in murder mysteries. For those really wanting to go out on a limb, try making the antagonist someone the protagonist loves.
A couple of episodes ago we talked about story versus plot versus premise using Romeo and Juliet as an example. Remember that in the beginning Juliet’s parents want her to marry Paris, but Juliet doesn’t want to. Even though the parents love Juliet and want what they think is best for her, they are antagonists in the story, and the audience is free to dislike these parents.
Getting your audience to not like your antagonist is a vital part of storytelling. This is done by making your antagonist unlikeable through their actions. For example, they could be a bully or self-absorbed or a liar. Don’t get cliche with their appearance. Make the character’s appearance realistic but also keep your genre in mind.
You don’t always have to give the reader what they’re expecting. The antagonist doesn’t have to look like a sleek villain or some other stereotype in order for the story to work.
One last thing about the antagonist is that they have to have a tragic flaw that they cannot overcome. Your protagonist should also have at least one major flaw, as we discussed last week, but your protagonist will learn to overcome that flaw. Or, if you are crafty enough, they will thrive in spite of it because of their other strengths.
The antagonist, however, cannot overcome their tragic flaw, which leads to their literal or figurative demise.
Work on your antagonist this week. Make note of their name, age, gender, goal, flaw, back story, and physical description. Remember that their goal isn’t to antagonize the protagonist. While they might want to defeat the protagonist, that is usually a means to an end. What do they really want? Once you know this, you can make sure that they are acting in accordance with their personality and desires.
Now, I’ll leave you with something to overthink about. If we are all the main characters of our own lives, in how many lives do you think you serve as an antagonist?
From Episode 27: All the Characters Your Book Needs
In the last two episodes we discussed protagonists and antagonists. Today we’re taking a look at the other characters in your books, the supporting cast members, if you will.
First, we have the protagonist’s allies. The Ron and Hermione to your Harry Potter. These characters help fill the story and advance the plot. Through conversations with the protagonist’s allies, we often learn a lot of backstory about other characters as well as the history and rules of the world you have built. They also often help the protagonist out of a jam or two.
Don’t you sometimes find it all too convenient, though? The protagonist’s allies show up just in the nick of time, or they fill the reader in through dialogue that sounds stilted or contrived. Often I find myself thinking, would two people who have been friends as long as these two characters have really say these things to each other? What’s more is that the protagonist’s allies sometimes read as though they exist in a vacuum. In some books, nothing seems to happen to the allies without the protagonist being present. It’s like they are stuck in suspended animation until the protagonist needs them.
As we discussed in previous episodes, it is important to keep in mind that every single character considers themselves the main character. Even though they are your protagonist’s allies, they are not baby deer stumbling around their mother. They are full-grown and living lives, especially in their minds, in which they are the main characters. Create the same character sketch you created for your protagonist and your antagonist. You might write down things about these characters that are never fully expressed in the book, and that’s okay. Having the character sketch will help you get to know the characters better; therefore, you will write better dialogue and a better plot.
Next, we have the pawns of the antagonist. They are not considered the antagonist’s allies because the antagonist’s personality usually prevents them from having real friends. And if they do have real friends, they will inevitably use and abuse them in some way. By doing so, the loyalty of the antagonist’s pawns often change when the pawns decide to stand up for themselves or sabotage the antagonist for their own gains or goals. Again, these people have their own full lives, which adds to the intricacy of the plot. They are pawns but not puppets.
From Episode 28: 4 Dramatic Elements to Create Your Story’s Structure
Today you will create your story’s structure, which I think of as the lighthouse you have to build before you set out into the dark storm that is novel writing. Having your story’s structure will keep you from getting lost at sea.
First, let’s review four dramatic elements that will help you get started. Let’s say this is what puts the wind in your sails.
Passion: This is not necessarily about your story; it's about your motivation for writing the story.
Answer the following question: Why do you want to write this story?
Theme: This is the message you want your readers to take away from the story; this can be the same as passion.
Answer the following question: What message should readers take away from your story?
Flaw: The protagonist’s flaw is usually in opposition to the theme.
Answer the following question : How must your character change to reflect the theme?
At this point, you might realize that you picked the wrong flaw for your character. That’s an easy fix at this stage. You can change the flaw or minimize the original flaw you picked and add a new central flaw that opposes the theme.
For example, if you are passionate about the environment and your theme is that we need to address the climate crisis immediately, but the flaw you picked is that your protagonist is stubborn, you might want to keep stubborn and make the main flaw be that your protagonist is naive. So perhaps they are not aware of the climate crisis, they think it’s not a big deal, or they think other people are taking care of things and everything will be okay without them needing to get involved. As those options are counter to the theme, it leaves room for a lot of action and character development and, potentially, an interesting story.
Premise: If you’ve been following along this season, you have your premise already. If not, listen to episode 24 for more information on how to write your premise. Keep in mind that plot, story, and flaw work together.
Now, in a sort of audio madlibs, let’s solidify your story’s structure. I’ll do it with you.
On one line, write your protagonist’s main flaw.
I’m going to write, disconnected from his own humanity.
On the next line, write the problem the protagonist encounters.
I’m going to write, wants redemption.
On the third line, write the flaw the protagonist overcomes.
This is where you repeat the flaw, so I’m going to write, disconnection from his own humanity.
And on the last line, write the problem the protagonist solves.
I’m going to write, finds redemption.
Now, we’re going to work our answers into the following question:
What if a (flawed protagonist) (encounters some problem) and has to (overcome the flaw) to (solve the problem)?
So, with my answers, the question now reads: What if a person who is disconnected from his own humanity wants redemption and has to overcome his lack of humanity in order to redeem himself?
My example is based on The Count of Monte Cristo, in case you were wondering. That’s a pretty boring sentence for such a complex book, but that’s the point. We’re working on structure here, not story. What absolutely has to be in the book for you to feel that the reader has understood your passion and your main theme? While revenge is one of the many themes of The Count of Monte Cristo, what Edmond Dantès truly seeks throughout the story, after his revenge has been enacted, is redemption for everything he had to do to get his revenge. That is what adds depth to the protagonist and takes us beyond a payback type of story and makes it a classic.
How did you do? Do you have your story’s structure now? Good, now you can navigate all the character arcs, plot twists, and intensity you want to bring into your story and still find your way back to shore.
From Episode 29: Write Your Opening Hook
One question I get asked a lot is, “How long should Act 1 be?” The answer is, as long as it needs to be. It’s the order of information and action that matters, not the length. In a few past episodes we discussed not putting in too much backstory and details that can bore your readers, and a good editor can help you identify when you need to pull back or add more. Additionally, if you incorporate checkpoints into your framework, it makes it easier to avoid writing too much or too little.
Each act has its own checkpoints, and I’ll be going into depth with you on all of them. The checkpoints for Act 1 are Hook, Backstory, and Trigger, in that order. Chronological order doesn’t have to be followed as long as the checkpoints are in order. For example, we hook the reader first and then provide backstory.
Next week we will look at Backstory and Trigger and put it all together, but this week I want you to work on your Hook. The Hook establishes at least one story question, such as: What is happening? What is the outcome going to be? What happened before? What is this person going to do? What sort of person are they? And in this case “person” covers whatever kind of character you have, whether it’s a mystical creature, an animal, an actual human, whatever.
The hook should begin as late into the story as possible; we’ve talked about that before. Your protagonist should appear in the hook, and the hook should have significant action and/or significant dialogue.
From Episode 30:The Art of Writing Backstory
In the last episode, I gave you pointers for writing your story’s opening hook. I hope you found the time to work on it and that you are proud of what you wrote.
In this episode, we are looking at Backstory and Trigger. We have talked about backstory in past episodes.
The backstory is the history that brought the character to the point in the book in which we meet them. This can be presented in the form of dialogue, memories, flashbacks, or exposition. Just remember that exposition tends to be the weakest way to bring the reader into the story.
You do not have to put a character's entire backstory into one place in the beginning of the story. That could overwhelm or bore your readers. Put in what you think your readers absolutely need to know in order to connect to the character and understand the plot, and remember to keep the story moving . Additional backstory can be added throughout the story.
The first act should include action that helps the reader begin to understand your protagonist’s goal, flaw, and situation, and a bit about your protagonist’s personality or mode of thinking.
Additionally, you can add in some foreshadowing. Depending on your genre and your story, you might need to do some world building, character introductions, and so on. You should introduce characters as soon as possible, making sure that it feels natural to the story.
Watch out for forced scenes or unnatural dialogue.
And, of course, you’ll need to include your Trigger. A trigger is a moment, usually a shocking one, near the end of Act 1 in which the protagonist becomes overcome by their flaw and begins to have second thoughts about what course of action they should take or about themselves. This is not a time for the protagonist to make a decision or take action. It is a moment in which something happens that attacks the protagonist’s flaw. For example, if they are insecure, they’ll feel more insecure.
In short, it looks as though the character is getting further away from being able to do the thing.
Take some time this week to map out Act 1.
Think about the scenes you will need to write to bring Act 1 to life. A scene is where a character sets out to do something and it either happens or doesn't happen. Simple as that.
Consider what you want to reveal or the meaningful action you want to happen in each scene, and then write that down so that you remember once you begin writing. This is just a note-taking task, not full-on writing. If you find that there is no true reason for a scene–that is, it won’t advance the plot in any way–you might have to cut it out.
Remember that you are working on getting the protagonist closer and closer to the Crisis, which we will talk about in next week’s episode.
From Episode 31: 12 Plot Frames That Can Support Your Novel
The first question is a two-part question, and it comes from Andrei in Romania. He wants to know why I always say “three-act structure” or “three-act story” or “three-act novel”. And he also wants to know how many acts can be in a book?
Good questions, and they go hand-in-hand. I always say three-act structure for three reasons:
1. The Writing Break audience keeps growing, so I say that for anyone tuning in for the first time.
2. There can be more than three acts in a story and less than three acts in a story. Three acts is the most common structure for novels, but it is not uncommon to have a different amount of acts in a story.
3. I say it to stress that there are other structures out there. If you find that the three-act structure does not work for the story you want to tell, then by all means use another structure. Most of the Writing Break tips can be useful no matter how long or short your story, even if I do say so myself.
As for how many acts can be in a book, I guess that would depend on your story. I’ve worked on stories with one act and stories with eight acts. Sometimes acts are spread out across a series of books, which can result in the dreaded cliffhanger. It also depends a lot on your genre and audience. For example, I do not recommend an eight-act structure if you are writing a book for children ages 5 to 7.
The second question is from Julia in Warsaw. She asks, Are you going to talk about plot frames?
Well, I guess I am now.
A plot frame is part of your story’s structure, and knowing your plot frame can provide guidelines and focus to your manuscript. If you followed the steps to creating your story’s structure, which we worked on a few weeks back, you probably already know your plot frame.
If you are not sure, I am going to share twelve plot frames that most stories fall under.
Revenge or Justice
I got that list from Dan Hoffman, a former development executive and script analyst for major Hollywood studios. Even though that list came from someone in the film business, I think it applies to print media as well.
Sometimes you can start by identifying the plot frame and then working on the rest of your story’s structure. For example, you might first decide you want to write a revenge story and go from there.
Knowing your plot frame makes it easier to identify your protagonist's main goal.
To properly execute a plot frame, you have to include the conflicts that particular plot frame would naturally create in a story. For example, if you know you have a rivalry plot frame, you will remember to keep the rivalry going throughout the manuscript. It can keep you from wasting your time and energy, leaving you more time and energy for the next story.
I hope you enjoyed this bonus episode. Next week, we move on to Act 2. Tune in for that and for the latest publishing news and book trends, and of course, our international bookstore visits.