Episode 43

Nonstop Writing Tips (Clip Show #4)

Ten weeks' worth of writing tips in one episode.

Rosemi Mederos:

If you have plot bunnies coming out of your plot holes, it’s time for a writing break.

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 the parts of a three-act book this season, and over the past 10 weeks we made our way through to the end. If you have a writing or publishing question you would like me to answer, email me at podcast@writingbreak.com 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 33: The Hardest Part of a Book

Have you ever read a book that you thought sagged in the middle? The beginning of the book was interesting. You liked getting to know the characters.

The ending of the book was awesome. You loved how it all came together.

But the middle, well, it felt a little long; a bit slow.

That’s because Act 2 is the most difficult act to write.

As the author, you have to keep the reader's attention even though your protagonist is not changing. The protagonist starts Act 2 overcome by that major flaw you picked out for them, and they continue on that way throughout the act.

Just like Act 1, Act 2 has checkpoints. The checkpoints for Act 2 are: Crisis, Struggle, and Epiphany. Like in Act 1, the checkpoints must appear in order.

Today we are going to focus on the first checkpoint, the Crisis. At the end of Act 1, the Trigger has happened, and the character is overcome by their flaw. This leads us into Act 2 with the Crisis, which is an internal moment. That means it is all story. There is no plot in the Crisis. Go back to Episode 24 if you want to review the difference between story and plot.

So, the Crisis is internal, no plot. Your protagonist does not realize what their flaw is yet. The emotions your protagonist feels during the Crisis carry through the struggle of Act 2 and are resolved in the epiphany. We will discuss those two checkpoints in the coming episodes.

This week, write a single sentence that describes your protagonist’s crisis. Remember, there is no plot here. Then make a list of the scenes needed to get through the writing of the Crisis. Write just enough words to remember what each scene is about.

From Episode 34: Tips for Writing Act 2 of a Novel

Last week, we started our discussion of Act 2. I told you that Act 2’s checkpoints are Crisis, Struggle, and Epiphany, and we went over the Crisis checkpoint, which is an internal moment with no plot. This week, we are reviewing the Struggle checkpoint. The Struggle definitely has plot, so momentum and pacing is important here.

You must keep upping the stakes. Your protagonist is failing, and the results are more and more catastrophic. Give your protagonist a cause that is greater than him or herself. All of this will build sympathy. Always check that the intensity of your plot matches your book’s genre. If you’re writing fantasy, sci-fi, or thrillers, for example, your audience is expecting some bad things to happen. On the other hand, don’t go killing puppies in a Christmas book.

During the Struggle, the actions of the antagonist are causing setbacks and causing the stakes to get higher and higher. This is true even when the antagonist remains hidden (such as Professor Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes books).

The Struggle is a series of plot complications as things get progressively worse. The end of the Struggle is a great spot for a Dark Night of the Soul type of moment when all hope is lost but then a glimmer happens that causes the Epiphany.

We’ll talk about the Epiphany next week.

This week, you can plan out your book’s Struggle in much the same way as you planned out the Crisis last week.

Write a single sentence that describes the Struggle, then make a list of the scenes needed to get through the writing of the Struggle, writing just enough words to remember what each scene is about.

The Struggle will have many scenes. Some scenes might be short, and some scenes might be repeated several times if the protagonist tries to accomplish things in several ways. Think about Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. One important reason to outline your book before writing is so that during the revision process, you can better identify what is necessary and engaging and what is superfluous fluff. Authors often fall in love with a great scene they’ve written that doesn’t quite fit the book. Having thought out the book beforehand will keep you from subjecting readers to your hubris.

Remember, during the Struggle, the stakes are upping, and the protagonist is not going to be able to do something truly effective until Act 3.

From Episode 35: 4 Reasons Authors Mess Up the End of Act 2

Authors sometimes drag out the Epiphany, which will upset readers. Sometimes authors think they need to explain in great detail what is going on internally at this point. If you’re doing this, it means one of four things:

You need to go back and revise earlier parts of your manuscript so that the moment of Epiphany is clearer to your audience. Perhaps your writing is too advanced for your intended audience, or perhaps you rushed through some parts and didn’t explain things well enough. That’s okay. It happens, and it can be fixed.

You are trying to use the moment of Epiphany for something else, such as lecturing about the state of the world, calling out injustices, or just flexing your amazing writing skills by writing unnecessary sentences. Resist the temptation, and stick to the brief internal moment.

You need to learn to trust your audience. Would they have made it this far in your book if they did not understand what the protagonist was going through? Might it be that your audience is smarter than you think?

You need to learn to trust yourself. You wrote a killer first and second act. The Epiphany came at the right moment. The audience gets it. It’s fine. Trust your writing.

The Epiphany, that moment when the protagonist realizes their flaw, is a moment of release for your audience. They might even cry out, “Finally!” Act 3 is next, revenge, retribution, reconciliation, that’s all coming up. For now, the protagonist is only realizing what the reader knew all along. Please don’t drag this out. If you keep it brief, you keep it interesting.

From Episode 36: Hemingway, NaNoWrimo, and Writing Act 3

Act 3 is where the story is resolved. In addition to the resolution of your main plot, all of your subplots need to be resolved. You don’t want to leave any loose ends.

Act 3 is also where the protagonist’s transformation is complete. After the Epiphany, your protagonist is ready to make the necessary inner changes in order to achieve the goal set out in Act 1. The protagonist has accepted that they need to change and are actively doing so. Sometimes this means that they are willing to let go of those earlier goals and walk away from what they thought they wanted.

Just like the first two acts, Act 3 has checkpoints. The checkpoints for Act 3 are: Plan, Climax, and Ending.

Let’s take a close look at the first checkpoint: the Plan.

The Plan is all plot. It is a plan of action, and the execution is something that your protagonist could not have done without recognizing their flaw, which happened in the Epiphany. Your protagonist might come up with several plans that don’t work. Maybe they first try to go it alone and fail because it’s something that cannot be done without allies. Or maybe the opposite is true. Perhaps the allies initially set out with the protagonist, but in the end it is something that the protagonist must do alone. Those are just two examples. There are many reasons why a plan might not work, and it is also possible to write just one plan that works out on the first try.

Note that if you're writing a tragedy, none of the plans will work because your protagonist did not change in the Epiphany.

Now, it’s time to plan out the Plan.

Write a single sentence that describes the Plan, then make a list of the scenes needed to get through the writing of the Plan, writing just enough words to remember what each scene is about.

The Plan can be short, sometimes even one scene long. The winning streak is the Climax. Once you head into victory, don’t give the protagonist any more major failures.

From Episode 37: Tips for Writing Your Book’s Climax

We are finally at the Climax of your story. Like I said at the end of last week’s episode, the Climax begins the winning streak. Once you head into victory, do not give the protagonist any more major failures. That does not mean victory is going to be easy.

Some beloved characters might die in an epic battle, and a much-cherished sword might be lost over a cliff. The protagonist is still moving forward with a determined mind and a strong heart.

The protagonist is active throughout the climax. Do not allow the allies to solve the protagonist’s problem. They can assist, sure, and maybe even in critical ways, but the protagonist has to have contributed to his or her or their own victory. Do not let the protagonist just get lucky in the end. Show that the protagonist earned the win; your readers have earned that much from you.

The tricky thing is keeping the protagonist sympathetic. Too much boasting or whining, too much enjoyment of violence or celebration of a victory might kill your audience’s love for the protagonist.

Do not forget that you are also bringing antagonists through to their proper resolutions. Antagonists are defeated by their own flaws. The antagonists may be rehabilitated after their defeat, but that’s optional. If you have more than one antagonist, you might choose to reform some but not all.

The antagonist's defeat should be consistent with the weight of the story. For example, if you are writing a romance, the antagonist is reformed or perhaps removed from the story in a mild but permanent way. It does not have to be a dramatic scene. A story with a third-person narrative could just let the reader know that the antagonist has changed. Or you could let the reader know in a subtle way. Whatever works best for your story and your writing style.

Try to avoid making it cheesy, but that’s a personal request. Some audience members love a cheesy antagonist reformation. Do you remember that scene at the end of Dirty Dancing when Jake Houseman tells Johnny Castle, “I know you weren't the one who got Penny in trouble. When I'm wrong, I say I'm wrong.”

Ugh. But it didn’t quite kill the movie, did it?

You might also have the protagonist help the antagonist reform in the end. But reformation is optional. What is not optional is the antagonist’s defeat so that they are no longer in a position to cause chaos in the protagonist’s life. That is a must.

Give the reader time to enjoy that win and relax into the idea that the character who has been wreaking havoc throughout the book is finally neutralized. If you are writing a series, this might be a momentary retreat rather than a final defeat.

It is time to plan out the Climax.

You know what to do by now, right? Write a single sentence that describes the Climax, then make a list of the scenes needed to get through the writing of the Climax, writing just enough words to remember what each scene is about.

Maybe it’s because of the word “climax”, but some authors do not seem to understand that it is okay to have a long Climax. Please don’t be one of those authors who wraps everything up in the last few pages. Lighten the protagonist’s burdens throughout the Climax.

From Episode 38: 8 Common Novel Endings

Oh my gosh, we’re at the end of your novel, aren’t we? It’s time to wrap up Act 3. We made a Plan, there was a Climax, and now we’re at the Ending.

The Ending is a cooling off period for your readers, so if your book was intense, you’re going to want to take your time here. These are your last few moments with your audience. Do not get sloppy or lazy or silly. Keep it in tune with the rest of your masterpiece.

You can end in several ways. Here are the eight most common endings:

Circular ending: This is where everything returns to normal but with a contrast.

Reversed ending: Things have gone from bad to good, emotionally, physically, or both.

Bittersweet ending: There might be unexpected casualties, things might have ended worse for the antagonist than anticipated, and maybe the protagonist didn’t get everything they wanted.

Open ending: You could have the dreaded open ending where the reader walks away unsure about the future of your characters. This is a tricky one that might upset your readers, so tread carefully, and perhaps give a few clues about what is in store for the characters your audience spent so much time getting to know.

Cliffhanger: A cliffhanger is possible if you’re writing a series, but the story should still have some resolution. You can’t leave everything up in the air or your readers will seek revenge in the way of one-star reviews.

Twist: You could have a twist in the ending where something unexpected happens, particularly if the twist leads to good results. Avoid making it too sweet or improbable, though. That’s a personal request.

Revelation: Satisfying revelations, that is, satisfying to the readers, are welcome in the Ending.

Monologue: Some authors end with a monologue. That’s not my favorite because I think everything should have been said already, and ending with a monologue can feel like spoon-feeding your audience or doubting your audience’s ability to understand the book’s message. But there are authors who do it and readers who are okay with it.

And now, one last time, let’s plan it out.

Write a single sentence that describes the Ending, then make a list of the scenes needed to get through the writing of the Ending, writing just enough words to remember what each scene is about.

After you’ve done that, believe it or not, you’re ready to write your scenes.

From Episode 39: These 7 Components Will Set the Perfect Pace for Your Story

You’ve mapped out your three-act novel, so it’s time to get into writing your scenes. First, remember that the plot is your protagonist's physical journey, and the story is your protagonist's emotional journey. I will be using that distinction in today’s tips, so check out episode 24 for more information on that.

Writing scenes requires a scene and sequel structure. What that means is that you have a scene wherein meaningful action and meaningful dialogue take place, thereby moving the plot along, and that scene is followed by a sequel where meaningful reactions take place, thereby moving the story along.

It’s called a scene and sequel structure rather than an action and reaction structure because not every moment of action or dialogue exchange necessarily has a reaction or analysis of what was just said. I’m sure you’ve read stories where the action went on for a bit before the characters stopped to think things over.

You control the pace of the story through the scene to sequel ratio. You could build up a scene so that there's more action involved before the sequel. You could also have a series of blunders that will lead to more thoughtfulness in the sequel.

The scene and sequel both have components.

The scene components are: goal, conflict, and disaster. If there is no goal, you don't need the scene. Understanding this will save you so much time and make your writing infinitely better, so I’ll say it again: if there is no goal, you do not need the scene. Once the goal of the scene is established, the characters are going to meet with conflict. How much conflict you create for them will set the pace and momentum of the plot. After that comes the setback that the character experiences in the attempt to accomplish the goal. This setback is known as the disaster. Note that not every disaster will fall upon the protagonist, as not every scene is about the protagonist.

Then you have the sequel. The sequel components are: emotion, thought, decision, and action.

By “emotion” I mean powerful emotion that immediately follows not being able to accomplish the goal of the scene. Then the character should think about what can be done next to accomplish the goal and pick the decision that makes the most sense and act upon it. And by “makes the most sense”, I mean what makes the most sense for that character. Whatever they decide to do should be in keeping with their personality and characteristics at that moment. This includes their flaws.

After a decision has been made, it is time to take action. This action could become the goal of the next scene.

Everything that occurs in the novel occurs within the scene and sequel, including setting descriptions, backstories, and so on.

When you’re writing, it might help to write one sentence describing each element: that is, goal, conflict, disaster, emotion, thought, decision, and action. One sentence for each. Then use that as a guideline for writing the scene and sequel. I know that’s a lot of information, and it might be confusing, so listen to it a few times and feel free to reach out to me with questions you might have about this, and I’ll do my best to address them in forthcoming episodes.

From Episode 40: 7 Tips for Creating a Setting

Today we’re going to talk about creating a setting, which is the time and place where the story is taking place. As the author, you want to be well acquainted with your setting, but not every detail that is in your mind needs to find its way into the story.

You want to do a good job creating the setting because the setting establishes the mood and sharpens action. It defines the plot rules and sets the readers’ expectations. You want to surprise the reader along the way, and that works best when they think they know what to expect.

Here are 7 tips for creating a setting worth reading:

Be more specific. No, that does not mean every last detail should be written out, but the right details help your readers feel as though they are part of your novel’s world.

Create action, even in the inanimate. Be careful to avoid cliches though.

Add adjectives that convey mood. Think these through and do your best to write something unique without being too wordy or forcing drama.

Explore the other senses. You don’t have to cover all five senses in each scene, but it does fill a scene better when the reader is given more than one sense per scene.

Add the potential for change over time. A few examples include changing weather, construction or destruction of buildings, technological advances, or even adding or removing furniture. Just make it make sense.

Use active verbs (avoid: is, are, be, was, were, had been, etc.). For example, there were leaves on the ground, which is passive, vs. leaves covered the ground, which is active. That is also an example of tip #2, creating action, even in the inanimate.

Place your protagonist in the scene; do it in the beginning of the scene so that we establish who is perceiving the scene and we experience it through that person.

Applying these tips might feel clunky or stiff at first. You’ll have to work hard to find your writing style, select the right details, and make the words flow.

From Episode 41: Writing Tips for Better Dialogue

We’re conversing about conversation today. Good dialogue is a slippery eel. (What is with all the analogies today?) Sometimes writers who are pretty good at writing dialogue learn some dialogue techniques and promptly lose touch with their natural talent.

Oh, for the love of Hank Aaron, here comes a baseball analogy. Stay with me here.

During the Homerun Derby, the best Major League Baseball batters compete to see who can hit the most home runs. It’s a real treat. But participating in the Homerun Derby can mess with some batters’ swing. There’s something about focusing too much on doing just one thing—in this case, hitting the ball out of the park—that can make it hard to get back into the swing of things during the regular season.

In the same way, I think some writers who learn dialogue techniques end up struggling to find their natural rhythm. They become so focused on applying these techniques that they lose touch with their own writing style.

And of course, there’s the elephant in the room, which is that some famous authors used little dialogue. That’s not just talent, though. That’s being fortunate enough to have what the people want when they want it. I bet you could name some classics that would never get traditionally published today.

The worst dialogue you can write is unnecessary dialogue. Dialogue serves many purposes:

It creates conflict, especially when there’s sharp dialogue between two characters.

It conveys emotion.

It advances the plot.

It sets the scene.

It develops the characters; and

It replaces exposition.

Dialogue is a good way to “show” rather than “tell” the story. It’s also a great way to differentiate between characters. Everyone’s word choice and speech pattern is unique, and that should be reflected in your writing. Episode 4 talks more about this.

When writing your dialogue, you’re going to want to keep speeches short. Once you’re sure of your writing talent, you can play around with speech length. Reading books in your genre will help you get a sense of what your speech length should be. For example, fantasy tends to lend itself to long speeches from time to time because the audience is willing to read it. Still, don’t overdo it and don’t force it.

Incorporate beats and nonverbal communication, such as small gestures or sounds, you know, shrugs, nods, laughs. These help you manage the pace of your story, as do stage actions that let us know where the characters are in the scene and what they’re doing as they either speak with or listen to other characters.

You can also play around with broken dialogue. This is one that authors overdo all the time, so go easy.

Then there’s dialect and accent. This can be annoying and even insulting if there's too much, if it doesn’t sound natural, or if it doesn’t really fit the character. Do you know how many authors write characters who are supposed to be Irish, but the authors only bother to work in Irish curse words and insults? Too many. This also happens a lot to Scottish and British characters. C’mon, people.

And then there are the books that take place in southern parts of the United States, but the only characters with deep southern accents are the mean ones. It’s just awful.

Interior monologue can also help move the story along and give the reader deeper insights into a character’s thoughts and feelings in a simple way.

The most important thing is to make sure each line of dialogue moves the plot forward in a meaningful way.

From Episode 42: How to Calculate Your Page Count

A dialogue tag identifies the speaker (e.g., he said, she whispered), and an action beat can be a description, a thought, or an action that occurs within a dialogue exchange.

Today, we’ll go through the typical evolution of the dialogue tag in a writer’s career, and I’ll provide you with examples to help you write better dialogue that suits your writing style.

I’m going to give you an example of how a writer might begin writing dialogue tags, and I want you to pause the episode and rewrite the text without changing any of the dialogue. Here we go:

“I’ll take that,” Sam said.

“No way. This mission is mine,” Nora said.

“Hand it over. That’s an order,” Sam said.

“An order? From you? That’s rich,” Nora said.

“What is that supposed to mean?” Sam asked.

“Have you ever obeyed an order in your life?” Nora asked.

Now, pause and rewrite it. I’ll wait.

How did you do?

What I read was not good writing, but at least the dialogue tags are benign enough that a reader can skip over them.

When a writer learns about the well-meaning but incomplete writing advice that says “said is dead,”meaning use something other than “said” in your dialogue tags, they might do the following:

“I’ll take that,” Sam declared.

“No way. This mission is mine,” Nora stated.

“Hand it over. That’s an order,” Sam demanded.

“An order? From you? That’s rich,” Nora retorted.

“What is that supposed to mean?” Sam asked.

“Have you ever obeyed an order in your life?” Nora questioned.

Ugh. Now the reader is taxed with actually reading these dialogue tags to see if there’s anything revealing in them. There usually isn’t.

After that, the writer gets a bit more writing advice and learns that dialogue tags can be left out once the speakers are established, which evolves into this:

“I’ll take that,” Sam declared.

“No way. This mission is mine,” Nora stated.

“Hand it over. That’s an order.”

“An order? From you? That’s rich.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“Have you ever obeyed an order in your life?”

OK, that’s the best so far, and in many two-person scenes, this is enough and can serve to create a fast-paced moment.

But what if we bring in some action beats?

Sam pointed at the envelope in Nora’s hand. “I’ll take that.”

“No way,” Nora said. “This mission is mine.”

“Hand it over. That’s an order.”

“An order? From you? That’s rich.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

Nora glared at him. “Have you ever obeyed an order in your life?”

The action beats provide information and . . . well . . . action.

This same passage could be rewritten to let us know what kind of room the characters are in or to have one of the characters leave the scene. Depending on the type of narrator you’re using to tell your story, internal dialogue might be added in as well.

What is most important when deciding if and how to elaborate on your dialogue is to consider whether the additions advance the plot and fit your writing style. Remember that dialogue tags should not get in the way of the story and should not be a burden on the reader.

Here is one last revision that tells us where the characters are and puts a character in position to exit the scene.

Sam pointed at the envelope in Nora’s hand. “I’ll take that.”

Nora slipped the envelope into her sneaker and smoothed down her freefly suit. “No way. This mission is mine.”

Panic rose in Sam’s chest. He needed this assignment to prove he wasn’t a total failure. “Hand it over. That’s an order.”

Nora adjusted her chin strap. “An order? From you? That’s rich.”

Sam tried to stall her. He had to get those mission papers. “What is that supposed to mean?”

Nora made her way to the plane door. “Have you ever obeyed an order in your life?”

What do you think happens next? Does Nora make it off the plane and complete the mission? Is Sam desperate enough to get that envelope from her one way or another?

Most importantly, how would you write that scene in your writing style?

Play around with that scene. Place Sam and Nora anywhere you want and add in whatever action beats and dialogue tags you want, but keep the lines of dialogue exactly the same. I hope you have fun with that exercise.

I hope you enjoyed this bonus episode. Next week, we begin season 3. Tune in for more writing tips, the latest publishing news and book trends, and of course, our independent bookstore visits.

If you would like us to visit your favorite independent bookstore, feature your favorite independent author (even if it’s you), or discuss something you’re overthinking about, please email me at podcast@writingbreak.com.

Thank you for making space in your mind for The Muse today.

Writing Break is hosted by America’s Editor and produced by Allon Media with technical direction by Gus Aviles. Visit us at writingbreak.com or contact us at podcast@writingbreak.com.

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Rosemi Mederos


Rosemi is the founder of America's Editor, a book editing company.