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Characterization, Marketing Your Novel, On Writing, Plot & Structure, Thoughts on Writing

Writers, Keep It (Your Style) Simple

November 2, 2013

Novelists aiming to write popular fiction* need to develop a style that does not call attention to itself. If you’re writing for a wide audience, a straightforward narrative style – bare and spare – lets your story and characters take center stage.

Why? Because you don’t want your reader thinking about your writing style. That jars the reader from the imaginary world of the novel. It slows down the pace of the story.

If your intention is to write a literary novel,** go for it. Polish that style to a fare thee well. But if you’re aiming to write popular fiction, the advice to “keep it simple” applies.

Agents and editors overwhelmingly prefer spare prose. Ask any reader of a slush pile. Writers who “try too hard” in the stylistic department often do so to cover up a yawner plot and cardboard characters.

A good example of good spare prose that lets plot and character shine through is Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. Collins’s prose is not yrical. It’s workmanlike. It does its job. It keeps a reader turning pages.

Collins’s readers are turning those pages not because they enjoy how she can bend a gerund, but because her story and her characters are compelling.

Had she written The Hunger Games in a style that made the reader stop every few sentences to wipe away a rhapsodical tear (at the beauty of the words), but ignored honing plot and character The Hunger Games would have languished on bookstore shelves.

It is common for newbie writers who are honestly striving to do their best to think a “literary” voice is the way to go. They may not yet have mastered characterization, plot and structure, but think, “My writing style sings, so I’ll get published.”

Well, no. Agents and editors want simplicity in the writing, and a darn good story, with great characters. Why? Because that’s what readers want too.

So, keep it simple.


* Work that sells like gangbusters today – and may well become a classic in twenty years time. (Time alone decides who becomes tomorrow’s “literary author.” Shakespeare wrote aiming at popular success – and we all know how that turned out.)

** Fiction of the type English majors study in college classes.


On Creativity, On Writing, Plot & Structure

How to Storyboard Your Novel

February 6, 2013

Are you struggling with plotting your novel?

Here’s one approach that can help break a creative logjam – storyboard your plot.

What is storyboarding? It’s combining sketches of key action scenes with a brief description of what is going on in the action scene.

Take a look at the example.












Three key scenes (also known as “beats”) from the beginning of the novel Jaws are storyboarded. The scenes include: 1) A swimmer is attacked by a shark. 2) Body parts wash up on the beach. 3) The police chief wants to close the beach, but is opposed by the mayor who doesn’t want the town to lose tourist dollars.

For purposes of plotting a novel, you don’t need any particular skill as an artist. A writer can make stick figure thumbnail sketches, as shown. But the value add for the writer is that you now have a visual element to work with. For some of us, this is very helpful. I know it is for me.

Here are a few additional tips for taking a storyboard approach to writing your novel:

  • Start by creating eight one-sentence descriptions of your story’s eight key scenes (or, story “beats”). These are the Wow! scenes in your novel – when something spectacular/interesting/emotionally wrenching/gripping (well, you get the idea) happens. Movies are planned this way – around eight or so key scenes.


  • Next, “fill in the blanks” (i.e., add one-sentence descriptions of the remaining 50+ scenes that will make your eight “Wow” scenes flow together beautifully.) A typical novel has about 60 scenes of 4 to 5 pages in length, on average. Now that you’ve outlined your eight key absolutely amazing scenes, noodle out the 52 other scenes that weave those Big scenes together- that lead up to and out of each of those key scenes. Write a one-sentence description for each of these scenes, or beats. Can you see how taking this visual approach – storyboarding – offers your creativity additional good stuff with which to to work?


And there’s an additional “value add” to taking the storyboard approach to plotting: It’s fun!

Check out my related blog post on How to Write a Pageturner Novel ‘Beat Sheet’ for more on how to plot your story, check for story holes, and ensure yourself that you’re creating a page-turning narrative, before you invest the time it will take to write the 40- to 60,000 words that comprise an average novel.

Storyboard art: Jessica Hatchigan

Characterization, On Writing, Plot & Structure

Keeping It Real (via Characterization)

October 24, 2012

If your goal is to write a pageturner, you want to create a story with compelling scenes – scenes crackling with the sort of action that compels a reader’s attention.

Readers are hungry for plausible stories about people who do amazing things. However, note the “plausible.” The action of the novel, no matter how over the top, must be credible.

Hmmm, you say, are the action scenes in the Harry Potter, James Bond, and Twilight books by any stretch of the imagination credible?

And the answer is: absolutely, yes – within the story logic created by the author. The heroes and heroines of pageturner novels do amazing things few of us will ever experience – but their experiences are credible because their authors have fashioned their characters in such a way as to make their actions plausible. Of course, Harry Potter can fly a broomstick. Harry Potter is a wizard. Of course, James Bond can escape certain death umpteen times. James Bond is a Superspy. Of course Edward literally sparkles and can read minds. Edward is a vampire with an unbeating heart of gold.

The basic idea in fashioning a pageturner is: Decide on the five, eight or ten, key amazing, awesome scenes you want to emply to make make your plot sparkle and shine. Then fashion characters who are the kinds of people who can make those things happen.

If you want a character who becomes a fierce warrior, like Katniss in the Hunger Games, you have to establish tht she has that potential in the opening pages. So, from the start, the author of The Hunger Games presents us with a heroine who is a fearless hunter with quick reflexes. She also provides Katniss with the emotional motivation that will spur her to perform to her utmost as a firece warrior: she shows us how deeply Katniss cares for Prim, her younger sister.

In Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell wants the reader to believe Scarlett is going to chase after Ashley, her romantic target, for 500 pages, so she shows us Scarlett passionately – and scandalously – throwing herself at Ashley in the opening scenes of the novel.

As you plan your pageturner, ask yourself: what kind of hero  is the best choice for my story?

You can’t be whimsical. You can’t show us a dreamy timid passive heroine who has no exceptional skills – or who doesn’t especially care for her younger sibling  – and expect us to believe she’ll fight valiantly in the Hunger Games. You can’t show us a shy and retiring Scarlett and expect us to believe she’ll pursue Ashley tooth and claw, and scrap for her own survival as aggressively.

If you’re baking a carrot cake, you have to put the carrot in!

So your goal is to,

1) fashion an interesting story –  that means when you are planning the big action scenes in your story, you want to create and present new and interesting situations versus  same old same old. But – again – your fictional characters must behave credibly. You need to give your hero plausible reasons for the choices he or she makes.

2) create credible characters to make that story happen – you need to: create a hero who can function the way you need him to in the story environment you intend to create.

Some examples:

  • If you need a character who risks his life to save a bunch of hostages from terrorists, you need a character who has the background  to outsmart a bunch of terrorists, and then you give him reasons to hang in there and outsmart them. I give you . . . Diehard. (Bruce Willis is a tough smart cop and his wife has been taken hostage by terrorists.)
  • If you need a detective who can spot tiny clues everyone else misses, you create Monk with his photographic memory and his OCD. His reason for pursuing the bad guys? He needs to make a living, and reinstate himself as a detective. He was drummed out after he had a breakdown when his wife was murdered. Aside from his love for his wife, his job as a detective means more than anything else to him.
  • If you need a Katniss, you give her archery skills and a rule-breaking disregard for totalitarian authority.


If you need a scene in which the heroine drives a Zamboni, establish that your heroine held a summer job in college driving a Zamboni. If you need a scene in which someone sails a boat across a stormy sea, give your hero a childhood of sailing every summer with his dad.

That’s how you make the magic of compelling scenes happen: decide on the action of those scenes, then create characters who have the background to make it seem perfectly natural that they can do what you need them to do.

Happy writing!

Characterization, On Writing, Plot & Structure

Why Your Hero Needs to Be Gutsy

October 22, 2012

In our previous post, we established that in order to create characters who keep readers turning pages, you need to:

  1. Create interesting characters – your story people should come alive on the page. (We’ll share more about making characters come to life in a future post.)
  2. Give your characters an intense motivation – something they care intensely about and/or desperately want to achieve – or prevent!


The above recommendations hold especially true when you create your hero.

A fascinating hero who has a strong goal keeps readers riveted to the page.

What’s more – to ensure the rivets don’t jiggle loose – you need to make your hero  struggle mightily to achieve his goal. That’s because, without struggle, heartbreak, and immense frustration, there is no story.

That means: your hero needs to be a scrapper.

He needs to be ready, willing, and able (although sometimes he may be allowed a moment of hesitation), to fight against all odds.

It also means you need to put your hero in a situation/situations where he must resist/fight/struggle/endure, and where the stakes are constantly raised.

That – again – is why your hero needs to be strongly motivated. He must want to achieve (or prevent) something so badly that he is willing to give the struggle his all.

What is true of the hero, is true also for the antagonist. That is where story conflict arises – in the clash of the hero and the antagonist as each pursues opposing goals.

If you choose to develop one or more subplots, your minor characters also will have strong goals, and meet with various conflicts. (The skilful writer weaves the subplot conflicts in a way that works to explore the novel’s overall theme.)

Our next blog post will explore the basics of melding plot and characterization considerations. Until then . . .

Happy writing!

Watch Jessica Hatchigan’s video tutorial – “How Bestselling Authors Create Pageturner Novels: Plot & Structure ” instantly on your PC, Mac, compatible TV or device via’s instant video.

On Writing, Plot & Structure

Story Structure: Act 3 (Wrap Up)

October 17, 2012

After the Showdown and Resolution , a pro writer wraps up the story.

The Wrap Up takes care of any loose ends, resolves any remaining unresolved subplots, and eases the reader out of the story world with (hopefully) a sense of satisfaction at a story well told. “Denouement” is the more poetic way to describe the Wrap Up. Either term will do–as long as the writer remembers to put this last structural element into place.

However, a writer can choose to leave out the Wrap Up. Sometimes, for dramatic effect, a writer may want to end a story at the moment of the protagonist’s Final Victory or Ultimate Defeat. But most novelists take the time to write the few sentences, paragraphs, or pages that fully resolve the story in a way that is satisfying to the reader.

With the Wrap Up concluded, you have brought the story to an end.

This post concludes the discussion of plot and structure in novel writing, but it doesn’t end our discussion of how to write a pageturner novel. The next series of posts will address the how to’s of creating another element vitally important in writing a novel readers can’t put down: compelling characters.

Happy writing!

Watch Jessica Hatchigan’s video tutorial – “How Bestselling Authors Create Pageturner Novels: Plot & Structure ” instantly on your PC, Mac, compatible TV or device via’s instant video.


On Writing, Plot & Structure

Story Structure: Act 3 (Showdown & Resolution)

October 17, 2012

When you get to writing the Showdown segment of Act 3, you–the author–finally get to write the scene to which all of the action in the novel has been building: the hero now confronts his nemesis face to face for the decisive battle.

Structurally, this should happen midway through Act 3.

In our last blog post on the need for urgency in Act 3, we had the hero racing against time to face off against the antagonist. The hero is armed with hope and determination and with some slim chance of success. The antagonist appears to be a near-invincible Goliath.

Up to now, the hero may have confronted any number of challenges. He may have succeeded in overcoming the challenges on his journey to this point in the story. But none of his victories, so far, have enabled him to achieve his Key Goal. Now the hero’s ongoing struggle to achieve his elusive Key Goal boils down to this one Final Battle.

The Showdown should be “writ large.” It should be a big, exciting sceme. It’s not just a minor skirmish; it’s the climactic battle. The stakes are enormous. This is the hero’s last chance.

The Showdown leads to the Resolution (or climax) of the story.  In the Resolution of the Showdown, he will emerge victorious or go down in defeat. If the writer has done his job properly, the Showdown should hold readers glued to the page, rooting for the hero, their hearts beating a little faster, their palms sweaty.

Some examples of Showdown/Resolution:

– In Jaws, Chief Brody, Quint and Hooper battle the shark. The shark kills Quint. Hooper and Chief Brody survive when Brody blows up the shark by shooting at compressed air tank lodged momentarily in its jaws.

– In Bridget Jones’s Diary, Bridget’s Mr. Right (Mark Darcy) announces his engagement to Bridget’s rival and his decision to leave England with his fiancee to accept a job in New York. Bridget gives a speech at the engagement party revealing her true feelings for Mark. In the next scene, Mark calls off his engagement to Natasha and his decision to leave England. Bridget appears to have found her Mr. Right!

– In The Fugitive Kimble confronts both Sykes, the hired killer, and the real killer, Nichols, while fending off an implacable FBI agent who believes him (Kimble) to be the guilty man. Following a knock-down-drag-em-out fight, Kimble proves his innocence.

Happy writing!

Watch Jessica Hatchigan’s video tutorial – “How Bestselling Authors Create Pageturner Novels: Plot & Structure ” instantly on your PC, Mac, compatible TV or device via’s instant video.



On Writing, Plot & Structure

Story Structure: Act 3 (Speed Is Now of the Essence)

October 14, 2012

Your story’s “clockworks” & the need for speed.

Once the hero has experienced the Epiphany (in which he finally realizes how he has a chance to defeat a seemingly undefeatable adversary), the novelist must make speed of the essence.

An author cannot allow her hero the luxury of time to resolve his issue and/or defeat the antagonist. The time allowed the hero to complete his critical task must be limited.

A clock should now be ticking.

Think about movies scenes in which the hero needs to defuse an explosive device. A clock literally ticks away the seconds to detonation. The hero (and the audience) is sweating bullets. That is the kind of tension a well-paced showdown and resolution ignites.

Some examples:

  • In the Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta have grown to love each other, but the sadistic rules of the gladiatorial style combat to which they were recruited now force them to fight each other to the death.
  • In The Graduate, Benjamin must rush to the church to interrupt Elaine’s wedding to the wrong guy. Will he get there in time?
  • In Star Wars, Luke only has a limited time to hit the Death Star at its vulnerable point. 
  • In Bridget Jones’s Diary, Bridget’s Mr. Right (Mark) is leaving Britain with his fiancee (not Bridget) to accept a job in New York. Bridget must find a way to get Mark back – and soon.
  • In The Fugitive Kimble confronts both Sykes, the hired killer, and the real killer, Nichols, who can exonerate him of the false accusation that he murdered his wife – but just ss Kimble does so, the law closes in him.


Once the author sets up the reason Speed Is Now of the Essence, the hero rushes to his Showdown with the antagonistic force – and the Resolution of the story. We’ll look at the Showdown and Resolution in the next blog post.

Happy writing!

Watch Jessica Hatchigan’s video tutorial – “How Bestselling Authors Create Pageturner Novels: Plot & Structure ” instantly on your PC, Mac, compatible TV or device via’s instant video



On Writing, Plot & Structure

Story Structure: Act 3 (Epiphany)

October 12, 2012

In previous posts, we’ve discussed key structural guideposts for writing your novel. Our last post on structure discussed the second turning point.

Following the second turning point – a place in the story that sees the hero beaten down and discouraged – we arrive at Act 3.

In the concluding scenes of Act 2b, it doesn’t seem things can get any worse. But – in a well-constructed story – of course, they do.

In fact, as Act 3 unfolds, the hero experiences his lowest moment. He hits rock bottom. For the antagonistic force, victory seems assured – and the hero sees it that way too. The hero is at the point of despair.

Then,  a beam of light shines into the hero’s dark pit of despair.

The hero sees a way out of his dead end. Often, it’s a long shot, last chance, last ditch effort that carries only a slim possibility of success.

This moment of “seeing the light” is called the Epiphany. It’s a moment of illumination in which a new possibility (and usually new information or a new realization) brings with it a surge of hope and a renewal of energy.

Some examples:

  • In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry tricks Hagrid into blurting out that the way to tame Fluffy – the monster guarding the solution to his troubles – is to play music.
  • In Star Wars, it’s when Luke hears the general explain the weak point in the Death Star.
  • In Bridget Jones’s Diary, it’s when Bridget learns that the man she thinks is Mr. Right is Mr. Wrong, and vice-versa, ensuring that she has a chance – although now a slim one – to set her sights on the right Mr. Right.
  • In The Fugitive, it’s when the hero who is trying to clear his name finds that a new suspect is the murderer and that the murderer is employed by Nichols  a corrupt executive (enabling the hero to potentially serve up to the justice system, not only the actual murderer, but also a motive for the murder).


The Epiphany provides the story with a renewed burst of energy. The reader is now rooting for the hero to prevail, no matter how slim the chances. If the writer has done his job well, the reader is in a state of suspense that keeps him/her turning pages.

Happy writing!

Watch Jessica Hatchigan’s video tutorial – “How Bestselling Authors Create Pageturner Novels: Plot & Structure ” instantly on your PC, Mac, compatible TV or device via’s instant video


Image: YFCAD TEch

Eclectic Musings, On Writing, Plot & Structure, Thoughts on Writing

Workarounds (in Fiction & in Life)

October 6, 2012

I  love the word “workaround.” It is a word of fairly recent vintage. When software program users discover that a program has “bugs” – errors in coding that stop the program from functioning as it is meant to do – they create “workarounds.” Workarounds are fixes that don’t eliminate the coding errors, but that allow the program to work as it is meant to do despite the program’s hitting a wall. They are exercises in creativity and resourcefulness.

As a novelist works to shape a pageturner story – one that present readers with a resourceful hero facing a series of truly disastrous situations, the novelist actually needs to arrange for the hero to hit one or more walls. In a pageturner, a hero needs to face an impossible situation – a situation so dangerous or deadly situation he appears doomed.

In fact, readers love to see a hero in this situation. That is, of course, because they want to see how the hero will get himself out of it. It is exactly these “hit a wall” situations that glue readers to a book, and keep them turning pages.

But once a writer has placed his hero into a perilous apparent dead end, how does a writer get his hero out of his fix?

All the obvious saves are closed to the hero. (Or else the reader would have thought of the solution – and stopped reading.)

Enter the workaround – i.e., the resourcefulness of the hero.  A hero’s workaround might appear to bend logic and defy gravity – but it makes the story’s “program” work!

A hero’s workarounds are limited only by the author’s imagination.

The only caveats to the pageturner author are as follows:

  • Don’t limit yourself. Think big!


  • At the same time, don’t “jump the shark.” Keep your hero’s workarounds within the scope of possibility – although amped up, hyper possibilities are fine.


Examples of workarounds:

Note: Spoiler warning – do not read the examples below if you haven’t read/viewed Goldfinger, The Hunger Games, Back to the Future, or Hitchcock’s classic 39 Steps.

  • In Goldfinger, James Bond  has been drugged by his nemesis, Goldfinger, and wakes to find himself on a hijacked jet guarded by Goldfinger’s goon, Oddjob. Bond extricates himself by breaking a window on the plane. This depressurizes the plane, sucking Oddjob out. Bond then fights and defeats Goldfinger and forces the crew to land in friendly waters.


  • In The Hunger Games, a murderous gang pursues the heroine Katniss. They finally corner her up a tree. Confident she will have no option but to descend shortly, the gang rests beneath the tree, waiting for Katniss to come down so they can kill her. It appears to be curtains for the heroine, but (alerted by a friend), Katniss notices a tracker jacker (amped up wasps) nest hanging within her reach. She saws the nest from the limb it hangs on, it falls on her pursuers, and they flee in terror.


  • In the Hitchcock classic, 39 Steps, the hero – a Canadian visiting Britain – has been framed for murder by a gang of spies. He believes he has reached a safe haven, the home of a professor who will help him notify the authorities both of his innocence and of an impending threat to Britain. But the professor turns out to be the leader of the gang of spies. The professor shoots the hero point blank and the hero collapses. In the next scene, we find that the bullet has been stopped by a prayerbook in the breast pocket of an overcoat a friend provided to the hero. (In this instance, it is the writer – not the hero – who is resourceful.)

 Note: if Bond’s depressurization “save,” and the “book in the pocket” save now appear familiar, that is because they have been re-used by authors since Fleming and filmmakers since Hitchcock. In their day, these were spectacularly fresh. (In recent decades, the “book in the pocket” has been replaced by the bulletproof vest – as in Back to the Future.)

Somebody once said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” Workarounds (resourceful and surprising solutions) often save the day in real life. In pageturner fiction, they are a must.

Happy writing!


On Writing, Plot & Structure

Story Structure: Small Victories vs. Key Victory

September 20, 2012

As we progress through the step-by-step construction of a novel, I’d like to pause here and revisit the basic building blocks of a pageturner novel: action scenes and reaction scenes. In a previous post, we explored the basic structure of action/reaction scenes:

Action Scene:

  • Hero strives to attain a goal
  • Hero meets with conflict in his effort to achieve the goal
  • Disaster: hero’s attempt to achieve his goal is frustrated


Reaction Scene:

  • Hero reacts to the previous disaster (his emotions/feelings briefly explored/shown)
  • Hero puzzles out how to again try for his goal
  • Hero decides on an action course

Action scenes, always more interesting, are longer; reaction scenes, shorter.

But one thing to keep in mind is that the Action/Reaction scenes are not always drawn in what an artist would call “hard edges.”


In The King Must Die, Mary Renault’s 1958 bestseller about the mythical hero Theseus, Renault establishes that as a young boy, Theseus believes what his mother (who bore him out of wedlock) has told him – namely, that his father is the god Poseidon. She opens Chapter 2 with eight-year-old Theseus on one of his annual monthly visits to Poseidon’s temple, where he strives to make contact with the god he believes to be his father. (Goal)

Enter Simo, a boy pledged by his father to Poseidon’s service. Simo is a sadistic bully who mocks the notion that Theseus is of divine parentage. Simo disrespecfully shoves Theseus to the ground to underscore his point. Theseus responds by fighting with Simo. (Conflict)

Theseus wins the fight. But the doubts Simo has sewn in his mind cause Theseus to doubt himself – and the story of Poseidon being his father. (Disaster)

So, while Thesus wins the fistfight with Simo (a victory), he has not achieved his key goal: to assure himself that his origins are indeed honorable.

The Reaction scene shows how Theseus begins to compare himself with other boys born the same year he was.

Because he is slight in build, and believes Poseidon’s son should be tall and sturdy, he decides to compensate by being more daring than the others. His immediate goal now is to outdo the other boys to prove himself. This sets up the next action scene.

In the next action scene, Theseus returns to Poseidon’s temple and is again confronted by the slow-to-learn Simo about his parentage. This time, Theseus stamps his foot in anger and, just then, an earthquake shakes the temple compound. This overwhelms Simo who now believes in Theseus’s divine origins. (Conflict)

So the chapter ends with Theseus’s victory over Simo.

Does this fly in the face of what we’ve talked about – that an action scene needs to end in a disaster?

Not at all. While Theseus has triumphed over a bully in the earthquake scene, he has still not achieved his key goal: to once and for all prove to himself and to others that his father is divine.

We know, from Theseus’s earlier eagerness to exhibit his god-like origins (bravery, daring, and physical prowess), that the victory over Simo does not constitute the achievement of Theseus’s key story goal. Simo is a brutish bully. The victory over such an adversary carries little by the way of glory, which is Theseus’s true goal. Nor does convincing one person ensure Theseus that the story of his divine origins will be universally accepted.

Theseus has won another little victory in the earthquake scene. He has achieved a short-term goal. But his main goal as yet eludes him.

Renault underscores this in the next chapter which takes place four years later and has Theseus observing that people have already forgotten about the foot-stamping/earthquake incident. Once again, his origins are being questioned, and more than ever he yearns to prove himself.

So action scenes can end in a small victories, so long as the hero remains frustrated insofar as his key goal is concerned. That, after all, is what maintains the story tension – and keeps readers turning pages.

Happy writing!




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