I remember saying the words “I want to be a writer” maybe five years ago. Well, thinking them, anyway. Saying them was too scary.
Around that time, I did the best thing I could have ever done for myself and Googled, “Best books for beginning writers.”
What I found was a blog post showing me a sincere list of books someone once found helpful. I bought all of them. And thus started my crack-head-like binder of reading books concerning the craft of writing.
This post is me recreating that post. Imitation is flattery.
It also made whoever wrote that blog a good bit of cash as I’m sure they used affiliate links. Something you’ll probably hear more about if you’re just starting out. Or it’s something you’re probably sick of hearing about if you’re a more seasoned writer.
P.S. This is my way of telling you, there are affiliate links in this. If you follow them, I will make a commission. If you don’t follow them and don’t want me to make a commission, I still think you should check these resources out.
Before you go crazy binge-learning, let me make one thing — okay, three things — very clear before you start binging online writing workshops and reading textbooks on story structure.
One: Writing is the best way to get better at writing.
Two: Reading is the second-best way to get better at writing.
Three: Feedback on your writing is absolutely necessary.
Learning about the craft of writing is really a way of filing information you receive and experiment with. What do I mean by that? Well, when you read as a writer, you should be putting some thought into what you like and don’t like about a piece.
Now, don’t let your dream suck the joy out of reading. But every concept you understand — intimately — about the craft of writing sets up a little filing cabinet in your mind.
Then, when you come across something in a story you’re reading for fun, you then can say, “Oh my, they used epistolary form in a unique way that I loved! I’m going to file this as an example in the ‘epistolary form’ file in my mind’s ‘narrative devices’ filing cabinet. Neat-wow-jeez-shucks!”
As your filing cabinets get filled, you pull things out and experiment with them when you sit down to write something new. This experimentation can happen on purpose, sure, but most of the time, if you understand a concept well enough, it just seeps into your writing naturally.
Lastly, on feedback, you have to show your writing to people. Have to, have to, have to. Shut up, put on a thicker skin, and listen to what they have to say. It doesn’t matter whether you think they are right or wrong or stupid or overly nice about the whole thing.
The key to accepting feedback is knowing that people can only point out where the problem is. They can’t tell you how to fix it. That’s up to you. And if you make a change and there’s still a problem, fix it again. If someone gives you something you think could work to fix it, give it a shot. But the truth is it’s your writing and only you control the final product.
Now here’s some shit that might help you out.
The story and having a solid voice is more important than grammar. But if you sound like an idiot that doesn’t know the difference between comma and coma, no one will give your writing a second glance.
It’s a grammar robot. Similar to Grammarly, but I like it better. Either one works fine. When I started using PWA, I was a complete beginner. I didn’t really know shit about grammar other than what Mrs. Gruebermeyer taught me in the fourth grade before I started slacking off.
Go premium on these. PWA is a one-time payment. Grammarly is a subscription. But when you go premium, it helps you learn stylistic errors as opposed to just grammatical ones. As these a.i.s point out your mistakes, they also show you why they are mistakes. Follow the links to the articles they throw at you about each mistake. Over time, you’ll find your writing become stronger and stronger and your page less and less riddled with red squigglies.
EdEx Course on English, Grammar and Style
EdEx is an e-learning powerhouse. They often offer both free and premium versions of their courses. Take the free version. The paid courses often are just the free ones with a certification at the end that you can wipe your ass with.
This course on English, Grammar and Style starts simple and, as courses do, eventually hits on more advanced topics. That said, I’m an advocate of relearning the basics. Take this free course and master the fundamentals. It makes your writing stronger. I promise.
On Storytelling in General
These books are a great place to start as you’re just beginning to grapple with the deceptively complicated question, “What is a story?” Note, I did not read these in this order. But if I could have done it all again, I feel like these are in the order I would have liked to consume them.
Pixar in a Box
Powered by Khan Academy, Pixar in a Box is Pixar Studio’s completely free course on storytelling. Yeah. I know.
In it, they give a quick-start guide to everything from character wants and needs to world-building. It’s one of the best places to start filling up that storytelling filing cabinet in your head. One of the biggest takeaways for me was they don’t really adhere to a strict structure. They have a structure, yes, but it’s pretty loose compared to many others.
They rely heavily on the classic writing question, “What happens next?”
Stephen King’s “On Writing”
What can I say? He’s a master of the craft. One of the biggest takeaways from him is that a story really starts — and I can’t believe how stupid this sounds — with a beginning.
While there are tons of helpful hints on style, dialogue, plot twists etc… Old Stevie boy noted that if you set up a story correctly, it will move, naturally, toward its end. In other words, set up a scenario that a character has to solve and the story will write itself.
Lisa Cron’s “Story Genius”
This book is a great book to help kick-start your storytelling journey. It’s a comprehensive roadmap to turn your mere inkling of an idea into a story that matters.
She takes you through the process of writing a novel, explaining things at a granular level. What I loved was she started with separating story and plot in a way I’d never thought about before. I wrote pages and pages of notes on this book and have reread it a few times over. If you take your time with it, you’ll walk away with a good sense of plotting and various methods of raising the stakes in your novel.
K.M. Weiland’s “Creating Character Arcs”
This book really tied together a lot of loose ends in my mind concerning how character and plot relate. Also, it did so using accessible and easy to understand language.
K.M. Weiland centers a lot of this book around the idea that characters start stories with a lie. This lie drives the plot, essentially. It’s a thing that a lot of other authors refer to in different terms. Like in Story Genius, it’s referred to as the third rail. In any case, Weiland's parsimonious explanation of this idea helped a lot of things click for me in terms of plotting.
Larry W. Phillips’ “Ernest Hemingway On Writing”
This one’s a little weird. It’s a collection of random snippets — letters, notes, interviews — that Hemingway wrote and some guy named Larry threw together in an order that makes sense.
I was a little apprehensive to read it at first. One, because the format was strange and seemed fishy. As if someone was just trying to make a quick buck by tossing Hemingway’s name on something. And two, I didn’t want to be a writer that just jerks off to Hemingway’s name, anyway.
After all was said and done, I read it. Loved it.
Probably my favorite takeaway concerned when to stop writing for the day. In more Hemingway-ey wording, he warns against writing until you're “empty”. Instead, stop while there’s still some gas left in the tank. Simple, but sticks with you, as is the Hemingway trademark.
Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey
This is the gold standard in terms of plot structure right now. If you haven’t heard of it, Joseph Campbell examined tons of myths and fables and stories over the last millennium and found that most stories follow a similar structure. He called it the Mythic Structure or The Hero’s Journey. Christopher Vogler then condensed this idea into a more practical version that is a bible for screenwriters.
While it’s an invaluable resource, many people when they start out writing — sometimes well into their careers — lean too heavily on this structure, treating it as more of a cookbook.
That’s not how it should be used.
Remember the bit about the filing cabinet? This book is filled with tools that help you analyze stories and key plot points. In the end, it’s amazing information, but it’s not the one-stop-shop that people often mistake it for.
The biggest things I took away from this book were the ideas on character archetypes, actually. Heralds, shapeshifters, threshold guardians. And it was well-organized and very succinct, which I always appreciate.
On Writing Good Scenes
The following are more about things like relationship building, creating realistic dialogue, understanding conflict. All the things that happen within scenes, as opposed to throughout a story.
The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual
Don’t overlook this one just because you don’t plan on becoming the next big name in comedy. Upright Citizens Brigade is a comedy school with four locations, hundreds of class sessions running at any point in time with thousands of alumni, many of whom enjoy a comfortable career in the spotlight. And if that doesn’t sell it, one of the founders is Amy Poehler.
Improv comedians are tasked with creating relationships that matter, interesting scenarios, and building a world all in the first five seconds of stepping on stage… In other words, they have to grab the audience’s attention instantly. Sound like a familiar goal?
One of the best things I took away from reading this (multiple times) was how to find the absurdity in things. Literally, they have a step by step method to find it. For me as a writer, I took it as a guide to finding what’s interesting in a scene and highlighting it, comedically or not.
Gary Chapman’s “The Five Love Languages”
Though it’s not directly related to writing, Gary Chapman wrote one of the bestselling books on relationships. Writing — fiction and non-fiction — is all about relationships. Need I say more?
He states that every person prefers to both show and receive love in one of five different ways. When two people communicate in different love languages — just like communicating in two different actual languages — there is a breakdown that leads to two Christmases. The ideas from this study in communication are a tasty wealth of knowledge we writers can pull from.
Darian Smith’s “The Psychology Workbook for Writers”
I would take this book over a million blog posts on character building. Smith lays out a series of proven models of psychology and clearly applies them to the realm of writing.
I’m going to be rereading this book for years to come, I’m sure. One of the many ideas that stuck with me were his thoughts on how people form scripts. He lays the idea out in such an actionable way that it hurts. Basically, every person has a phrase that surrounds their script word. At every turn, this phrase is something they fall back on. “I’ll never do X,” or “I’ll never do Y.” “I can’t until I get X” or “Maybe after Y happens”.
Ya. You read correctly. Aristotle, back in his day, was a prolific voice on storytelling. He was also a pretty scathing critic. Now, this book has been translated, of course, and passed down for damn near a thousand years, but it is every bit as relevant to writers today.
It’s essentially all about writing a Drama. And there are a lot of chapters at the very end that you can go ahead and skip. Like the one discussing how important it is to have a big musical number between each act, or else the play will pretty much be garbage.
However, he gives insight to something that should dictate your every thought as a writer. Hemingway mentions this, too. Writing is an imitation of life. That’s it. Everything written should seek to mirror life in some way. Scenarios — even the most fantastic of fictional stories — should copy life.
Lastly, there are a few things that Aristotle calls Unities that he brings up. I’ll get around to writing about them soon, but you should know them. They are fundamental to creating strong scenes.
I’ve found it helps to get as many perspectives on writing as I can. There isn’t a time that I’m not enrolled in some online course or email series. Maybe that’s just me, but I think it helps. Writing is an evolving practice and you don’t really master it until you’re dead.
On that cheery note, here are some of my favorite random resources!
Remember how I said feedback is super important? Scribophile is a membership-based writing workshop community. There, you critique people’s work for points. When you have enough points, you can post your work. In this way, you get a guaranteed flow of people reading and critiquing your writing.
Scribophile helped me wrangle everything I knew about storytelling and actually hone it.
If you pay for nothing else this year, pay the $50 to sign up for this. I’m not an affiliate of theirs. It’s simply the best place for you to get solid, honest, and actionable feedback on your writing. Some critiques I’ve received were 2,000 words long on a story that was on 1,500 words.
For the love of God, sign up for MasterClass.
With writers such as Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, David Sedaris, Joyce Carol-Oats and many many more, the advice you’ll gain is invaluable. Each teacher has their own unique take on storytelling. After I watched enough of these courses, I found that, yes, the ideas overlapped, but they never overlapped how I thought they would. There was something completely new and groundbreaking to me even if they were talking about the exact same concept as the last person.
And outside of the writers, I’ve found it useful to watch classes on other topics. Chris Hadfield’s course on Space Exploration gave me an endless amount of ideas for science fiction stories.
Yeah, you’re an idiot if you’re a writer and don’t look into Reedsy. A stupid, dumb, idiot.
When setting out to write a story, we juggle a lot of things: characters traits, plot twists, overarching conflicts, scene conflicts, archetypes, red herrings, hooking the reader, narrative devices, maintaining a consistent pov, delivering the correct information etc…
These are all meant to instil the one question in our audience: What happens next? That’s our aim whenever we tell a story. That’s our goal. Turning pages.
To reach that end, I often lean on the moniker coulda, woulda, coulda.
In writing, there are things characters should do, things they could do and things they would do. This is an oversimplification. But once you internalize this simple moniker, you’ll find this works into, and plays nice with, a much more complex understanding of writing.
When you really get down to it, stories are just illustrations of a character’s action. Bold and underscore action.
Action doesn’t mean explosions and fire and jumping out of helicopters. It just means that they are doing something. It could be anything. Making a sandwich is action.
Actions are spur other actions, even if that action is as simple the act of learning new information. For example, someone makes a sandwich because they found a new recipe.
We humans have our brains wired to view life through the filter of cause and effect. When we string together events that may seem loosely related, we connect them as a sequence. In this way, we paint a picture and can trust our audience—like a detective stringing together clues—to stitch the story together on their own. Take these actions. A man gets fired from his office job. He plays a lot of video games. His ex-girlfriend watches a lot of cooking shows. He makes a sandwich.
I mentioned nothing about the timeline of those actions. But our minds automatically slam them together and punch them into an order. We get the sense that this guy, our main character, might be depressed and maybe makes a sandwich to remind himself of his once stable life with a girlfriend and a job.
Crazy as it seems, that’s storytelling in a nutshell. It’s putting actions in an order that paints a picture. Like paintings, this illustration can be realistic, impressionistic, abstract, vivid etc... Our job as writers is to pick the actions that paint the picture we want our audience to see.
When deciding what actions to show people, we go down the coulda-shoulda-woulda chain. Before we dissect that chain, we need to understand what a story is.
What is a story?
So, the first question then is, what do we paint? Really, what is a story? Big question, I know. But it gets demystified when you realize one simple fact.
Stories happen to, and are told by, real people. Always remember that.
Every day—at work, among your friends, through gossip at school—you hear fascinating stories told by people in an order that is textbook as far as plotting methods go.
Three-Act Structures, The Hero’s Journey, Fichtean Curves; all of them were made as ways of analyzing how stories are naturally told. Writing was made to capture speaking. We humans told stories long before any books were bound. So, if you’re ever curious how to structure your novel, be it fiction or not, just look around and examine how stories were delivered to you.
So to learn about plotting, just pay attention to the stories life hands you. If your eyes are open, you’ll see the universe has been slapping you in the face saying, “Here, write like this!”
All that said, here’s a few tips. First, there’s a set of unities—an idea from Aristotle on storytelling—that you should be aware of. Stories concern and surround one character. They should circle one event, generally in one place. And they should concern one point in time.
Without giving you the full filibuster, stories essentially surround one dramatic event; one big surprise; one big plot twist that stands above all the others. The beginning of a story is simply meant to lead up to this event. The end of the story is all about the fallout from that one event.
Essentially, there is a focus your story should have as you lay out the actions actions that comprise your plot. These actions should illustrate a cause and effect sequence that both leads to and leads from one big event.
This idea of unity is easy to picture by again thinking of a painting. Most paintings feature one thing. The artist clearly, up front, made the choice of what their subject would be. They said, “I’m going to paint a boat.” How they paint it, the way they work with layers, what style they illustrate it in is all a matter of craft. The same goes with a good story. We decide the characters, settings, style, feel, events, twists and actions etc… but we, like painters, still have to choose one main event to write about.
Once we’ve chosen a dramatic event, we have to choose the sequence of actions that best illustrate it’s beginning, middle and end. And for every action you lay in place, you have to look at the next action with three questions in mind: What could happen next? What should happen next? And what would happen next?
What could happen next?
Think again about cause and effect, each action is a product of the actions that came before it. But what about moving forward? How, when creating fiction, do we tackle the blank page where no action has come before?
Could gives us is our broadest realm of possibilities. And though we inevitably ask ourselves, “what could happen next?” at every juncture of our plot, it’s particularly hard to nail down in the beginning.
This is when we look to the dramatic event as a sort of North Star. To narrow down our possibilities by asking a more pointed, “What could get us to that North Star?”
Imagine the dramatic event of a character named Phil falling in a hole. What are all the things that could lead Phil to that hole?
He could be walking through the park; trying to find his way out of a forest; lead to and shoved into the hole by his arch nemesis. Any choice will do and we’ll soon whittle these choices down with the coming questions concerning should and would.
But what about after he’s in the hole? When our story is underway and the dramatic event has passed? What are all the ways Phil could get out of this hole?
He could pull some Jackie Chan moves and jump out. His friend could rescue him. Some stranger could fall in and both of them have to decide who’s to get hoisted out first.
The biggest thing to keep in mind when wandering the realm of could is that stories are imitations of life. People have a b.s. Detector and can tell if an event is forced. So all the actions should have a hint of realism to them. What could realistically happen next?
What should happen next?
Once you’ve established all the possibilities that tickle your fancy in the realm of could, it’s time to move onto the realm of should. Here, all the tools and tricks and devices that aid the craft of storytelling put their grubby hands on your precious plot.
When you ask, “What should happen next?” You’re asking yourself what literary techniques may narrow down your choices.
If you are writing in first person, you shouldn’t kill Phil because you’d have just killed the narrator. Whereas, if you were writing in third person, feel free to let Phil die in that hole! He wasn’t telling the story. Who cares?
This is also a time to think about worldbuilding for a second. What are the rules of everyday life that exist in the world the story takes place in? Is Phil in a fictional world where zombies come out after dark? If so, you know you should make Phil more desperate with every passing second. You should illustrate actions that involve complete life or death fear like clawing at the walls of the hole; jumping in vein; not yelling because zombies might hear.
Are there social constraints in this world? Maybe Phil exists in less of a fiction and in the world he lives in (in his life), his family is brutally judgemental and would never stop making fun of him if he called for help. This might mean phill should not call for help as his first move.
Asking what should happen next is really taking into account all the external factors of a story—the narrative devices, the rules of the world, the social factors, etc… Then using them to whittle down the massive amount of possibilities found from asking what could happen.
What would happen?
Similar to asking the shoulds of our story, asking yourself, “What would happen next?” is a way of whittling down the possibilities.
Here, in the land of would, we turn to the constraints already found within our story. It’s where we think most critically about cause and effect. We look to the actions that have already passed and examine their natural trajectories.
Let’s say when Phil fell, he twisted an ankle. That would dictate a lot of next actions. For one, he’d have to rest for a while and would likely rely on yelling for help.
In Aristotle’s Poetics—his short guide to the six elements involved in writing tragedies—he pleads that characters are not a sum of personality traits. Instead, he tells us that characters are just the actions we see them perform. I believe this to be true, wholeheartedly.
Applying that to this discussion: gifting characters with endless personality traits and quarks is nice. But what helps more is to flesh those traits out with actions. “Phil is old” then equals “Phil just celebrated his grandson’s eighth birthday”.
When asking what would happen next, think of your carefully crafted character traits and put an past action to them. If Phil’s a drug addict, maybe he’s burned all his social capital by both borrowing and stealing thousands of dollars from his family and friends. With those actions in his personal history, if he were to call someone from the hole asking for help, they wouldn’t come.
All these questions can happen in an instant and intertwine together instinctually. Being aware and examining the constraints that could, should and would give you, over time, will help you internalize a good sense of plotting.
Let’s look back to that beginning list of coulds that may lead Phil into the hole. Our options were Phil (1) walking through park, (2) finding his way out of a forest, or (3) getting pushed into the hole by an arch nemesis.
If Phil is old, it’s reasonable for him to be walking through a park. It could happen. It’s not likely he’d get pushed by some evil nemesis. If Phil is really old, he could have dementia and would be pretty good at getting lost. So, being lost in a forest is still be a possible scenario. So, he could be in a park or in a forest, but not in an evil lair.
If Phil is old, he should be more careful than a teenager would be. I mean should in the sense that older people are more careful, and stories should hold facts of life to be true, even in fiction. So, it stands to reason, he wouldn’t fall in a hole in the park. So, he should be lost in a forest. This means he could have dementia. If he has dementia, his idea of how long he’s been stuck in the hole would effect how he acts to get out of that hole.
At every moment, could, should and would can work together to help you discover your next plot point. Every step we put our characters through reveals to us a new direction they could go; a new direction they should go; and a new direction they would go, all at once.
In this way, we can naturally create a series of actions that feel real—that logically follow cause and effect—regardless of setting, genre or style.
Aristotle was a smart guy and, surprise, you can learn a thing or two from smart people. In his book Poetics—which is his take on the basics of storytelling—he talks about what he calls reversals.
Reversals are surprises that affect a storyline. They are what give stories complexity. There are large ones and small ones and, he says, the more reversals a story has, the more complex it is. Understanding what they are and how to use them will strengthen your storytelling.
What is a surprise?
Let’s take a quick jump over to the word “surprise”. What is a surprise? By the books, it’s an unexpected or astonishing event, fact, or thing. In writing, these surprises can astonish characters, audiences, or both at the same time. A surprise is a surprise. Doesn’t matter who’s witness.
To examine surprise, we have to start by breaking down the first part of the definition: unexpected or astonishing. These imply some change in direction. Two things here. For one, that change can be a small pivot or a complete one eighty. And second, to have a change in direction, things have to first head in the wrong direction.
If you plan to drive from New York to New Orleans, then drive from New York to New Orleans, there’s no surprise. But if you plan to drive cross-country, then stop to buy a house and settle down in New Orleans, that’s a surprising pivot. Now, if you plan on driving cross-country and end up falling in love with a woman in the Philippines, that is an amazing 180.
Moving to the second half surprise: they are events, facts and things.
Surprising events are things like car accidents, getting laid off, or winning the lottery. They can be as simple as showing up to a surprise birthday party or your dishwasher breaking after starting it. One thing to note is events happen in the present tense. The act of finding out an event that already passed would really be a surprising fact.
Surprising facts are things like finding out your partner is having an affair. Learning your great grand uncle was your best friend’s grandfather’s doctor is a surprising fact. Again, these can be life-changing facts such as finding out you’re actually the prophesied king of a strange race, or they can be minor facts that make you say, “Hmm, I didn’t know Racine rocks the roller derby rink.”
To make it less confusing to talk about, let’s go ahead and rename surprising things to surprising ideas. Think nouns here. People, places, and things you didn’t know existed, such as learning the Loch Ness Monster is real. A hidden gem of a restaurant in your neighborhood is a surprising thing. Surprising ideas are one’s that simply break norms: a purple goldfish in a tank full of normal gold ones; poignant and wise advice from someone who is usually an idiot; an advanced society growing in the fibers of your carpet.
These three types of surprises—events, facts and things—we can think of as different paints on our pallet. With them, we can illustrate pictures of varying complexity. We can paint a sprawling epic fantasy with thousands of surprises, big and small. Or we can paint a little poem with one surprise.
Just as colors on a canvas, each type of surprise can live and interplay with one another inside the same instance. Think about them in a very fluid sense. Finding out that a surprising event has passed can be a surprising fact in and of itself. That same surprising fact could stir up strange feelings that might be considered a surprising thing.
Take a restaurant in your neighborhood. The restaurant itself could be a surprising thing because of its unexpected combination of Cuban and Ethiopian cuisine. Is it Cuthopian? Ethuban? Learning that the owners of the restaurant used to be liberal oil tycoons from Wyoming would be a surprising fact. Some chef popping out of the backroom and yelling, “They’re here! Hide!” Would be a surprising event that caps off your interesting visit.
Why do surprises work?
Writing imitates life. Surprises in writing are so powerful because life itself is full of surprises.
People invented writing to capture speaking. Storytelling, along those same lines (pun intended), is an imitation of stories and the way they’re told in real life; plots being a mirror of how information is naturally revealed to us as we go about our days.
So, again, given that life is full of surprises, so too should stories be chock-full of them.
In life, people are natural-born problem solvers. We’re curious and love all mysteries, big and small. That’s why we’ll poke our heads around, peaking at the aftermath of a car accident. Or why we’ll chat about a coworker getting fired for weeks afterward, collecting everyone’s accounts of the incident. We’ll gossip about the new kid in school until we figure out why they left their last school.
Think about a good joke. There is always a setup and a payoff; a knock knock and a punchline with the audience having to ask “Who’s there?“somewhere in between. In storytelling, Surprises are the payoff to mysteries. Simple as that. Next, think about suspense for a second. Suspense is just the feeling we get when we know a mystery is about to get solved. It’s suspense that turns pages; that drives people to ask the ever-important question, “What happens next?”
As storytellers, we can manufacture suspense by using surprise correctly. The formula—although you shouldn’t use anything formulaically in writing, so yee be warned—is this: to create a surprise, we have to set up a mystery. A good setup promises the audience that that mystery will get solved. Setting up a mystery with a good promise will create suspense. Suspense turns pages.
Where do we start when setting up a surprise?
Before talking about mysteries and how to set them up, we have to first turn surprises into reversals. Aristotle’s reversals, again, are surprises that affect plots.
The biggest question to ask here is: how does the surprise affect a character’s decisions? Often, this has to do with their fortune in some way. As in life, characters are constantly going through bouts of good luck and strokes of bad fate. We can graph all this on a good vs. bad over time—stock-market-looking—chart. I like to call it life’s dramatic curve. Plots, then, are just snapshots of some section of a character’s imagined dramatic curve.
When a surprising event, fact, or thing changes a character’s fortune from good to bad or vice versa, that is a true reversal. More importantly, this change in fortune will prod them to take some kind of action, thus changing the plot.
Along with that, reversals must relate to the specific story you’re illustrating. In reality, we all have multiple good and bad fortunes we live through all at once every day. But when you tell someone about your weekend, the bill you need to pay is outside the scope of that current story. Same goes with fictional characters. They’ll likely have many stories available to tell. Remember, as a writer, your job is to tell one and only one story at a time. If you want to tell another story about that character, write a sequel.
Long spiel short, you can have the most interesting and amazing surprise ever in your mind. But if it doesn’t directly relate to the plot you’re working your character through, it’s irrelevant and distracting to your story. File it away for a rainy day and focus up.
Imagine gifting a surprising quirk to your main character’s best friend. Let’s say he’s deathly scared of flying. This means nothing if the story takes place solely within their office building. It also means nothing if the friend isn’t an integral part of the story. But, say, if the main character—for whatever reason—needs to get their friend across the country, that fear of flying would influence that plot, turning that surprising fact into a reversal.
Depending on the weight of the surprise, these reversals can be a major plot point or just some small conflict along the greater arc. Remember, life is full of surprises. Stories should be full of reversals, big and small.
Reversals, to simplify things, are the fundamental components of your story’s arc. They provide the twists and turns in fate that is your plot. These relevant surprises may act as the framework for your outline. Think like a detective novelist. You have to know the major reveals in order to appropriately parcel out the clues that lead to them.
Picture a super top secret surprise birthday party. The host—the writer, in this analogy—needs to know all the ins and outs of the event in order to hide it from the birthday boy; or the audience here. The host will have to coordinate all the guests—supporting characters—to keep their mouths shut, so the surprise doesn’t get ruined. It’s the host who employs people to help create a mystery.
How do we create a mystery? Well, really, we lie. That’s it.
In order for a reversal to be surprising, we have to start stories with a lie that both (a) leads the character straight toward the surprise and (b) keeps the character in the dark about that same surprise.
In short: What lie will get our friend to their birthday party without them knowing about their birthday party?
That’s the central question surrounding most major plot points. There are a lot of ways we can go about this lie and that, of course, is the fun of writing! That said, one of the easiest ways to ensure these major plot points are surprising is to use a red herring.
Que the red herring.
Red herrings in literature are diversions from the truth; distractions that guide people down the wrong path while making them believe it’s the right path. They are one of the fundamental tools at a writer’s disposal and are often overlooked completely. If your story is a magic trick, red herrings are the sleight of hand that makes the trick work.
You say, “Watch the cups and the ball,” to make your onlookers pay attention to the wrong thing. While you move the cups around on the table in exciting ways, you steal their watch and sneak it onto your wrist. Keeping the focus on the upside-down cups, you ask them, “Which cup is the ball under?”
When you show your wrist in plain view, they ask, confused, “Is that my watch?” Everyone laughs at how you duped them. You give their watch back and when they ask about the ball, because life is full of surprises, you tell them to reach into their pocket. That’s when they find like thirty balls, and the trick is over. Wow!
Red herring’s make the reader think the story is about the wrong thing. Then, when you reveal what the story is truly about, it’s a surprise.
To put it simple as possible: Set up a mystery by starting with a red herring. A good red herring is a lie that leads to the truth.
Red herring: Tell your friend you’ll be out of town for their birthday and ask them to watch your dog on Thursday night.
Truth: You’ll be setting up their surprise party that Thursday while they’re at work.
Because life is chock-full full of surprises: Your friend brings a date to your apartment on Thursday… Turns out, it’s your fiance. They bust in the door making out while everyone yells, “Surprise…“
Antagonists and archetypes can help paint the red herring.
When brainstorming good opening red herrings, it’s best to remember that stories are all about conflict.
Conflict involves an antagonist and a protagonist being at odds; having mutually exclusive goals. Stories generally surround one central conflict. That central conflict is often an enormous surprise where the antagonist and protagonist clash the hardest. Many times it’s the largest reversal where the protagonist thought they would win, but didn’t; where they felt they knew what was going on, but find out they didn’t have a clue. Most times we don’t understand the problem or the antagonist in full until this central reversal.
Vogler calls this central reversal The Crisis. In a three-act structure, it’s the midpoint. Every inciting incident leads toward it, and the emotional climax blossoms from it. It’s the surprise birthday party where you find out your fiance is cheating on you with your best friend. There’s more afterward, but that’s the big reveal.
It’s here we have to talk about character archetypes. Just as the types of surprises are paints on our writing pallet, so too are character archetypes. Where surprises help us illustrate our plot points, archetypes help us illustrate several things, the largest being the initial red herring.
For those who haven’t read Vogler’s work, you can think of archetypes as template-like roles that characters fill in stories. Each role serves a specific dramatic function. They are often natural and, as with everything in storytelling, are imitations of the flexible roles people play in everyday situations. Think of the archetype of the mentor. Some reliable person who the hero seeks wisdom from, often at the onset of the journey.
If the antagonists—your cheating friend who stole your fiance—creates the central plot-shifting surprise. Archetypes, then, are the pageantry that helps us distract from the antagonist. They are the party-goers who help keep the birthday party a secret. They are the fiance who we thought would never cheat on us.
Off of that, a lot of archetypes can be thought of as blemishes of the antagonist; they are the clues chauffeuring the audience toward the larger conflict; they are the devices we can use to spin the lies that lead to the truth. They are the brush strokes that paint the red herring.
The three I’ll talk about are heralds, shadows and shapeshifters. These are the archetypes who help ensure the surprise the most. They’re the best paints to help illustrate our initial red herrings. Use them to lead readers down the wrong path while delivering them to the correct location.
Heralds are characters, or things, that are the first signal of the looming antagonist. They could work for, be partners with, or be completely unaligned with the antagonist. They are the four horsemen who signal the apocalypse; the first person coughing before the epidemic hits; the coin the magician holds up while saying, “I’m going to make this disappear.”
This archetype takes on the hefty job of setting up the initial red herring. Writers often use them in or as the inciting incident. They are the rabbit that leads Alice down the hole without explaining why. Because its usual position sits at the beginning of the story, a chief responsibility heralds take on is creating suspense for the reader.
Heralds deliver promises—something Dan Brown talks a lot about—that tell the reader something is coming without telling them what is coming. Their job is to set up the mystery, and that’s it. They are a signal of the antagonist. Not a newsletter from the antagonist highlighting all the ins and outs of their devious plans. Heralds never reveal the problem in full. All they are responsible for is alluding to the central conflict. When they allude to the surprise without spoiling it, this sets up the promise that (a) there is a mystery afoot and (b) that mystery will get solved by the end.
Essentially, they have the job of saying, “Hey, the craziest thing is about to go down. I have no idea what it is, but trust me, it’s going to be nuts. You just have to keep reading to find out.”
Without a herald letting us know that a mystery is afoot, there’s no suspense that drives people toward the coming surprise. It would be like a comedian telling the punchline without the setup. “Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?”
A herald in the birthday party example may be your friend saying, “My birthday is next week, but I don’t think I’m gonna do anything for it.”
Shadows are blemishes of the real conflict. Mini antagonists in their own right who accompany smaller problems caused by the real antagonist. They are often emissaries of the antagonist, but they don’t have to be.
Most helpful to red herrings, they are antagonistic in that they are at odds with the protagonist, but they are never the real problem.
Many times, they are mistaken at first for the true antagonist. However, they are an initial problem that often infer that there is a larger problem looming overhead. They’re the henchmen who we see well before the villain; the stormtroopers we see before we even know Darth Vader is there.
We can use shadows to ensure the surprise by pinning the initial conflict on them. Make them out to be the end-all-be-all antagonist at the onset of the story. Eventually, the reader will come to find they are child’s play compared to the real conflict.
Back to the birthday party. An example of a shadow here may be your friend’s parents. They are antagonistic because they seem likely to spill the beans about the surprise party.
Shapeshifters—stealing from R. L. Stine—are characters who you start out liking, then end up disliking, and vice versa. Any character can be a shapeshifter. Shadows, heralds, mentors, allies, threshold guardians etc… it doesn’t matter. This is a reversal of character, as Aristotle would say, and audiences eat them up.
Remember, archetypes are not characters themselves. They are functions. Any character can be a shapeshifter and there can be many of them. Best friends can become enemies. Lovers can become distant. Shadows can turn out to be helpful allies in the end.
This can be a close coworker not backing the main character up during a walkout; the bubbly hippy no one suspected in a murder mystery turning out to be the true murderer; the space commander’s right-hand man who starts a mutiny on the ship.
Although shapeshifters are often not the main surprise in a story—though they can be—they almost always cause a giddy jaw drop for the audience. Writers can use this archetype to exaggerate the reversal. More importantly, they can be the biggest liars who help protect the initial red herring.
In our birthday surprise example, both the best friend and the fiance who get caught in an affair together are shapeshifters. Two shapeshifters in one central reversal! What a combo!
Surprise in a nutshell.
There are three kinds of surprises—events, facts and things—and we can use each in writing like different colors on a pallet. We can use those colors to illustrate stories to whatever degree of complexity we’d like. When a surprise affects the main character’s decisions—i.e. when they affect the plot—they become reversals.
Reversals are so effective in literature because literature is just an imitation of life. And in life, there are many, many surprises that happen all the time. There can be small and large surprises, and these mirror the small and large plot points in stories. Often, stories bookend or surround one central reversal or plot twist.
We can take that understanding of reversals and use it to build a loose skeleton of our plot. If we know the big plot twist, we can set up an opening distraction. This opening distraction is called our initial red herring. Initial red herrings are lies that lead to the truth.
The truth we’re distract people from is the central conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist. We, as writers, can employ character archetypes to help distract both the main character and the readers from that looming conflict.
We can use heralds—signals that a problem is afoot—to set up the lie that leads to the truth. They are often deliverers of the initial red herring. Shadows are symptoms of the greater conflict. However, we can make them out to be the main antagonist at first to hide the true antagonist. Shapeshifters are archetypes that we can use as the key liars in our story. They are also a surprise in and of themselves and audiences love them (or hate them, but can’t get enough of them).
Readers want to be surprised at almost every step of the way. Surprises are one of the main reasons we read novels, love poetry, laugh at jokes, watch eight seasons of a tv show, take part in gossip.
Just remember, life is full of surprises. Make sure your writing is full of them, too.
What did Kurt Vonnegut and Aristotle have in common when it comes to writing fiction?
Aristotle’s foundational logic and Vonnegut’s modern research both tell us that stories are simply imitations — retellings — of events that happen in real life. There is a natural way stories occur and there is a natural way we tell them.
It’s not a chicken and egg mystery. Life came before writing. Writing is meant to capture and relay life. If we keep that in mind, as writers of fiction, we can view plotting in a different light.
The first question that we have to ask is: What are stories?
Stories — writing, literature, and storytelling in general — fall under the umbrella of drama.
To dramatize something is to blow it out of proportion; to exaggerate it. We humans dramatize everything. David Mamet gives the example that we dramatize the weather every chance we get.
“Can you believe how bad it rained last night? My house almost floated away!”
“Yeah, Steve. We’ve all seen a Rainstorm before. They aren’t that crazy. Shut up.”
“Easy, Phill. You’re being a jerk.”
Stories are just a dramatized — exaggerated — imitation of real life.
We live in the future. Simple as that.
Being a writer in this modern world, you should be using some type of artificial intelligence to help your grammar and style.
Que Grammarly and Pro Writing Aid.
If you’re looking to write a compelling novel, plot out a perfect screenplay, or refine your life story into a beautiful memoir, Lisa Cron’s Story Genius is a great first book to look into.
That or, Stephen King's On Writing. But that'll be another post.
She boils storytelling down to stupidly simple, step-by-step method. This approach helps unlock your idea and develop it into a full-fledged novel.
Here are only a few nuggets of gold I mined from reading Story Genius.
What is a Story?
One thing every writer has to grapple with, early on hopefully, is the difference between showing and telling. Maybe this post can help clear some things up for you, should it be your turn to tackle this age-old concept.
It all has to do with how you deliver information.
What is Showing?
I don’t like to leave inspiration up to chance. That’s why I spend a lot of time taking part in what I like to call structured creativity.
This way, I can take an idea as wobbly and loose as, “Aren’t inventors and ghosts cool?” and wrangle it down into a stable plot. One featuring a university professor who finds one of his contemporaries is killing animals and plugging them into a machine to try to measure their souls.
R.L. Stine — the Goosebumps guy — struck me with something he said. I was watching his course on MasterClass and at first; I didn’t like him.
So corny, I thought. Is this guy serious?
Then I realized he’s a genius!
Why Learn from Margaret Atwood?
Margaret Atwood, in every sense of the word, is nothing but prolific.
She's published 16 novels, 17 books of poetry, 10 non-fiction books and 8 short story collections... not to mention one of those books being The Handmaid's Tale, which is a literary dystopian masterpiece.
That wealth of experience is wildly apparent in her Masterclass
So you want to learn how to create characters for a book? A screenplay, or maybe a short story?
More importantly, you want to create a character that will propel your story toward each plot point in fantastic fashion. The following post will teach you the basics of how to create a good character. One who has depth and is useful to your story.