Category Archives: writing

Using a Style Guide for Writing and Editing

Any project containing text for public consumption—books, magazines, newspapers, websites, reports, and so on—will look more professional and read better if it adheres to a specific style standard. To achieve professionalism, writers and editors use a stylebook, or style guide: a reference manual of writing and publishing conventions that enables them to follow accepted editorial standards.

Why use a style guide?

Style guides cover in great detail topics such as spelling, punctuation, capitalization, numbers, quotations, abbreviations, indexes, and more. They help you determine how to best present your text.

Writing and editing to a style standard promotes clarity and consistency, especially when text is produced by multiple writers and editors for the same publication or company.

Kinds of style guides

Style GuidesA variety of style guides exist for different purposes. Three of the most popular style guides in use today are The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition; The Associated Press Stylebook, 56th edition; and the MLA Handbook, 9th edition. CMOS is used primarily in the publishing industry, AP for journalism, and MLA in academia. (I use CMOS.)

Niche style guides are also used in certain industries, such as Microsoft Manual of Style, 4th edition, for technical writing and communications in the software industry.

How to familiarize yourself with a style guide

Once you choose a style guide for the type of writing or editing you’ll be doing, the first thing you must do is familiarize yourself with it.

Start with the table of contents. Pick a section you’re interested in and leaf through its subsections, reading headings to learn how the section is organized and how granular the topics are. Then study a subsection of interest, perusing the text and any examples.

Do you see how the information will help you with writing or editing a manuscript?

Style guide-induced paranoia

One drawback to reviewing a style guide this way is that you’ll recognize how much you don’t know. What could happen is that you begin to question everything you write or edit. “Is this correct? How do I find out what the stylebook says?” (Hint: start with the index.) You may be compelled to look up anything and everything you’re not certain about.

Granted, it’s best to check issues you’re unsure of. For example, how do you represent the numbers 3, 86, or 700? With numerals or written out, as text? CMOS says in sections 9.2 and 9.4 that numbers one through one hundred should be spelled out, as well as larger whole numbers that can be written in two words. So, three, eighty-six, and seven hundred are correct. (AP has a different standard for numbers.)

However, no one can memorize the contents of any style guide in a few weeks.

One way to learn your style guide

Rev. Worthy SmarmingtonIt takes a lot of time—possibly years—to thoroughly familiarize yourself with a style guide. Even then, you’ll never get beyond needing to look up the guidelines for some issues.

The Rev. Worthy Smarmington, editor in chief at Protestant Chronicle1, recommends this tack: “Treat your treasured stylebook like a devotional and read a subsection every day. Two on your chosen Sabbath. Then pray you remember what you’ve read.”

If you can’t, simply look up the information again.

Consult the index—or make your own

Study the index. It’s the best way to find what you’re looking for. (In my opinion, the index in the print CMOS is easier to use than the CMOS Online search facility.)

You may even want to go through the entire guide and list all the subject and section numbers of topics you think you’ll use most now and in the future. Refer to this list as your personal, working index.


Employing these approaches will, over time, enable you to learn the guidelines for hundreds of everyday textual concerns—and make you a better writer or editor.

I’m available to edit dark fiction. For more information, see Dark Fiction Editing.


1. A fictitious expert at a fictitious publication.

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Beware Autonomous Body Parts!

As a fiction editor, I flag many issues for revision and rewriting. One common problem is what I call “autonomous body parts.” Sounds ominous. What are autonomous body parts? Read on if you’re brave and want to improve your fiction…

Autonomous body parts are any body parts—eyes, eyebrows, limbs, hands, feet, internal organs, and so on—that an author empowers as if they have minds of their own.

For example:

Marcy shoved Oswald backward, and his arms flailed, trying to keep his balance on the ice.

What’s the issue here? Arms flailing is an acceptable response or result of being shoved across an icy surface.

Autonomous Body Parts

The problem is that arms don’t flail of their own accord. The real question here is, where does the action spring from?

More to the point, who is performing the action? Who has agency? The rule here is:

Body parts do not have agency; characters do.

Beckoning HandUnless you’re writing horror and disembodied body parts actually do have minds of their own, you correct this issue by transferring agency from the body part to the character. In other words, make the character the subject of the sentence—the subject with agency who performs the action verb—with the body part/s as the object:

Marcy shoved Oswald backward, and he flailed his arms, trying to keep his balance.

Recasting the sentence to give Oswald agency also solves the problem of his arms trying to keep his balance. Oswald does something to keep his balance, not his arms.

Another example:

Gary’s frantic hands groped for purchase along the bridge girder.

Beware those spastic body parts! How would you fix this one? To avoid using an adverb (frantically), you’ll need to rewrite a bit:

Gary groped for purchase along the bridge girder, his fingers slipping on the rusted surface.

Flying EyesAnother culprit is disembodied eyes that fly around the room.

When the news anchor mentioned last night’s murder, Winnie’s eyes flew to the television.

Jeepers creepers, did her peepers pop out of her head, zoom across the room, and splat the TV screen? (An “eye-catching” horror idea, but…) Better to state it this way:

When the news anchor mentioned last night’s murder, Winnie’s gaze flew to the television.

Instead of allowing a character’s eyes to rove around like that murder ball in Phantasm, use gaze.

Remember: body parts don’t have agency; characters do. Scan your work for instances of autonomous body parts and transfer agency from the body part to the character. Your readers will appreciate it.

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The Writer’s Chuck List

When revising your fiction (or non-fiction), you should search for and destroy junk words in your manuscript. Here’s not a check list but a “chuck list” of words and phrases to excise from your prose.

Garbage Can

Although past-tense forms of verbs are presented, be sure to search for their root forms if you’re writing in present tense.

  • -ing verbs — When used with a helping verb, such as “was walking,” change to past (“walked”). When used at the beginning of a sentence, make sure you haven’t dangled a participle (see Undangling Your Participles).
  • -ly adverbs — Usually used to modify a weak verb. Cut the adverb and use a stronger verb.
  • ; — The semi-colon is a stodgy pace-killer. If you’re writing genre fiction, avoid them or minimize them.
  • ! — Exclamation points are often overused. They’re like poking the reader in the eye. Suggestion: one per short story, up to three in a novel.
  • began to, started to — Unless it’s important to emphasize the initiation of an action, you can usually cut these phrases.
  • tried to, attempted to — This can stay if it’s followed by the failure of an action: “She tried to call him, but the phone was dead.” Otherwise, cut it.
  • degree words — a bit, a little, fairly, somewhat, sort of, kind of, quite, rather, slightly, just, pretty, very, almost, maybe. Cut.
  • even — Overused junk word. Cut.
  • eyes — Avoid traveling eyes and other autonomous body parts. Instead of “Her eyes swept the room” (Oh, really? Did those eyeballs use a broom?) use “gaze” instead (“Her gaze swept the room.”). When describing the viewpoint character’s action, not “His hands groped for the light switch,” but rather “He groped for the light switch.” Characters have agency, not their body parts.
  • filtering verbs — considered, decided, discovered, felt, figured, guessed, heard, knew, looked at, noticed, realized, saw, smelled, spotted, tasted, thought, touched, wondered. If you want to create an immersive reading experience with an intimate POV, recast these as described in the linked article and the articles mentioned.
  • hopefully
  • in front of — “Before” is more concise and dumps the prepositions.
  • just — Overused junk word. Cut.
  • out of — “From” is more concise.
  • perhaps
  • really
  • stuff
  • suddenly, abruptly, immediately, instantly, rapidly, unexpectedly, quickly
  • that — This can often be cut.
  • the fact that
  • it is, there was, there were
  • thing/s

A few previous posts cover some topics in detail:

If you need developmental or line editing for your dark fiction, check out Professional Editing Service.

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Narratology: Understanding Narrative Modes

To write fiction you must understand the following narrative modes and learn how to write well in each of them. As you write, if you ensure that you’re always in one specific mode, you’ll always know what you’re doing and why. You should always have a reason for switching modes.

By piecing together passages written in various modes, you can produce a tight, well-written novel.

The six narrative modes are briefly delineated and defined in this first table:

Narrative ModeSub-modeSub-sub-modeDefinition
DialoguedirectDirectly presents character’s speech in quotation marks
indirectSummarizes character’s speech
Thoughts, feelingsdirectstream of consciousnessDirectly presents character’s thoughts in first person
interior monologueDirectly presents thought as in direct speech
indirectnarrated monologueMix between interior monologue and psychonarration
psychonarrationNarrator reports character’s thoughts to reader in third person
ActionPresents real-time action and events in chronological order
DescriptioncharacterDescribes story people
placeDepicts story settings
thingDepicts objects
timePresents the season, time of day, or passage of time
ExpositionbackgroundIntroduces backstory or other information for the story to make sense
summaryReports events in a condensed narrative form
CommentNarrator evaluates story events or characters, shares observations or judgments

The following table fully defines the narrative modes, their sub-modes and, in some cases, their sub-sub-modes. From top to bottom, they progress from showing to telling. Examples are in purple text.

Narrative ModeSub-modeSub-sub-modeDefinition/ Example
DialoguedirectPresents the speech of characters directly, in quotation marks.

Use this mode to advance your plot, to pit opposing forces against each other.

“I’m tired,” she said. “I’m going to bed.”
indirectSummarizes the speech of characters.  The tense is changed from present to past, from past into past perfect and references to the first person are rendered in the third person.

Use this mode when a character explains something to another character when the reader doesn’t need to hear the exact words because it’s long and boring or routine or mundane, the exact words don’t really matter, or because the reader already knows the information.

She said she was tired and was going to bed.
Thoughts, feelingsdirectstream of consciousnessDirect presentation of a character’s thoughts in first person, usually without the logic of structure or punctuation, sometimes a jumbled sequence of associations, whether thoughts, feelings, or sensations. Often italicized.

Calm down, get a grip now… oh! this is an interesting sensation, what is it?  A sort of… yawning, tingling sensation in my… my… well I suppose I’d better start finding names for things if I want to make any headway […] so let’s call it my stomach.
Thoughts, feelings (cont’d)direct (cont’d)interior monologueDirect presentation of thought as in direct speech.  Interior monologue is usually a longer passage of uninterrupted thought.  It is intended to present a character’s thoughts directly, imitating as much as possible the way the character might actually have thought his thoughts.  Thoughts are more coherent and structured. Sometimes italicized.

What is she doing up there? She’s always fumbling around in the attic, trying to find some memento from her college days, opening boxes, unwrapping nests of newspaper to find something to transport her into the past. I don’t understand what she sees in those things.
Thoughts, feelings (cont’d)indirectnarrated monologueThis is a mix between psychonarration and interior monologue.  The narrator often sets the scene but the character’s thoughts are reproduced directly and in a way the character would think, though the narrator continues to talk of the character in the third person. The syntax is less formal (incomplete sentences, exclamations, etc.) and the character’s mind style is reproduced more closely.  We hear a dual voice; the voices of the narrator and the character are momentarily merged.

This can create an impression of immediacy but it can also be used to introduce an element of irony, when the reader realizes that a character is misguided without actually being told so by the narrator.

What could she be doing up there, he wondered.  Probably trying to find some memento from her college days. He didn’t understand what she saw in those things.
Thoughts, feelings (cont’d)indirect (cont’d)psychonarrationThe narrator reports the character’s thoughts to the reader, representing them in third person.  The narrator remains in the foreground and may add some general observations (comment) not part of the character’s thoughts. We hear the narrator’s voice more than the character’s.

He wondered what she could be doing in the attic.  She spent a lot of time up there, reminiscing. He failed to understand what she saw in those things.
ActionUsed to present real-time action in the story.  Events are presented in strict chronological order, using action verbs.  Follow the pattern of action–result.

You will use this mode most in the writing of your novel.  Sometimes action is interspersed with dialogue and narration.

Jim climbed out of the car and strode toward the house through the dry, dead grass. He stepped onto the porch and banged on the dilapidated screen door.  He waited.
DescriptioncharacterRepresents objects in space (existents of the story), things that can be seen, heard or felt in some way. Character description describes story people.

One of these boxes was occupied […] by a stern-eyed man of about five-and-forty, who had a bald and glossy forehead, with a good deal of black hair at the sides and back of his head, and large black whiskers.  He was buttoned up to the chin in a brown coat; and had a large seal-skin travelling cap, and a great-coat and cloak lying on the seat beside him.  (Dickens, Pickwick Papers)
placeDepicts setting—either broadly, or specifically and up-close.

On one side of this broad curve in the straight seaboard of the Republic of Costaguana, the last spur of the coast range forms an insignificant cape whose name is Punta Mala. From the middle of the gulf the point of the land itself is not visible at all; but the shoulder of a steep hill at the back can be made out faintly like a shadow on the sky. (Conrad, Nostromo).
thingDepicts an object:

A brass plaque fastened to the front gate read:  “Financially supported by the Garvanter Historical Society.”
timeDepicts the season, time of day, or the passage of time.

Five o’clock had hardly struck on the morning of the nineteenth of January […] (Brontë, Jane Eyre)
ExpositionbackgroundUsed to introduce backstory information into the narrative, information the reader needs for the story to make sense.  It should be doled out sparingly only when readers need to know it.  It should be presented to the readers in a way they’re hardly aware they’re getting it:

• Reduce it as much as possible.

• Don’t repeat it (tell the reader once). If you must repeat it, expand on it.

• Keep the reader guessing about it.

• Chop it up (no big hunks of it).

• Convert it to other modes such as action or dialogue.

• Create a flashback, but only if necessary (to show the reader exactly how something before the story happened—who did what, who said what, what was thought and felt. Structure it as an action sequence.)

• Get it over with (get backstory out of the way by the end of Act 1).
Exposition (cont’d)summaryReports events in a condensed narrative form.  It is a telling mode that distances the reader and should be used sparingly.  Use this mode to:

• Report mundane story events (things not important to plot):

She went inside to freshen up and change. Then she skipped back out to the car.

• Condense story time (to mark a passage of time quickly in which nothing important to the story happens, or to report events that happen regularly or over a long period of time.

The last three weeks of school passed in a flurry of activity.

Each morning for the next week she saw him behind the security desk in the lobby, and every time she passed him he nodded once and gave her a big, handsome smile.

• Emphasize emotions instead of events:

During the month Kevin was in Cincinnati, Sherry wandered about the apartment, not doing much of anything except eating, sleeping and watching TV.  She had never been so lonely in her life.
CommentThe mediator (narrator) is most apparent. We find evaluations of the story’s events and characters, general observations or judgments.

In the absence of any precise idea as to what railways were, public opinion in Frick was against them; for the human mind in that grassy corner had not the proverbial tendency to admire the unknown, holding rather that it was likely to be against the poor man, and that suspicion was the only wise attitude with regard to it.  (Eliot, Middlemarch)

Evaluations can also be made less explicitly.  The choice of pejorative diction, a hint of irony or the use of modifiers (such as “unfortunately”) also work as comment.

Sir Leicester Dedlock is only a baronet, but there is no mightier baronet than he. His family is as old as the hills, and infinitely more respectable. He has a general opinion that the world might get on without hills, but would be done up without Dedlocks. […] He is a gentleman of strict conscience, disdainful of all littleness and meanness, and ready, on the shortest notice, to die any death you may please to mention rather than give occasion for the least impeachment of his integrity. He is an honourable, obstinate, truthful, high-spirited, intensely prejudiced, perfectly unreasonable man. (Dickens, Bleak House)

When mixing dialogue with a character’s feelings, thoughts, and gestures, use F-A-D order:

An icy chill passed through him.His hands began to shake.“But Helen died a year ago…”


The Marshall Plan Workbook, ch. 18.

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Narratology: Focalization or Point of View

Narratology is a branch of literary theory that studies narrative structure and function. Fiction narratives are communicated through a voice that belongs to the narrator.

FocalizationThe narrator is the fictitious character that verbally transmits the events of the narrative. The narrator can share events from a position outside the story, using the omniscient point of view (POV) of “someone who, for some reason, knows everything about the story” (Freiburg).

More likely, narrators will employ the limited point of view of one or more characters in the story. If so, they’re unable to know anything they cannot see, hear, or otherwise perceive.

Focalization and Focalizers

Choosing a perspective is separate from determining whether the narrator is a character in the story. The term focalization distinguishes between narrative voiceWho speaks?—and perspective—Who sees or perceives? Narration is what is told; focalization is what is perceived (Scott).

There are two kinds of focalizers:

  • An external focalizer is a POV character external to the story. An external focalizer is called a narrator-focalizer because perception belongs to the narrator.
  • An internal focalizer‘s perception belongs to a character within the story. Internal focalizers are also called character-focalizers.

If you’re using an external focalizer as a heterodiegetic narrator, you may tell your story in omniscient point of view. If you employ a homodiegetic or autodiegetic narrator as an internal focalizer, you may choose from second person, distant third, intimate third, or first person POV.

You’re not stuck with only one focalization or POV in your story. You can change focalizers to introduce other POVs. For example, you may have multiple first or third character-narrators, or mix and match POVs from scene to scene or chapter to chapter.

Unreliable Narrators

Not all narrators are reliable. As writer, you may lead readers to distrust what your narrator says. “Some narrators tell deliberate lies or omit crucial information” (Freiburg). One such narrator is Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.

Villains may deliberately lead readers down the wrong trail. Other characters, however, may be unable to provide objective information because they’re “naive, insane, unaware, or mistaken” (Scott).

A given narrator’s unreliability can be obvious or hidden, providing only faint hints that something’s wrong.

In the next installment, we’ll dig into the meat of narrative modes.

Further reading: by Rose Scott.

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Narratology: Understanding Narration

Narratology is a branch of literary theory that studies narrative structure and function. Fiction is one form of narrative prose, meaning it’s an account of events told by someone. It’s always communicated through a “voice,” and that voice belongs to the narrator.

To understand narrative voice, you must identify who speaks—who tells the story. This is always the narrator, a fictitious character who has a purpose in telling the tale.

Types of Narrators

Narrators are often a character in the story they’re telling. These types of narrators are called homodiegetic narrators. (Diegetic means within a setting or story world.) If the homodiegetic narrator is also the protagonist of the story, he or she is called an autodiegetic narrator.

For example, Nick Carraway is the narrator of as well as a character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. But he’s not the protagonist of the novel; Jay Gatsby is. This makes Carraway a homodiegetic narrator but not an autodiegetic one. Katniss Everdeen, however, is both the narrator and protagonist of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games; she’s an autodiegetic narrator.

A narrator who is not a character in the story but who knows everything and tells the story from an omniscient point of view is called a heterodiegetic narrator. Heterodiegetic narrators were popular in Victorian literature but are out of vogue today.

It isn’t crucial that you remember this jargon so long as you understand the concepts.

It’s also important to realize that the narrator is not the same as you, the author. Narrators, whether they’re story people or not, are fictive characters who can hold viewpoints and opinions that you don’t share. For example, female authors can create male narrators. And you can write multiple stories each with different narrators who have opposite worldviews. Remember: the narrator in fiction is a made-up character.

Narrators are characters who relay the story to a fictive reader, a narratee. A specific addressee is rarely named in stories. However, in my psychological thriller The Bedwetter: Journal of a Budding Psychopath, protagonist Russell Pisarek ends up writing his journal for another character in the story world.

Levels of Narrative Communication

Three levels comprise a fiction narrative, presented here from the inside out:

  1. A character addresses another character in the story world narrative. For example, Russell Pisarek argues with his sister Becky.
  2. This exchange, along with description of character actions and setting, is told by a narrator who addresses an imaginary reader (the narratee). In The Bedwetter, Russell writes in his journal about his encounters and thoughts for another character in the book.
  3. The text is composed by a real author (yours truly) and is read by an actual reader (hopefully, you).

These three levels are nested, as depicted in the following diagram:

Levels of Narrative Communication

Next installment, we’ll learn more about focalization: how narrators intersect with point of view.


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Easy Way to Write Your Story’s Elevator Pitch

I recently reread James Scott Bell’s helpful little book, Write Your Novel from the Middle (Compendium Press, 2014). In it, he relates an easy process to write a three-sentence elevator pitch for your story or book. (It also helps in writing sales copy for your fiction.)

Elevator PitchHere’s how to do it. I’ll use an example from my novel Death Perception.

1. Your main character’s name, vocation, and initial situation.

Kennet Singleton runs the local crematory and can discern the cause of death of those he cremates.

2. “When” plus the main plot problem.

When what he discerns differs from what’s listed on the death certificate, he finds himself in the midst of murderers.

3. “Now” plus the death stakes.

Now, to save the residents of his mother’s personal care home and avenge the dead, can Kennet stay alive to bring the killers to justice?

That’s all there is to it—a story in three sentences. For more about writing sales copy, see Getting Your Readers to Click “Buy Now”.

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Trim the Fat: Verbs

Trim the FatAnother way to trim textual fat is to carve unnecessary verbs.

Review your manuscripts for generic verbs (italicized below) that introduce a phrase in which a working verb (in bold) becomes a noun (underlined). Cut the bland verb and replace the noun with its strong verb counterpart:

Change “do a study of the results” to “study the results.”
Change “have a tendency to” to “tend to.”
Change “is suggestive of” to “suggests.”
Change “make changes in” to “change.”
Change “make determinations about” to “determine about.”
Change “make progress through” to “progress through.”
Change “provide an analysis of” to “analyze.”
Change “serve to make amendments to” to “amend.”

Other verbs to pare crop up in noun-modifying clauses. You can often cut these weak verbs along with the pronouns and helping verbs that introduce them:

Change “the marbles that are contained in” to “the marbles in.”
Change “the teachers who are concerned are” to “the teachers are.”
Change “the quotation that is referenced in” to “the quotation in.”
Change “the steps that are included in” to “the steps in.”
Change “the words displayed in” to “the words in.”
Change “the falsehoods provided in” to “the falsehoods in.”

Trim the fat, and your prose will profit.

Source: Edit Yourself by Bruce Ross-Larson

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Trim the Fat: Nouns

A great way to keep your writing lean is to trim the fat by reducing words or cutting them altogether. This is the first article in the “Trim the Fat” series, tackling flabby nouns.

Don’t wrap nouns in fatty prepositional phrases. Use a strong noun and let it stand alone. For example:

Change “the field of politics” to “politics.”

Change “the level of water rose” to “water rose.”

Change “the process of editing” to “editing.”

Change “the volume of vaccines increased” to “vaccines increased.”

Cut these phrases that nestle a noun between “the” and “of”:

  • the amount of
  • the area of
  • the case of
  • the character of
  • the concept of
  • the degree of
  • the existence of
  • the extend of
  • the field of
  • the form of
  • the idea of
  • the level of
  • the magnitude of
  • the nature of
  • the number of
  • the presence of
  • the process of
  • the purpose of
  • the sum of
  • the volume of
  • the way of

Trim the fat, and your prose will improve.

Source: Edit Yourself by Bruce Ross-Larson

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How to Plan a Great Story

StoryI’ve studied and practiced writing for a long time, incorporating techniques I’ve learned to improve my prose. Because of this, my mechanics are good. But my storytelling was weak. Although I got great ideas and wrote about them, I found I wasn’t telling a story.

It took half my writing life to realize the importance of story structure and content. What, exactly, is a story?

A Story Is a Narrative about an Active Character

A story is a narrative account of a character who takes action throughout a series of related events or experiences that changes him in the end.

Peter Rubie and Gary Provost, in their immensely helpful How to Tell a Story (Writer’s Digest Books, 1998), have this to say about the importance of an active character:

A story is about the person who takes action. Make sure your character is active and really does something to affect what’s happening in the story. It’s not what happens to the character that makes him interesting, it’s what he does about it.

If the conflict you’ve created, however powerful, only causes your protagonist to be passive or merely reactive, the story won’t work. If he’s simply reacting to things the antagonist has done to him, or stumbles on a clue by chance, the story won’t work. Rethink your protagonist’s qualities and make him active!

Story Plan in a Paragraph

Rubie and Provost encapsulate a story in a single paragraph:

Once upon a time, something happened to someone, and he decided that he would pursue a goal. So he devised a plan of action, and even though there were forces trying to stop him, he moved forward because there was a lot at stake. And just as things seemed as bad as they could get, he learned an important lesson. When offered the prize he had sought so strenuously, he had to decide whether to take it, and in making that decision he satisfied a need that had been created by something in his past.

Do you recognize this structure in stories you’ve read? I did. You can use it to write a novel or short story of your own. Here’s how.

Questions to Answer Before You Write

Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, you must answer these questions about your main character (MC), preferably before you start writing:

Something in his pastWhat past event (which happened before your story begins) happened to your MC to rip a hole in his life? Satisfying this psychological or emotional need is the central issue of your story.
Something happenedThis is the inciting incident, the catalytic event that kicks off the story and forces your character to take action. What happens that rocks your character’s world?
GoalWhat does your protagonist want? This is the prize, the thing he’s trying to get or attain throughout the whole story.
Plan of actionHow will your character go about pursuing his goal or prize? He must try and fail three times, making the situation worse, before succeeding.
Forces trying to stop himThis is the antagonist, which could be another character, entity, or force of nature that thwarts your MC’s attempt to reach the goal. The opposition generates conflict because of the antagonist’s contradictory goal and plan (define them too).
A lot at stakeWhat will this effort cost the protagonist? The stakes must be high: life or death; love lost or gained; physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual devastation—something important everyone can relate to.
Bad as they could getThis is your character’s bleakest moment. Everything has gone wrong, and it seems the opposing forces arrayed against him have won. Yet somehow, from the darkness of despair, from his failures, he finds the strength to persevere and overcome against overwhelming odds. What’s the worst moment?
Important lessonThe protagonist survives the bleakest moment with a gift:  revelation. At last, he sees, he understands something about life that he didn’t before. What lesson does your MC learn?
Offered the prizedecide whether to take itThis is the climax of your story. The protagonist must make a decision, preferably between two outcomes equally undesirable. When he decides, he gains something and he gives something up. It involves high emotional intensity from the reader, as well as moral and ethical considerations.
Satisfied a needThis need has been the driving force throughout the protagonist’s life to this point, whether or not he’s been aware of it (but you must be aware of it). In resolving the story, this need is satisfied.

A Story in Three Acts

The previous elements can be divided into three-act structure. Here’s where the points lie:

Before the story begins (some time in the character’s past):

Something in his past—The traumatic past event that tore a hole and created a psychological or emotion need in your MC. He must overcome this past damage to reach his goal and find happiness now and in the future.


Something happened—The inciting incident that kicks off the story.

Goal—What your character wants to get or achieve that he thinks will solve the problem the inciting incident has involved him in. Initially, the goal may be something trivial. But as the action progresses, it becomes his ultimate objective.


Plan of action—How your MC goes about pursuing the goal. His first attempt fails unexpectedly, and often makes things worse, but he learns something from it. His second attempt fails even more miserably, but he learns something again. He tries a third time and meets with disaster.

Forces trying to stop him—In his attempts to solve the problem and reach his goal, your MC is opposed.

A lot at stake—The inciting incident sets the stakes, which must be serious enough for your protagonist to take action. The stakes must rise the more he tries and fails until they become dire.

Bad as they could get—Everything has gone wrong, and it looks like your MC is going to lose. Why and how does he try one final time to overcome?

Important lesson—What does the bleakest moment teach your protagonist? What does he learn that prompts him to make a decision?

Offered the prizedecide whether to take it—Everything that has gone before wedges your character between a rock and a hard place morally or ethically. But, based on the important lesson he has learned, he decides to try one more time—and either triumphs or bombs.


Satisfied a need—The process, climax, and final action resolve the past need, and your character is changed.

I used this story planning process in writing my most popular novel to date, Death Perception.

Example Storyline in Death Perception

Here’s the one-paragraph storyline I developed for Death Perception:

Once upon a time, Kennet’s mother died [something happened to someone], and he decided that he would start a new life by making more money and moving out of her personal care home [pursue a goal]. So he started by looking for a new job and apartment [devised a plan of action], and even though Grinold and Flavia (the antagonists) tried to stop him [forces tried to stop him], he moved forward because his life and future happiness depended on it [there was a lot at stake]. And when his life was threatened [things seemed as bad as they could get], he learns he must avenge the mistreated dead [learned an important lesson], and when given the chance to move into a new apartment [offered the prize] he had sought so strenuously, he stays at the care home to gather more evidence against the antagonists, placing himself in mortal danger [decide whether or not to take it], and in making that decision he overcomes his fear[satisfied a need] created by his father’s abuse and death and his fear of conflict and change [something in his past].

This may not make sense unless you read the book, but it’s one of the exercises I did to plot Death Perception. Read it to see how I executed the plan.

Put some thought into this preliminary process, keep your MC active, and you’ll end up with a more satisfying story, one that, hopefully, will sell. Good luck!

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