Strong ‘Voice’ in YA fantasy

As discussed here, YA fantasy is often told as though in the head and present moment of a teen character.  This character tends to be reasonably unobtrusive to allow the reader to essentially imagine they are the character, creating an immersive experience.  In extreme cases the character is little more than a shell or avatar to enter the fantasy.

(The typical POV and voice of adult fantasy is slightly different and is discussed here, and an explanation of what POV and voice means is here.)

What would a strong, obvious voice in a YA fantasy look like?   I have come up with some examples that I think illustrate how it could work.  Some of them are not YA and some are not fantasy, but they are still examples that read to me as examples of things that could be done in YA fantasy.

First up is the Bartimaeus series by Jonathan Stroud, which is actually YA fantasy.  The opening chapter is told through the first person voice of a demon summoned by the protagonist to do its bidding:

The kid spoke. Very Squeakily. ‘I charge you… to… to…’ Get on with it! ‘…t-t-tell me your n-name.’

That’s usually how they start, the young ones. Meaningless waffle. He knew and I knew that he knew my name already; otherwise how could he have summoned me in the first place? You need the right words, the right actions and most of all the right name. I mean, it’s not like hailing a cab – you don’t get just anybody when you call.

I chose a rich, deep, dark chocolatey sort of voice, the kind that resounds from everywhere and nowhere and makes the hairs stand up on the back of inexperienced necks.


I saw the kid give a strangled kind of gulp when he heard the word. Good – he wasn’t entirely stupid then: he knew who and what I was. He knew my reputation.

After taking a moment to swallow some accumulated phlegm he spoke again. ‘I-I charge you again to answer. Are you that B-Bartimaeus who in olden times was summoned by the magicians to repair the walls of Prague?’

What a time-water this kid was. Who else would it be?

This is a clever strategy, in that it allows the writer to go nuts with the witty commentary and giving the fantasy story an original perspective, without affecting the likability of the protagonist. The story switches between this first person narrative, and a third person perspective of the protagonist, which allows for the reader to inhabit a more emotional space with the protagonist as well.

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence is another fantasy with a strong voice, following a teen protagonist. It is not marketed as YA due to its extremely dark subject matter, but is stylistically very similar to YA in other respects.  Obviously part of the reason this character is interesting is shock value, and you would lose some of that by making the character’s thoughts less R-rated, but it illustrates that an unlikeable character with a strong voice can still be interesting.

Ravens! Always the ravens. They settled on the gables of the church even before the injured became the dead. Even before Rike had finished taking fingers from hands, and rings from fingers. I leaned back against the gallows-post and nodded to the birds, a dozen of them in a black line, wise-eyed and watching.

The town-square ran red. Blood in the gutters, blood on the flagstones, blood in the fountain. The corpses posed as corpses do. Some comical, reaching for the sky with missing fingers, come peaceful, coiled about their wounds. Flies rose above the wounded as they struggled. This way and that, some blind, some sly, all betrayed by their buzzing entourage.

‘Water! Water!’ It’s always water with the dying. Strange, it’s killing that gives me thirst.

And that was Mabberton. Two hundred dead farmers lying with their scythes and axes. You know, I warned them that we do this for a living. I said it to their leader, Bovid Tor. I gave them that chance, I always do. But no. They wanted blood and slaughter. And they got it.

War, my friends, is a thing of beauty. Those as says otherwise are losing.

Lawrence has said that Prince of Thorns was inspired by A Clockwork Orange, which is also an example of a strong voice with a slightly fantastical premise.

An example of a strong YA voice in historical fiction is Catherine Jinks’ Pagan’s Crusade, which plays against the conventions and expectations of historical fiction by using minimalism:

A big man in brown, sitting behind a table. Big hands. Big chest. Short and broad. Head like a rock, face scarred like a battleaxe. He looks up and sees — what’s this? A street urchin? Whatever it is, it’s trouble. Trouble advances cautiously.

‘They said I should report to the Standard-Bearer.’

The big man nods.

‘You can call me sir,’ he says. (Voice like gravel rattling in a cast-iron pot.) He pulls out a quill pen. ‘Name?’ he says.


Rockhead smells rich and rare, like a well-matured piece of cheese. No baths for the Templars. Hot water is for girls and porridge and other soft, wet things. If a Templar wants a bath he can go and stand in the rain. That’s what God put if there for.

‘And where did you come from, Kidrouk?’ (The unspoken question: out of a slop bucket?) Rockhead is highly suspicious. You can see what he’s thinking. Just look at this runt! Spells like the Infidel, and looks like a bedouin boy. Skin the colour of braised almonds. Built like a horsewhip. Black hair. Black eyes. What in the name of God is this Order coming to? We’ll be recruiting stray dogs next.

As an adult, I think this is fantastic writing. As a young teen, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. It is minimalist to the point of being cryptic.  I probably mostly stuck with it because it was not a long book to stick with and because I loved historical fiction, but I would have been just as happy if not more happy with a neutral character, more descriptions, and less witty asides. The other kids at school who read it were even less forgiving than me, finding Pagan’s voice ridiculous: It was sooo stupid. Christ in a cream cheese sauce? Who says that?

Pagan’s Crusade illustrates that a strong voice narrating an unfamiliar world can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it offers a much more original story. On the other, you have to work a lot harder to understand what is going on. If Pagan’s Crusade was a fantasy and not about the Crusades, it would be even harder to decipher. You can bring prior knowledge of the Crusades to reading the novel, so words like Templar, Infidel, and bedouin already have meaning. If your entire knowledge of the situation had to be derived from Pagan’s narration, it could become frustratingly obtuse.

In Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, the narrator is a young British spy who has been captured by the Nazi’s, and her narration cushions the reader with more explanations than Pagan’s, and is not shocking like Jorg or Bartimaeus, but still has a sense of personality:

Von Linden has said I have two weeks and that I can have as much paper as I need. All I have to do is cough up everything I can remember about the British War Effort. And I’m going to.

Von Linden resembles Captain Hook in that he is rather an upright sort of gentleman in spite of his being a brute, and I am quite Pan-like in my naive confidence that he will play by the rules and keep his word. So far, he has. To start off my confession, he gave me this lovely creamy embossed stationery from the Chateau de Bordeaux, the Bordeaux Castle Hotel, which is what this building use to be. (I would not have believed a French hotel could become so forbiddingly bleak if I had not seen the barred shutters and padlocked doors with my own eyes. But you have also managed to make the whole beautiful city of Ormaie look bleak.)

It is rather a lot to be resting on a single code set, but in addition to my treasonous account I have also promised von Linden my soul, although I do not think he takes this seriously. Anyway, it will be a relief to write anything that isn’t connected with code. I’m so dreadfully sick of spewing wireless code. Only when we’d put all those lists to paper did I realise what a huge supply of code I do actually have in me.

It’s jolly astonishing, really.


I’m just damned. I am utterly and completely damned. You’ll shoot me at the end no matter what I do, because that’s what you do to enemy agents.

I have mixed feelings about how well this narrator works.  The character has views and opinions, but they are not views and opinions that give me a strong sense that she has an interesting personality.  She’s in an interesting situation to be sure, but the fact she dislikes Nazi’s could describe just about everyone.  Reading Peter Pan, being slightly defiant, and casually using ‘jolly’ tell us she’s British, but that’s about it.  The fact she likes quality stationery is also not particularly interesting.  I felt that the narration didn’t sound convincingly like what it was supposed to be, which was the narrator’s response to her captors insisting she write down everything she knew – that is, they wanted specific information for military purposes.  Were they really happy to keep providing her with stationery and time to write this meandering, insulting memoir?  It reads like the character’s internal thoughts, not what they’d actually have the opportunity to write down in this situation.

Having read the whole book, I’m aware that there are plot reasons for adopting this POV.  What there are not plot reasons for is why the writing sounds like it’s been calmly written by a writer who has time to write every thought that goes through a character’s head, and who is not being held prisoner by the Nazis.  Still, it’s worth reading because it plays with voice and POV to create an unreliable narrator and use this to effect.

Contemporary YA fiction is much more likely than fantasy or historical YA to feature characters with strong voices that are nevertheless pretty ordinary, sympathetic, relatable people. This is assisted to some extent by accessing experiences and cultural references that the reader can recognise, but it can also be done on its own terms.

For example, the very popular John Green writes in third person in An Abundance of Katherines. It is a third person with a strong sense of commentary, and this commentary doesn’t necessarily rely on pop culture references, for example:

Colin took a deep breath and slid down, immersing his head. I am crying, he thought, opening his eyes to stare through the soapy, stinging water. I feel like I am crying, so I must be crying, but it’s impossible to tell because I’m underwater. But he wasn’t crying. Curiously, he felt too depressed to cry. Too hurt. It felt as if she’d taken the part of him that cried.

He opened the drain in the tub, stood up, towelled off, and got dressed. When he exited the bathroom, his parents were sitting together on his bed. It was never a good sign when both his parents were in his room at the same time. Over the years it had meant:

1. Your grandmother/grandfather/Aunt-Suzie-whom-you-never-met-but-trust-me-she-was- nice-and-it’s-a-shame is dead.

2. You’re letting a girl named Katherine distract you from your studies.

3. Babies are made through an act that you will eventually find intriguing but for right now will just sort of horrify you, and also sometimes people do stuff that involves baby-making parts that does not actually involve making babies, like for instance kiss each other in places that are not on the face.

It never meant:

4. A girl named Katherine called while you were in the bathtub. She’s sorry. She still loves you and has made a terrible mistake and is waiting for you downstairs.

But even so, Colin couldn’t help but hope that his parents were in the room to provide news of the Number 4 variety.

Apart from the modern plumbing, you could use this passage in a fantasy novel, and it would not obstruct the reader from enjoying the story.  It has a sense of personality, but the personality works to draw the reader in through relatable observations, rather than to create a sense of separateness between the narrator and the reader.

What is POV and Voice?

POV stands for ‘point of view’. It is your imaginary vantage point. It’s where your imaginary camera is located, although it is a special camera that records smells, sensations, and sometimes people’s thoughts, as well as sight and sound.

POV is your vantage point.

Grammar gives you clues to the POV. If you are in first person (I walked) then you know your POV is inside that character’s head. However, it is not the grammar itself that creates this effect, it is what information your camera is picking up. You can convert a passage written in first person to third person (he walked) by changing the grammar and it still feels like you are in the person’s head. So, despite what you were told in high school, POV is not just a matter of whether you use “I” or “she”, but rather recreating a particular vantage point from which you are telling the story.

FYI, second person (you walked) does exist but is rarely used. If you are writing third person, you have various options.

You can write from inside the character’s head, which mimics first person just with slightly different grammar. You can write from just over the character’s shoulder (you see what they see but not their internal thoughts). You can write from over the character’s shoulder and occasionally dip into first person with or without some kind of formatting clue like italics. You can write like an intelligent fly on the wall, observing events but from no particular character’s perspective. Or you can be fully omniscient, popping in and out of characters’ heads at random.

You can also have a particular POV not just in place but in time. For example, you can write a fictional ‘memoir’, looking back and telling us what happened. (‘When I was a child, I used to catch the bus.) Alternatively, you can position yourself in character’s present, experiencing events unfold without foreknowledge (‘I swing my schoolbag onto my shoulders and climb the steps of the bus.’). Often this will be indicated by tense, but not necessarily. You can write in past tense but limit your observations only to the present moment, thereby having a present-day POV despite the tense. (‘I swung my schoolbag onto my shoulders and climbed the steps of the bus.’)

Whatever POV you choose, it is generally a good idea to be consistent, otherwise the reader will find it jarring, and it may look like you don’t know what you’re doing. You will also find that some readers are a bit fascist about POV and believe there are hard and fast rules that you cannot head-hop, and cannot slip in omniscient observations if you are in close third person.

This is not true.

There is no ‘rule’ against head-hopping, just as there never really was a rule against splitting infinitives. However, there are conventions and expectations. In many kinds of fiction, head-hopping is not in fashion and you will piss many people off if you do it. But more than that, it is hard to do head-hopping well, and if done poorly it is hard to follow, dilutes the sense of each character’s personality and perspective, and suffers from association with being a ‘rookie mistake’ that new writers make when they don’t know what they’re doing or can’t think of a more clever way to show how a non-POV character is reacting.

So, if that’s POV, what is voice?

Voice is the personality of the writing, expressed through the style of the language and the opinions of the narrator.

A narrator who begins: ‘I stared at the casket with the dull knowledge that I should probably feel something, but feelings had gone away.’ has a very different voice to the narrator who begins: ‘I love a good funeral .’

Even when a specific character doesn’t narrate, a sense of voice comes across through what is and is not observed. Is this a voice that notices the tragic beauty of a sunset, or one who jogs on to make sure they are home for the 6.30 news while neurotically wondering whether everyone she passes thinks her outfit is too frumpy, or one that immediately assesses the five best locations for a sniper?

Voice can also be expressed through stylistic choices. Is the writing clipped and controlled or do the thoughts jumble into one another? What does the vocabulary and sentence structure tell us about the narrator’s education and knowledge of the world? Is the voice a ‘written voice’, carefully composed, or does it have the spontaneity and immediacy of speech or thought. You can write some or all of a novel in emails or letters, or even text messages, and these choices lead to adopting different voices.

For a discussion of how POV and voice are used in fantasy, I have posts on:


Creating a 3 Act Structure from Scratch (Pt 2)

This is the second part of a ‘how to’ on creating your own outline with a 3 Act Structure. You can find the first part here, which dealt with getting started and creating Act 1.  In this part we are going to work out how to take your story to the midpoint.


To illustrate the process, we are creating an example story as we go along.  I don’t promise it’s a brilliant story, but it will illustrate the 3 Act Structure.

Previously, we created endearing bogan siblings, Sarah-Jane and Joe.

bogan Sarah-Jane and Joe

For those of you who aren’t  Australian, fiction featuring endearing bogans is an Aussie Tradition, like Vegemite and the ritual sacrifices needed to appease drop bears.

We mapped out Act One.  In this Act, we decided we will learn about Sarah, a shy receptionist who fears creativity. But Sarah’s life gets shaken up when she finds out her brother Joe has terminal cancer.  They both need money.  Joe wants the money to win back the love of his estranged teenage son, who now lives with his cashed-up stepdad. Sarah wants the money to pay for some experimental new cancer treatment for Joe. Having discovered the Nobel prize for literature comes with a pretty substantial prize, they decide to write a novel together to win it.  How hard can it be?

We also know that by the end of our story, Sarah will have discovered her inner creativity, left her receptionist job to run her own cupcake business, and Joe will have passed away but Sarah will have come to terms with his death and have the novel to remember him by. We know that at the start of the novel, Sarah starts to bake because Joe’s sick and that’s what their mother used to do for them when they were sick. Her initial cupcake attempts are inedible.

Where to next?

What the 3 Act structure looks like

Let’s pause a moment to look at what we’re aiming for.

Here are the classic three acts set out in terms of the space they take up, showing where key events in our story should fall:

3 Act Structure So Far

We’ve got an idea of key events at the start, the end, and at about the 25% mark.

You will sometimes get advice that you must have key events in your story in the places specified or you will never get published / be rejected / crawl into a hole and die.  Is this true?

For novelists?  No.

The three act structure is an industry standard for screenwriting. Screenwriters are stuck with pretty rigid running times for their stories (about 100-130 minutes), and this spacing works for them. It gives them up to half an hour to establish and define the characters and central problem (Act 1), about an hour for fun and hijinks as those characters try to deal with the central problem (Act 2), and then up to half an hour for a finale and to wrap things up (Act 3).

For better or worse, novels are not restricted to 100-130 pages (which would be a novella), which gives you a variety of options for spacing your acts if you choose to use a three act structure. For example:

* tell your character’s whole life in 4 parts (childhood, youth, middle age, old age) with each part adhering to a mini 3 act structure;

* a stretching of the three act structure over 300-500 pages, with more complexity (subplots), leisurely detail, and/or intermediate challenges along the way;

* 30 pages or so at the start and end for the first and final act respectively, but a much longer and more complicated middle section;

* a first book which is in 3 acts, but which also doubles as most of the first act of a larger story, as the resolution of the first book raises a new problem which demands a particular course of action (typical structure of a trilogy).

Rather than sticking rigidly to the screenwriting formula, novelists can just take it as a starting point, then see what pacing feels right for their story. If the story is slowing down or getting boring, you either need to shorten that section, or add more complexity and moments of interest within the space you have. If things feel rushed, you either need to lengthen it and expand on some aspects what happen, or simplify what happens within the space.

But for now, let’s use the screenwriter’s structure as a guide to further develop our story.

Step 5

Identify some information you can withhold from the reader which prevents your character from initially seeing the true nature of the central problem.

You know how I said we had Act 1 worked out? I lied. But it was for a good reason, so bear with me.

In our story, Sarah-Jane knows the central problem she has to deal with from the outset, namely that her brother has cancer. Sure, she could still learn that it’s advancing a bit faster than she thought or something, but her fundamental understanding of the problem is pretty much correct.

This is not going to work.

What is supposed to happen at the midpoint of a 3 Act structure (that’s in the middle of Act 2), is that the character learns something which fundamentally changes the nature of the problem she’s facing. For example, Sarah-Jane could learn that Joe’s apparent cancer is actually the first stage of a contagious world-wide epidemic, and she actually has to save the world.

No one believes this is Sarah-Jane.
This is not Sarah-Jane and does not fit in our story.

That could be a midpoint for another story, but not this one. Here that would be ridiculous.

This is where people trying to plan a 3 Act structure come unstuck, because it’s very difficult to think of some fancy new interpretation of the problem that doesn’t completely derail your story. In mystery thrillers, the classic one is that you expose a double agent: the wise mentor your characters were relying on to guide them in solving the problem is secretly working for the enemy. Or dies. Neither of those ideas are going to work in this story either.

mr darcy proposes
Also not in our story. Sadly.

In Pride and Prejudice, rather than expose a secret enemy, the enemy is exposed as a love interest (but in a context where a happy relationship seems impossible).

A revelation that enmity is built on sexual tension is not uncommon for a midpoint, but I’m not keen on it for our story. Even Joe and Sarah-Jane aren’t that bogan.

So what then?

The problem is that we’re looking at this from the wrong angle, one where we assume we’ve got the Act 1 locked in. But our first act gives too much information too early.

What Sarah needs to discover at the midpoint is the true problem, which is that her brother is dying of cancer. The story should actually look like this:

3 Act Structure so far v2

Step 6

Develop a different reason for your character to commit to the course of action you decided on at the end of Act 1.

We now have to rejig Act 1. Sarah-Jane still needs to commit to writing the novel with her brother, but she has to do so for other reasons. Reasons that are compelling but a bit less intense than the real reason we’ll discover at the midpoint.

Because we have already spent some time developing our story, we have some substance to work with even if we take out the cancer. Her brother could still tell her he needs the money to repair the relationship with his estranged son, and that he needs Sarah-Jane’s help. It’s just that we’re going to have to come up with a different reason why she feels compelled to help him, because she no longer knows about the need to raise money for cancer treatment. Again, it’s conceivable that they could just be motivated by the money, but it’s more compelling if there’s an obvious price for failure.

muscle car crash

Perhaps Sarah owes Joe. Perhaps he let her borrow a customer’s fancy car to dash to the shops and she crashed it. He needs the prize money for the novel to pay back the loan he had to take out, and she needs to help him atone. In this version, the kick up the bum for Sarah is the car crash.

Now our story looks like this:

3 Act Structure so far v 3

You may wonder why we went to the trouble of developing Act 1 if we were just going to completely change it.

It’s true, you could have done the midpoint after Step 1. However, at least speaking for myself, I find the order I’ve used a more organic process for understanding the characters and how they would react. Do whatever works for you.

Step 7

Develop the first half of Act Two.

3 Act Structure v3 SA

At the start of this section, Joe and Sarah-Jane have committed to writing a novel together. Joe is doing it to win back his son’s love and to raise money to pay back a bank loan, Sarah-Jane to atone for crashing Joe’s car and to pay for the bank loan he had to take out. At the end of this section Sarah-Jane will discover that Joe has a more pressing need for the money than bank loan, and a more urgent need to impress his son, because he is dying of cancer.

This means this section needs to accomplish two things:

  • the characters should try (with limited resources / experience that lead to as many setbacks as successes) to achieve the goal they think they’re there to achieve; and
  • plant clues about the true nature of the problem that will be revealed at the midpoint.
Knows she’s better than Sarah-Jane.

So, for example, on the first point Joe and Sarah might decide to enrol in a writing course, but it is full of upper middle class mummy bloggers who are snobby towards Joe and Sarah-Jane, leading to Sarah-Jane getting into fisticuffs with the head of the PTA in the parking lot, which ends up posted to Youtube. Not a resounding success. Although maybe they write it into their novel.

We know that Joe and Sarah-Jane’s novel is not going to win the Nobel prize, so we don’t need actually need them to believably be heading towards being great writers, just for them to share experiences which will develop their relationship. And in the writing class scenario you create stress on the characters to struggle and react.

With respect to the clues, you need to give the reader fair warning that All Is Not As It Seems, but you don’t want to make the answer obvious, so you need to encourage them towards one or more misinterpretations of those clues.

Maybe Joe’s acting oddly. Sneaking off. Sarah suspects that what he’s not telling her is that he’s on again with his ex, his son’s mother, who Sarah hates. She suspects he really wants the money to win his ex back, and that’s why he’s paying more attention to the sone too.

Mislead the reader early with a detail that supports this theory, eg. Sarah discovers two wine glasses, one with lipstick marks, in Joe’s bedroom. Joe ducks questions about them.

Sarah becomes more suspicious (she pops round for a surprise movie night when Joe said he’d be home and discovers Joe is out, then he lies about it, leading Sarah to wonder why he would lie to her unless it’s to cover up the one thing she’d object to, namely getting back with his ex), and eventually confronts him. He swears he’s not seeing the ex. He doesn’t tell her the real reason, though, which was that he was staying overnight at the hospital for cancer-related treatment. Later she finds out he definitely has seen his ex (not thinking about the fact he would see the mother of his child from time to time, or maybe he had a single drunken shag). She’s furious. She lays out all his erratic behaviour and the lies. Then we learn the real explanation is the cancer.

Given Sarah-Jane crashed his car, we’re going to have to make it believable that she’d be so furious without just being a busybody. So maybe the ex is Sarah’s childhood best friend who Sarah feels only used her to get close to her brother, and who then ditched Sarah’s friendship, and ultimately ditched her brother for an attractive psychiatrist twice her age. That’s an understandable reason for Sarah to worry about him seeing the ex, despite her need to make amends.

In this story, the unfolding mystery of Joe’s erratic behaviour provides the tension which will carry us through to the midpoint. In other stories, the mystery will be much more subtle and the tension will be created more through a sense of how the characters are progressing towards their chosen goal.

We now have a workable outline for the first half of our story.

Was this helpful?  Do you have any questions or suggestions?

I hope to get a chance to write up the next in this series of posts soon.

Creating a 3 Act Structure From Scratch (Pt 1)

mcgyverSo, you’ve heard of the 3 Act Structure.  Someone’s told you it’s a good idea.  Whether that’s true is another question.  For now, let’s look at what the 3 Act Structure is, and how you can use it to map out a story.

Usually when someone explains the 3 Act Structure, they do so by dissecting a familiar film or novel.  The problem with this approach is that it’s hard to replicate when creating your own story from scratch.  It’s like giving you a tour of NASA and then asking you to build your own rocket.

When it actually comes to writing your own story, you’re going to have to Macgyver it from two paperclips and some chewing gum you found stuck to the bottom of your shoe.

With that in mind, here’s the low-budget, built-from-the-ground-up process for cooking up three acts when starting from absolutely nothing.

You, at the end of this process. Also Sarah-Jane. But we'll get to that.
You, at the end of this process.  Or just eating delicious cake pops.  Also Sarah-Jane. We’ll get to her shortly.

Decide on a Story Concept This means you need a character, setting, conflict/struggle, and an angle.  Call it a logline, one sentence summary, or premise, if you like.  For example:

A shy girl from the suburbs struggles to write a novel in a month.

I’m going to use that because it’s simple, and I’m guessing most people reading this blog can relate.  If you want to develop a story concept you like better, and are not sure how to start, here’s a process you can step through.

Step 1

Picture your main character at the start and end of the story and ask: What’s changed?

Did she succeed in writing her novel?  Perhaps she’s changed internally?  Realised that she doesn’t need a novel to make her happy?  Or perhaps it’s the opposite.  Perhaps she didn’t realise how much she needed to write this novel, and it unlocks part of her she didn’t realise existed?

Perhaps it brought her new friends?  A new lover?

Maybe not.  Maybe you want to write a tragedy about how a writer was so obsessed with writing she failed to make the most of her last month with her cancer-stricken brother, and does not realise she’ll regret it until it’s too late.  Or maybe it’s a bittersweet story, one where they write the novel together, opening up to each other and finally leaving something precious to remember their time together.

The possibilities are endless.  You choose whether the ending will be happy or sad.  Victorious or tragic.  It doesn’t matter, just so long as something’s changed.

In fact, there actually have to be at least two changes:

1) an internal change for the main character, and

2) an external change of their situation.

The internal change means your character develops, that he or she has a Character Arc.  The external change means that stuff must happen.  Stuff Happening is what fills all those pages in the middle, and the Character Arc gives it the human interest factor.

Here’s what we might come up with for our premise, with internal matters marked with an (I) and external situation matters with an (E):

3 Act Structure Start EndNawww.

Identifying what changes between the start and the end of the novel already tells us heaps that we didn’t know about the main character, and identifies stuff that has to happen along the way.  She’ll have to start that cupcake business, her brother will probably need treatment, will probably get sicker, and at some point he’ll die, and there are going to be scenes of them writing together.

Structuring your story around changes to the main character ensures your story is character driven.  It’s different from just thinking of your plot as solving a problem (eg. there is a bomb and someone must defuse it before it destroys the city).

Step 2

Picture your character at the start of the story.  What is going to happen to kick them up the bum?

At polite dinner parties, this is known as the ‘inciting incident’ or the ‘opening event’, but here at Compulsive Writer we like to tell it like it is, and bum kicking is what it’s all about.

Sarah-Jane could go her whole life being the receptionist of Dullsville.  Your job is to be the Reality TV Producer who steps in with a challenge or opportunity that sets events in motion.

Sarah-Jane, hating her boring corporate life

Like what, exactly?

Well, you could send in an alien invasion, or have her encounter a handsome bank robber who sweeps her off her feet.  These are undoubtedly events which will shake up her boring life, but they are not good choices because they have nothing to do with your planned story.  By all means, go the bank robber idea if you love it, but if so, go back to Step 1 and revise to identify changes that might come about as a result of a novel-length relationship with a bank robber.

A glaringly obvious choice here is that Sarah-Jane discovers her brother’s cancer is terminal.  Glaringly obvious to you, that is, not to the reader, as they do not have a copy of the outline that we wrote in Step 1.  All they get is: “Poor Sarah’s brother has cancer… what is she going to do?”

Kicking your character up the bum should happen early.  On the first page, if you like, but at least in the first few chapters.

Step 3

Brainstorm how your main character(s) will react to the inciting incident and why.

What would Sarah-Jane actually do?  We don’t know a lot about her yet.  We know she likes baking.  Maybe she’d soothe herself through a flurry of baking.

What else?  She’d probably visit her brother.  That’s good.  We need to bring him into the story early cause he’s a major character, and this is the time to flesh out the kind of people your key characters are and how they relate to each other.  Given that you really have two characters responding to the cancer situation, you might want to think about how their reactions could differ, as this will highlight their personalities and generate conflict.

For example, maybe Sarah-Jane is new-Agey and her brother wants trusted science only.  Or perhaps she wants him to go for one more round of chemo and he’s had enough.  Or maybe he’s a blokey bloke who doesn’t even like to think about doctors.

Picture your character’s house, living arrangements, wardrobe, job, and manner of speech.  What would fit with their different reactions to the cancer?  Alternatively, what do the places and characteristics you imagine tell you about the kind of reaction they’re likely to have?

Has something happened to them in the past that affects their reactions?  Don’t get distracted with random backstory, stick to incidents which changed your characters in a way that matters to the present dilemma.  For example, if Sarah-Jane is new-Agey thanks to a hipster ex she has not quite got over, that might be relevant, because it affects what solutions to the cancer problem she presents and why.  The fact Sarah-Jane had a cat named Blossom when she was six is probably not.

Think too about introducing other elements that will be important throughout the story – like the cupcake shop.  How will that start out?

Maybe Sarah starts baking in response to the cancer because that’s what their mother did for them when they were ill, and she wants to fill that mothering role for Joe (he has a name now).  She’s new at it, so maybe her baking is terrible.  How does Joe react to her rock-hard cupcakes?  To the ones where she accidentally grabs the salt and uses it in place of sugar?  Perhaps he builds her confidence and endears himself to the reader by unfailingly eating them without complaint, no matter how rubbish they are.

You can do your brainstorming by jotting down dot points, drawing mind-maps, bouncing ideas off a friend, writing snippets of scenes–whatever works for you.

Step 4

Decide how your character will resist, then commit to a particular course of action for dealing with the problem as they now understand it.

This solution is not for everyone.

Finding out about the cancer is a problem, but your characters can do anything about it, from moping in their rooms to jumping off a cliff.  Walter White chose to start manufacturing meth.

That’s not what Sarah-Jane and Joe are going to do, though, because becoming ruthless drug barons did not feature anywhere in our Step 1 vision.  (Remember, you can change your mind at any point, but you need to go back and revise Step 1 to fit etc).

Your notes for Step 1 are the clue which will lead you to the answer.  Our notes say that we want our characters to decide to write a novel together, and that somehow this will lead to a cupcake business.  All we have to do is work out why.  Why do any of these things in response to a cancer scare?  Why together?

Here’s a first option:

Joe, a mechanic, tells Sarah he wants to write a novel and he wants her to help him.  He can’t touch-type and she can.  Also he envisions her helping creatively.  Notwithstanding it’s the wish of her dying brother, she’s too underconfident about her creativity to like this idea.  Eventually she agrees, but maintains she’s strictly there to type and bring the cupcakes.

That commits Sarah to a course of action, one she feels daunted by, but to me this does not seem quite right.  There are a few problems: a) it’s too open-ended a challenge, there’s no way to really tell if she’s failing or succeeding, and b) it requires the characters to already have the insight to realise the novel will help them bond, which gives them less room to grow.

The course of action your character commits to should:

* be challenging

* have stakes (a price for failure)

Why?  Because then the reader can invest in caring about the problem and keep track of how well they’re doing, creating a sense of progression.

To add some stakes into our scenario, let’s say Joe’s writing the novel for a competition with $100k prize money (where is this writing competition and how can I enter?)

That’s a lot of money, but I don’t think it’s compelling.  Money’s just money unless you really need it, and what does Joe need it for?  To pay for something on his bucket-list? To raise money for treatment?  Hmmm…

Ok, here’s a second option, building in stakes and challenges ahead:

Joe, a mechanic, is estranged from a teenage son who now lives with his mother and her wealthy new partner.  He desperately wants to be able to pay for special things for his son before he passes away from cancer.  He has discovered that the Nobel prize for literature pays 8 million Swedish Krona, and is convinced he can win it.  How hard can it be to write a novel?  He wants his sister Sarah to help him, given her superior touch-typing skills.  For her part, Sarah also agrees the plan is feasible, but she doesn’t agree the money should go to her spoiled brat of a nephew.  She wants Joe to spend the money on a fancy new treatment for cancer available overseas.  She helps him in order to try and save his life.  Also, she insists on bringing him cupcakes, which she’s baking cause their Mum, who’s no longer with them, used to do this for them as kids when they were sick.  They’re terrible cupcakes, which she and Joe both know, but she feels obliged to keep doing it anyway.

Much better.  Although I’m starting to think that Sarah-Jane and Joe look more like this:

bogan Sarah-Jane and Joe
Joe and Sarah-Jane, staying classy.

And that’s ok.  Your story can and will evolve through this planning process.  That’s half the fun!

Now we have a specific course of action and a specific price for failure. As you can see, the plan your characters come up with does not have to be a brilliant one, it just has to be convincing that they would choose it.  As a bonus, we already have some fodder for conflict between Joe and Sarah-Jane from the start.

Give yourself a pat on the back, you’ve just got the bones of Act 1.

Let me know if anything was confusing or if you have any questions.  Comments always welcome!

Next Up: Midpoints, Why is Act Two So Long, and Other Important Questions.

Writing About Magic: Book Review

shutterstock_180802175I’m working my way through a collection of books about writing and sharing the results here. Today’s offering: Writing About Magic by Rayne Hall.

In summary

This is a concise introduction to writing magic in fiction. With a focus on examples from actual real-world cultures, it is pitched more at those writing paranormal fiction rather than secondary-world fantasy. Hall’s ideal audience is probably someone who enjoys paranormal fiction and wants to try their hand at writing their own story, but is not sure how the magic should work or how to weave it into the story.

Pick up this book if you’re after a smorgasboard of ideas with a focus on traditional presentations of magic and magic-users. Even if you’re looking to develop something more original, there is no harm in getting the lie of the land, and no reason you couldn’t take these ideas and give them your own twist.  At $3 for the Kindle edition, it’s not going to break the bank.

That said, before you go ahead and purchase this book, there are a few little issues I might mention…

Who gets to be a magician?

merlinChapter 1 is about creating a magic-user’s personality. Ms Hall points out that magician characters typically have one or more of the following attributes: intelligence, good memory, creative, self-disciplined and focused, patient, highly trained, specialist, musical, spiritual, studious, well-organised and methodical, introverted, ethical, sharp senses, descended from magicians, psychic, magical day job, and a pet.

As a laundry list of stereotypical magician-y traits, this is pretty spot on, although I query the advice that sticking to this list will improve your story. Won’t it, by definition, give you a stereotypical magician? Might it not be more interesting to mix things up?

Take the British TV series Misfits. The premise of the show is that magical superpowers are bestowed on a bunch of teen offenders with almost the exact opposite of every quality listed by Hall. Thanks to a sharp script and excellent performances, Misfits shines as an example of the value of looking past the stereotypes and treading new ground.


That said, Hall herself poses an astute question about whether the attributes of a magician are similar to the attributes of a writer, and to think about why this might be. (I have an answer, though I’m not sure if it’s the one Hall has in mind.)

Magic Systems

Onto Chapter 2. If you write fantasy, it is worth knowing that some readers are looking for an interesting, intricate, and original magic system as a primary feature of a story. Popular author Brandon Sanderson has built a career on showcasing his abilities on this front (and talks about his approach in these essays).

Ms Hall delves straight into some typical terminology and features of magic systems in Western cultures. I’m not sure if she intends it, but this chapter could be equally entitled: did you know that fantasy was traditionally written by privileged white men?

Topic 1: High magic and low magic. High magic apparently brings status and is typically practiced by upper class white men, while low magic practitioners are ‘female, networked with other women, with little education and little time for study, poor and good at making do’. Hall isn’t going to touch that any further except to point it out. Instead she moves straight on to Topic 2: black magic and white magic, a topic obviously not at all loaded with an uncomfortable history of race and Imperialism.

Definitely not going there.

In three paragraphs she sidesteps this giant elephant with: ‘Most real magicians find [the notion of black and white magic] laughable’ (ahahaha <- nervous laughter) and suggests that calling oneself a ‘white magician’ is just done occasionally by cleverly deceptive magicians because it is a ‘good look on business cards’.

I’m not sure what she makes of fantasy’s iconic White magician, Gandalf the White, who inexplicably appears with all New and Improved Whiteness, presumably after Gandalf the Grey popped himself through the spin cycle with some enzyme-powered Omo. Pretty sure Gandalf’s Whiteness was meant to be a straight-up statement of virtue and wisdom. Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe Gandalf was just supposed to be selling snake oil. Maybe after the War of the Ring, Gandalf opened a used horse and cart dealership, and for all that he talked up Shadowfax, the rubbish horse went lame a few days after a gullible customer rode it out of the stables.

Now Brighter, Whiter, and Definitely Not Imbued With Awkward Racial Connotations
Now Brighter, Whiter, and Definitely Not Lugging Around Awkward Racial Connotations

(Sidebar: I love Lord of the Rings. It is a cherished piece of my childhood and a masterpiece, but I’m not going to try and pretend it’s perfect. Saruman might have been doing the White Wizard business card thing, but Gandalf was meant to be the real deal.  And I know, the whole white/black thing can mean night/day quite apart from the racial connotations.  Nevertheless, it is an inescapable feature of the novel that not only are the Good Guys are White and come from the West, and the Bad Guys are Dark and come from the East, and appear with Orientalist trappings.)

Having very carefully not discussed white and black magic, we zip through ceremonial magic, natural magic, religious magic, alchemy, traditional witchcraft, wiccan witchcraft, necromancy, shamanism, ancient Egyptian magic, folk magic, and voodoo. The detail of each is brief, and unhelpfully defined in terms of the aforementioned traditional cultural lens, but is still a great starting point for getting you thinking about different possibilities for magical systems.

Next up: mix and match to create your own magic system. Ms Hall turns to an interesting discussion of terminology. For example, she suggests that ‘warlock’ literally means ‘oath-breaker’ or ‘traitor’, which is an interesting tidbit I hadn’t heard before. More dubiously, she proposes:

‘Witch’ is not a female wizard, and ‘wizard’ is not a male witch. Witches and wizards are practitioners of two very different magic systems.

I can only deduce that Ms Hall’s childhood predated Harry Potter.

That’s pretty much all this book has on creating magic systems, which was disappointing. I would have expected that Designing an Original Magic System 101 would be a core topic to cover in a book on writing about magic. I expected some discussion of basic ideas such as: Don’t make magic a free ride – ensure that there are limitations and costs to using it.


A so-called ‘witch’ unacceptably failing to understand that formal education is just for boys.

Chapter 3 looks at how your magician acquires their skills or what I might describe as magical pedagogy. (Sidebar: Now I really want to write a short piece called Magical Pedagogy). Harry Potter crops up here but I’m still not convinced she’s read it. Either that or she spent the whole reading experience mumbling: This is outrageous! Witches and wizards are completely different things! Women only get to be underappreciated backyard earth mothers. Who does this Rowling woman think she is?

The take away point from this chapter is that Ms Hall is really fixated on traditional gender roles doesn’t like characters stumbling into their powers without training.

I know what she’s getting at. Training = effort. The risk of a character obtaining powers without training risks a plot where your characters simply wave a magic wand to make their problems vanish. They don’t earn their dramatic victories. However, sudden power acquisition can work just fine when this does not solve the story’s dramatic problems.

For example, in Carrie by Stephen King, the titular Carrie is untrained in her telekinesis, but she doesn’t need training in order to go ahead and wreak havoc. In the stage musical Wicked!, Elphaba acquires a grimoire which she can instantly and instinctively use, but this makes her situation worse because it makes her a valuable commodity to people who want to control her power for their own ends.

Executing Magic

Chapter 4 deals with specific ideas for executing magic, and this is where we glimpse some of the considerations that you might want to build into an original magic system. She looks at potential sources of magical energy, and some rituals, although it would have been good to see some strong original examples of executing magic from contemporary fantasy fiction.

For example, in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, magic is executed by characters consuming and then ‘burning’ controlled quantities of particular metals, which allow interactions solely with metallic objects. Burning one metal allows metal to be pulled towards the user, another allows it to be pushed away, which plays out in the story in some fascinatingly acrobatic fight scenes. There are inbuilt limitations because the needed metals are in limited supply, and most characters only have the capacity to use certain metals.

Fan art of Mistborn by the talented Shilesque
Some awesome Mistborn fan art by the talented Shilesque (

Another example is the Death Gate Cycle by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, which has two similar magic systems premised on using runes to manipulate the ‘wave of possibilities’ and select an outcome to occur. One system developed by an aggressive warlike culture requires the users to focus their magic through the use runic tattoos on their bodies and small drawn symbols, the other system developed by an artistic culture dance and sing the runes. What works so well in these books is that the magic helps develop and highlight the culture clash which is central to the premise of the novels.

How to look fabulous

Skipping over chapter 5, because this is really just more on executing magic, we come to Chapter 6: Costuming and Equipment.

Here we learn about robes and…

That’s it. Just robes. Ok, robes and nudity. This is not the Vogue of magical fashion. A few accessory suggestions are offered, but they are of the typical wand and crystal variety.

shrek cartoon closets
Vogue Fantasyland.  Would this have been so hard?

Wording spells

Some new stuff in this chapter, because we get into the language of spellcraft, although not very deeply. She notes the use of alliteration, repetition, assonance, consonance, and meter, and gives some examples, my favourite of which is: Cower, computer! By my command, you shall crash no more!

I could have done with that one the other week.

The rest of it

There are a few more chapters: correspondences, love spells, sex magic (a topic with food for thought like: ‘solo sex magic with masturbation would be more practical, but it has less plot potential’), magical weapons and warfare, healing and protection, illusionists and charlatans, magic in the future, and my favourite, magical ethics.

There is great plot fodder in the magical ethics chapter, from the discussion of the scope of an ethic not to harm anyone with magic, to examples of villainous ethics such as ‘never torture someone on a Sunday.’ How can you put a character’s magical ethical principles to the test? What if they make human mistakes? How does magic change the balance of power in the society? Are magicians known or secret and why?

At the end of the book, there are a couple of examples of Ms Hall’s own fiction. The short story was fun once I got past the criminal amounts of exposition crowded into the dialogue. (Ms Hall has either not encountered Hemingway’s ‘Iceberg Theory’, or cannot resist showcasing the magical system she has developed for the story, even where those details are superfluous.) The excerpt from her novel, Stormdancer, is a much better example of how to draw on your developed magic system in order to incorporate telling details into a scene.

What do you think?  Do you have any favourite advice on writing about magic, or favourite examples of stories that do it well?

Image of magical book from Shutterstock / Evgeny Atamanenko.

From Vague Idea to Story Concept

Let’s say you want to write a story about a topic that interests you.  Let’s say you’re mad about motorbikes.  How do you start developing that idea into a story?

Here’s a process I find works for me.

Brainstorm scenarios where your idea features:

a motorbike race, a road trip, a mechanic’s workshop, motorbikes in space, motorbike wolf hybrid robots, a single motorbike in a remote village, designing the world’s first motorbike…

Don’t censor yourself because you think a scenario is too boring or too ridiculous.  A boring idea is only twist away from interesting, and a ridiculous idea is only some careful thought away from unique.

For each scenario, think of a few different versions of the idea:

Give yourself permission to throw in different characters and settings and reasons for the scenario taking place.  Push the idea to new places you hadn’t previously considered.  Ask: What if?


Let’s take our motorbike race…

* at elite competition level

* in the schoolyard

* between two geriatric ex-bikies

* across 1950s New Zealand

* bounty hunters pursuing the last witness to a mysterious crime

You will find some ideas grab you more than others, but don’t settle on one just yet.

Google for real stories:

Copeland_stoomfiets_1894One of the first concepts we came up with was ‘designing the world’s first motorbike’, which must have actually happened at some point somewhere.  Some quick Googling leads me to Wikipedia, which says:

In the 1860s Pierre Michaux, a blacksmith in Paris, founded ‘Michaux et Cie’ (“Michaux and company”), the first company to construct bicycles with pedals called a velocipede at the time, or “Michauline”. The first steam powered motorcycle, the Michaux-Perreaux steam velocipede, can be traced to 1867, when Pierre’s son Ernest Michaux fitted a small steam engine to one of the ‘velocipedes’.

This is already an interesting setting, with potential characters and setting and even conflict (What did the father think of his son’s innovation?  How was the business viewed in Paris at the time?  What was their competition?)

Flesh out your favourites:

For at least three ideas, figure out the following details to give you an idea of what it would look like as a story:

  • a specific setting
  • a main character (or characters)
  • conflict
  • an angle

You should be able to do this in a sentence or two.  For example:

A geriatric bikie learns his old rival is doing a ride across Canada for charity, and despite a heart condition is determined to race and beat him.  The story is narrated by his daughter, who has come home to live with her father after her recent divorce.


Eveningstar is a wolf who was captured and mistreated as a cub.  She is sold to a sadistic man who experiments with animals and robots in a cabin in the woods, where he keeps Eveningstar caged, transforming her one piece at a time into a bionic creature, half wolf, half motorbike.  Through her eyes we see her gain strength and intelligence until she is able to escape and take revenge.

Reality check

You’ve got your concepts fleshed out enough you can glimpse how they might look as stories.  You’re excited to get going.  But before you invest too much of yourself in this new project, here are a few useful questions to ask:

Is this the kind of story I will enjoy writing?

shutterstock_145156063If what you really want is to write a high-octane ride, revelling in all the latest motorcycle technology, then the 1860s blacksmith is not going to work for you.  On the other hand, if the thought of delving into the everyday detail of 1860s Paris excites you (and perhaps the possibility of some on-location research) then that’s the story you want to pick. You’ll be spending a fair bit of time with the story, and you’ll need some pleasure to balance out the hard work.

Does this story meet my writing aims?

You may not have much specific other than ‘I want to write’, but you may have a specific goals for your writing and how you fit it into your life.

You might be aiming to write short stories for a magazine that requires a very particular kind of concept or word count.  You might want to write a story that will appeal to the same audience as your other books, or alternatively to write something that is completely different from your last project.  You might be trying to complete NaNoWriMo.  You might love trilogies of fantasy doorstoppers, but do you really have time to complete 600 000 words?

Is this the kind of story I’m happy to put my name to?

You may have a BDSM motorcycle erotica scenario on your list, and you may be the kind of person who is happy to proclaim from the rooftops that BDSM motorcycle erotica is your thing, in which case, write away!  But the truth is that most of us don’t just write for ourselves.  Our writing is a little bit about sharing ourselves, and we don’t envision spending a lot of time doing something that we have to hide from our friends and family, or from the world.

If your writing deals with controversial or painful topics, it will make people feel things, whether you like it or not.  Are you happy to become the poster boy or girl for what your novel says?  Does your story push a particular world view or showcase particular stereotypes, and is that what you want to do?

Sure, great writers sometimes say brave and difficult things, but not every controversial story is an act of bravery.  Some of it’s just thoughtless or randomly offensive.  Be honest about whether you want to be EL James in this Twitter Q&A?

el james twitter


You probably know which of the ideas most excites you, but if all excite you equally – you just have to choose.  You could roll a die or flip a coin, or you could even just challenge yourself to write a little of each one and see which flows.

And that’s it!  How have you developed your ideas into stories?  What made an idea click into a story you just had to write?

Feature images by Shutterstock / Docstockmedia and Ruslan Grumble and Michal Vitek.  Image of historical motorbike from Wiki commons here.

7 Questions Guaranteed to Improve Your Opening Chapter

Does your opening feel lacklustre?  Just a bit off? It’s not the general subject matter.  It’s how you frame it.  Some writers can make you beg to read about paint drying, while airlines manage to turn mid-air disasters into something so boring you cannot be bothered to watch the safety demonstration.

Here are six questions you can run through to help you pick what’s missing:

1) Does the opening pose a dramatic problem?

Describing the furniture, even if it’s really, really interesting furniture, runs the risk of the reader tuning out. If your main character is trying to stop the furniture from being removed by a debt collector, you can describe the furniture and have a dramatic problem.

2) Is there a clear opening conflict or just a vague inner need?

‘Bob is trying to commit suicide’ is an opening conflict (the conflict is implied in the situation – calm, peaceful people tend not to be suicidal). Bob is sad (and wants to be happy) is an inner need. Inner needs can fuel whole books, as characters try various strategies to get those needs met, but they are not specific enough to provide a good entry point into the story. Test question: Is the only problem posed one solved by self-insight and long-term counselling, or are there more immediate solutions?  If you’re ringing the therapist, your conflict is too vague.

If I need to develop an inner need into a more specific conflict, I consider the following questions:

a) Why does my character feel this way? What
happened to get him/her to this feeling?

b) What particular solution to the problem is my character trying right now?

c) What will failure / success mean (for the character and others)?

I try to find answers to these questions that are interesting and specific, and that’s what triggers an opening conflict scenario. If my answers to these questions are a) ‘oh everything really’, b) ‘moping about and hoping for things to get better’, and c) ‘not much’, then I probably need to think harder.

3) Is the problem particularly revealing of my main character?

To convey the personality of a character, don’t just show a problem, show your character handling the problem.  They can handle it well.  They can handle it badly.  It doesn’t matter.  The way they handle the problem will connect the reader to who they are.  I promise you, John the Tax Accountant handles a bank error in his favour in a completely different way to John the Veteran Pensioner skimping and saving for his retirement, which is different again to John the Millionaire Playboy, and far removed from John the Seven Year Old Monopoly Champion.

4) Is the problem typical of the setting and tone of my story?

Think of a movie trailer.  It doesn’t have to grab everyone, but it has to grab the right people.  If it’s a trendy romcom, the trailer needs truckloads of Jimmy Choos.  If it’s the next Saving Private Ryan, someone better be holding their dying friend under a hail of bullets.

Books don’t have trailers.  (Or, at least, they rarely have trailers that anyone watches or with production values higher than a depressingly average Powerpoint presentation.  But that’s another topic.)

The point is: Your opening is your trailer.

It’s your sample on Amazon and it’s what people flick through at the bookstore when they’re browsing the shelves.

Tricky, huh?  Cause in an opening chapter, you don’t get to just cut together all the highlights of your novel to a killer soundtrack and flash up some selectively quoted reviews.  You have to construct a scene which gives the right impression.

Think of the opening to an Indiana Jones movie.  Indi isn’t sitting at home reading the newspaper, he’s in the middle of snatching some crazy relic from an ancient site guarded by questionable stereotypes of some non-Western culture.  Basically, the gist of an entire Indiana Jones movie is distilled into the opening scene of an Indiana Jones movie.  That’s what you’re aiming for.  But if that’s too tough, think about what your novel as a whole delivers: Is it romance?  Action?  Mystery?  Horror?  Family drama?  Comedy?  An exotic world?  Zen meditations on life?  Whatever it is, give us a glimpse of that in the opening.

5) So I should go with that dubious prologue?

No!  OMFG no.  No.  No.  No.

If you’re asking this question, you know in your heart that no matter how neatly that prologue reveals that backstory, opening with the History Of Everything That Came Before is an unpopular choice.  I’ve been there.  I’ve written that prologue.  I’ve cried with frustration when removing it.

Here is the golden rule of prologues: Does the prologue clearly set up the main character and a specific problem they have to solve?

A good sign that you can chance keeping a prologue opening is that the main character actually appears.  You may get away with having them appear as a baby (think Harry Potter), provided that the events of the prologue cause a specific problem for them in the novel, rather than just being something that happened once.  The main character in a previous incarnation worked for Robert Jordan in The Wheel of Time.

In some crime novels, it is acceptable to start with a prologue showing the crime being committed or discovered, without the main character making an appearance, but that is a particular quirk of that genre.  It works because the reader already understands what the dramatic problem is for the central character (can they solve the murder?) before that character appears.

In other words, if you look at the questions above, you have to nail both Questions 3 and 4 to get your opening to work.

6) Can I summarise the problem in an intriguing visual (or sensory) snapshot?

shutterstock_139382126This sounds like a bonus icing on the cake question, but it’s actually crucial.

Your opening is the doorway for the reader into your story.

The essence of fiction is that it’s a vicarious experience.  This is literally true.  When you watch someone eat chocolate you start salivating, and when you see someone slam their thumb in a door, you wince.  This is because your brain fires up in nearly the same way when you watch something happen to someone else as when it happens to you.  It’s thanks to mirror neurons if you’re getting technical.

If your writing does not offer a vicarious experience you have an essay (or maybe even a technical manual), but you don’t have fiction.  Only ignore this question if you are writing for a more experimental, literary audience, and have some good reason to leave your reader in a state of sensory deprivation.

In an opening we need to make the reader’s mirror neurons fire with a sensory experience that is inherently intriguing, even when briefly described.  If your opening problem is too complex, the interest of your opening will be opaque or buried in boring exposition.

This works:

Bob’s wants to kill himself.  Your snapshot is a man looping a noose around his neck, the rope rough against his throat.

This, not so much:

Bob wants to kill himself because the intergalactic counsel of the High Priests of Voldoon rejected his funding proposal for a military ultraweapon that can link wormholes, thereby creating the possibility of mining a unique substance only available in a distant galaxy which might enhance human consciousness and which Bob wants because it was the dream of his ex-lover whom he foolishly broke up with.

If your opening has intergalactic funding proposal problems, pick off one or two elements that capture the conflict without the backstory.  For example, you could have a devastated Bob tearing up paperwork (his rejection letter) in front of the ultra weapon.  But then have Bob’s actions speak for themselves by giving Bob an immediate problem to solve in that scene (eg. he flicks a switch and the ultra weapon starts to count down).  Don’t fall into the trap of having him potter about aimlessly while you tell us what the ultraweapon does, the structure of the Galactic Council, his memories of the ex.

7) Have I followed my character’s focus?

Every piece of writing starts with a single word, but how do you know which one to choose?

You know everything about your character.  You know what they had for lunch, the quarrel they had when they were five, and every sensation they’re experiencing in that moment.  What is most important to start with at that moment?

The answer is: whatever your character would focus on in that moment.

When your character enters the room, do they notice the priceless Egyptian vase in the corner, the picture of the family on the desk, or the annoying clicking sound made by the unbalanced fan?  Maybe they inventory the surveillance devices and escape routes?  What your character notices is illustrative (or should be illustrative) of who they are, their immediate goal, and what they value.  You don’t need lengthy explanations as to why.  Less is usually more when it comes to exposition and baiting your reader.

If your character keeps floating away to long flashbacks or explanations of context, check that your opening actually has a good dramatic problem (see Questions 1 and 2 above).  If you become overwhelmed trying to convey a more complex scenario, think about whether you should change the scenario.  Remember, galactic funding issues aside, a dinner party with 12 key characters in a cluttered room is your worst nightmare.

Describe exactly what your character notices, then describe what they notice next, and so on.  Do not describe anything they don’t notice.  It’s that simple.

Did these tips help you?  Do you have any strategies for writing a good opening chapter?  I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments below.

Image by wavebreakmedia on Shutterstock.

Tash McAdam on Killer Verbs, Buffy, and RPGs as Literary Bootcamp

I love a good action thriller, by which I mean the kind of book you hold white-knuckled, promising yourself at 2am that you’re really, seriously going to put it down after this chapter, just as soon as the character’s out of mortal peril, only to find at 4am that you’re 80% of the way through so you might as well finish it, and then at 6am emerge from the final chapter in an oh-look-its-morning-how-did-that-happen daze. I know it’s a good book when my book hangover feels like a real actual hangover.

Crafting action which keeps tired eyelids prised open is a skill. But what exactly makes it work? And how do you learn how to do it?

Author Tash McAdam

Luckily, I had the opportunity to chat to author Tash McAdam. I persuaded Tash to share some tips and tricks for crafting the action in your story.

Alex: Hi Tash, thanks for submitting to being grilled here on my blog. So, let’s get onto the questions. Your stories are non-stop action thrillers. What do you aim to deliver to the reader with this sort of story?

Tash: As a reader, I’ve never had much patience for slow pacing. I hate getting bogged down by huge reams of description and world building. I like a quick start to the book—one that plunges me head first into events—so I’ve always been a huge fan of working the world building into the action bit by bit. That is what I aim for in my own books—fast pacing and edge-of-your-seat tension with things revealed as and when you need to know them. Lots of action within the world and character building done inside the action itself. Although my editor will tell you I often fall into the trap of ignoring world or character description in favour of flat-out action, and that’s something we work on together.

Alex: People sometimes think of action and drama as separate types of writing, and I think this might be because sometimes we see movies with random action sequences inserted between the dramatic plot points. But what a thriller is supposed to do, and what your story Blood in the Water does well, is convey the drama through the action. Can you talk about how you devise a story that does this? What films/books/authors do you look to as examples of telling a story through action?

Tash: In films, you can’t hear people’s thoughts—no internal monolog, except for specific examples. So there’s no simple way to expose those behind-the-scene processes. Screenwriters are dependent on physical action.

Slam by Tash McAdamOne of the best things about writing novels is that all the action comes through the lens of your protagonist, especially in first person, so we get that internal monolog, and interpretation of events. The reader gets a constant stream of great insights into what is happening. So while you have the action going on, you also get to hear the character’s thoughts, which bring out the emotion and drama. It’s something that movie-goers miss out on.

Personally, I tend to draft out my story without much character voice and then go back and really put myself into the shoes of the main character. I like to have them question events and try to figure out what’s happening. And then my editor tells me: ‘More emotion! What is he thinking? Why did she do this?’ and I add those things in as well. I think the way I write allows me to smatter the character voice into the events as they progress, rather than sort of taking a ‘break’ from the action for a huge character thought-reveal every few pages.

As for films and books that tell stories through action? I’m a huge fan of Brent Weeks (, who definitely goes for character-driven action, always telling you just enough to make sense of things without dragging you out of the moment. You should definitely check his work out if you like fantasy.

I’m not a huge movie person, but I can think of lots of TV shows that walk the line very well, but I watch too much TV, so I’m moving on now in case this turns into a list of my favourite shows!

Alex: How do you go about working out the logistics of a fight scene? For example, do you do research? Do you have training? Do you map it out or act it out or does it just unfold naturally?

Tash: Fight scenes are tricky! I have a lot of training, which helps. I started doing karate when I was a little kid, and I have a couple of black belts to my name in that. I’m also an adequate boxer, archer, and sword fighter, and have dabbled with a variety of other hand-to-hand disciplines. My accident-prone nature is also an asset when it comes to writing injuries from combat.

On top of that, I’m lucky enough to have a girlfriend who doesn’t mind getting up and acting out scenes with me when I get stuck, which is very useful! I do sometimes wonder what our neighbours think, though. ‘Here, now, take this and hit me in the throat, and then I’m going to body slam you into the bed. Alright, how did that feel?’

Some scenes are more difficult than others, and I had to get more into physics than I thought I would for writing telekinetic fight scenes, because keeping everything consistent is really important to me. I have nerdy friends who I have check particular things, and my sister is a doctor, which is pretty much the most useful thing possible.

Artistic grunge effect portrait  of a Young female hero fighting and holding a gun and wearing camouflage clothes
Hallie from Warp Weavers by Tash McAdam

Alex: The story is narrated by Hallie, who is not herself a fighter. Why did you choose her as the POV character for the action, as opposed to one of the more experienced fighters or multiple POVs? What challenges did this present?

Tash: There are millions of books with main characters who are fighters or wizards, and weavers are the stand-out skill set in this series, which makes it a bit different. I also have a tendency to get far too detailed in fight scenes, and I think if I wrote from a warrior’s perspective I would get bogged down in logistics. Readers are more likely to understand the roles of a warrior and a warlock, as they are essentially familiar. I want to tread some new ground.

Blood in the Water is a prequel to my series, Warp Weavers, and the main character of the series is a weaver, not a warrior. Weavers are also the most magically complex within the mythology I’ve created, so having characters narrate the story from that background makes it more accessible, I think. Warp Weavers is a really layered universe, with a lot more going on than initially meets the eye, and later in the series it pays off to have a weaver in the driver’s seat.

Alex: One thing I love about your story is how your characters react like real, contemporary people to all the bizarre stuff going on around them, and have an awareness of pop culture. Your character’s on the way to likely death and says, “Sorry, I react to abject terror with inappropriate nudity and jokes. It’s something I’m working on with my therapist.” It reminds me of a lot of Joss Whedon’s stuff. Firstly, are you a Buffy fan? And secondly, how do you coordinate Hallie’s smart-arse dialogue with the action so it doesn’t undermine the urgency/seriousness of the situation?

Tash: Huge, huge Buffy fan. Anything by Joss Whedon, really. Buffy was a major influence on this series, as, although I—love—the show, I often got irritated with the logistical fallacies. What if there was an apocalypse in Japan? How would she get there? To me it’s unrealistic that one girl could ever be in the right place at the right time, every time. Warp Weavers actually sprang to life, fully formed almost, from a single thought about Buffy. ‘What if the Watcher’s Council actually trained wiccas to work with the Slayer, and gave them a team instead of isolating them?’ I started thinking of a place that would train them, teach them to work together and give them the tools they need instead of hoping they figure it out as they go. And thus, the Protectorate, where the teens train, was born.BloodintheWater

Beyond that, I love quick dialogue and banter, and Hallie is the first character I’ve written that I’ve really tried that with, so I’m glad it worked for you! My editor is a huge help in cutting out parts that destroy the tension, and suggesting tweaks of emotion to really add impact to the snark.

Alex: You write with a lot of strong verbs. For example, even before the fighting starts you don’t just write that your characters got into a car, you write: The other van door shuts, the engine revs, and I’m shoved into the person next to me with the force of acceleration as we peel out of the garage. Is this something you have learned to do, or something you focus on in the editorial process?

Tash: Ooh, I am so flattered! I think that if the writer is putting in the mundane and obvious, they should do it in a way that keeps the pace up and doesn’t trip readers back into reality. Looking at that sentence you’ve quoted, now I wish it says ‘The other van door slams’ instead of ‘shuts.’ To answer your question, this is both something I do naturally and something I’m learning to do better. I’m an English teacher, and a lot of my students have questions about verbs and adverbs in their creative efforts. There’s been a lot of backlash against adverbs in fiction, and how it weakens writing, etc., but I have mixed feelings. I always tell the students the same thing: If you can replace a verb + adverb with a stronger verb, do it. If you can’t, don’t. But if the adverb doesn’t really change the sentence, leave it out. ‘Says loudly’ becomes ‘shouts’ or ‘yells,’ and ‘walks quietly’ becomes ‘sneaks’ or ‘creeps’.

When I’ve finished drafting, I go back through my work and try to raise the bar for the verbs I use, because that adds tension and variety to the writing, but I lean toward the hyperbolic and dramatic in everyday life, so I definitely land on strong verbs just by my nature.

Alex: Can you talk to us about some of the other choices you make to help bring the reader into the experience of the action? (eg. in terms of word choice, sentence rhythm, tense, use of particular sentences, close POV etc)

When I was a teenager, I was part of an online RPG called Steelsings (Tamora Pierce’s Tortall series, if anyone cares), and we wrote in third-person present. As a promising young writer, I was trained up by scary mentors with high standards, so that’s what I default to. If you go back to my earliest fiction efforts as a child, I wrote in third-person past, because that was ‘normal.’ But from the age of fifteen on, everything is in third-person present. After SLAM was criticized for my tense choices, I changed the entire first novel of Warp Weavers to first-person present, because we decided that it would be easier on the readers. Present tense is definitely enjoying a spate of popularity, too, but they are all in first person. There are a few successful books in third-person present and maybe one day I’ll be able to go back to it, but as a newbie author I don’t want to put people off.

I think my love of the English language helps me out with word choice, as I don’t like repeating words at all, and have the vocabulary to back that up, most of the time. (Although I do find myself particularly enjoying a word and using it over and over again. Like ‘edifice’ was my favourite in SLAM. I had to ctrl+f for that at the end of every chapter!)

For format, my editor calls me out if I repeat the same sentence rhythm, so that’s more her than me. But when it comes to particular sentences, we do disagree a little. I have a tendency to go into a sort of stream-of-consciousness state when my characters are under high pressure, and she always points it out. We’ve butted heads over some of my favourite sentences in the books, but I respect her opinion a lot and we tend to compromise pretty easily. Interestingly enough, a sentence she wasn’t convinced about that I fought for has been pointed out as a favourite by four separate readers, and as a problem by three, so I guess it’s a case of to each their own. If I ever get famous I will be very interested to see what quotes people pick out of my books, for sure!

Alex: I think you might find out soon enough! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. I really appreciate it.

Tash: You’ve asked some great questions, some of which made me think about my own writing in a way I never have before.

Alex: Excellent. Good luck with the writing!

If you want to check out Tash’s writing, there are two YA novellas, both of which I can highly recommend: SLAM and Blood in the Water . Tash’s first full-length novel, Maelstrom, will be released by Glass House Press in February 2016.  You can visit her website at

Image of Hallie by Mathias Rosenthal at Shutterstock and Tash McAdam.  All other images provided by Tash Mcadam.

My characters have hijacked my plot

hostage writer charactersHow often have you heard a writer say that they started writing to an outline, but the characters had their own ideas, and before they knew it, their protagonist had left their job, joined a circus, and hooked up with a cult of giant squid worshipping Kaballists?

Well, maybe not that exactly, but every writer is familiar with characters hijacking their plot. In my completely unscientific, anecdotal opinion, it’s the most common reason for considering outlining a waste of time.

A fellow writer expressed his mystification at this phenomenon, asking how anyone could possibly accuse their characters of taking the plot in expected directions, his general sentiment being: you are writing the story, YOU FOOLS.

He does have a point. Sometimes dialogue or action heads off in unintended directions just because I write whatever random thought grabs me in the moment, rather than crafting it to stay on track. But then sometimes capturing those random thoughts can inject my novel with new life, or sometimes my outline has reflected my failure to think through the plotted situation and what it would really be like, and the character reaction I planned is not authentic. These can be good reasons to let the characters take control.

Tips to stick (roughly) to your outline

Outlines have to be living documents.  You are going to make some modifications.  But they don’t have to be modified so much they become useless.  Here are some tips to keep you on track:characters hijack

* Brainstorm!  Brainstorm, brainstorm, brainstorm.  Explore your subject matter from different angles in the planning phase.  Keep a notepad on you and jot your ideas down.  Make your outline interesting enough you don’t have to deviate.

* Detailed scene outlines showing the dramatic beats of the scene. The action / reaction model, where I spent time during outlining considering what reaction my characters would have to each thing that happened in the scene was really helpful.  Make your outline logical enough that you don’t have to deviate.  Here is a useful template to plan your scene in detail.  And here is a discussion of how you can flesh out your outline into scenes.

* Accept your draft will have gaps and mistakes.  If your characters are dialoguing off on a tangent, it is fine to write “[and then Fred says something to change Jenny’s mind.  No idea what.]” and then move forward as though this has already happened.  Just because you can’t think of what he’ll say then and there doesn’t mean you have to abandon that plot development.


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