Tag Archives: writing a novel

Plan Your Novel Tip #1: Start Your Novel Planning with the Elevator Pitch, by Beth Barany

There are brainstorming exercises you can take to plan your novel that are fun, take a short amount of time, and keep your enthusiasm up.

In our Plan Your Novel: 30-Day Writing Challenge course, we teach an accordion method that encourages you to start small and expand your story ideas outward.

In this post, I share one of the essential tools on story planning that I recommend writers start with: how to your elevator pitch.

An elevator pitch can be used to shape the back cover blurb, what you see on the back of books and on the online book record, usually under “Book Description” or “Overview.”

I recommend you start with your elevator pitch because it’s an activity you can do in 5-20 minutes and it’s a good way to get your brain in gear for writing your novel. Don’t worry about your elevator pitch being perfect. You can revise it once you’re done with all your novel planning or when you’re done writing your novel.

Start here: Take note of your genre. This will give you a general idea of your story ending. If you’re not sure of your genre, make your best guess. You can always change your mind later.

Elevator Pitch Formula

Here’s a 5-piece plug and play formula that you can follow to write your Elevator Pitch. This will help you create one paragraph of 1-3 sentences. Your goal is to keep this short.

Situation: Also called the Initial Action or Premise, this is the beginning of the story.

Main Character(s): Name (optional: add one adjective, identifying the person. Pick something not cliché.)

Primary Objective: At first, what does your main character want?

Antagonist Or Opponent: (or Central Conflict. ) Who or what is keeping your main characters from getting what they want?

Disaster That Could Happen: What’s the worst that could happen, and/or what does your character want next? Often phrased as a question.

Here’s an example: (You’ll probably recognize this!)

  1. Abandoned on his relatives’ doorstep as an infant,
  2. an orphaned boy
  3. longs to understand where he came from and why he feels different.
  4. He discovers that he is a wizard and that his parents were killed by a powerful and evil wizard,
  5. who has been hunting for the orphan, to kill him.

You guessed it! This is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Book 1 in the Harry Potter series.

Here’s another example, in paragraph format: A reclusive computer programmer, Nathan Yirmorshy, pounds out ones and zeros in the quiet of his home while his landlord secretly watches from behind a two-way mirror. When an intercepted note connects the landlord to a secret society, and a detective ends up dead, Nathan must abandon his home and everything familiar to him, open his heart to a tarot reader he has never met, and trust her with his life – just as the ancient scriptures have foretold. (The Torah Codes by Ezra Barany.)

WANT MORE SUPPORT IN PLANNING YOUR NOVEL?

First, get the tip sheet, “10 Questions to Ask Your Characters” here: http://bethb.net/30daywc.

Then, get your list of other essential novel planning tools go here: http://www.writersfunzone.com/blog/2016/08/25/8-tips-planning-novel/.)

READY TO GET PERSONALIZED, IN-DEPTH HELP WITH YOUR NOVEL?

We’re gearing up to start our 4th Annual Plan Your Novel course. If you’d like hands-on support with your peers and with two experienced instructors — Beth and Ezra Barany have over 20 published novels and novellas between then, then join us for our next course starting October 1st: 30-Day Writing Challenge to Plan Your Novel: http://bethb.net/pynoct2017.

ABOUT BETH BARANY

Award-winning novelist in YA fantasy, Master NLP Practitioner and certified creativity coach for writers, Beth Barany’s courses are packed with useful hands-on information that you can implement right away. Beth runs the Writer’s Fun Zone blog, for and by creative writers, where you can download her free reports on book marketing and novel writing. She is also the author of The Writer’s Adventure GuideOvercome Writer’s Block, and Twitter for Authors.

ABOUT EZRA BARANY

Ezra Barany started his career of freaking out readers with his suspense and thriller stories in college. In March 2011, Ezra unleashed his first novel The Torah Codes, which became an award-winning international bestseller. In his free time, he has eye-opening discussions on the art of writing novels with his wife and book coach, Beth Barany. A physics teacher, Ezra lives in Oakland with his beloved wife, working on the third book in The Torah Codes series.

 

FTC Disclaimer: All the links on this web page go directly to Beth and Ezra’s website or to Amazon; they are not affiliate links. 

Do You Have a System for Getting Unstuck?

Last week, we talked about how systems make it more likely that you’ll achieve your goal.  Today I’d like to talk about creating systems for overcoming the obstacles that we all hit at one point or another.

In other words, systems for getting unstuck.

Because we all work a little bit differently, one size doesn’t fit all here.  What helps me might not help you.  The first step in creating your “unblocking” system is to take a few minutes to think about how you’ve written in the past. Continue reading

Why New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Work (and What Does)

The idea that next year could be different–that we could be different–it’s almost irresistible, isn’t it? Next year could be the year we lose that weight, get organized, and write the novel that’ll make us famous.

So many of us set ambitious goals for ourselves in December, only to drop them before the end of January. The goals we dub “New Year’s resolutions” aren’t enough.

Sure, you start with the goal. Write a novel. Or a non-fiction book. Or a collection of short stories. Or a memoir.

That’s the “what.”

But you also need to create a system to help you achieve that goal. Continue reading

How to Fill the Holes Between Major Plot Points in Your Story

Running out of plot for your novel? In honor of National Novel Writing Month, I’d like to share this excerpt from my workbook, The 30 Day Novel Success Journal, on how to fill in the holes in your story.

It’s not unusual to have some difficulty figuring out what happens in your story. What can you do when that happens?

It’s common to figure out some of the big story events first, and then go back and figure out how to connect them. The brainstorming we’ve already talked about is a great way to generate those big events.

How do you figure out what happens in the gaps between those big events?

Let’s say that your protagonist is an archaeologist, and you know that he’s going to discover a lost tomb containing a magical artifact that he’ll have to risk his life to retrieve.

And you know that later, your antagonist is going to ambush him and steal the artifact.

How do you get your protagonist from the tomb to the site of the ambush?

First, ask yourself: “What is the aftermath of the first event?”

In the process of retrieving the artifact, did your protagonist injure himself? Lose something important? Learn something new about the artifact or the danger he’s in?

How does he feel about having violated the ancient tomb? What does he intend to do with the artifact? Does he believe in the ancient curse that was inscribed on the wall of the tomb?

Does he have to go somewhere to get medical treatment or can he patch himself up?

Did he attract the attention of the antagonist, and if so, is the antagonist doing anything in response that might affect the protagonist?

Is there really a curse, and if so, what’s happening as a result of it being focused on the protagonist?

How is his concern about being cursed affecting his behavior? If he doesn’t believe in the curse, do those around him, and if so, does it affect how they treat him?

Now that the protagonist has the artifact, what does he plan to do with it? Get it to a museum? Have a wizard neutralize it? Sell it to someone who will use its powers for good?

Second, ask yourself: “What has to happen to set up the second event?”

Your protagonist has to have a reason to be in the place where the antagonist will ambush him. Why’s he there? Is he trying to show the artifact to an appraiser or a wizard or another archaeologist? Is he trying to get the curse lifted?

Also, how did the antagonist know he’d be there? Is the contagonist or some secondary character spying on the protagonist for the antagonist? Does the antagonist have the ability to track the artifact with magic?

How did the protagonist get to the ambush site, and what could go wrong on the way? Could the curse be causing problems that slow him down? Could his superstitious belief in a curse cause him to take a less-than-optimal route? Could he be betrayed by someone along the way? What dangers lie along his chosen route?

Does the protagonist know that the antagonist wants the artifact? If so, is he preparing to defend it? Or trying to find out what the antagonist is up to as he travels to the ambush site? Does he have allies he can visit to request help?

If you think about the fallout from the first event and how your character might react to it, as well as the things that have to be set up for your next big scene, you’ll start to get ideas for filling in the holes in your plot outline.

Also, there’s no rule that says you have to write every scene of your novel in order. If you need some time to figure out a story problem, it’s okay to put in a placeholder scene, and write it later once you’ve solved the problem:

[Clark escapes from Frank’s basement, and steals the Etruscan artifact.]*

Don’t forget to put an asterisk next to your placeholder so that it’s easy to search for when you’re ready to come back to it.

Problems as Inspiration

A story where things happen randomly to the characters tends to be episodic and unsatisfying—it’s crucial that readers understand why each event in the story is happening. If the events of the middle aren’t connected to the events in the beginning of the story in some way, your story will lose cohesion.

Mystery author Raymond Chandler used to say:

“When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”

In other words, if you don’t know what happens next in your story, give your character a new problem to solve.

BUT…

…make sure that this new problem arises in some way from what’s already happened. The man with the gun in his hand might be someone that the protagonist frustrated in a previous scene. Or someone that the antagonist hired after learning about the protagonist’s earlier actions. Or a third party who found out about the protagonist’s intentions and decided to intervene.

Continuing our example from before, maybe the man with the gun is an antique dealer who learned about the artifact when the protagonist came to him for information about the tomb. Or maybe the man with the gun is one of the tomb’s guardians, brought back to life by the curse that the protagonist activated by stealing the artifact.

If you think of a cool problem to throw at the protagonist that doesn’t arise from what’s already happened in the story, make a note to yourself to add the necessary setup scene when you revise your novel.

Character Arc, Part 2: Building Your Character’s Internal Arc

Complete Characterization cover 1 2Here’s another lesson from my workshop, Dynamic Characterization, to help you build your character’s growth arc, starting with the flaw or wound, the defining traumatic event, and the stabilizing belief. Mapping your character’s growth arc before you start writing makes it easier to figure out your plot!


The character growth arc is about moving the character from one trait or state of mind to another.

  • From greed to generosity.
  • From hating himself to loving himself.
  • From helpless to powerful.
  • From believing that people who are different are wrong and deserving of scorn to believing that people who are different should be respected and learned from.

If you can’t state you character’s growth arc in “from ____ to ____” format, you might have a problem.

The growth arc starts with the flaw or wound you chose for your character in lesson five. It ends with the character having transformed the flaw into a more positive trait or having healed the wound and no longer feeling like they need to engage in the protective behaviors associated with that wound.

The Structure of the Growth Arc

The basic structure of the growth arc is:

  1. Character has a flaw or wound, but is comfortable with it, and their behavior is shaped by the flaw or wound.
  2. Something changes that makes the flaw less functional or the wound harder to protect (this is usually the inciting incident).
  3. This change creates problems for the character as they work harder to compensate for their flaw or protect their wound.
  4. These problems create internal and external conflict for the character.
  5. The character’s attempts to resolve these new conflicts while at the same time compensating for the flaw or protecting the wound lead to disaster.
  6. This disaster causes the character to question their stabilizing belief.
  7. This questioning allows the character to discover a better belief.
  8. A new trait arises from the better belief (which is demonstrated through new behavior).

The character might go through multiple iterations of steps 4-6 before they finally get to step 7.

Let’s apply this structure to Steve, the greedy stockbroker from yesterday’s post.

Step 1: Character has flaw or wound, but is comfortable with it, and their behavior is shaped by the flaw or wound.

Steve has worked his way out of poverty and is now making half a million dollars each year as a result of his savvy investment skills. He put his sisters through college, and he’s now able to give his wife and daughter everything they could possibly want. His greed has driven him to become one of the best on Wall Street and to constantly seek to improve his skills so that he can amass even more wealth.

There’s not a whole lot of incentive for Steve to change right now, is there? Sure, he’d like to spend more time with his wife and kid, but he feels it’s more important to keep making money so that he doesn’t have to worry about his ability to take care of them. He hates that he doesn’t see his family enough, but he can’t stop pushing himself to make more money.

Remember from the example in yesterday’s post—his trauma is that his mother died of cancer because the family couldn’t afford health insurance, and Steve feels that it was his responsibility to take care of her. As a result of that trauma he acquired the unconscious belief that being poor means he’s doomed to lose the people he loves. So now he’s faced with the choice making money to protect his loved ones vs. spending time with his loved ones but risking losing them because he failed to make enough money to protect them.

Step 2: Something changes that makes the flaw less functional or the wound harder to protect.

Steve is offered a sketchy investment with a huge potential return. He knows he shouldn’t make this investment, and that his wife wouldn’t approve, but the money he’s expecting to make will put his daughter through grad school at Princeton. He justifies the bad decision by telling himself that he’s doing it for her. At this point in time, he doesn’t even recognize that his focus on making money is protecting him from his fear of losing the people he loves.

Step 3: This change creates problems for the character as they work harder to compensate for their flaw or protect their wound.

Oh no, the con artist who convinced Steve to invest ran off with the money and left Steve with a paper trail and an FBI investigation! It turns out that the investment was a Ponzi scheme, and hundreds of retired folks have been bilked of their life savings. All the evidence left behind by the con artist frames Steve as the ringleader.

Step 4: These problems create internal and external conflicts for the character.

For the first time in his life, Steve’s greed isn’t helping him, it’s hurting him. He’s lost his job at the investment firm. He’s humiliated by the news stories trashing him. His friends won’t have anything to do with him. Worst of all, his wife is furious—she can’t believe he would endanger their future like this.

Steve feels terrible. But his intentions were good, he rationalizes. He didn’t mean any harm. He was just looking out for his daughter.

And he’s got connections—he can fix this, right? This is just a temporary glitch, and soon he’ll be trading on the stock market again.

Steve holds back some crucial details about his interactions with the con artist who set him up, because those details would also lead the FBI to the one secret bank account that they haven’t found yet. And Steve’s going to need the money in that account to invest and make back his fortune once he gets out of this mess. His greed is still in full swing.

Step 5: The character’s attempts to resolve these new conflicts while at the same time compensating for the flaw or protecting the wound lead to disaster.

Steve’s not blaming his greed for getting him into this mess—he blames the con artist. And his solution to his current predicament? He arranges a meeting with one of the few friends who’s still talking to him, and through that friend, attempts to bribe the prosecuting attorney to make a mistake that would allow Steve to get off on a technicality.

Guess how that works out?

Meanwhile Steve’s assets have been seized, his wife and daughter have been forced to move in with friends, and jail time looks like a sure thing. No one believes Steve’s “not guilty” plea, not even his lawyer.

Step 6: This disaster causes the character to question their stabilizing belief.

Sitting alone in his jail cell after a demoralizing talk with his lawyer, Steve gets a call from his wife:  she wants a divorce. It finally hits him that he’s been wrong all this time. Money hasn’t protected him from losing his loved ones—not only that, but his greedy pursuit of money has caused Steve to lose his loved ones.

Step 7: This questioning allows the character to discover a better belief.

Steve decides that from here on out, he’s going to do the right thing, no matter what it costs him. He may have lost his family to greed, but he can try to help the people who lost their life savings to the con artist.

Steve calls his lawyer back and asks him to arrange a meeting with the FBI. He divulges the information that leads the FBI to his last remaining stash of money—as well as to the con artist. The real villain is caught, the stolen money is handed over to the authorities to be returned to the con artist’s victims, and Steve is offered a community service sentence in exchange for his help in catching the con artist.

Step 8: A new trait arises from the better belief (which is demonstrated through new behavior).

Steve reunites with his wife, swearing that he’s giving up his job as a stockbroker and begging forgiveness for his mistake.

She forgives him, and together they use the money that was returned to them—the money that Steve gave the con artist months ago—to start a foundation that pays for cancer treatment for those who can’t afford it, which they name after Steve’s mother. Now that Steve is freed from the crippling belief that he should have been able to prevent his mother’s death, he’s free to address that personal tragedy in a meaningful way: by helping others who are in the same situation that killed his mother.

Notice that he’s also demonstrating the new trait of generosity—which is the opposite of the flaw he started with.

Which characters need growth arcs?

Not all characters need a growth arc—if every single person in your story changed like this, the story would feel like a mess. But unless you’re writing fiction that’s completely plot-driven, your protagonist probably needs one. You might want to give your antagonist a growth arc that either contrasts with or parallels with the protagonist’s arc, for thematic purposes. Depending on the story you’re telling, you may decide that one or more other characters would benefit from a growth arc. It’s a judgment call with every character other than your protagonist.


Ready for NaNoWriMo? If you’ve got your character arc but are still struggling with your plot,
The 30 Day Novel Success Journal or The 30 Day Novel Success Journal for Romance can help you figure out what happens at each step of your story.

Character Arc, Part 1: Flaws, Wounds, and the Defining Traumatic Event

Complete Characterization cover 1 2Here’s another lesson from my class, Dynamic Characterization, to help you flesh out your characters for NaNoWriMo.


In order for a character to grow during the story (i.e. have a character arc), she needs either a flaw that she’ll overcome or a wound that she’ll manage to heal by the end of the story.

Flaws

A flaw is a negative personality trait—a trait that causes the character to have a poorer experience of life and that interferes with her ability to become the best possible version of herself. The character may or may not be aware that the trait is negative, and in fact, may actually view this trait as a positive thing.

For storytelling purposes, a flaw is usually a) rooted in a trauma that the character has experienced in the past and b) stabilized by a belief that the character formed in reaction to that trauma.

For example, let’s say our hero, Steve, is a stockbroker and his flaw is greed. Why is he greedy?

Steve grew up in an economically-depressed Midwestern town. His mother’s disability check wasn’t quite enough to keep Steve and his two sisters fed and clothed. Steve worked two part-time under-the-table jobs, starting when he was in fifth grade, but in spite of all his hard work, there was never enough money. And when his mother died of cancer—undiagnosed until it was far too late to treat because she couldn’t afford to see a doctor—he swore he would do whatever it took to get rich. He blamed lack of money, specifically his own inability to earn enough to buy his mother medical insurance, for his mother’s death.

The trauma of his mother’s death caused Steve to form a belief: If I don’t have enough money, I’ll lose the people I love.

Logically, we understand it wasn’t Steve’s fault that his mother died. Teenager Steve wasn’t in a position to hold down a full-time job in order to get his mother medical benefits. It wasn’t Steve’s decision to save money by skipping doctor visits. But Steve is a smart, responsible, loving son who’s been forced to be the “man of the trailer” from a very young age, and to him, it feels like he should have been able to save his mother.

As long as Steve believes that poverty = losing loved ones, he won’t be able to stop being greedy. The second he quits earning money, that terrible fear of losing his sisters and the other people he loves is going to rear its ugly head.

In order to change, Steve is going to have re-examine that childhood trauma and reinterpret the misguided belief that he formed as a result of it.

If we were writing Steve’s story, we might decide that Steve needs to recognize that the local factory where his mother was exposed to carcinogenic is to blame for his mother’s death—and that instead of making millions, his real goal should be to expose the factory’s coverup of its employee’s higher-than-normal cancer rates.

Or we might decide that Steve needs to come to accept that his mother made so many sacrifices because she loved him, and to respect her choice to sacrifice herself for her children. Instead of making millions, maybe his goal should be to honor her sacrifice by doing something meaningful with his life. It depends on what kind of story we’d like to tell about Steve.

But whatever kind of story we put Steve in, he’s going to have to change the belief that stabilizes his flaw before he can fix the flaw itself.

Wounds

A wound is damage to the character’s psyche caused by a trauma that the character has experienced and that hasn’t yet healed. The character’s problems or limitations arise from her need to protect that wound.

For example, let’s say that Harriet slept with her high-school sweetheart Mike and got pregnant at the age of 16. She was so head-over-heels in love with him that she was sure he’d want to marry her as soon as she told him about the baby. But not only did Mike laugh in her face, he told everyone at school what a slut she was and claimed that she was lying about the baby being his. All of Harriet’s friends abandoned her, and she dropped out of school to become a single mother.

You can see how this trauma might cause Harriet to come to the conclusion that Mike is a scumbag. If he was a football player, Harriet might generalize and decide that all football players are scumbags. But Harriet was a tender-hearted teenager in the throes of her first love when Mike humiliated her—the belief she formed as a result of this horrible experience was: All men are scumbags who’ll destroy you as soon as you fall in love with them.

She’ll cling to that belief as long as she’s carrying around the hurt that Mike inflicted on her, because that belief protects her from being hurt in the same way again. If she doesn’t date, she can’t fall in love, and if she doesn’t fall in love, she can’t be destroyed by someone she cares about.

Flaws and Wounds Shape Your Story

A character’s flaw or wound gives rise to specific behaviors. Given the choice between spending the evening with his wife and daughter or researching a new investment opportunity, Steve is going to choose the opportunity, because he believes that he’s risking losing them both if he doesn’t make more money.

A character’s flaw or wound also gives rise to internal conflict. Given the choice between a legal investment with the potential to make a 10% return and a sketchy investment with the potential to make a 50% return, which do you think Steve will pick? Will he go with the safe investment, because he doesn’t want to risk his ability to support his wife and daughter? Or will he give into the temptation to invest in something questionable, because every dollar he brings in makes him feel like his wife and daughter are safer?

That would be a big dilemma for him, wouldn’t it?

When you understand the relationship between a character’s flaw or wound, the trauma that caused it, and the belief that resulted from it, you start to see how your character arc is going to work. Want to make Steve less greedy or get Harriet to go on a date? You’ve got to put them in situations where they’ll encounter evidence that their stabilizing belief is wrong.

Maybe Steve will make that sketchy investment and get caught—and when he does, he starts to see that money isn’t a guarantee that he’ll be able to protect his family. In the aftermath of his arrest, his wife might have a stress-induced heart attack or his daughter might be bullied by her classmates at the ultra-expensive prep school she goes to. The more Steve tries to buy his way out of trouble, the more problems he creates for himself and his family.

What if Harriet is accused of a crime she didn’t commit? Maybe she was in the wrong place at the wrong time, or maybe she was framed. It looks like she’s going to jail, unless she cooperates with the homicide detective who believes she’s innocent. We’ll want to make this homicide detective the opposite of Mike, the kind of guy who has a chance of proving to Harriet that not all men are scumbags. No matter how hostile Harriet is to Mike, he’s determined to see justice done.

At the beginning of your story, the belief that is stabilizing the character’s flaw or wound is working for him/her. At first Steve’s greed seems like a positive thing—it’s helped him work his way out of total poverty and send his younger sisters to college. It’s helped him win his wife and to give his daughter every benefit that a parent could give a child. It’s pushed him to become one of the savviest stockbrokers in the history of the market.

Likewise, Harriet’s wound has helped her become the strong, independent woman she is today. She’s never relied on a man for anything, and she’s single-handedly raised her daughter, with whom she’s very close. She knows how to fix a leaky sink, how to make a delicious meal from beans and rice and veggies she grows in pots on her apartment balcony, and how to do her own taxes. She’s worked her way up from the mailroom to middle management—she had no choice but to learn quickly so that she could get a job that paid well enough to give her daughter the opportunities Harriet never had.

So when Steve and Harriet are put into situations that trigger their flaw or wound and challenge their stabilizing belief, they’re going to hate it. They’re going to fight tooth and nail to keep these dysfunctional beliefs that seem to be making their lives better.


Come back tomorrow to see how to turn a flaw or wound into a character arc!

Neil Gaimain: On Writing Under Pressure, Inspiration, and Other Writerly Topics

This is a wonderful talk by Neil Gaiman on The Nerdist, especially apropos for National Novel Writing Month.

Here are a few quotes that struck home with me:

“For me, it’s always been a process of trying to convince myself that what I’m doing in a first draft isn’t important.”

“Nobody’s ever going to see your first draft. Nobody cares about your first draft. …Whatever you’re doing can be fixed. You can fix it tomorrow. You can fix it next week. For now, just get the words out, get the story down however you can get it down…”

“The weird thing is that six months later, a year later, you’ll look back at them and you can’t remember which scenes you wrote because you were inspired and which scenes you wrote because they had to be written next.”

Bookmark this one to watch when you hit those mid-month doldrums where it’s tempting to give up!

How to Make Sure Your Character’s Personality Shines

Complete Characterization cover 1 2Getting ready for NaNoWrimo? To help you develop your characters, I’d like to share this lesson from my workshop, Dynamic Characterization: A No-Inspiration-Required System for Creating Unforgettable Characters. You’ll learn how to make sure that your character’s personality traits come through clearly on the page.


We often talk about giving our characters personality traits. But what does that mean?

A personality trait is a mode of interacting with the world, and more specifically, with other people. When we talk about personality traits, we’re really talking about habitual behaviors that people engage in.

Let’s look at some examples:

Haughty: someone who is haughty behaves as if they’re at the top of the social hierarchy.

Humble: someone who is humble behaves as if others are equally high, if not higher in the social hierarchy.

Ruthless: someone who is ruthless behaves as if the harm they do to others while pursuing their goals doesn’t matter.

Snarky: someone who is snarky behaves as if it’s their job to make fun of all the things wrong with the world (and the people in it).

Shy: someone who is shy behaves as if other people are dangerous. Shy people protect themselves by avoiding social interactions whenever possible, and minimizing social interactions when avoidance isn’t an option.

Aggressive: someone who is aggressive behaves as if the only way to get what they want is to force others to hand it over.

Generous: someone who is generous behaves as if they have enough (time, money, etc) that they can afford to share what they have with others.

Intuitive: someone who is intuitive behaves as if their gut feelings are just as valid (or more valid) than what they can understand by using logic.

Remember, traits are not just behavior, they are habitual behavior—behavior that the character displays consistently again and again.

Traits Shape the Character’s Journey

A character’s goals and motivations determine where they’re headed, but their traits (habitual behaviors) determine how they get there.

Let’s look at an example of a character who needs a bank loan.

A haughty character might try to intimidate the loan officer into giving them the loan, or try to impress the loan officer by putting on airs.

A humble character might ask for help and appeal to the loan officer’s spirit of generosity.

A ruthless character might badger the loan officer with verbal abuse or try to blackmail him into granting the loan.

A snarky character might be in danger of sabotaging her own efforts to get the loan because she can’t turn off the critical commentary—or she might endear herself to the loan officer by snarking on someone the loan officer dislikes.

A shy character might stutter or even hand over the paperwork without saying anything at all.

An aggressive person might deluge the loan officer with pie charts, spreadsheets, and a thirty-page report on why they should be given the loan.

A generous person might bring the loan officer coffee (without intending it to be a bribe) or go out of their way to rearrange their schedule for the sake of the loan officer’s convenience.

An intuitive person might listen to what their gut is telling them and refrain from pushing the loan officer to make a decision that day.

It’s the same scene: an applicant speaking with a loan officer. But you’d write that scene very differently depending on which core trait you’ve assigned to the character asking for the loan. And we haven’t even talked about the loan officer’s core trait. J

A character’s behavior in a single incident can be misinterpreted by the reader. Maybe the applicant isn’t generous, maybe she really is trying to bribe the loan officer by bringing that coffee. Or maybe she went out of her way to accommodate the loan officer’s schedule because she’s desperate for the money.

That’s why we don’t just show a character’s core traits once—we show them many different times in different situations. Habitual behavior, remember? We want to give the reader an opportunity to compare a character’s behavior across multiple scenes so that the reader naturally develops a sense of the character’s personality as the story unfolds.

Focusing on a Few Core Traits

Be selective when assigning personality traits to your main characters. Too few traits makes a character seem one-dimensional, but too many traits causes the character to seem inconsistent and/or generic.

Secondary characters can display only a single trait during their brief appearance in the story, as the reader won’t expect them to have a lot of depth, but the bigger a character’s role in the story, the better developed they should be.

Expressing Core Traits on the Page

Let’s run through the character expression elements for a character who’s displaying the trait of slyness.

If you look up the definition of “sly” on dictionary.com, you get this:

  1. cunning or wily: sly as a fox.
  2. stealthy, insidious, or secret.
  3. playfully artful, mischievous, or roguish: sly humor.

A person who is sly behaves as if the best way to get what he wants is to be secretive while manipulating others or working indirectly/behind the scenes. He’s smart or cunning enough to get away with this the majority of the time. Often, he will be playful when he feels he can do so without endangering his secrets.

Translating Traits into Character Expression Elements

Dialogue: A sly character won’t speak his mind directly or reveal his secrets easily. He’ll flatter, tease, hint, cajole, imply, speak in ambiguities or outright riddles, dole out misleading tidbits of information, lie by omission, tell half-truths—but to get the whole truth from him, other characters will have to either outsmart the sly one or threaten the sly one with a fate worse than giving up his secrets.

His playfulness may come through via teasing, wordplay, double-entendre, joking, etc.

So when you’re writing this character’s dialogue, it’s crucial that you have him speak indirectly unless he has no other choice. In each scene, ask yourself how this character will attempt to manipulate others when he speaks.

Action (voluntary and involuntary): Direct conflict will be a sly character’s last resort. He’ll do things behind the scenes, attempt to work through others, or misdirect others’ attention to give a false impression. When confronted directly, he’ll use whatever tools are available to extricate himself from the conflict: implying that another person is to blame for the problem, twisting the confronter’s words, changing the subject, defusing the conflict with humor, etc. If the conflict can’t be defused, the sly character may attempt to manipulate others into protecting him.

Because of his playful nature, he may treat life like a game, or indulge in practical jokes, or practice other sleight-of-hand or other forms of physical trickery.

Unless a sly character is alone, everything action he takes in the scene will be done for the purpose of influencing those around them.

So when you’re writing this character’s action, you will always want to ask yourself: What’s the secret agenda? How can this character appear to be doing something innocuous while furtively pursuing his goals?

Body Language: Body language is likely to be poised and controlled, with deliberately calculated facial expressions. You might show that a sly character is under extreme duress by letting his expression slip and reveal something that he didn’t intend to share.

One thing that the dictionary.com definition of “sly” didn’t include is that sly people often come across as smug or self-satisfied (it’s that “I know something you don’t know” attitude leaking through). So when you’re contemplating body language, you might want to occasionally let the reader see this character with a smug expression on his face.

Thoughts and Feelings (interior monologue, visceral sensations, intuition): If the sly character is a POV character, you’ll be showing the reader his thoughts and feelings as he schemes his way through the story, and the incongruity between his thoughts/feelings and his outward behavior will make clear to the reader what a sly fox he is.

If the sly character is not a POV character, the reader won’t necessarily know if he’s sly or sincere, and the fun will start when his true motives are discovered by other characters in the story.

Habits: Since this character has secrets to keep, he’s probably not going to keep anything important written down, or if he must have a written record of his secrets, he’s going to have a great hiding place for them.

He might make an effort to vary his routine enough that others won’t be able to predict where he is at any given time. Or he might stick to a solid routine that gives him opportunities to spend time with (and manipulate!) key people in his life.

He might have a hobby that’s deliberately calculated to project a particular image. Or perhaps he’s got a hobby that he only practices in secret, because he wants others to underestimate him when he puts his big plan into action.

He’s probably in the habit of gossiping in order to keep tabs on what everyone else is up to or to find out what they know. Maybe he even pays others to collect information for him that he can use to manipulate the people around him.

Quirks: Perhaps he sleeps with his password-protected smartphone under his pillow to be sure no one else has access to it, and never reads email unless he’s alone.

He could have developed his own shorthand code for those situations where he absolutely must write something down on paper that he doesn’t want others to discover.

He undoubtedly shreds his mail and receipts, unless he wants someone to find them.

Clothes, Accessories and Grooming: He probably wears whatever he needs to in order to project the right image at any given moment.

Tools and Special Objects: We might decide that this character is really secretive and that he has a set of lockpicks that he keeps under his mattress for snooping emergencies.

Depending on what secrets he’s keeping, he might have other special items to protect: blackmail photos, a locket of his late mother’s which he wears tucked away under his shirt to remind him why he must not rest until he avenges her, or a love letter from the high school sweetheart who turned him into the manipulative secret-keeper that he is today.

He might also have possessions that he displays prominently, not because they have sentimental value—revealing what he cares about makes him vulnerable—but that he pretends are important in order to manipulate how others see him. An expensive vase collection to serve as his “in” with the evil Duke. A rare signed baseball which he uses to convince his marks to invest in the con he’s running.

Meaningful Locations: What might be a meaningful location to a secretive person? How about someplace where he can relax and be himself? It could be some place quiet and isolated. Or perhaps he has a secret life of some sort—a girlfriend in another city, or an out-of-town bar where everyone knows him under a fake name.

Scars, Wounds, Body Modification, and Unusual Physical Traits: Hard to tell this from a personality trait—if we had an idea why he’s so secretive, maybe we’d give him a scar to fit. For example, if the secret he’s keeping has to do with being an abused child, perhaps he’ll have a scar that he reveals at the climax to prove that he’s the villain’s son. But for now, let’s leave this open until we know what kind of story we’re going to put him in.

For the sake of this exercise, we’re designing a character in a vacuum, but in real life, we almost always have at least a hint of the story that we’re building characters for, so chances are this category and the next would be things you’d already know.

Secrets: Since we don’t know what type of story he’s going to be in yet, we’ll leave this blank, but as we get more of a feel for him, we’ll revisit his secrets. He’ll have one really big one for sure, and probably several small ones that may be revealed or hinted at during the course of the story.

Relationships: There are probably few, if any, people he trusts enough to be completely open with them. Anyone he does trust is someone who has deep roots in his life—a very old friend, a sibling, or someone who owes him so much that they could never repay the debt.

For the most part, he probably thinks in terms of short-term alliances rather than long-term relationships. His relationships are likely to be based on mutual interests/problems rather than on whether or not he likes the other person.

If you choose character expression elements for your characters’ personality traits, you’ll have a list of behaviors that you can sprinkle throughout the story that will paint a clear picture for the reader–without you ever having to point out that your character has that trait.

Not sure how to choose personality traits for your characters?  Here’s a list of personality traits (in a downloadable PDF).

Choose a trait you think might be good for the character you’re developing. Then start selecting character expression elements related to that trait.

Will the behaviors that a character with that trait exhibits work for the story you want to tell?


Have a great character but struggling to come up with a plot? My workbooks teach you a plot-as-you-go method that guarantees a novel with solid story structure. Just follow the prompts and answer the questions about your characters to find out what happens next!

The 30 Day Novel Success Journal     The 30 Day Novel Romance Smashwords cover

What’s the difference between them?

The 30 Day Novel Success Journal leads a single protagonist through a growth arc during the course of the story.

The 30 Day Novel Success Journal for Romance is designed around two protagonists, each with their own growth arc, falling in love during the course of the story.

It’s Time to Write Some On-the-Nose Dialogue

It’s Day 8 of JulNoWriMo, and I’m writing some terrible dialogue.  It’s clunky.  It’s stilted.  It’s on-the-nose in that way that every writing teacher on the planet tells you dialogue shouldn’t be.

I’m declaring this to be a good thing.

Why?

We’ve all had the experience of having a conversation with someone who isn’t being as nice as they could be.  Someone who doesn’t have a problem looking you in the eye and saying something kind of condescending.  Or rude.  Or just downright idiotic.

And we’ve all had the experience of not knowing how to reply.  So we bite our tongues, or stutter an “excuse me”, or just shake our heads and change the topic.

Then, a week later, we’re in the shower rehashing that conversation and voila, it shows up–the perfect retort.  “That’s what I should have said!” we explain to our uncaring shampoo bottle.

Because that annoying conversation is still bothering us, and deep in our heads, some part of our brain was still trying to come up with a response.

The bad news is that I don’t have any advice for being wittier at parties.

The good news is that you can use your brain’s tendency to get stuck on the dumb stuff you said a week ago to be a better writer.

First, you have to actually write the crappy dialogue.  Let it be horrible.  Let your characters make fools of themselves.  Let them spill their guts all over the page of your first draft.

Second, each night before you go to bed at night, pick a horrible section and read it before you go to sleep.  Allow the awfulness of this passage to bother you.  Not that you wrote it, but that your characters spoke it.  Be bothered by the fact that one of your beloved characters didn’t get the last word.  Imagine how embarrassed your hero that he sounded like a total dorkhead.

Then sleep on it.

Repeat until you find yourself staring off into the distance at the grocery store checkout line, mumbling that perfect line of dialogue over and over again so you won’t forget it by the time the cashier hands over your receipt.

I can’t tell you how soon you’ll start having those, “That’s what she should have said!” moments.  I’m starting to come up with better lines for the scenes I wrote back on Days 1 and 2.  That’s about right…that’s how long it takes me to come up with the perfect retort in real life too.  But my subconscious might be a lot slower than yours.

Here’s the passage from my WIP that I’ll be chewing over tonight:

“I don’t want my record expunged,” Soji said.  “I want a fair trial and I want to choose my own lawyer.”

Ghost cocked her head.  “You liked being court-martialed so much, you want to do it again?”

“I didn’t hide those drugs in the convoy.  Someone else did.  And they got away with it.”

“Revenge,” Shadow said softly.

Soji shook his head.  “Justice.”

“You’re hired,” Ghost said.

“Incidentally,” Shadow added, “when you accessed the file on your new bounty, your implant received an upgrade that will keep us informed of your location at all times.”

He took out neural inducer and tossed it to the floor in front of Soji.

Soji picked up the tiny patch—a sleeper.  He’d be unconscious for fifteen minutes, during which time they would be free to do who-knew-what to him.  I already hate this job.

“What if I need to contact you before I get to the rendezvous?”

“That would be unfortunate.”

Join in the fun–pick a run of dialogue from your work-in-progress that you’d like to improve and try this technique. 

If you want to save me from being the only person sharing first-draft awfulness with the world and post a snippet here, you’ll earn my undying gratitude and a virtual high-five for your bravery. 

 

The Relationship Between Creativity and Willpower

Have you ever started the day determined to stick to your diet…and blown it by lunchtime?

There’s a reason that as the day went on, it got harder for you to live up to those good intentions. Psychological studies on willpower and self-control have revealed that we actually have a limited amount of willpower available to us each day–and once we’ve used it up, it’s gone.

Yes, gone. Self-control–the ability to make yourself do the right thing instead of the easy thing or the fun thing–is an exhaustible resource. Or, to quote Chip and Dan Heath, the authors of Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard: “What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.”

How We Burn Willpower

  • Making choices
  • Editing or otherwise controlling our behavior (usually as a way of managing other people’s impressions of us)
  • Controlling our emotions, especially negative ones
  • Focusing on instructions given to us by someone else
  • Being careful or deliberate in performing a task
  • Forcing ourselves to push on with a task even though we’re frustrated
  • Engaging in creative thinking

In other words, any time you’re not on autopilot, you are burning up self-control. How many times per day do you bite your tongue, force yourself to choose carrot sticks over cookies, or come up with a creative solution for a problem on the job?

The energy that fuels your creative process is the same energy that fuels getting chores done and resisting the ice cream in the back of the freezer. That makes it even more important for us creative types to be good about managing the mundane aspects of our lives–so we’ll have more energy left over for writing that novel!

 How to Get More Willpower

The good news is that, while self-control and willpower are exhaustible, they’re also renewable, and there are things you can do to increase the amount you start the day with.

Take care of your body. One of the biggest factors in how much willpower you have is your health. Physical vitality translates into mental energy that’s available for making choices. Lack of sleep, poor nutrition, and other things that drain your body don’t just affect how you feel, they also affect how much self-control you have available. Getting a good night’s sleep, taking a fifteen-minute walk, a few minutes of deep breathing, eating a healthy meal: these are just a few of the small steps you can take to increase your physical vitality, and at the same time, your willpower.

Nourish your mind. Mental stress–sensory overstimulation, an environment that’s full of distractions, having too much on your mind–also reduce your available willpower. There are many small steps you can take to reduce mental stress too: meditation, journaling, talking with a good friend, losing yourself in a good book for a few minutes, listening to relaxing music.

Use Your Willpower Wisely. Here are some strategies for making the most of the willpower you’ve got.

  • Do the important things first. There’s a reason so many successful writers recommend getting up early in the morning and writing first thing.  At the end of the day, you’ve got much juice available to channel into your novel.  If your reserve is exhausted, you’re likely to skip your scheduled writing session altogether.
  • Make starting easier. Taking the first step on a project often involves overcoming many mental hurdles, and each of those hurdles requires a bit of willpower to get past. What’s the simplest first step you could take? A phone call? A google search? A quick-and-dirty list that breaks the project down into simple steps? Gathering all the materials you’ll need in one place? Anything that makes you feel like you’ve gotten a grip on the project today can make it easier to do the next step tomorrow.
  • Eliminate unnecessary choices. It’s hard to choose carrot sticks over cookies as a snack — but what if it wasn’t a choice? Bring healthy snacks to work with you. If you need help keeping portions in check, put an appropriate amount of your snack into a ziploc baggie, so you don’t have to think about how much you’ve eaten.
  • Simplify your routines and habits. For example, how many choices do you make every morning while you’re getting dressed? Laying your clothes out the night before or having your closet arranged by outfit could make getting dressed a
  • Plan ahead. Do you have to wrack your brains every night to come up with something you can make for dinner using what’s in the fridge? How many decisions and how much mental stress could you eliminate from you day by planning the week’s meals ahead of time and buying the necessary ingredients each weekend?
  • Arrange your environment to make the right choices easy. If you have to clean off your desk before you can start writing your novel, how likely are you to work on the novel? Would you channel surf less if your television was hidden away in an entertainment center with doors? Could you hide the junk food in the back of a cabinet and put the healthy food right up front? The more your environment supports the habits you’re trying to cultivate, the easier it is to stick to those habits.
  • Make a checklist. If you have to look around a messy room and decide what to do first, you’re squandering precious willpower. But if you have a cleaning checklist for each room, all you have to do is follow the list.
  • Set rules. This one sounds like a drag, but when you discover how much mental stress the rules can save you, you’ll be glad you did. One of my new rules is that every time I go into the kitchen to make a cup of tea, I do a small kitchen chore while the water is heating, like loading or unloading the dishwasher. Stress eaters often reduce snacking by following the rule that every time they get stressed and want to eat, instead they take a minute to do a breathing exercise. Thinking about situations where your willpower often fails and coming up with a rule that guides you to the better choice can significantly reduce the amount of stress you feel when that choice comes up.

The better you get at using your willpower wisely, the more effective you will be in your daily life. And here’s how the kaizen approach can help: if you break your goals down into small steps, you only have to use a little bit of willpower each day until that small step becomes a habit (i.e. an action that does NOT drain your willpower).

And once that small step is a habit, you take the next one, and the next one…until you’ve got a whole repertoire of good habits that keep your life under control, so that you can focus all your willpower on achieving the big things.

Can you think of one or more ways you might reduce the daily drains on your willpower?

What’s one thing you could do to increase the amount of willpower available to you?