How to meld character and story structure together into a plot (even for pantsers)

If you find that your characters run away from you, develop a mind of their own, or passively go along with events instead of affecting them, then this article is definitely for you.

In the Characters article, I discussed how the thing your character Wants is an outgrowth of the Lie he believes and the Inner Wound he struggles against. I also discussed how your character’s pursuit of what he Wants generates your plot, whereas his discovery and acceptance of what he Needs generates your story. In the Story Structure article I talked about plot points, pinch points, etc. This article melds the two; it explains how character and story structure fit together.

 

 

Your characters generate your plot. If you’re trying to create a story and then populate it with characters, you will need to custom-tailor your characters to fit your plot. That can be difficult, because a plot is just a story, whereas a character should be quite relatable, human, and engaging. People like stories just fine, but they really connect to characters. It’s a lot easier to create characters and build plots around them than vice versa.

 

 

Genres and genre conventions

This is currently a stub, on account of this article is going to take me a while to write.

The first thing to discuss when it comes to genre is, which age group is your book written for? It can be a children’s book, mid-grade (MG), young adult (YA), new adult (NA) or adult.

I know nothing about children’s books, so I’m going to skip that.

Genre articles:

Horror

 

 

 

Scenes and sequels, plus beginnings

English is a beautiful language full of enough special rules to choke a blue whale. Many of them pertain to vocabulary. As you might have figured out by now, more than half of the words commonly used in our language have more than one meaning. ‘Scene’ is no exception.

A scene is a chunk of a story with a specific beginning and ending. Each author has her own understanding of ‘scene.’ That said, most people agree that your average book appears to have roughly 64 scenes, give or take. I can’t speak to most books because I haven’t counted the scenes in ‘most books.’

So a scene is a unit of measurement used in a book.

A sequel is something that follows. For example, Bride of Frankenstein is the sequel to Frankenstein. Fast & Furious 2 is the sequel to Fast & Furious. The Two Towers is the sequel to Fellowship of the Ring.

Now we complicate things.

Scenes typically contain scenes and sequels.

Whaaaaat?

It’s that thing where our words have more than one meaning.

I use both definitions of ‘scene’ pretty much constantly. A lot of writers do. This is important to learn.

So scenes are made up of scenes and sequels. A typical scene will contain the following:

  • Scene
    • Goal
    • Conflict
    • Result (sometimes called ‘disaster’)
  • Sequel
    • Reaction (can be broken into “Emotion” and “Reason,” but must occur in that order because we feel faster than we think)*
    • Dilemma
    • Decision

These are the basic building blocks of a story. A novel is a chain of scenes and sequels, one right after the other, that inexorably leads to the conclusion. And you can’t have scene-scene-sequel-sequel-sequel-scene-sequel-scene-etc. because that’s not the way human beings work. Even if your story is entirely about aliens or elves or whatever, you still need to write it this way because your readers are going to be human beings. You could do some experimental fiction, but it would probably be hard to read and not sell very well.

When I talk about scenes and sequels, I typically use the following example.

You wake up Sunday morning and you want to make chocolate chip pancakes for your son because they’re his favorite, it’s his birthday, and your recently deceased wife used to make them for him. (Motive, Setting, Goal.) However, when you go to the kitchen, you discover you have no chocolate chips (Conflict and Result). You’re upset by this (reaction) and you ponder what you should do: make them without the chocolate chips, or buy some (Dilemma). You decide to sneak off to Safeway before he wakes up (Decision).

You drive to Safeway to buy the chocolate chips (Goal). However, once you’re in the store, you discover there’s only one bag left and someone else is reaching for them at the same time you are. You get into a fight with them over the chips (Conflict). The fight ends when he calls you names and he’s escorted out of the store (Result). Shaken, you buy the chips (Reaction) and, as you’re heading out the store, he accosts you in the parking lot. You consider running, but your trick knee is acting up again (Dilemma) so you stand your ground (Decision).

And you can take this story in any direction. It could be a romance, a thriller, a spy story, a mystery. He could be your time-traveling son. Who knows? But there you have two scenes, each broken up into scene-and-sequence.

During the scene part, your character will have a goal and a conflict. The conflict will resolve in one of three ways.

  1. Your character won’t get what he wants. (‘No.’)
  2. Your character will get what he wants, but it sets in motion some other action or effect that will come to light later. (‘Yes, but …’)
  3. Your character will get what he wants. (‘Yes.’)

The only time you use #3 is when you’re writing the end of the climax, because, once there’s no more conflict, the story ends and you write the Resolution.

In the above example, the first scene ends with ‘no.’ The second scene ends with ‘yes, but.’ Does he ever make it home to make pancakes for his son? When the answer is yes, then the story is over.

These can be pretty complex. I still can’t readily identify them in the books I’m reading, though I’ve made a start. Happily, Jim Butcher, in his Livejournal, said he didn’t master it until he’d written many books, so I don’t feel so bad about myself. (He does one entry on scene and another on sequel; I posted to the first. The one following is the second.) Butcher’s advice is a little more complex than mine.

Should you begin your story with a scene or a sequel?

When you start a story, start with a scene, not a sequel. Your character has to have something he’s going for. It should be small and related to his world, but it has to exist because you can’t start a story with his reaction to something. If we don’t see the thing he reacts to, we won’t be able to tell if he’s overreacting, underreacting, etc.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV show) begins with Buffy wanting to make a good impression on her first day of 10th grade at a new school. That’s her goal. Jim Butcher’s Storm Front begins with Harry Dresden wanting to get his mail from a snarky mailman. Arrows of the Queen begins with Talia wanting to read her book in peace. Big Hero 6 begins with Hiro wanting to win a bot fight. The Wizard of Oz begins with Dorothy wanting to know what’s out there past the limits of her farm, and she wants to save her dog Toto. Spiderman: Far From Home begins with Peter Parker wanting to go on a normal class trip as a normal teenager. Every story begins with the main character wanting something minor, something that fits in with their normal day. That’s a scene. The disaster should be something relatively small, yet pertinent to the story, something that tells us a little about the world we’re in and the characters who inhabit it.


*Jim Butcher describes Sequels using Emotion, Reason, Anticipation, and Choice, but it’s basically the same thing. You can read his article here.

How to make characters

Many people have written books on this. I’m not going to, but I will give some basics.

First, a few terms.

FMC / MMC: Female main character, male main character.

Protagonist: The most important, main, significant characters in your story. Usually you will have one protagonist. In some romances you may have two.

Antagonist: The character or thing that opposes or stymies your protagonist. This can be society, a giant shark, a big storm, a killer robot, or people. You can have many antagonists, but there should be a main antagonist.

Villain: The bad guy. Not always the same as the antagonist. In The Wizard of Oz, the villain is the Wicked Witch of the West, but she’s not the antagonist. I believe the antagonist is Dorothy herself. (Yes, you can have one character be both protag and antag; these stories are called “man against himself.”) You can have many villains.

Main, or significant characters: Your protag’s friends and allies, characters who have a lot of ‘screen time.’ Romantic interests, buddies, etc. If you’re writing a series and these characters are in many books in the series, they will have arcs as well.

Secondary characters: Not quite so important, but still relevant. They’ll probably not have arcs.

Bit characters: Someone your character interacts with once or twice; generally unimportant.

Positive Character Arc: A story in which the protagonist learns and grows. Most storis in general, all romances, and all women’s lit have positive character arcs.

Flat Character Arc: A story in which the character, through being herself, changes the world about her but doesn’t learn and grow (because she already rocks and doesn’t need to). For most of the Honor Harrington books, Honor has a flat character arc. Same with Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games books.

Negative Character Arc: A story in which the protagonist needs to learn and grow and does not. These are always tragedies.

Every protagonist, major antagonist and/or villain, all of your main characters, and all of your secondary characters should be at least somewhat fleshed out. I don’t mean “fifteen pages of back story and knowledge of events he experienced in third grade.” I mean some basic stuff. Specifically: what does that character want? What motivates the character? What is her goal? How will she react, presented with a dilemma?

In another article I said you need to create your characters before you start writing your book. I don’t mean you have to create every character, but you do need to have your protagonist, your antagonist, and the main characters you know you’ll need fleshed out before you begin. If, for example, you know you’re going to write a romance set in New York at an ad agency, it might be good to write up your protag’s boss, a couple coworkers, your protag’s roommate and/or best friend, and your protag’s love interest. While you write you might discover that your protag talks a lot to a particular barista; you can work on that character when you get to him.

I also advise you keep a sheet of paper for each significant character you create, so that  you can list things pertinent to him. For example, if you give him brown eyes, write it down so that 100 pages later he doesn’t have green eyes.

No story is solely based on a character’s desires, though. For your protagonist, antagonist, and arguably for major villains and main characters, you will need to know a few other fundamental elements: their needs, fears, and inner wounds.

Needs, Fears, and Inner Wounds

Your character wants something desperately, which is why he’s willing to risk some part of himself to get it, possibly even his life, soul, or family. That’s what drives the plot of your story.

But your character often needs something as well, especially in a positive or negative character arc story. (In fact, you can’t write a tragedy without your protag needing something.) What your character needs drives the story element of your story.

(Wait, what?)

Story: the whole shebang AND the internal, underlying character arc. One of those “one word, two meanings” things. The story is related to the theme.

So The Wizard of Oz’s plot is about four friends who set off to get things they want from the Wizard and who kill a witch along the way. The Wizard of Oz’s story is about four people who already have the things which they think they need the most, and how they come to realize they have those things.

The thing your character needs is related to his inner wound. So is the thing he wants. It works like this:

At some point in your character’s back story, something happened that affected your character fairly strongly. This is your character’s Inner Wound. Because of this, your character believes something that isn’t true, which is your character’s Lie. Your character fears the repercussions of this Lie. His goal, what he wants, is to put to bed this Fear. He thinks he can do it by getting what he wants, but in reality only the thing he needs will resolve his conflict and ease his fear.

But … but … but … wait, what?

In a series, the protagonist’s inner wound, fear, etc. won’t come out until several books through. In a book, the protag’s wound/fear shouldn’t be explicitly stated until at least after the Midpoint, because otherwise you’re going to drown your reader in back story. You want to drop enough hints that your reader is salivating to know just what happened to screw up your character so badly, but you don’t want to tell them until the last possible moment–and maybe you never tell them. That’s okay. The reader doesn’t need to know your character’s inner wound–but you do.

So: Harry Dresden. We know he’s afraid of a bunch of wizards who have put him on probation and may kill him if he violates any of the Laws of Magic. We learn this in Act 1 of Book 1 of the series. Harry is living a life of fear, even though he rarely shows it. But he thinks about it and it’s one of the things that motivates him (the other being money, i.e., not starving). It isn’t until several books into the series, when he encounters a figure from his past, that we learn that he used magic to kill his foster father, who was abusing him, and even later we discover that he was in foster care because his mother and father had both died, leaving him alone. Harry Dresden fears being alone. He will do anything for his friends, loved ones, and especially for his family–and he doesn’t even learn about who all the members of his family are until Book 12. He might have more; the series isn’t over yet.

A good rule for this sort of back story is, when in doubt, keep it out.

So you know your protag’s fear, the thing he doesn’t want to think about. He might not even realize it’s his fear. How many of us know ourselves that deeply? But it drives him. Harry Dresden wants to find the killer in Storm Front because, if he doesn’t, the White Council might decide it was him and have him executed. He’s in that position because of X events from his past, and those events, his Inner Wounds, have created his fear of being alone. Although he’s living very much alone at that moment, he doesn’t want to alienate Murphy, who is both a source of income and a potential friend. It’s complicated because it’s a series (and I’m sure that, when Butcher wrote Storm Front, Dresden’s inner life was much less complicated!) but it’s there.

Your main antagonist needs to have his/her/its inner wound, need, and fear developed as well. Often your antagonist is a mirror of your protagonist, so we see what will happen to your protagonist if he loses. You want your antagonist to be richly detailed, because that makes for a better story. Most of the antagonists in the Avatar cartoons were extremely developed and compelling characters, especially in the Korra seasons. One of the antagonists in the Aang seasons, Zuko, successfully transitioned into a protagonist through one of the best redemption arcs I have ever read or seen. Those characters stick long after you finish them. Conversely, two-dimensional antagonists aren’t interesting, which means the conflict isn’t interesting, and therefore the story isn’t interesting.

Loki is a fascinating and extremely well-developed antagonist, probably the most interesting in the MCU. That’s why he has such a following. (It doesn’t hurt that Tom Hiddleston loves playing him.) Thanos and Nebula are also well-built.

So, to reiterate:

Your character had something horrible happen in the past. This prompted him to develop some belief that isn’t true, which is his Lie. He either fears the repercussions of his Lie/Wound, or he wants to resolve those things, and that’s what prompts his goals (his Want). However, if he achieves his Want, he will either not be satisfied, or, worse, he will fail in some fashion (there’s your tragedy). Only by achieving his Need will he resolve his Wound/Lie/Fear.

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is living with her aunt and uncle. She’s an orphan. Her back story is never explained, but we know she loves her dog Toto more than anything else. She fears losing him, and he bit the neighbor, who wants him put to sleep. She runs away from home. While she’s away from home, she finds out from a kindly charlatan that her aunt is very sick and may be dying. In desperate fear of losing another family member, Dorothy rushes home, only to be brained by falling debris flung about by a tornado. The whole story runs on Dorothy’s fear of losing Toto, then Auntie Em. She runs all over the place, trying to save the people she loves, trying to find something outside of herself that will solve her problems, but her strength is internal and she needs to stay put to properly use it.

One last caveat: In many cases, what the protag wants isn’t a bad thing. Often it’s a good thing. There’s nothing wrong with saving the planet or keeping the Ark from falling into the hands of the Nazis. But the protag of a positive character arc story will fail if he doesn’t achieve his Need as well. The book won’t do well. The story will feel ‘off’ and it won’t sell well. The protag can achieve a positive Want and fulfill his Need. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. But if the Want interferes with the Need, the Need must prevail, and if the character achieves both, he must achieve his Need before he can achieve his Want, or the story won’t work properly (low sales, feels ‘off,’ etc.)

Romances: a special case

Romances are very hard to write.

I’m going to use heterosexual norms here because F and M are different letters and it will reduce confusion. Romances featuring gay folks are structured the same as romances that feature straight folks.

In a romance, the FMC and MMC must be tailored to each other. Each of the two characters must contain, intrinsic to that character, whatever is needed to resolve the Fear/Lie/Inner Wound of the other. They must resolve each other, fitting together like a key and a lock.

In a standard story, your main characters can complement each other, but they don’t need to resolve each other. In a romance, there’s no wiggle room.

Many, many kinds of stories have romantic subplots, so even if you don’t write a romance, you may have a romantic story arc and you need to know this. If your series is going strong for 9 books and then in the 10th you want to get your FMC hitched, you’ll need to create a MMC tailor-made to fit her existing needs.

This does not mean the romantic interest must resolve your character’s deepest fear! For example, Mercy Thompson (written by Patricia Briggs) is most afraid of being abandoned. She gets married in one of the books. You’d think that would resolve her fear, but it hasn’t. It’s lessened it, but she still fears being abandoned by her family, which is larger than her husband. Likewise, getting married doesn’t keep Miles Vorkosigan (by Lois McMaster Bujold) from fearing that he’ll never have a place of his own in a disability-phobic society in which his father’s and grandfather’s achievements have outshone his own.

When your protagonist’s innermost fear has been resolved, the series is over. If you’re going to write a series, make certain your protag’s innermost fear is broad, hard to overcome, and can spin off many “sub-fears” that you can play with in each book’s positive character arc.

This is also why romances don’t usually have sequels; typically the romance is the story and the character’s innermost fear is resolved by the romance. Romance series usually focus on families, with Bob getting married in the first book, Frank (his brother) in the second, and so forth.

All the rest

Some people will tell you that you need to know everything there is possibly to know about a character before you write her. Some writers fill out huge questionnaires, character sheets, interview their characters, etc. You can do that if it works for you. All of that supplements what I wrote above. It doesn’t replace it. I personally don’t find it particularly important to know what color paint is on the walls in my protag’s bathroom, but you might.

Typically I develop the following for any given character:

  • Nationality
  • Race
  • Height
  • Weight and body shape, muscle-to-fat ratio
  • Hair color, style, and texture
  • Eye color and shape
  • Facial and body hair
  • Shape of face and hands
  • Birth marks, scars, tattoos, or other distinguishing features
  • Preferred clothing (what they would wear) and current clothing (what they have to wear)
  • Politics
  • Sexuality
  • Education level (years, public or private, university names if they attended)
  • Professional certifications
  • Languages they speak, and to which degree
  • Special skills
  • Hobbies
  • Skills they’re not good at
  • Dislikes and distastes
  • Phobias
  • Family size
  • Birth order
  • Relation to family (loving? Distanced?)
  • Some significant details from their childhoods and early adulthoods
  • Best friends and enemies from the past
  • Items important to them
  • Fighting style (fight, flight, freeze, submit; favored weapons; skill level at combat)
  • Aliases
  • Quirks
  • Stuff specific to your story and/or genre
  • Quality of home and car from childhood
  • Quality of home and car in current story

For example, I have a character named Miguel Delgado Herrera. He’s a Nicaraguan Latino. He’s 5’5″ tall and weighs about 150 pounds, all muscle. He’s built solid, almost stocky, but he’s quite flexible. He’s balding, so he shaves his head. He has a mustache and van dyke. He probably has a few scars, but nothing major. No birthmarks or tattoos. He has a squarish, handsome face, a nice smile, and an easy, polite, affectionate attitude that gets him a lot of female attention, which he doesn’t want because he’s asexual and aromantic. He was educated at Nicaragua’s main university, achieved a JD there, and is licensed to practice law in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Peru. He was a Sandinista, so he’s liberal. He speaks fluent Spanish, enough Russian to get by, and some English, but not well enough to understand slang. He’s a gymnast and a marksman with the rifle, and he drives well. He loves cooking and is very good at it. He also enjoys Sudoku.

He has an unreasoning hatred of Hondurans and blames them for the death of his first best friend, Guillermo, when he was 21 years old. His personality shifts when he has to deal with Hondurans; he becomes irritated, biting, harsh, and can even verge into being cruel.

He was born six years after his sister, one of two kids. He grew up middle-class, with both father and mother, in a loving and happy family. His parents worried when he didn’t develop an interest in girls and had him tested for hormonal problems at the doctor’s office. His peers in school made fun of him and called him gay because he exhibited no interest in girls. He developed the belief that he was defective (initial Inner Wound and Lie) and nothing his parents or sister said convinced him otherwise. Otherwise, he wanted to be an actor when he grew up.

When he was 15 years old, his sister was kidnapped out of their home. When he was 18 he defied his parents to join the Sandinistas because he wanted to avenge her kidnapping. He trained and fought as a soldier for a few years, then went to school to become a human rights lawyer. While he was a soldier his best friend was shot and killed.

When he was 25 he ran into a vampire, who infected him with semi-vampirism. (Book 1 begins here.) He joined a vampire hunting society and trained to be one of them. About two months into it, he ran into his sister, who’d been similarly infected shortly after being released from prison. Their reunion was dramatic and heartfelt.

He now hunts and fights vampires as a team with his sister and his brother-in-law. They live in a middle-class (for Nicaragua) home in the nation’s capital, and he drives a BMW because he’s a lawyer as his day job. He is a very, very messy person, but his mess is confined to his bedroom.

His current best friend is Lisette, another vampire hunter. He likes to cuddle with her because, although he’s asexual and aromantic, he still enjoys human contact. If he had to save an object from his home, it would be one of her paintings, but he doesn’t have a favorite item.

In book 1, Miguel’s Lie is that he’s defective. His inner wound is those experiences from his teen years. His Fear is that he’ll be alone. His Want is to create, save, preserve, or otherwise become an integral part of a family. His need is to realize he’s not defective. He achieves both his Want and his Need, but he doesn’t achieve his Want until he achieves his Need.

This is everything I need to write his story. Anything else accretes as I continue the series.

Story Structure: What is it, and do I need it even if I don’t outline?

Yes, you need to know what story structure is whether or not you outline your work. The more you know and understand story structure, the easier it will be to pants your way through your alpha draft without having a saggy middle or boring story. Outliners should know this too.

Story structure is not a formula. It doesn’t create formulaic books. Some scholars studied a couple thousand works of fiction from around the world and across time and they came up with a basic understanding of how stories work. Humans have this fundamental need to tell stories, and I think this is part of our functionality, or the way our brains work. You don’t need to use story structure, but if you plan on becoming rich and famous, it really helps to understand this stuff. Plus you can’t effectively break the rules if you don’t know what they are. So set aside any quibbles you have and listen.

Fiction is not real life. In real life, things happen for no apparent reason. In 2017 my best friend was hit by a car and nearly died. In a story, that would be relevant to the plot, or it wouldn’t happen. There’s no plot to my life or his, and it just happened. Were I to be telling a story, and I included an event like that which didn’t actually forward the plot or character development, readers would pitch my book across the room. So all the stuff in your book has to matter to your character arcs or your plot development.

If you’re writing a series, you can include things in your WIP that are relevant to the series arc but not the book’s plot arc, but those should be subplots and used sparingly. And you should know your series’ structure (which is basically story structure writ large) before you get too far into your books, or you’ll need to grandfather those things in. I believe Jim Butcher grandfathered Storm Front’s events into his series plot in the Dresden Files series because Storm Front was his first published book and he had no idea, at the time, that he’d publish a 24 book series out of Harry Dresden. That’s why the series seems to take off with Book 3. This is a guess, though, and if Butcher would like to correct me, I will happily post what he says.

In Plotting, pantsing, and outlining I referred to these as “twists.” This is what they’re actually called. Percentages are approximate. You might hit your inciting event somewhere between 10% and 13%, but it should be close to what I list or your story may start to sag.

0% – the beginning

12.5% – Inciting Event. Sometimes called “inciting incident” (which is probably just people making slips of the tongue) or “call to adventure,” for people who like the Hero’s Journey.

25% – First Plot Point

37% – First Pinch Point

50% – Second Plot Point, or Midpoint

62% – Second Pinch Point

75% – Third Plot Point

88% – Climax begins

98% – Climax ends, Resolution begins

Again, these are approximate. Some people end the climax at around 95%.

In addition to these points, there’s usually a Key Decision that happens somewhere between the 20% and 25% mark.

This article is meant to be brief, as in “not a book.” The best book I’ve found for simply, easily, usefully, and briefly describing these things is Weiland’s Five Secrets of Story Structure book. I encourage you to buy and read it. I’ve read about nine books on story structure so far and I’m working on my 10th and 11th ones now, so I’m going to synthesize what those books say for you, but a lot of it will be from her book. (Again, I get no kickbacks for books I recommend.)

Go get a copy of your favorite paperback, one you’ve read so many times you know the story by heart, mark the pages where these percentage points occur, and keep it handy. You may want a pencil or highlighter.

The Hook – 0-12.5% of the book

This is where you introduce the characters and the world to your readers. Your story should begin with your characters in their Normal World, which will be either idyllic and soon to be lost, or horrible and in need of fixing. Something minor but symbolic of the changes to come will happen in the first couple of pages. Get out your book and look through the first chapter. What little thing is this? In Arrows of the Queen, it’s Talia’s 13th birthday, and the news she’s going to be married soon. In Storm Front, it’s Harry Dresden being hired to look into the death of Tommy Tom and the disappearance of Larry Sells (I think; the book is not handy).

In this section of the book your main character should let the reader know what she wants. It’s good for novice writers to explicitly state this. Talia blurts to the women in her hold “I want to be a Herald.” Dresden wants to stay on Murphy’s good side so he can be paid both now and in the future. If your reader doesn’t know what your main character wants, your book will seem vague and perhaps confusing.

There is a hell of a lot of writer advice out there about keeping back story and world building out of your first 12%. I’m not sure I believe that, though I’m open to being wrong. You should never info-dump or engage in exposition in this section because that will bore your readers to tears. However, you do need to let us know enough about your world to orient ourselves. Get out that book and read it carefully. Use a symbol to mark each time your favorite author slips in some bit that makes the world more understandable. Harry Dresden tells us he lives in Chicago, and that there are laws of magic he can’t break, and how magic affects technology, and quite a bit more. Talia tells us what the hell a “Herald” is and why she would want to be one.

Only use character background info and worldbuilding if it helps the reader grasp what’s going on and what they need to know about the character to make sense of the character’s immediate situation. We don’t need to know that the monarch of Talia’s world is always a Herald at this point. We do need to know the basics of what a Herald is. We don’t need to know about the Blackstaff during the first 12% of Harry’s story, but we do need to know that he could be killed if he violates the Laws of Magic on Murphy’s behalf.

Inciting Event – 12.5% to 20-25%

Your main character will brush against the central conflict somehow at this point. Something major will happen that will deeply impact the character, but won’t be enough in and of itself to suck the character irrevocably into the story. In a romance, this might be the Meet Cute. If I were writing a scifi about the discovery of interstellar travel through wormhole jumping, this might be where I put the successful discovery of interstellar travel. No one has done it yet, but at this point we know how to do it, and the main character might be chosen to make the first attempt. From the 12.5 to 20% mark (approximate) the characters will be preparing, somehow, to enter the conflict. They may have no idea that they’re doing so, but they are.

For example, in Big Hero 6, Hiro is taken to the Nerd Lab and meets his future friends. He’s wowed, both by their coolness and by what they’re working on. He meets Baymax and learns what Baymax can do too. (Movies are wonderful for studying story structure, incidentally, and the more you learn about this stuff, the more you can see it as you watch.)

Around the 20% mark, or between 20 and 25%, your character should make a Key Decision that will lead to the First Plot Point. In Peter Pan, Wendy and her brothers decide to fly to Never Never Land. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy decides to run home and encounters the tornado that takes her to Oz. In Big Hero 6, Hiro decides to try to qualify for Robotics School. In Arrows of the Queen, Talia is asked if she really wants to be a Herald and Queen’s Own despite the fact that the previous Queen’s Own was murdered, and they didn’t catch the murderer. In a paranormal werewolf romance I read a few months ago, the main character decided to stay in the diner where she worked despite being alone.

Sometimes, after the Key Decision, there will be a brief sequence leading to the First Plot Point (the point of no return). We see Wendy and her brothers fly to Never Never Land. We see Dorothy run home and try to get into the storm cellar. We see Hiro develop his nanobots and display them at the exhibition. Sometimes the Key Decision is “I think I’ll step through this portal,” and then there’s a sentence of action and then we’re at the First Plot Point.

First Plot Point – 25%. End of Act 1, beginning of Act 2.

Here the main character is sucked into the conflict and can’t leave. In the PN werewolf story, the main character is mugged and saved by a giant wolf, which turns out to be the werewolf she falls in love with. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s house drops on the Wicked Witch of the East. In Peter Pan, the kids land in Never Never Land and encounter Captain Cook. This is a big setpiece scene, a transition from the old world into the new, and a situation that the main characters can’t get out of easily. If the movie is a musical, you’ll usually have a giant musical scene here with dancing. The Munchkin scene in The Wizard of Oz is an example; it starts with Dorothy opening her door into technicolor fantasy and ends with the song “Follow the Yellow Brick Road.”

Act 2 is often split into two parts. Between 25% and 50% you’re going to want to very carefully follow your genre’s conventions. This is the section that’s most specific to genre.

Typically your character doesn’t understand the central conflict at this point. They might not even know who the villain is. They’re trying to do the thing they need to do, but because they don’t know what’s really going on, they’re running around rather unproductively and making little progress. This section should be interesting. Your protag is going to meet a lot of new people, including allies, and possibly train or develop something. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy meets her three buddies and is attacked several times by the Wicked Witch of the West. In Big Hero 6, Hiro mods Baymax and discovers Kabuki Man, his antagonist. Often this section is very engaging.

37% – the First Pinch Point

Here your antagonist makes a move or plots something that will affect your protagonist. This serves a bunch of purposes. First, if you’re veering too far off into fun-land with your protag and their allies, this re-centers your central plot. Second, your antagonist gets to screw with your protagonist, which is both important and should make you cackle and rub your hands together with glee. Third, it usually gives the first half of Act 2 enough “oomph” to get to the Midpoint.

It should be obvious that, by the 37% mark, you need to have introduced your antagonist. Often the antagonist is introduced (or its effects are) by the end of Act 1, but it’s okay to be a little late, and sometimes the antag is still behind the scenes. For example, in Storm Front we don’t see the antagonist until late in the book, but we see his effects and feel his power before the 37% mark. In Big Hero 6, the antagonist is the professor in the robotics lab. We meet him in the first act, see him as Kabuki Man at the 37% mark, but don’t find out the Kabuki Man is the professor until the climax.

50% – the Second Plot Point, aka the Midpoint

This is one of the most important points in the book and deserves a major setpiece scene. This is where everything changes. Your characters may end up with new goals, a new outlook on the conflict, etc. It’s so important that there’s a craft book out there where the author recommends you write this scene first and then work in each direction until the story is written.

At this point your main character will have an epiphany or come to an understanding about what she needs to do to achieve her goals. What she’s been doing so far (either internally, externally, or both) isn’t working, so she decides to try something else. In a movie where two main ally characters hate each other, this is where they resolve to set aside that hatred and work together as a team. In a romance, this is “sex at 60,” the point at which the two characters have sex or a moment of intimacy that signifies sex. In The Wizard of Oz, this is the Emerald City scene. Dorothy has achieved her goal of finding the Wizard, and now has a new goal: kill the Wicked Witch of the West. In Arrows of the Queen, this is where Talia finally begins to feel like she might belong.

62% – The Second Pinch Point

Between 50% and 62% your enlightened characters are still using their old methods of coping, dealing, or problem-solving to get what they want, because they haven’t linked their enlightenment with the need to try new methods. Dorothy is still hiking across Oz, for example, instead of clicking her heels. So even though they know more and are changing their ways, they’re still not getting where they want or need to go, so they’re still falling on their faces pretty much constantly. This can be really fun to write or watch.

In Big Hero 6, for example, Hiro wants to fight Kabuki Man, so he and his friends design and train in their superhero suits and Hiro flies all over San Fransokyo. Dorothy encounters the Flying Monkeys. Talia tries to figure out who’s corrupting the Heir to the Throne. Dresden’s tracking down Harry Sells.

My favorite part of a story to write is the part between the 37% mark and the 62% mark simply because that’s where the greatest amount of character growth seems to happen.

Between the 62% and 75% mark your antagonist should make himself known again–you want to keep your story on track if it seems to be veering off.

75% – The Third Plot Point, Beginning of Act 3.

Again, this is a huge setpiece scene. Between here and 88%, your character should be at his absolute lowest low-point and might even make some pretty unethical decisions. Often there’s some sort of symbolic or real death, especially of a mentor. Your character should be alone, on the ropes, ready to give up, because even though he knows what he needs to do, he doesn’t have all the info he needs to do it, or the strength to do it, or the heart.

Dorothy is told that if she doesn’t give up the ruby slippers in one hour, she’ll die. She’s locked in a room by herself. Talia’s psychic trainer is murdered and she is the only one who can get the McGuffin and rescue her friend–and she’s weak, afraid, and undertrained. Murphy is pissed at Dresden, tries to arrest him, and he has no allies. Hiro recklessly endangers his friends in his pursuit of Kabuki Man and then leaves them behind when he loses.

However, typically your character is only one piece of information or significant action away from winning. She just doesn’t know it.

88% – 98% – The Climax

The climax typically begins around 88%, though I’ve seen it start around 85%. Novels aren’t as precise as movies. During the climax the protag begins to wrap everything up, starting with the least important problem and working toward the most. They realize and apply that last bit of information needed to save the day.

Dorothy kills the Wicked Witch for her broomstick. Then she discovers that Oz is just a guy from Nebraska. She tries to leave in his hot air balloon, but it flies away. Then Glinda comes and tells Dorothy to click her heels three times. She goes home. Conflict over.

Hiro goes to the site of new construction, prepared to fight the scientist-developer, who he thinks is Kabuki Man. It’s not him. He fights and overcomes Kabuki Man, but then discovers that the man is the professor. He realizes that an innocent woman is locked into the hyperspace area that the scientist-developer created, so he enters that area, finds her, and has to leave Baymax behind, losing the last bit of his brother. Villains neutralized, great wrong righted, person saved, conflict over.

Talia guides her friends to where the McGuffin is and they rescue it. Then she saves the mind of one of her closest friends, cementing her place with the Heralds. Conflict over.

Dresden defeats Larry Sells and all his minions and stops the ritual they were enacting, solving the murders and closing up the subplots. Conflict over.

Once the conflict is over, the story is basically over. However, people really, really like resolutions. They want the “happily ever after.” We crave it. That leads us to …

Resolution – 98%-100% (sometimes starts at 95%)

Here you show the protagonist after the story is over. You resolve any lingering bits and restate the theme. There are many ways to do this. A lot of people recommend you show the protag back in her original world, only improved. Closing with a scene that mirrors the opening scene is a nice touch.

For example, Dorothy wakes up in bed, in Kansas, happy to be there. She says “there’s no place like home!”, which is the theme of the movie. Talia sees her best friend off on his training trip and thinks she’s finally found a place she belongs. Dresden preserves his relationship with Murphy and doesn’t get in trouble with the White Council. Hiro rebuilds Baymax and heads off to Nerd School with his friends, no longer a depressed loner.

If The Wizard of Oz ended with Dorothy clicking her heels, if Big Hero 6 ended with Hiro flying the missing girl through the portal, the story, while over, would have felt unfinished. You need the resolution to provide readers with a sense of satisfaction, of resolution.

You need this even if you’re writing a tragedy. Tragedies don’t have “happily ever after” endings (called HEA; HFN means Happy For Now), but they do need to satisfy. In Romeo & Juliet, for example, the story is over when Juliet kills herself, but in the resolution we find out what happened to their warring families. It must be done.

Once you internalize this, it will make both plotting and pantsing stories much easier to do.

Again, this isn’t a formula! This was developed through the study of existing stories. It’s set up with these percentages because they’re where those things occurred in well-paced, successful stories that had already been written before anyone studied story structure. Experienced writers might start their climax at 80% and resolve it at 95%, etc. That’s up to you.

Watch movies, looking for this stuff. Disney and Pixar are both excellent examples of movies that stick rigidly to story structure, and you’ve probably seen them all anyway. All of the MCU movies adhere strictly to this structure. The new Hobbs & Shaw movie, which came out less than a week ago, sticks to this structure. I see it in TV episodes, too; I’m currently watching Elementary, which is structured this way. Buffy seasons were also structured in this fashion, with each episode structured thus and the season structured according to this fashion. Once you start noticing it, it will be hard to un-notice.

That said, I started learning about story structure about 4 years ago and I’m just now able to identify it as I watch new movies. It takes a while before you can really make it out. But read your favorite novel, watch movies, etc. and you’ll start to get it too.

Plotting, Pantsing, and Outlining

For those who don’t know, plotters typically have a very well-developed outline before they start writing their alpha drafts. Pantsers “write by the seats of their pants.” They don’t know where the story is going until they write it. There are a tremendous number of traditionally-published, famous pantsers and an equally large number of plotters. Sometimes they’re called ‘architects’ and gardeners, and sometimes ‘pantsers’ are called ‘discoverers.’ Use the wording that’s right for you.

Plotters: JK Rowling, John Grisham, Ada Palmer

Pantsers: Stephen King, Patricia Briggs, Margaret Atwood

You can transition from one to the other. Chuck Wendig did.

A large number of novice writers start out as pantsers because they don’t know anything about writing stories, so they just write a story. Eventually they learn about outlines and then most try to outline. This is the point where you discover if you’re a plotter or a pantser. If you’re a plotter, outlining will feel good and fairly natural. If you’re a pantser, outlining may feel stifling, claustrophobic, boring, frustrating, or tiring. Plotters need to know where they’re going and what’s going to happen before they feel comfortable writing — when they try to “pants” their writing, they peter out because they have no roadmap for what’s ahead. Pantsers need the thrill of the unknown. Once they know the story, they lose interest in it and move on.

All that said, pantsers do use basic outlines. You are not a “plantser” if you use index cards or short notes. In fact, the reason that famous published pantsers do produce books in fairly short order is because they understand story structure and they steer by that. I’m a pantser, and I’m going to describe my method of faux-outlining. More specific information on story structure can be found here.

The first thing I do is figure out how long I want my novel to be. I typically try for 80,000 words, which is your typical 300 page novel. If I was writing an epic fantasy, I’d be aiming for 120,000 words. A thriller would max out at 80,000 and might be 70,000 instead. Know the word count for your genre and plan accordingly. More info can be found here.

Second, I develop my characters. Who is going to be in this story, and what is this story basically about? This is not a genre thing. Say you’re writing a romance. Is your romance about a property developer at odds with the historical preservation society? If you’re writing a fantasy, is the story about a kid who wants to become a wizard? Or a magical object that changes the world? Etc. Figure out what your story is about and create your characters, including your antagonist. More information on that can be found here.

Third, in most novels there are about seven major events, with the last event happening right before the end of the story. The events need to be spaced out evenly or your story will lag and your middle will sag. I take out a piece of paper, open a doc, get out index cards, or whatever and I write down what these events might be. My characters are going to have inner struggles, interpersonal struggles, and struggles between themselves and the antagonist(s) and or villain(s), so I use those seven major events to detail those struggles. I don’t do “Twist 1: Struggle between protagonist and self.* Twist 2: struggle between protag and best friend.” You can layer those. Maybe Twist 1 is a struggle between the protag and himself, which manifests as a fight between him and his best friend. The more you can layer into your twists, the better your book will be.

So I get a general, basic idea of what’s going to happen in those sections. My twists list usually looks something like this:

Twist 1: Joana finds Bryan.

Twist 2: Joana sets off to train Bryan.

Twist 7: They kill the vampire.

As you can see, that isn’t really an outline. It’s more like a list of events. I know a lot about the characters, so I don’t really need to write down the interpersonal stuff. I know it’s there. I’ve found that if I write down much more than 1-2 simple sentences about my twists, I end up trying to railroad my characters into those events and they resist.

When I go to write, I separate out my books into equal chunks of about 9000 words. For the chunks I’m working on, I will typically figure out how to get from the twist I just passed to the next twist. Or from the beginning to Twist 1. I lay out anywhere from three to six index cards for scenes,** and then I write 1-2 sentences about what might happen in that scene. Again, if I do any more than that, I lose the story. And then I write.

Again, this isn’t outlining. I had the pleasure of meeting Ada Palmer at GenCon 49. She was on a panel about this subject, and she showed us her outline. It’s extremely detailed and complicated. She knows precisely what is going to happen during every scene in her story–and an 80k novel typically has around 64 scenes. I have no real idea what’s going to happen in my scenes at all. Important details just come to me as I write.

For example, in my Lisette novel, I knew Lisette was going to meet Diego, but I had no idea that Lisette and Diego were going to be lovers until I wrote that she woke up in bed next to him. I knew that Lisette was going to know Florencia, but I had no idea they’d be friends until they were. I knew I had to introduce other, minor characters, but I had no idea that one of them would be engaged in a power struggle against Florencia, the leader, until he was. And that power struggle became a significant subplot. That’s pantsing. A plotter would have planned all these things out before writing Word 1.

I believe that most successful, published pantsers understand story beats and story structure, at least on an instinctive level, and keep those in mind while they write. The ones who write for a living have this engrained in their heads, so it’s much simpler and easier for them to execute. With a little knowledge and some practice, you can do that while you pants your way through your story as well.


*All of these twists have specific names, which you can learn here.

** For more on scenes, read this.

Why your first book will probably never be published

Most of the people I work with don’t believe their prose is deathless, which is good, but there’s a trap that a lot–and I mean a lot–of new writers fall into. It’s called “I have to make my first novel work.” If you’re typical, you either have already or will at some point fall into this trap too.

Many of the novice writers I know (and I say this with affection and respect; no one is bad, or should be mocked or made to feel inferior for this) are spending a tremendous amount of time trying to make their first novels work. They must have this first novel published. They must tell this story. This is their story. It’s a part of them, and they need to share it with the world. It’s a visceral need; they’re not being melodramatic and they don’t think the world can’t live without this book. It’s more like a compulsion. I fell into that trap and worked on my first novel for something like three years before I put it in a drawer (code for “stopped working on it”). I know people who stuck with their first novel for quite a bit longer than that.

One of the reasons writers obsess about their first novels is that, often, the writer is using pieces of his life, past experiences, and his own personality in the story. This is not precisely like writing a Mary Sue character, which is a character that’s too good and perfect to be true. Although most characters should be characters you at least understand and empathize with, if you base your characters too much on yourself, you’re going to have real difficulty with your plot, your theme, applying your critiques, or some other vital part of your book because you will not be able to make the necessary changes needed to make your book work. Also, you’ll never develop the skill to write any other characters, and every book you ever write will feel like the one that came before.

A book is fundamentally not about real life. Life does not work like fiction. Stories have structure that doesn’t exist in real life, which is why those movies are all “based on” true stories, instead of being actual true stories. Your characters and plot generate each other, and that means sometimes your characters aren’t going to be able to have the ending or results you want when you plot out your book. 

Books must be neat and tidy, with loose ends all wrapped up, and they should leave the reader with a sense that everything that happened in the story is understandable. They must have resolution. Life isn’t like that. In life, we often experience things that make no sense, that shouldn’t have happened, and that don’t lead to neat conclusions that make us feel satisfied. If books were like life, the typical reader would throw them across the room in frustration.

If you try to force your characters, which you can’t change because changing them would be like betraying yourself, into a plot which you’re also not willing to change because it’s how you wish your situation had turned out, then your story will fail. Readers will say, “it made no sense.” It will have fundamental flaws. If you don’t understand how this could happen, read the articles on structure, character, and plot, then come back and re-read this. (Note to current readers: these articles don’t exist yet.)

In addition to all that, most novice writers–and many published ones!–have no idea how story structure works. (Again, all due respect and affection. This is not their fault. I had no idea story structure existed until I stumbled across it by accident and began to study it. They certainly don’t cover it in school.*) This is because storytelling is fundamental to our species. It is an absolute necessity to tell and hear stories. It probably evolved with language well over 100,000 years ago, and might have evolved in one of our evolutionary ancestors before it got to us. How did Brud kill the rhinoceros, and can Din do it too? Well, here’s how it happened. How did Mar manage to find the new cave? Here’s the story. Both directions and instructions can be turned into stories, and explaining how we feel and why can be told as stories as well. Educating the young can certainly be done in story form. In fact, children learn best from songs and stories.

So we read lots of stories and we see lots of stories and we hear lots of stories. Our entire existences are based on stories, to the point where we can begin to believe narratives that don’t match reality. (Climate change deniers are a good example of this. They’re not crazy, but they believe things that aren’t true.) Then we go to write them, and we usually manage to more or less hit the mark and possibly even get published if we’re lucky enough, sensitive enough, and pay close enough attention to our critique partners. The problem is, writers like that are fumbling their way to success. They don’t know what they’re doing, so they can’t replicate it.

I recently watched a vlog episode in which a traditionally published writer was struggling with outlining her thriller. She’s a pantser and is trying the outline process for the first time. And as I was listening to her talk about her problems, I realized that she didn’t know anything about story structure. Here’s this successful, educated, talented, helpful person who is trying to help other people and trying to explain her process and trying to write a good book, but who is missing some fundamental pieces of the process. She even bought a book about story structure, but she’s missing how character relates to story and that’s what’s giving her the trouble. I wanted to say something, but the video is many, many months old and she probably figured it out by now.

If she, published as she is, didn’t know, how can anyone be expected to know? How can New Writer know? Now I’m betting this traditional publisher has written other books for the drawer and that her first published book wasn’t her first novel. If it was, I’m betting that she didn’t base her characters, their back stories, or how their stories should end on her own life and experiences. I don’t know these things, but I’m betting this is so.

When I wrote my first novel, I didn’t base my characters on myself, though I parceled out to them traits that I do have. I didn’t do any wish fulfillment endings. I didn’t even use my own past experiences as material. In fact, my first novel was the overly-developed back story for a character I wrote for the Dresden Files FATE role playing game. (They have a really awesome character generation process that writers could easily adapt for novels.) I wrote a paragraph for my character’s background, then expanded that to twelve pages because I wanted to understand what made her tick. Then I expanded that to 75 pages, and then I expanded that to a 120,000 word novel. At that point I realized I’d actually written a novel and that, with a little world-building work, I could write it as an original novel and even publish it. I did that, and pretty soon I had a novel that was not set in the Dresden Files world.

My problem was that, in the DF role playing game, she was 22 years old. In the original novel, she was 17. I based everything on how I wanted the story to end and on the traits I’d given her in the game, so it was incredibly difficult for me to deviate from that. I remember having a series of talks with myself about how I had to let go of the role playing game character and give the original world character a different ending in order to make the story work. But that turned out to be extraordinarily hard. The story kept wanting to go in the wrong direction because I was subconsciously forcing it there. Ultimately I got about 70% of the way through my fifth alpha rewrite, realized my character motivations didn’t match the plot (which meant they had no reason for doing what they were doing), and knew that if I didn’t put the story in a drawer for at least a little while, I’d never ‘lose’ enough of the characters to make the fundamental changes they needed for the story to work properly. With great reluctance and a sense of loss I put the story away and wrote a different novel.

Doing that probably saved my writing career, which hasn’t even really taken off yet. What it did was detach me from a book that had become a millstone around my neck. I loved my millstone, but it was still holding me back. I had a fresh start and could apply the things I’d learned in the interim to an entirely new story, one built from the ground up in a proper fashion. My next novel didn’t work either, but it failed better and I learned a lot from it. I got a lot of story structure down by writing the second book. My third book, which I’m working on now, is my struggle to match character to plot. I don’t quite have it, though I can certainly explain it, but I can see where I’m going wrong and why.** My fourth book should be miles better than my current WIP, and I’m betting I’ll have it down by the fifth book. I will probably publish my sixth book.

“Wait–who writes five books before publishing their first? OMG, isn’t that a lot of effort? Why write a book if you don’t intend to publish it? Are you nuts? I would never, ever do such a thing.” That’s in quotes because I’ve heard that response many, many times from other novice writers. And yeah, it’s a lot of work. Any learning process is.

But let me explain something to you. Do you think pro basketball players woke up one day, put on their first pair of athletic shoes, and played pro ball without ever practicing or playing for amateur teams? Of course not! Your average athlete has spent years learning how to do the thing. They practiced and competed on an amateur level and when they were good enough, they were hired to play at the pro level and get paid for it. People who bake and decorate complicated pastries first made a large number of mistakes. Those mistakes probably tasted good, but they weren’t worth a lot of money. So why should I think that my first efforts should net me fame and fortune? What makes me more special than the baker or the pro athlete? Did I put in more practice? More devotion? More time? How arrogant could I  possibly be to believe I’m that much better than anyone else who wants to make professional money at a skillset that must be carefully developed?

Your first novel is priceless, but it’s not you. It is the vehicle through which you begin to learn to write. It’s where you learn to let go.

Let it go.


*I have an English credential. I know they do cover the basic three act structure. That’s about like plopping a bag of flour in front of a kid and saying “this is flour. Now make some phyllo dough from scratch.”

**Teaching something you can’t quite do yet is not only pretty ordinary but a great way of deeply learning the thing you’re teaching because it forces you to think about and articulate them, much like critiquing does. This is why kids should teach each other things.

How to become a better speller

You’re going to hate this. The best way to fix spelling is the way I used in elementary school when I decided I wanted to be a good speller. (I wasn’t, at first.)

  • Read constantly, with your eyes (not your ears, Audible-lovers), in your genre. You will eventually be able to tell if a word you’re using is spelled wrong because you’ve seen it so many times. Then you can futz around with it or type it into Google, and it will give you the correct spelling. I can spell any number of complicated, obnoxious words off the top of my head but I still can’t spell ‘casserole’ without looking it up. I struggled with ‘strength’ and ‘sheriff’ and the like for most of my life.
  • Use mnemonics. This is easier if you have a broad and general knowledge base. I finally mastered ‘sheriff’ about two years ago via a combination of staring at the recruitment billboard for the local sheriff’s department at the left turn light to my street on the way home to work and by creating the “-iff” mnemonic. A sheriff determines if you’re a friend or foe. In SF naval books (I love those!) most of the weapons have an “if friend or foe” setting that allows the missiles to target enemy ships without hitting friendly ships. So I know it’s spelled “sheriff” instead of “sherrif” because of that.
  • Learn etymology. This takes a long time, but if you’re a word nerd you’ll love doing it. Words in English tend to have Latin, Greek, French, or German roots, and words tend to be clustered within those. We also borrow words from practically everywhere. ‘Tomato,’ for example, is from the Nahua word tomatl via the Portuguese, who changed it to tomate. Same with chocolate, jalapeño, and some of our other common foods. Once you understand the root word and the language it’s from, spelling and pronunciation become easier. For example, ‘chaos’ is Greek, and in Greek the ‘ch’ is pronounced ‘k.’ Chaos, chasm, chemistry, and so forth.*
  • Write the word over and over until you have it. I did this in elementary school. I used to misspell ‘went.’ My reasoning was that other w-words had ‘h’ after them. Where, when, why, who, etc. so ‘went’ must as well. I spent a good deal of my early years writing ‘whent.’ So one day I sat down and wrote ‘went’ on a piece of paper something like 100 times. I got it in my muscle memory. I practiced it. And now I don’t misspell it. I did the same thing with ‘dinosaur’ and ‘multiplication.’ It’s boring, and most of us don’t think we have time for that as adults, but it works. If there is a word that you frequently use in your writing that you have trouble spelling, you might set aside an evening and do this by hand. Don’t type it. If you just have one word to learn, writing the word again and again is quicker than mnemonics and much quicker than reading. Do it 100 times one evening, and then the next night do it 20 times, and the following night do it 10 times. Wait a week and try writing it and see if you have mastered the spelling. You’ll probably have mastered it by Day 2, but it’s good to check.

Anyone can learn to spell, including dyslexics. However, it takes time and willpower and desire, and it can be frustrating if you misspell most everything. My advice is to generally rely on spellcheck (don’t add custom words unless you know they’re spelled correctly!) and go from there.

*The Arabs got “chemistry” from the Greeks, who might have gotten it from the Egyptians, from the word ‘khem.’

How to punctuate

I’m an American and this applies to American English.

If you didn’t learn punctuation in school, you will need to teach yourself punctuation. This may help.

First, capitalize the first letter in every sentence. Your phone may do that for you, but your writing program, if it’s worth its salt, won’t. There are artistic writers who don’t do this and that’s fine. That’s them. Artistic writers are wonderful and they’re treasures, but they sure as fuck don’t make much money when they’re alive. If you want to write professionally, for money, capitalize that letter.

Capitalizing your first letter is important because it signals to readers that a new sentence is starting.

End each sentence with a period, called a ‘full stop’ in British English. Sometimes end sentences with a question mark. Rarely (maybe once or twice per book) end a sentence with an exclamation point. Seriously. Do not use exclamation points. Not in narration–let me feel the excitement via word choice. Not in dialogue–if you’re writing your dialogue well and using the right actions surrounding it, you won’t need an exclamation point.

Example:

“Let’s go to the mall!” Jennifer said. “My game is in!”

This can become

Jennifer tossed her backpack over her shoulder and grinned at Marcy. Today was expansion release day for their favorite game, Instant Spoils: The Dread Pirate’s Booty Four.* “Let’s go to the mall. Right now. Before school’s out, before everyone else gets there.”

The excitement should be generated through words, not punctuation. The rule of thumb I’d heard–and I fully agree with it–is that you should include no more than 2-3 exclamation points per novel. Otherwise you or your characters sound manic, melodramatic, and annoying. Use them sparingly, and they will carry quite an impact. Use them flagrantly, and you’ll wonder why people accuse you of writing purple prose.

About those question marks. Most people know you put a question mark after a sentence that starts with who, what, where, when, why, how, or if. Other words that start questions are does, can, may, should, will, is/are, and have.

You do not use a question mark if those words are in the middle of the sentence. “She asked me if I’d gone shopping” is not a question. It’s a statement.

You do use a question mark even if the question is delivered in a flat tone of voice. (Many people use question marks if, in their head, the sentence ends with a pitch lift.) If it’s a question and not a statement, use a question mark.

Example:

He threw his napkin onto his place, obscuring the half-eaten lobster tail. “Do you want to marry me or not?”

She sighed and played with her fork.

“You don’t want to marry me.”

Now that last sentence, if ended with a period, is a declaration. He knows she doesn’t want to marry him and that’s it. We could end it with a question mark, at which point it would become a question. “You don’t want to marry me?” invites her to answer, to give a reason, and subtly sounds different.

Other kinds of punctuation in English include the following: colon, semi-colon, comma, dash, hyphen, brackets, braces, parentheses, apostrophes, quote marks, and the ellipsis.

Colons are for lists. When you write a list, you separate the things in the list with a semi-colon. It would look like this.

“Go to the store and get me the following: hamburger meat; cheddar, swiss, and provolone cheeses; lettuce; tomato; and mustard.”

Note the commas in the sub-list of cheeses. The reason you use a semi-colon for a list is to differentiate those things from anything you need to sub-list. The list is meat, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and mustard. The sublist is cheddar, swiss, and provolone. If you put all that together, then you use commas for the cheeses, because they’re all versions of the same thing, and you use semi-colons for the items that are significantly different from one another.

Semi-colons are also used to connect independent clauses. You can use it (sparingly) in lieu of a period. Periods scan better.

She didn’t know why he hated her so much; all she’d done was try to please him.

Okay, but it works just as well with a period.

Hyphens are used to create compound terms such as ‘well-known,’ ‘part-time,’ or ‘mix-up.’

Dashes come in two flavors: the en-dash (the width of an ‘n’) and the em-dash (width of an ‘m’). The en-dash is used to indicate ranges, connections, or differentiations. The em-dash is used to provide strong emphasis and can be used in lieu of a comma, colon, or pair of parentheses when those don’t hit your point hard enough. Overuse of em-dashes will make your writing seem melodramatic. Example of properly-used em-dash:

“WWII was composed of two wars: the Pacific War, which ran from 1931-1945, and the European war, which ran from 1939-1945. Once the Japanese signed a treaty with the Germans, they became one war–the war we know of as WWII.”

Sometimes you put spaces before and after em- and en-dashes, and sometimes you don’t. It depends on style — the AP stylebook says to put spaces, but MLA says there should be no spaces. This is why you see no spaces in novels, but you do see spaces in newspaper articles.

You also use em-dashes to indicate interruption. You can do that as per the examples below:

He glared at her. “What do you mean, I don’t–“

Her expression might have been a smile on anyone else’s face. “You didn’t ever satisfy me”–her gun moved to point at him instead of the server–“and now I want out of our arrangement. With all the diamonds, Scott. Every. Last. One.”

Note that when dialogue is interrupted and the speaker is finished, you put the em-dash within the quote, but when the dialogue is interrupted by action and the speaker is still speaking, you put the em-dash outside of the quote.

Parentheses () are for examples or qualifying marks, and could be theoretically removed from the sentence without affecting it whatsoever. You can also replace them with commas. If you refer to the Dashes paragraph above, you can see an example of parenthesis use. These are called ‘brackets’ in British English.

If you’re using parentheses, other punctuation almost always goes outside the closing parenthesis. Example:

After raising the hood of his car (and wiping his hands on his jeans), Billy checked the oil.

If your parenthetical statement is a complete sentence unattached to another sentence, put the punctuation within the end parenthesis.

Billy usually did his own oil changes. (He liked to get dirty.)

If your parenthetical statement is a complete sentence and is enclosed within another complete sentence, do not use a period in the parenthetical sentence. However, you can use other closing punctuation within parentheses.

I sent her the invitation, but (she’s far too busy today) of course she won’t come.

He opened the bar of chocolate (why would he think I didn’t want any?) and ate it entirely (the schmuck!).

Amusingly enough, you can add question marks and exclamation points to parenthetical sentences like the ones in the chocolate example. You don’t have to, and you probably shouldn’t in general, but if it works with your narrative or character’s voice, then it’s fine. So you could have the following:

He opened the bar of chocolate (why would he think I didn’t want any!?) and ate it entirely (the schmuck).

Notice, however, that the period is still at the end of the sentence because the period ends the sentence (and should end almost every single sentence you write). <– note the parenthetical clause at the end, with the closing parenthesis and the period.

Brackets [] clarify meaning or introduce technical information. “You [Jon Snow] know nothing.” I’d use a bracket if I was quoting something precisely and needed to introduce information that the reader would need to understand the material. They are almost never used in fiction writing but are widely used in the sciences and social sciences, and in journalism. I might also write “I [Martin Luther King, Jr.] have a dream.” I’m quoting him directly, but in this context it’s very useful to add his name so you can get the reference. These are called square brackets in British English.

Braces {} are mostly used in computer programming and math. I never use them in any kind of writing that I do.

Ellipses (sing. ellipsis) are series of three to four period-like dots. They can be used a number of ways, but mostly should never, ever, ever be used in fiction writing except in dialogue. They’re spaced in a particular way and your computer will have a keyboard shortcut for them and/or will automatically space them. WordPress doesn’t do automatic spacing or format em-dashes properly, which is why my punctuation marks look a little ‘off.’

Some people use them to indicate a voice that is trailing off.

She twisted her napkin between her fingers. “Well, if you want to…”

There you use the three dot ellipsis because the sentence isn’t finishing, but there is other punctuation after. In the same example you could use ellipsis and end with a question mark, depending on if it’s a statement or a question, but generally with questions it’s better to just use the question mark. You can also use an ellipsis to indicate a space, or hesitation, in grammatically correct dialogue.

“But…I thought you loved me!”

Note the lack of space before and after the ellipsis.

If you routinely use ellipses in your non-dialogue writing, you will look wishy-washy and amateur. Use a period. Stand by your statement. However, if you want your character to look wishy-washy, the occasional well-placed ellipsis will do that. Just please try not to use ellipses more than a couple times in a long chapter because it’s also somewhat jarring to readers.

In academic writing you use ellipses for one reason only–to indicate text that has been removed from a quote because you don’t need it, without rewriting the original sentence and opening yourself to charges of misrepresentation or plagiarism. For example, say I’m writing a newspaper article. A man is telling me about a chef he knows. I need to quote him directly, but we don’t need all of his words. I’d do the following:

Original quote: “She bought oranges, lemons, limes, and tangerines, all examples of citrus fruits. They were needed for her latest pastry recipe.”

Elliptical quote: “She bought…citrus fruits. They were needed for her latest pastry recipe.”

The four dot ellipsis is used to indicate that the sentence is over. Example:

“She bought oranges, lemons, limes, and tangerines…. They were needed for her latest pastry recipe.”

Or I could use two three-dot ellipses to join the two sentences.

“She bought…citrus fruits…for her latest pastry recipe.”

Again, you use that in academic writing or journalism only, where it’s understood that you are abridging a quote, not writing in a hesitant tone of voice.

Quotation marks are so much fun! In America, dialogue is set off with double-quotes, whereas in Britain it’s set off in single-quotes (and sometimes not at all) which can make it easy to tell the nationality of the author. We also use double-quotes when we quote someone else’s speech or writing.

Single-quotes in America are used to indicate something is unusual or special about the word, or to set the word apart for some reason, or to indicate that someone who is speaking is quoting someone else. Here is an example of the last:

I said to my colleague, Mr. Smith, “Brian told me that you said, ‘there is absolutely, definitely no school on Friday.’ Are you pulling some kind of practical joke here?”

The material set off in the single quotes is what Brian said, word for word, to me and I’m telling Mr. Smith that.

Most punctuation is set inside the quotation marks in America, with the exception of question and exclamation marks. Here are examples and reasons.

“Are you pulling some kind of practical joke here?” –> Speaker A is asking Speaker B (you) a direct question. Question mark goes within the quotes.

Had she really said “I don’t love you any more”? I reeled in my seat, clutching for my glass of water. –> Speaker A (I) is thinking about something Speaker B (she) said to him directly. Question mark goes outside the quotes, because Speaker A is questioning the statement he’d heard.

“He said to me, ‘Are you sure you want this game?'” –> Speaker A (me) is relating to Speaker B about what Speaker C (he) has asked. Question mark goes inside the double and single quote marks.

“I love the Dread Pirate booty* series!” He grinned at Jennifer from behind the counter as he rang up her purchase. –> Speaker A (I/he) is telling Speaker B (Jennifer) about something he’s emphatic about. Exclamation point goes within the quotes.

“I said to him, ‘Of course I want that game!’ It’s the hottest game of the year.” –> Speaker A (I) is telling Speaker B (the listener) about something she emphasized to Speaker C (him); the exclamation point goes within the single-quote for that reason.

I couldn’t believe she cancelled our date in favor of watching “When Harry Met Sally”! Wasn’t a real romantic relationship better than a movie about one? –> Speaker A (I) is thinking to himself, and the quotes are around a movie title. Since “When Harry Met Sally” has no punctuation, the exclamation point goes on the outside of the quotes.

The question mark or exclamation point go on the inside of the dialogue’s quotation marks when the person speaking is asking a question.

But what about periods and commas within quotes? Many, many people screw this one up, but it’s actually pretty easy to learn. When you write dialogue, you end the sentence with a period if you start a new sentence or include an action beat right after it. You end it with a comma if you use a dialogue tag.

“She beat me up as I ran through the park,” Jesse whispered, his lips swollen. He sank into the chair, a mass of bruised misery. <– example of comma use because ‘Jessie whispered’ is a dialogue tag. In this case I added a clause after the dialogue tag to indicate why he was whispering, and added another sentence after.

Jesse whispered through swollen lips. “She beat me up as I ran through the park.” He sank into the chair, a mass of bruised misery. –> Here the same idea is written as two sentences with a dialogue tag (whispered). Note how the dialogue ends in a period.

“She beat me up as I ran through the park.” Jesse sank into the chair, his lips swollen, his face a mass of bruised misery. –> Note the lack of a comma due to the lack of dialogue tag. If there’s no dialogue tag, there’s no need for a comma.

British English punctuates dialogue differently.

Apostrophes are the despair of many people. An apostrophe is used for many reasons:

  • To indicate omission of letters from words (aka ‘contractions’). Example: Cannot becomes can’t.
    • It’s means ‘it is.’ “It’s cold outside.”
  • To indicate possession (possessive case). That’s the cat’s favorite box, or Jerry’s remote control car is pink and purple.
    • Its indicates possession, just like ‘his’ and ‘hers’ does. That’s its favorite box, or I have a smartphone. My thumbs are too big for its keyboard.
  • To pluralize lower-case letters. There were too many s’s in that word.

What about words that end in -s? Despite what your English teacher may have taught you, there’s no hard and fast rule. Be consistent, and don’t stress about it too much. If you’re trad-publishing and your editor wants you to do it a particular way, do it that way. Publishing houses have style sheets, too, and they want you to ‘fit’ their punctuation style. That said, if you’re looking for examples, go here.

That said, you should never, ever put the apostrophe before the terminal -s. This is not a rule you ever get to break, period. People get mad about that stuff, as per the examples below.

  • That’s Thoma’s book. –> no, no, no. You’ve just changed Thomas’s name to Thoma.
  • The Jone’s family. –> no, no, no. You’ve just changed the last name ‘Jones’ to ‘Jone.’

In those cases, you either don’t use an apostrophe, or you put it after the ‘s.’

And now for the almighty comma.

Do not put a comma wherever you breathe. If someone told you to do that, they were wrong. People breathe at different rates, and punctuation isn’t dependent on your lung capacity. In musical scores there will occasionally be an apostrophe above the staff. You breathe at the apostrophe. But otherwise there is no punctuation that correlates with breathing.

Commas are primarily used to separate clauses, or ideas, within a sentence. They can become rather complex, and, frankly, comma usage deserves its own article. Here are some real basics.

  • Use a comma to separate lists within a sentence if none of the items in the list requires commas itself. Her dress was green, red, and yellow. If any of the items in your list require commas themselves, use the semi-colon instead. …hamburger meat; cheddar, swiss, and provolone cheeses; lettuce; tomato; and mustard.
  • Use a comma and conjunction to join two sentences or independent clauses together. They went to the store, and then they went home. Generally you want to use periods for that sort of thing, but if all of your sentences in a particular paragraph are the same length, you can vary sentence length by joining two sentences this way. Be careful about overdoing it.
    • Don’t use a comma if the conjunction is joining two adverbs or adjectives that both modify the subject noun. In other words I type fast and well is correct because both fast and well describe how I type. My cat is pretty, and clumsy is wrong because both pretty and clumsy describe my cat. (Seriously. I’ve seen her miss basic jumps.) This should be easy to identify because and well or and clumsy aren’t sentences or independent clauses.
  • Use it to offset unnecessary information (clauses or words). My friend, John, bought that house. I ran, my feet aching, to work today. 
  • Use it after an introductory phrase (watch for dangling modifiers!). Grabbing her remote, Jennifer flicked on the television.
  • Use it with question tags or emphasis words. I know, right? The sunset is pretty, isn’t it?
  • Use it to set off dates. I wrote this on August 8, 2019, at one o’clock in the afternoon.
  • DON’T use a comma to separate articles (a, an, the) from nouns. Lots of people do this! She took the, poison is incorrect. Don’t even do it in dialogue to express a hitch in speech. Use an ellipsis or dash for that. You can, however, use a comma to separate two articles in dialogue to express emphasis or hesitation. “She took the, the poison” is okay, especially if I want to show that the speaker is amazed or startled.

There’s lots more on commas. You can find as many examples as your heart desires by visiting grammarly.

I used the following resources to write this page: Grammarly, The Punctuation Guide, GrammarBook, Your Dictionary, Grammar Girl (via Quick and Dirty Tips), Purdue OWL, Literary Devices, and Get It Write. I also recommend the books The Transitive Vampire (and other books by Karen Elizabeth Gordon); Eats, Shoots, and Leaves; and Woe Is I. I receive no kickbacks for links to books or websites.

*This game was created by Patricia Briggs and is featured in her Mercy Thompson series.