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10 great examples of how to begin a short story

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10 great examples of how to begin a short story

by Dan Brotzel

In this article, author Dan Brotzel shares 10 examples of how to create a perfect opening for your short story.

In a short story, where a whole world or emotional journey can be summoned up and dramatised in the space of a few pages, every line and word has to count – and that’s especially true of the way you begin. Here, for inspiration, are a range of starting strategies from some great exponents of the form…

1. The telling detail

“ONE DOLLAR AND EIGHTY-SEVEN CENTS. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheek burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.”

From ‘The Gift of the Magi’, by O Henry

Sometimes known as the American Maupassant, O Henry’s stories are tightly plotted narratives of ordinary lives with lots of humour that usually end with a classic sting in the tale that, while surprising, flows with unerring logic from the story’s premise.

In this classic tale, we know the whole set-up within a few lines. It is Christmas and Della has no money to buy a present for her beloved husband James. In their whole house they possess only two things that they really value: his gold watch and her golden hair. In a formula that has been much copied since, we watch Della sell her golden locks to raise money to buy a fancy fob for James’s watch, while unbeknownst to her he has pawned his watch to buy her a set of ivory combs that she has long coveted for her (now departed) hair!

It is a tale that sounds tragic, but is actually heartening, because in the end the couple are confirmed in their real gift: the love they bear each other. (Plus, of course, Della’s hair will grow back!) But it all stems from a single telling detail: that opening cinematic detail of a tiny sum of money, piled up in pennies and scrimped from tense negotiations with tradespeople, that is all Della thinks she has to show James how much she loves him.

2. The paradox

“In the beginning, Sanford Carter was ashamed of becoming an Army cook. This was not from snobbery, at least not from snobbery of the most direct sort. During the two and a half years Carter had been in the Army he had come to hate cooks more and more. They existed for him as a symbol of all that was corrupt, overbearing, stupid, and privileged in Army life…”

From ‘The Language of Men,’ by Normal Mailer

Published in 1953, ‘The Language of Men’ tells the story of an over-sensitive, frustrated serviceman who, after years of being passed up for promotion and never finding his niche in the army, ends up as a cook – the thing he hates most about the army. Immediately we are curious: What will happen to a man who becomes the thing he most despises?

Carter feels that he never manages to understand other men, to feel either equal to them or able to lead them. ‘Whenever responsibility had been handed to him, he had discharged it miserably, tensely, over conscientiously. He had always asked too many questions, he had worried the task too severely, he had conveyed his nervousness to the men he was supposed to lead.’

Even after starting to enjoy his work as a cook, the story builds to an incident where the men come to him and ask for a tin of oil for a fish fry-up they are organising – a party to which he is not invited. Carter stands his ground, and earns some grudging respect, but then undercuts it all again after the event with his ‘unmanliness’ – the true source of his self-disgust.

The whole drama of a man failing to fit in with and gain respect among other men is foreshadowed in the paradox that’s set in motion in the story’s opening lines.

3. The historical backdrop

“Paris was blockaded, starved, in its death agony. Sparrows were becoming scarcer and scarcer on the rooftops and the sewers were being depopulated. One ate whatever one could get.

As he was strolling sadly along the outer boulevard one bright January morning, his hands in his trousers pockets and his stomach empty, M. Morissot, watchmaker by trade but local militiaman for the time being, stopped short before a fellow militiaman whom he recognized as a friend. It was M Sauvage, a riverside acquaintance.”

From ‘Two Friends,’ by Guy de Maupassant

A protege of Flaubert and the author of the novel Bel-Ami, Maupassant wrote over 300 short stories, many of them – like this one – set during the Franco-Prussian war, and showing how innocent lives are swept up and crushed by futile, brutal conflict.

This story starts with a brief paragraph of context and another telling detail: the absence of sparrows. At this point in the conflict, the Prussian army has established a blockade around Paris and is seeking to starve out its citizens.

The two friends of the title were passionate fishermen in peacetime, and after a chance encounter they convince each other to go off and fish once again. As well as the hunger they feel, they are motivated by a hankering for a return to the innocent pleasures of their pre-war lives.

They slip out past the French lines, to an area where they think they will be safe, but after a brief interval of bliss the Prussians detect them, with tragic consequences…

The opening line describes the war situation in vivid, journalistic terms, after which we are plunged into the tale of these two innocents. In a few telling phrases, it provides context and general background for the very particular tragedy which is about to ensue.

4. The anecdotal approach

“Margot met Robert on a Wednesday night toward the end of her fall semester. She was working behind the concession stand at the artsy movie theatre downtown when he came in and bought a large popcorn and a box of Red Vines.

“That’s an… unusual choice,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever actually sold a box of Red Vines before.”

From ‘Cat Person,’ by Kristen Roupenian

‘Cat Person,’ reportedly the first short story ever to go viral, tells a simple tale of a doomed romantic encounter. Margot, a student, meets an older guy, Robert, and they begin a flirtation that turns into a date that turns into a rather unsatisfactory (for her) sexual encounter.

Robert starts off as rather funny and charming, but over time we see that he is needy, insensitive, possessive, and utterly unaware of what Margot is thinking or feeling. Margot regrets the whole thing but doesn’t know how to tell him; Robert, when he is let down, turns all-too-predictably toxic. In short order he goes from mooning after her to demanding who she’s slept with to calling her a ‘whore.’

This sequence of events struck a chord with many, many people because it is clearly so familiar. The story emphasises the banality of the whole progression by narrating events in a straightforwardly chronological, anecdotal style, right from the opening paragraph. This approach serves to underline the depressing banality of Robert’s misogyny while implicitly asking the question: Why should women have to accept this as normal?

5. In media res

“And after all the weather was ideal. They could not have had a more perfect day for a party if they had ordered it. Windless, warm, the sky without a cloud. Only the blue was veiled with a haze of light gold, as it is sometimes in early summer. The gardener had been up since dawn, mowing the lawns and sweeping them, until the grass and the dark flat rosettes where the daisy plants had been seemed to shine. As for the roses, you could not help feeling they understood that roses are the only flowers that -parties; the only flowers that everybody is certain of knowing. Hundreds, yes, literally hundreds, had come out in a single night; the green bushes bowed down as though they had been visited by archangels.”

From ‘The Garden Party,’ by Katherine Mansfield

Literally ‘in the middle of things’, an in media res beginning is where the story drops us into the middle of the action of the narrative, so that we are instantly caught up in events. In this case, we are plunged into the excited bustle of a well-to-do family preparing a sumptuous garden party, and the story does a fantastic job of building up the anticipation and painting a picture of the affluence of the hosts. There is a marquee to put up, a band on its way, an enormous delivery of fancy flowers, fifteen kinds of sandwich, and a retinue of servants to ensure everything is ready.

Beginning with ‘and’ adds to this effect, giving us to understand that garden-party fever has been going on already for days, and seeming to hark back to earlier worries about what the weather would be like on the day. But against all this blithely affluent gaiety comes the story’s turning point: news that a poor workingman living in a cottage nearby has died in a sudden accident.

Laura, a daughter of the house, wonders if it appropriate to continue with the party, especially as all the noise and music and bustle will carry to the grieving widow (who also has six children, we later discover). But just as happens to the reader with the introduction, she is swept along by the occasion, and only really reconsiders the incident at the end of a successful party, when her mother suggest she take a basket of sandwiches from the party down to the widow. Laura’s reaction to this difficult task is initially ambiguous, but ultimately it seems as if again she finds a way to paint the tragedy in complacently optimistic colours, choosing to find a serenity and beauty on the dead man’s face and so blind herself to the grim reality of the tragedy and the agony of the grieving wife.

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6. The Refrain

“The thing about being the murdered extra is you set the plot in motion.

You were a girl good at walking past cameras, background girl, corner-of-the-frame girl. Never-held-a-script girl, went-where-the-director-said girl.

You’ll be found in an alley, it’s always an alley for girls like you, didn’t-quite-make-it girls, living-four-to-a-one-bedroom-apartment girls. You’ll be found in an alley, you’ll be mistaken for a broken mannequin at first, you’ll be given a nickname. Blue Violet, White Rose, something reminiscent of Elizabeth Short, that first girl like you, that most famous one. The kind of dead girl who never really dies.”

From ‘Being the Murdered Extra,’ by Cathy Ulrich

Cathy Ulrich’s extraordinary ‘Murdered Ladies’ flash fictions present a series of stories – there are 40 of them in her collection, Ghosts of You – which always begin with the same line: The thing about being the murdered extra/girlfriend/moll/classmate/witch/dancer [etc] is you set the plot in motion.

It’s a thought-provoking line, which grows in power with every repetition. On the face of it seems strange to see these women as setting the plot in motion, when they are all victims of male violence. But we start to see that what they set in motion is actually the story that the people who survive them will appropriate from their lost lives, and blithely relate in their absence.

Each woman may set her plot in motion, but in each case she is not alive to explain how everyone gets her wrong, or projects their own version of events to absolve themselves too easily. We see that this theft of each woman’s own story is another violence that is done to them, something the stories seek in some small way to redeem. As Ulrich says: ‘Every story is looking for the lost girl from the title […] I am looking for the lost in these stories. I don’t know if I will ever find them.’

7. Setting the Rules

“The north and the west and the south are good hunting ground, but it is forbidden to go east. It is forbidden to go to any of the Dead Places except to search for metal and then he who touches the metal must be a priest or the son of a priest. Afterwards, both the man and the metal must be purified. These are the rules and the laws; they are well made. It is forbidden to cross the great river and look upon the place that was the Place of the Gods—this is most strictly forbidden. We do not even say its name though we know its name. It is there that spirits live, and demons—it is there that there are the ashes of the Great Burning. These things are forbidden—they have been forbidden since the beginning of time.”

From ‘By the Waters of Babylon,’ by Stephen Vincent Benét

In any story that seeks to build a world that is not ours, there is some work to be done in establishing the reality of that world – its customs, its landscape, its people, its rules. World-building stories can sometimes fall down when they indulge in too much of an expository info dump, as the accumulation of background detail can quickly dent narrative momentum.

What’s so clever about the start of this story is that the rules are themselves the engine of the plot. We pan cinematically across the edges of the story’s territory, and understand the legends and forbidden areas of this world. But the quest of the narrator – who is indeed the son of a priest – will take him east, into the forbidden Place of the Gods (about which, of course, we are already very curious). At the outset of the story we do not the time in which the story is set, what kind of being he is, or where he lives. But all these things will be revealed as the narrator’s journey through a post-apocalyptic, post-technological world takes him to places that gradually start to seem very familiar…

8. Beginning with the inciting incident

“The day my son Laurie started kindergarten he renounced corduroy overalls with bibs and began wearing blue jeans with a belt; I watched him go off the first morning with the older girl next door, seeing clearly that an era of my life was ended, my sweet-voiced nursery-school tot replaced by a longtrousered, swaggering character who forgot to stop at the corner and wave good-bye to me.”

From ‘Charles,’ by Shirley Jackson

Screenwriting guru Robert Mckee describes the inciting incident as a moment that ‘radically upsets the balance of forces in your protagonist’s life’. It’s the moment when our main character is plunged out of their normal routine and a challenge or quest appears which will shape their journey, and with it the rest of the story. It’s common to locate this point near the start of the story after some introductory ‘normality,’ so that we can understand how the main character’s life is to be disrupted.

But here the inciting incident is placed by mystery and horror writer Shirley Jackson – best known for The Haunting of Hill House – at the very start of the story. Everything that happens flows from Laurie starting kindergarten. Laurie gets cheekier and less innocent with each passing day, as he brings home increasingly hair-raising tales of an even naughtier boy called Charles. The whole story deals with the comic escalation of Charles’ behaviour, as reader and narrator alike become ever more curious to meet the errant child and speculate on what his parents are like.

I won’t spoil the ending, except to say that there is perhaps a clue in the mother’s lament in the opening paragraph about the end of an era of innocence…

9. The thought experiment

“MY LOVER IS experiencing reverse evolution. I tell no one. I don’t know how it happened, only that one day he was my lover and the next he was some kind of ape. It’s been a month, and now he’s a sea turtle.”

From ‘The Rememberer,’ by Aimee Bender

Aimee Bender’s story begins by asking the reader to imagine something extraordinarily counterfactual: that her lover is regressing through millennia, going through the evolutionary process so fast – a million years a day, in reverse – that we can actually track his progress by the day. One day he is a baboon, another a salamander; eventually he is no longer even visible to the naked eye.

As with so many of Bendee’s stories the result is mournful, strange, poetic and profound. She takes a surreal thought like this and turns into a powerful meditation on memory, the difference between evolution and maturity, speciesism and loss. And it all begins with that challenging idea which confronts us in the very first sentence.

10. The conundrum

“1-0. Who would expect the Embassy of Cambodia? Nobody. Nobody could have expected it, or be expecting it. It’s a surprise, to us all. The Embassy of Cambodia!

Next door to the embassy is a health center. On the other side, a row of private residences, most of them belonging to wealthy Arabs (or so we, the people of Willesden, contend). They have Corinthian pillars on either side of their front doors, and—it’s widely believed—swimming pools out back. The embassy, by contrast, is not very grand. It is only a four- or five-bedroom North London suburban villa, built at some point in the thirties, surrounded by a red brick wall, about eight feet high. And back and forth, cresting this wall horizontally, flies a shuttlecock. They are playing badminton in the Embassy of Cambodia. Pock, smash. Pock, smash.”

From ‘The Embassy of Cambodia,’ by Zadie Smith

This subtle and absorbing story from Zadie Smith opens with a mystery: an embassy, set in a leafy north London suburb rather than a grand central district of the city, and a wall, behind which a mysterious game of badminton is being played. The rest of the story picks at this mystery and uses the imagined score in the ongoing game-playing as a backdrop to the unfolding tale of Fatou, a domestic servant to the affluent Derawals, who has escaped servitude and dodged abuse in Africa only to face privations and hardships in London.

Each mini-chapter of the story is headed with a score from the badminton match – from 1-0 up to 21-0. This mechanism provides a rhythmic framework to the tale. We may never learn who actually holds the rackets, but we see that the back-and-forth motion behind the wall of an embassy – an institution with the power to grant deny or people access to whole a country – is a fitting counterpoint to the enforced travels of impoverished migrants, and to the desperate movements of Fatou’s hopes and fears in a world where she has little agency or resources, and only one friend.

Now you’ve seen how these authors have done it, it’s time to get stuck into actually putting pen to paper – or fingertips to keyboard – and start writing your short story. For more from Dan, check out his top 10 steps for writing short stories (with even more examples!).

About Dan

Dan Brotzel’s debut short story collection, Hotel du Jack, was published in 2020 by Sandstone. He is also co-author of Work in Progress (Unbound, forthcoming), a comic novel-in-emails about an eccentric writers group. His short stories have featured widely in litmags and competitions, and two have recently received Pushcart Prize nominations.

You can keep up to date with Dan’s writing on twitter and Medium

Don’t forget to head on over to Townhouse to share your advice for writing short stories too!

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How to write a short story in 10 steps – with examples

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How to write a short story: 10 steps to finishing your short story – with examples

by Dan Brotzel

In this article, Dan Brotzel shares 10 simple steps and practical pointers to get you up and writing shorter fiction!

For about 30 years, I slogged away trying to write a novel. But I just never had the plotting smarts or the emotional stamina, and I became like a madman running again and again at a brick wall, doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Then, one day, and only a couple of decades overdue, I had a rather marvellous thought. You’re used to writing short things – articles, web pages and the like. You’re a sprinter, not a marathon runner. Why don’t you have a go at short fiction? 

As a journalist and content writer in my day job, I like a deadline. Deadlines concentrate the mind, deadlines force you to finish things. So I googled ‘short story competitions’ and found that, surprise surprise, there were actually quite a few out there, and all with a deadline.

One of my very first attempts won a modest prize (£40, I think) in a competition run by a small press. This was encouraging. I didn’t get anywhere with a story for over a year after that, but that small crumb of validation was enough to tide me over. I started writing more and more stories, and I’ve never really stopped since. I must have written over 100 by now. In 2019, a couple were nominated for the Pushcart anthology in the US. And best of all, in 2020 I published my debut collection of short stories, Hotel du Jack.

I love writing short fiction, and I always have several stories on the go. But I’m still interested in getting novels published too, and my first, Kitten on a Fatberg, a co-authored comic novel, comes out from Unbound in 2021. I’m also putting the finishing touches to another full-length MS, working title The Wolf in the Woods.

You may have noticed that I went from failing to finish novels to writing short stories… to finishing novels. And that, I believe, is no accident. Starting on short stories is a great way to build up your writing muscles. You get the satisfaction of structuring, shaping and, above all, completing things. At first, you may find you can’t write anything over 200 or 500 words. But after a while, you suddenly realise that your stories are getting longer and more complex, as you start to experiment with ideas and forms and voices.

A short story is often not so different in length and shape from a scene in a novel, or even several scenes strung together. And one day you may find you have a different, chunkier sort of idea, one that requires more than a few thousand words to really do it justice. And maybe that day is the day you start on a novel – which you’ll now have a much better chance of finishing, with all the craft and experience that you’ve developed by completing a slew of shorter pieces.

So: in a matter of months, I went from being able to finish nothing fictional to writing scores of stories and regularly getting them featured in competitions and magazines. If you’re looking to get your short-story writing off the ground, I hope these tips and ideas of mine will help you too…

How to write a short story in 10 easy steps

  1. Read widely
  2. Get a great idea
  3. Experiment with techniques
  4. Take inspiration from everyday life
  5. Start writing
  6. Add more levels to your writing
  7. Edit, rework, revise, repeat
  8. Focus on your beginning…
  9. …and your ending
  10. Recruit beta readers

Short story: what is it and why is it special?

I’ve always loved short stories. I remember my dad reading me the stories of O’Henry when I was little, studying Maupassant’s contes of the Franco-Prussian war for A level, discovering the (now deeply unfashionable) tales of Updike, marvelling at ‘The Language of Men’ by Norman Mailer and Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Garden Party.’ ‘Cat Woman,’ Chekhov, the ‘murdered lady’ series of Cathy Ulrich (now collected as Ghosts of You), Aimee Bender, Salinger, Nadine Gordimer, Denis Jonson, Zadie Smith, David Vann… Oh, I could go on.

Sometimes I think short fiction is closer to poetry than it is to the novel. The best short stories are little universes of compressed perfection, where every paragraph, every word, every punctuation mark has to earn its place. Short stories can be intricately plotted or they can relate little more than the movements of a mind in conversation with itself on a small domestic topic. They can be all showing or – whisper it – all telling. They can range over years or take place in a lunchtime, relating the end of a friendship or the decline of a civilisation (though the former, if we are honest, is more common). They seem, for some reason, to talk a great deal about death.

Short stories can take one tool from the fictional toolkit – voice, character, dialogue, structure, point of view, idea – and major on that, almost to the exclusion of all others. They can talk of boring or obvious topics in fresh ways, or they can deliver great weirdnesses and wild thought experiments. In short, they can do whatever they like. They just have to be true to themselves, and make us believe in them, and not go on too long.

For length, mind, we will need our piece of string. Short stories can be 30 pages long, or they can just be a few paragraphs. If we include flash fiction here – and why wouldn’t we, though it’s almost a whole separate article – we are looking at stories that can be as short as 100 words (technically known as drabbles).

There are those who look down on flash fiction, but this I’m afraid is mere ignorance (I can say this with confidence, as I languished in this sort of ignorance myself till not so long ago). Not convinced? Try reading this or this or this or this or this or some of these. Flash is a distinctive sub-genre of short fiction. It is much harder than it looks, very much not just the offcuts of longer stuff, and the best exponents are very fine writers indeed.


How do you structure a short story?

There are many ways to structure a short story. You could have a beginning, a middle and an end. You could have a mini-version of the classic novel structure or one of the seven basic plots. You could have a classic sting in the tale – think of the stories of Roald Dahl or O’Henry or Saki. Or you could just start writing – and see what shape starts to emerge. Often voice or idea is far more important than structure in a short story, and you can often retro-fix the shape once you’ve nailed those essential components first. Because short stories are, well, short, you can sometimes even plan and draft them at the same time.

Some stories read almost like anecdotes or well-crafted jokes; others appear to have no obvious plot in a novelistic sense, but are more like tableaux vivants which, like an interesting painting, reveal more meaning and information with every look. In some, like Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants,’ nothing really appears to happen; there is talk of ‘an operation’ in a tense conversation between a couple, but the reader has to look between the lines to intuit what’s happening. All this, again, points to the wonderful fluidity and flexibility of the form.

One classic way to tell a story is what I call the Pivot structure, where you set one non-human element against another, usually human, event or relationship. Over the course of the story, the non-human element starts to tick away like a metaphor engine for the human element of the story, resonating with different meanings as the narrative develops.

For example, I’ve just read ‘Little Tiger’ by JR McMenemie, a beautiful story told from the point of view of two children who have just lost their gran. Their Mum is upset at having lost her Mum, and Dad is trying to comfort her. The kids have never been to a funeral before, and returning to their house in the aftermath is clearly a very unsettling experience for all. Mum engages in some aggressive tidying up, while Dad – who is struggling to juggle the competing claims of his children and his wife – starts laying a little heavily into the booze.

Then, all of a sudden, the kids find a butterfly, sitting on top of a picture of a beach where they all spent many holidays with gran. This is odd, as in the story it’s February, in northern England. The children feed the butterfly some banana, and are keen to make a pet of it. All of a sudden, Mum announces that the butterfly is her Mum, come back to say goodbye. In the morning, however, the kids wake to discover that the butterfly is gone; Dad explains that they couldn’t really keep it. Do you really think the butterfly was Nan? they ask. The story ends with Dad’s reply:

‘I don’t know, son. It could have been. Your mum says some funny things sometimes. All I’m saying is that your grandma didn’t like bananas.’

This crude, simplified summary doesn’t begin to do justice to the patient, emotionally intelligent storytelling of the piece, but you can see that the butterfly acts as a pivot on which the whole story can keep turning. It is, by turns, a distraction, a projection of grief, potential proof of an afterlife, an emblem of marital devotion and, in its release, a key to the processing of loss and the attainment of a certain understated resilience. Do we live on after we die? Dad is doubtful, but he loves his wife and sees no value in challenging her theory. And she, in her turn, aching with love for her absent mum, can be forgiven a little magical thinking. If, indeed, it is magical: who, after all, can be certain that she is wrong?

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10 steps to writing a short story, with examples

1. Forage the world for story starters

One of the attractive things about writing short stories, as opposed to longer stuff, is that you don’t need to work out a fully-fleshed outline, snowflake-style or otherwise, in order to get started. Nor do you need oodles of background words about characters, stakes, setting, timeframe and so on. You just need an idea.

And that idea doesn’t even need to be an idea in the grand sense either; it can just be a prompt. It might just be a chance remark you overheard on a bus, a funny ornament in a front garden you pass every day, an odd-looking chap you spot on a holiday beach, a sudden childhood memory. It might be a smell or a view or a colour; it might be a thought triggered by a film or a radio programme or a children’s book. Of course, it might also be a break-up you’ve never got over, a terrible act of cruelty you once witnessed, or a historical event that has always had a special resonance for you.

When you start, you won’t necessarily know what’s a story-worthy idea and what isn’t. So the first thing to do is to cultivate the habit of looking and listening, both to the outside world and to the things that bubble up in your mind. Now this might sound easy, but often it defeats people because they can’t believe it will ever get them to a finished story. We sometimes envision creativity as this wonderfully crazed, instinctive outpouring, whereas this note-taking business feels like something rather dull and premeditated.

But your notebook, whatever form it takes, is where all the raw data of your stories will start to emerge. No data: no stories. So you have to get into the habit of jotting things down, and trusting that this is a worthwhile thing to do, and just repeatedly doing it even if you don’t really believe that yet, even when your first efforts are just dreadful callow things like So here I am writing in this book or Milk, wipes, olive oil. Post office! As with a half-used tube of toothpaste, you sometimes have to squeeze the crud out to get to the good stuff.

For inspiration, try Morning Pages – as popularised by Natalie Goldberg, Julia Cameron and others. Basically, you sit down at the start of your writing session – it doesn’t even have to be morning! – and you just write down whatever comes into your head for 10 minutes. Don’t censor what pops up – just record your thoughts.

You might be amazed what occurs – shopping lists, dreams, the fag-end of a row with your partner, a glimpse of a first crush, childhood memories, strange bits of wordplay, spiritual reflections, a person in your life you haven’t thought about for ages… It’s all good, and it could all get used somewhere in your fiction. Just as the stand-up sees the world as a bunch of set-ups waiting for a punchline, so the short-fiction writer sees the world as a bunch of prompts waiting for a good story.

2. Go with the idea that tingles

My Dad always said that he could tell a really good piece of cheese because it gave him a funny tingly feeling behind the ears. I spent much of my childhood trying (and failing) to experience this elusive dairy-led sensation. But I do at least get the tingle when it comes to stories.

Over time, you’ll start to look at the bits of mental flotsam in your notebook, and you may find there’s a phrase or an anecdote or an image that you keep coming back to. When that happens, you may well have the first tinglings of a story on your hands.

From time to time I go back through my notebooks and highlight bits of scribble that I think I might be able to use. Sometimes it’s a setting. My story ‘The Beach Shop’ in Hotel du Jack, for example, about a heartbroken man stalking his ex-wife on her holiday, was inspired by my early-morning stops at a cafe on a French campsite. I loved the locale, and just started writing about it till a story came.

Sometimes – often in my case – it’s a bit of anecdotal autobiography. My story ‘Plane-spotting‘ was inspired by reading a story to my young son about an airport where all the planes are animals. I thought it would be funny if the Dad was a real aviation nerd, increasingly infuriated by the inaccuracy of the drawings, and it just went from there. With the flash ‘Eau de l’avenir,’ the inspiration was a smell – or rather, a scent.

To give one more example of how ideas turn into stories, George Saunders says his flash fiction ‘Sticks’ came from something he saw from his car every day. ‘For two years I’d been driving past a house like the one in the story, imagining the owner as a man more joyful and self-possessed and less self-conscious than myself. Then one day I got sick of him and invented his opposite, and there was the story.’

When you note down stuff, you don’t know if you’ll ever use it, or if you’ll end up using it several times. You may use it in a way that’s a complete betrayal of the original memory. You may dredge it up again, years later, and forget you ever jotted it down in the first place. It doesn’t matter: you’ve got it down now, and it’s adding to your imaginative store. It’s all good.

3. Try a thought experiment

Another way to approach a story is to ask yourself: What if…? What if supermarket shelf-fillers and nurses were the most celebrated and best-paid members of society, and celebrities and lawyers were considered the lowest of the low? What if an epidemic of kindness broke out in the world – Agapia-117, let’s call it – and threatened the stranglehold of capitalism, with its built-in systemic reliance on rabid self-interest? (Just riffing here, obvs.)

These kinds of story offer you a rich counterfactual challenge. Depending on the challenge, you might offer the reader the pleasure of watching an unexpected idea play out, or you might challenge yourself to pull off a narrative feat that the reader doesn’t know about until the end: What if (to cite a notorious example) you could tell me a whole story that turns out in the end to have been narrated by a cat? What if you wrote an alien contact story, only for us to realise at the end that the narrator lives on another planet, and the ‘aliens’ are actually humans from earth?

The idea for my story, ‘Nothing So Blue,’ came to me when I asked my son for ideas of what I could write about. ‘Write about becoming invisible,’ he said. Now sci-fi isn’t really my thing, but then I thought: ‘What if you were granted a superpower, and it turned out to be a bit rubbish?’ Now that, I thought, was very much more my thing.

A great example of the thought-experiment approach is ‘The Rememberer’, by Aimee Bender:

‘My lover is experiencing reverse evolution. I tell no one. I don’t know how it happened, only that one day he was my lover and the next he was some kind of ape. It’s been a month, and now he’s a sea turtle.’

4. Borrow a form from everyday life

Structure doesn’t come naturally to us all (guilty), but an easy way to get round that is to give yourself a nice constrained timeframe, such as the hours of a day or the seven days of a week. I use this structure in a few of my stories, notably the title track of Hotel du Jack, because it offers a natural scale of narrative progression. On Monday, we meet the cast of the story and get a sense of what’s at stake. On Tuesday the first signs of conflict emerge. Wednesday sees problems escalate, Thursday brings a false dawn, and on Friday things really kick off. Saturday is the day the crisis resolves and the loose ends are tied up, and Sunday has that nice sort of epilogue feel to it. It is the day, as Craig David tells it, on which one chills; the day one rests after creating a world.

You might choose a lunch-hour, or a night, as Helen Simpson does with her insomniac narrator in ‘Erewhon’ (collected in Constitutional), a man in a roles-reversed world who stays up worrying about kids and money and sexism while his high-powered wife lies snoring indifferently next to him. It could be a date or a work meeting or a conversation between dads at the side of a junior football match, where the competitive nature of the chat echoes the changing fortunes of their kids’ respective teams and the climax of the story coincides with the final whistle.

Taking this idea a step further, hermit-crab fictions – also known as borrowed forms – are stories that are made out of everyday verbal templates. The more banal the form, the better – think product reviews, missing-person reports, recipes, maths problems, listicles, top tips, user instructions…

The trick is to try to stick quite closely to the structure you’re stealing, so that the story you tell will seem even wilder or more heartbreaking by contrast with its dull container. As you go through your day, you’ll come across thousands of these dead bits of copy – from insurance letters to FAQs to parish newsletters. Choose one, and make it your own.

I’ve written hermit-crab stories in the form of a shopping list, board game rules, FAQs and even a penalty charge notice. In Hotel du Jack, you’ll also find a ghost story told as a neighbourhood forum thread, a reflection on #metoo in the form of board meeting minutes, a meditation on grief in the form of a dishwasher glossary, and a product recall notification. Another story, ‘Active and passive voice’, dissects a flawed relationship through the structure of a grammar lesson. Meanwhile ‘My Mummy is…‘ was written – out of a sense of profound inadequacy – just after I’d read a book with my 5-year-old son at school entitled My Daddy is a Firefighter.

One of my favourites pieces of flash fiction, LIFECOLOR INDOOR LATEX PAINTS® – WHITES AND REDS by Kristen Ploetz, manages to condense an entire life into a trio of paint palettes. George Saunders has a lot of fun with this response to a customer complaint. Here’s a story of long-term love that’s also a 5-star blender review. And this story is just receipts.

If you’d like to read more hermit-crab narratives, here’s a couple of great anthologies to inspire you: Fakes by David Shields and Matthew Vollmer, and The Shell Game, edited by Kim Adrian.

5. Start writing

If you’ve got a prompt that feels rich and interesting – whether it’s a vague memory or a thought experiment or a borrowed form – the next thing is just to get something down.

My process at this point is crude: just bang a first draft out. If you have an idea that feels like a start, get it down and start playing around with what happens next. If you have an idea that feels like an ending, get it down and think about how your story might get you there. But do the thinking by actual writing. This is not a drill! And this is not a novel. Just write.

As you go along, the idea will start to build and coalesce, especially as, remember, you chose something that’s already glowing and tingling for you. As the juices start flowing, you will start to see possibilities open out for you – structural bridges, snippets of dialogue, observations that you sense suddenly belong somewhere within the fabric of your story’s world. You can start to put in little headers too, little pegs to mark out future sections. Jot all these extra thoughts at the bottom of your doc, keep typing, and fold them in as you go.

Sometimes, as the story starts to flow, you may get stuck on one bit but can start to see how a later section would work. Go with the flow, and start filling in that later section instead – just leave yourself some meta-notes for the bits you need to come back to later e.g. insert scene where elephant appears for first time or add in funeral-home bit here to explain why Moira’s always hated lilies.

The same process also works at a micro-level, too. Often your ideas for the story run ahead of how quickly you can phrase things. Thinking about the broad contours of your story and fine-tuning phraseology are different creative tasks, and it’s not always easy or efficient to flit between the two. Don’t waste time waiting for the mot juste to arrive – just put in a bit placeholder copy or add some “xxxxxxxxxxxs,” and move on. Just get the broad brushstrokes down, and then you can go back and finesse the detail later. 

I guess the approach I’m advocating here is a bit like ‘writing by the lights,’ a phrase that inevitably takes us back to a line from EL Doctorow: ‘Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ Sometimes the idea you have is a perfect little synopsis, and all (!) you have to do now to flesh it out in a way that does justice to the conception. Sometimes you just have an opening scene, or an image, or a character to work with, and you have to build the rest of the world around them. But the remedy is the same in every case: get that first draft down.

The more stories you write, the more you get a sense of the optimum length for a particular piece. Some short stories are almost like extended gags; they go out and back in a simple anecdotal arc that culminates in a snappy zinger. Others require patience and stamina to deliver their potential. Their form might be much more complex: a spiral, a mosaic, a musical symphony of contrasting and resolving themes. But the best way to build up to writing complex stories is to start by completing simpler ones. And the best way to complete a story is get a first draft down fast. Then the real work can begin.

header short story 2

6. Work in another level

A satisfying story can usually be read on more than one level. There is the surface level, and then there is a sense of an underlying meaning. If your story is to feel like more than a mere skit or vignette, we want to have a sense that there is another perspective, a subtext, a theme that’s whirring away in the background as we read.

I’m not suggesting that you start with a grand theme and try and mould a story to it; that will usually lead you somewhere strained and leaden. I just mean that when you write your story, you want to have an eye on how others will find it interesting or meaningful. You don’t have to have a pat answer to this question, quite the opposite in fact. Where novels often build up to an accumulated truth, the best stories often have an inconclusive, open-ended quality.

Often in life, when you think about it, we are working through familiar challenges and conflicts in a variety of different guises and permutations: freedom versus commitment, future hopes versus mortality, child versus parent, addiction versus abstention, ego versus altruism – the list is endless. What short stories often do is replay one of these central conflicts for us in a way that is both very specific – involving particular individuals in detailed interactions – but also has a timeless, universalising feel to it. Life is ambiguity, and things rarely get resolved. So, as your story takes shape, ask yourself: which pattern am I enacting here?

This might sound a bit complex, but really it’s very simple, because every story we tell inevitably has the potential to speak beyond its own obvious remit; the trick is just to polish your words in the light of their wider applicability. As you start to get your story down, have an eye on the meanings and themes that emerge with it, and shape your material accordingly. You don’t have to be able to say what the story is really about; you just need to leave enough space and enough interesting glimmers for the reader to want to fill in the blanks.

Take, for example, Conrad’s ‘The Secret Sharer.‘ This rich and subtle tale is full of nautical detail and has the feel of being based on a true incident, lightly fictionalised. But Conrad is careful throughout to dial up the elements we can all relate to: the fear of not being good enough, the loneliness of command, the terror of being brave, and so on.

Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Fly’ – as well as being a pair of beautifully observed little scenes – speaks to us about bereavement, and the agony of a loss which can no longer even find expression. And in retrospect, we see that JD Salinger’s ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ – for all its enjoyable elements of comedy and social satire – speaks also to the corrosive effects of trauma and the inadequacy of our responses to it.

7. Edit. Revise. Rework. Repeat.

Writing, as so many have said, is re-writing. Now that you have a rough draft down, the real work can begin, as you hone and polish and finesse your story into the best story it can be, and remove in the process all avoidable friction from the reading process. A few pointers:

  • Look hard at the movement and logic of the story. Read the story out loud to yourself, and see if it makes good narrative sense. Is the middle soggy? Are there any tedious info dumps? Is there too much telling at the expense of showing? Is there a good balance between different sections and viewpoints (if you have more than one)? Is the story long enough, or do you rush to the conclusion and throw the ending away? 
  • Look out for redundancies. Strip away phrases, sentences and even sections that don’t add anything to the mood or voice or development of the story. Murder your darlings – all those bits (phrases, plot points, devices etc) that you’re really fond of but don’t really fit into the texture of the story you have developed.
  • Add in clarifications and bridges. Editing isn’t just taking things away. Sometimes it’s about adding things too. If a transition between two sections isn’t clear, or your intro throws up a commonsensical question that you don’t ever answer, the reader will be too busy scratching their head to fully appreciate your story. Sometimes just a clarifying phrase here or a subtle time or place reference there can be all it takes.
  • Look for words and phrases that you know you over-use. I’m a sucker for ‘suddenly,’ ‘seemed,’ ‘now’ and ‘screenwash’. I have certain pet thoughts and jokes that, if left to my own devices, I will happily try and shoehorn into everything I write. Watch out for ‘had’ too – if half your story is in the form of a past-perfect flashback, that’s probably going to be a problem. See more tips on self-editing here.

8. Look extra hard at your start…

The start of your story needs to work hard to lure us into the world of your narrative. It must intrigue us from the off. We want to feel instantly that we are in an interesting place, where interesting things may happen, and that we can trust and enjoy the person who is telling us about them. Ambiguity, cliche, long-windedness, unnecessary cleverness – these can all spell death to a good intro.

You might start with an intriguing hook (‘In the beginning, Sanford Carter was ashamed of becoming an Army cook’ – ‘The Language of Men’, by Norman Mailer.) You might set the scene with a sweep of historical backdrop (‘Paris was blockaded, starved, in its death agony’ – ‘Deux Amis’, by Maupassant.)

Or you might start by setting the rules of the world, as in ‘By the Waters of Babylon’ by Stephen Vincent Benét, in a way that has the reader wondering from the very start what will happen if one is broken:

‘The north and the west and the south are good hunting ground, but it is forbidden to go east. It is forbidden to go to any of the Dead Places except to search for metal and then he who touches the metal must be a priest or the son of a priest.’

Naturally I am instantly curious about what happens if I head east. And the Dead Places? These are things I need to know about.

For more on this topic, see my 10 examples of how to start a short story.

9. …And look extra hard at your ending

You need to bring your story to a conclusion in a satisfying way that is of a piece with the style and mood of the narrative that you have created. If you have written a taut, sting-in-the-tale mystery, the ending should close things off with a satisfying snap that tells us the case is closed and justice – consistent in some way or other with the internal logic of your piece – has been served.

A story that is more reflective and interior in tone, on the other hand, will ideally finish with a line that adds a new perspective or dimension to our understanding of the whole, and keeps rippling and resonating in the reader’s mind long after they have finished reading.

The ending can be a shock to the system that makes sense of everything that’s gone before; ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ is an obvious and powerful example of this. Or it can zoom away from the action, just as a camera takes leave of its subject. Or it can inject a twist that calls into doubt everything you’ve read so far. It can sometimes be read two different ways, leaving the reader to work out their own ending.

And it can of course just show that the world keeps on turning. My ‘Ella G in a Country Churchyard’, for example, brings a story of an uncomfortable parent-child conversation about mortality to a close with the Dad asking: ‘Ready for some sausages?’ This could be seen as an evasion, but then again there are no adequate answers to the girl’s impossible questions about what happens when we die. Life goes on, and it is almost teatime.

10. Get another view

Don’t send out the story to any magazine or competition until someone else has read it and fed back to you. And not just anyone, but someone whose judgement you respect, and who can give a candid take on what’s working and what isn’t.

You may have a trusted beta reader – perhaps your partner, or a relative or friend – who always reads your stuff, or you may get feedback from a Facebook group. And of course there’s the Townhouse. These are great resources, but in my experience nothing beats being part of a real-life writers’ group.

In a writers’ group, you’ll have the experience of reading your words to others – itself often very instructive, as you can often sense where the story is working and where it’s dragging just from the quality of attention in the room. And you’ll get constructive, practical feedback from people who are dealing with the same challenges, albeit from different perspectives and genres. Short stories lend themselves particularly well to group critique, because they are often just the right length to read in full.

No doubt there will be feedback – from yourself as well as from others – and you will need to decide which bits you want to act on and which, not: learning the difference is a lifetime’s work. Inevitably you will find yourself returning to step 7, and perhaps steps 8 and 9 too, but that’s no bad thing. Writing is re-writing, remember.

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Make the hardest part of writing easier

How do you write a short story in one day? Can you write a short story in one day?

Yes! It’s perfectly possible to write a story in a day, or less. Sometimes, when you get a great idea, the piece – especially it’s a flash or shorter fiction – may emerge fully formed.

That’s not to say you’ve only been working on it that day – in my case, a story might get drafted in a couple of hours that I’ve been turning over in the back of my mind for a couple of years.

And that’s not to say it’ll be the final version either. While you might be able to complete the draft in a day, it’s always wise to sleep on it and come back to it next day, to review and revise, and to get some other people’s feedback too.

Publishing your short story

So, you’ve written your short story, but what next?

There are loads of litmags and competitions out there. Many of the editors and organisers are aspiring writers themselves, and can be wonderfully supportive with feedback even when they’re not able to accept your story. You can find useful lists here, here and here.

Sometimes there’s a prompt or a theme, which can be a great help when you’re stuck for an idea. With magazines, take some time to read a few stories and get a feel for what they like, and whether you’d be a good fit. Simultaneous submissions are generally acceptable, especially as it can take months to get a response (just make sure you let them know if you get accepted elsewhere). Before you enter, always read the requirements carefully, and get the formatting and labelling right.

Have lots of stories on the go, so you move on when you get stuck. ‘At any given moment, I have a half-dozen story ideas shelved in my mind,’ says Benjamin Percy, author of the collections The Language of Elk and Refresh, Refresh. ‘I always choose to write the one that glows brightest.’

Above all, don’t be afraid to keep submitting. For most of us, rejection is the norm and an acceptance is the exception. The more you submit, the luckier you’ll get, and the less those rejections will sting.

You can do this!

About Dan

Dan Brotzel’s debut short story collection, Hotel du Jack, was published in 2020 by Sandstone. He is also co-author of Work in Progress (Unbound, forthcoming), a comic novel-in-emails about an eccentric writers group. His short stories have featured widely in litmags and competitions, and two have recently received Pushcart Prize nominations.

You can keep up to date with Dan’s writing on twitter and Medium

Don’t forget to head on over to Townhouse to share your advice for writing short stories too!

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Character Arcs: What they are and how to create them – with template



by Dr Sharon Zink

Character arcs are some of the most important tools in terms of writing compelling fiction, even if they’re played out on a smaller scale in a short story, but certainly when writing a novel. 

They play a central role in not only establishing your lead’s motivations and thus narrative aims in a book and thus form the spine of the plot arc, but they are what makes the reader believe in and root for the lead which contributes hugely to how much they’ll invest in your story.

In this piece, we’ll discover the different ways to develop a strong character arc, together with some examples and a template to help you create your own powerful character arc based on a lead who feels ‘real’ to the reader and who keeps them turning pages.

What is a Character Arc?

Basically, in the course of a novel, or even a short story, a character needs to be pursuing a certain goalWhat they want and why needs to be obvious to your audience so they can root for the lead to get their aim in the novel. 

This goal is usually something noble, like finding love in women’s commercial fiction, solving a murder in a crime novel or even saving the world in action or adventure writing, although in literary fiction, the ultimate direction of the character arc might be something more subtle like seeking redemption or freedom 

However, whatever genre you’re writing in, your character arc is based upon this purpose or quest the protagonist is set on and is doggedly pursuing through the piece and your story arc will not have the poignancy or sense of purpose it needs without this being crystal clear to your audience and thus forming the backbone of your plot. 


How Do You Write a Character Arc?

Growth and Change – Action and Reaction

One thing readers are looking for in a satisfying character arc is that the lead will have changed by the end of the book due to all they’ve experienced whilst fighting to get their narrative goal. Therefore, it’s key that your protagonist has grown by the end of your story arc and is not the same person as they were at the start. 

This character shift will begin when their normal life is turned upside down by a trigger event or inciting incident – say, a murder in a crime novel – which sets the detective on the hunt for the killer. As they do this, like any lead in any genre, they need to be proactive in going after their narrative goal, entering each scene with the intention to get their story arc aim or move nearer to it, only usually to fail or to make some progress, only to face an even bigger obstacle. 

This dynamic carries on until the character reaches a crisis point near the end of the story arc when something so terrible happens that the reader thinks they’ll never reach their goal … except usually things turn around and there’s a happy ending, with the protagonist attaining their character arc’s aim as negative endings can be hard to pull off! 

By this point, the main figure will have changed significantly due to the actions s/he’s had to take which have often pushed him/her way past his/her comfort or even ethical zones and the challenging reactions s/he’s faced from those around him/her – that is, usually the enemy or opposition figure whose character arc is basically the exact inverse of the lead’s as they are out to do anything to thwart the protagonist achieving their purpose (like a killer who wants to stop the cop finding him/her). 

However, the dynamics of action and reaction are also relevant to the way the character arc’s scenes are set out as often a period of emotional reflection or logical consideration of the next move will occur after the failed action which has usually brought the lead to an impasse.  

For example, if a scene where the cop is trying to interview a suspect ends it with them calling in their lawyer so they can’t get any more incriminating information, they might have an emotional response of anger or frustration, but then calm down and think more rationally about what step they should take next to solve the murder from another angle.  

So often authors forget that there needs to be this emotional reaction after action to make their characters feel human to the reader, but then the planning part too, so the story arc has a causal connection and we see why one thing happens after another, this set-up ensuring the protagonist seems energetic and plucky and which keeps the story arc full of drama and an obvious forward-moving purpose.  

Evan Marshall’s ‘Novel Writing: 16 Steps to Success’ is great on action and reaction in character arcs and I highly recommend all my author clients read it.  

Conflicts – Internal and External

I’ve already mentioned above the importance of an opposition figure in giving a character arc an edgy aspect by allowing someone for the lead to fight against, this adding tension and strengthening the lead as the story arc progresses. 

However, there can be other causes of external conflict than the villain figure, such as a confidant(e), which may be a best friend or family member, who acts as a sounding board for the protagonist and offers support, but who can also accidentally cause trouble for the lead due to well-intentioned meddling. This is something we sometimes see in chick lit, where the boozy best mate might tell the lead’s love interest they’re seeing someone else to create jealousy and supposedly add to the dreamy guy’s interest, but it just leads to a misunderstanding between the would-be couple and scares him off 

Indeed, terrible weather, a rough environment or even disasters can also be ways of preventing the lead from going after their goal, but they can also show their mettle too as often they will carry on anyway. 

In terms of external conflicts, things get much more interesting when we put our leads in situations which are utterly hellish based on their past traumas or personal phobias or fears and make them face them! Say, in the simplest terms, someone hates spiders (like me!) and then our protagonist has to crawl through a web of poisonous arachnids to save the kidnapped girl which has been the goal of his or her story arc – not only will the reader be sat on the edge of their seat, wondering if the lead will finally overcome their terror for the sake of their bigger plot aim, but we’ll also be privy to the inner world of the lead and the immense inner pressure NOT to do this scary thing and this is called internal conflict 

It can feel mean to us writers, as we’re often so attached to our characters, but the best thing you can do to create a compelling character and story arc is to put your protagonist in the midst of an external situation that makes them quiver (public speaking is more scary to more people than death, believe it or not!) and ensure that you’re also showing the internal monologue of your lead as they fight against their fears.  

You can even make them self-sabotage en route to their goals as humans are often wont to do. For example, a detective character could be out to make a big break in a case and then he’ll go out on an alcoholic bender which makes him lose the trail of the villain.  

What if You’re Writing a Series?

Generally, I tell author clients that if they’re new writers and want to write a series that they should keep this quiet in their submission package and make their first book as self-contained in terms of its character and story arc as possible so agents and editors can sell it as a standalone novel. This is because taking on a rookie is always a risk and the burden of having to sell multiple books may put some publishing personnel off.  

In this case then, the character arc needs to be pretty complete by the end, with the story goal attained or near enough so, although you may want to allow a little wiggle room for a future sequel by not providing complete closure 

However, this is good advice across the board as a too sugary ending can seem unrealistic, but this also depends on the genre you’re writing in as certainly chick lit allows for more happy ever afters. 

Obviously though, if you are intending to self-publish, you have carte blanche and often writing a series is a good idea as a way to develop a following, so your character and story arcs can be left more loose at the end, but with important questions left to be answered, despite the lead’s obvious growth, in order to intrigue a reader enough to buy the next book. 

What is a Flat Character Arc?

Flat character arcs are exactly as they sound – they stay on a flat line, with the character neither growing in strength and awareness or falling from grace, as in Shakespearean tragedies. They mostly appear in genre fiction, like action writing – James Bond doesn’t change much for all his enemies and situational struggles, for instance – but, more and more, even genre writing is moving towards the emotionally shifting character arc of the protagonist playing a key role in the plot and the book’s overall interest.  

If you think of most crime leads now, there’s often a wounded detective figure at the centre (something noted by James Frey in his books on thriller and mystery writing) who finds personal healing by solving the crime and Scandi Noir has brought the victims of the killed characters’ families to the fore so that these figures finding peace and moving on is a key part of the murder plot.  

Hence whilst you can pull off a flat character arc by writing in a genre where you don’t have to reinvent the wheel or add much nuance to your main figure, it often helps if there’s a sense of inner doubt about their ability to pull off the huge goal before them which adds something of Joseph Campbells’ ‘Hero’s Journey’ (which deeply influenced Star Wars) into play in which the hero hesitates in their confidence to pull off the story arc aim and this adds some important tension – even if, say, Frodo, is good at the start and good at the end of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and so, arguably, for all his struggles, a flat arc character. 


How Do You Work Character Arcs into Your Story Structure?

One thing my first writing teacher, Leone Ross, taught me was to really get to learn about my main characters before I started planning my plot, let alone writing my book. She showed us how to create a template for discovering our protagonists in depth.

Hence I create a list now that includes the character’s name, age, strengths and weaknesses, their goals etc.

Editor’s note: we’ve compiled Sharon’s full list on this Character Arc Worksheet, free for you to download, keep and re-use as often as you need to!

A Basic Example of a Character Arc: Cinderella 

Her nasty stepfamily (the opposition figures) are treating her like dirt when a handsome prince comes looking for his ideal dame (the trigger or inciting incident). 

The mean girl stepsisters try to force Cinderella aside, but she’s determined to catch her man (the lead sets her story goal and her character arc flows from here). 

She may be getting grubby scrubbing floors, but she schemes her way to the ball (character takes dogged action to get her goal and grows in defiance and strength). 

She gets to the ball and catches the eye of the prince, only to have to return before her carriage turns into a pumpkin at 12 (darn external obstacle!).  

However, she leaves her glass slipper behind and the prince is now so infatuated with Cinders that he scours town looking for its wearer – and, bam, as much as the mean stepsisters may try to force their feet in, only Cinderella’s dainty foot is a match (she gets her story goal and her character has grown from subservience to power and from loneliness and contempt to love). 

Does Every Character Need an Arc?

Minor players who don’t play a fundamental role like the lead, love interest, confidant(e) or opposition figure certainly don’t need a character arc as their role in your story arc is tangential. 

These other key players though should have clear goals too which they pursue and which develop their character over the course of the story arc. The love interest’s aim should always be to win the lead’s love, the opposition figure fights to stop the lead getting their story goal and a confidant(e) is there to support the lead and let them talk about their main plot issues and inner turmoils, but they can also accidentally get in the way of the protagonist’s aims by causing mistaken mix ups and so on. 

Hence we need to see the love interest growing as s/he strives to become the person the lead can adore and the opposition figure may grow in strength through conflict, but also face their own fears and weaknesses in this process so perhaps become changed by the end of the plot. A confidant(e) might well also develop in the process of supporting the lead through their journey, realising their own needs 


A character’s arc or development involves their proactive pursuit of their story goal which is established when their life is changed by the inciting incident at the start. This helps create a lead readers will identify with and cheer for, but also makes a compelling plot.  

The way your lead deals with external challenges, such as conflict with your opposition figure, extreme weather or terrain or natural disasters, as well as facing their inner demons, will all change them as the course of the novel goes on, usually bringing to the fore strengths they never knew they had, as well as some flaws and even possible tendencies to self-sabotage which all add realism to protagonists and make them three-dimensional. 

Although some genres have flat character arcs without much, if any, development in the lead, generally it’s a good idea to show the evolution of your protagonist over the course of the book towards a positive end, such as healing grief, as well as getting their external goal, such as catching a killer.  

Indeed, in most plots, there’s the main one – say, solving a murder – and a subplot perhaps involving romance, so it could be that both story arcs bring out different parts of the protagonist they didn’t know existed at the start. 

However, it’s also important to remember to give character arcs and a sense of personal change to your other main players too, such as the opposition figure, love interest and confidant(e). The latter two don’t always need to be included in a story arc, but I’d argue that a lead without a villain has less chance of becoming all they can be as the enemy figure forces the protagonist to grow in strength and resourcefulness and confront their inner fears and traumas. Plus, without a concrete opposition figure, there’s less conflict, which is the lifeblood of fiction, and you risk your story arc losing drama and impact. 

Get to know your lead and other key players well then, preferably by filling in a character questionnaire like the one above before you start work on your book or even short story. Keep asking yourself why, say, a character buys underwear from a certain place and on and on as this will reveal more and more of their values and beliefs and, even if you never directly use this material in your novel, it will give you a confidence as you write these characters.  

After this, imagine the world through their eyes – not yours – considering the language or diction they would use as fits their education, interests and background, as this is key to establishing a convincing narrative voice and viewpoint, as well as creating distinctive dialogue – all on top of making a great character arc. 

It’s worth every moment that you put into knowing your main characters and especially your lead, so you can convincingly show how they act to get their plot goal and react to the obstacles the villain and other external and internal elements which stand in the way of them getting their story arc aim 

It may be painful to see your treasured protagonist suffer as you make them face their worst fears, but it’s what will guarantee your book is gripping and up its chances of publication or be successful when you self-publish. 

And, mostly, by the end, you get to give the lead their dream or a form of closure which life often doesn’t offer, so it’s not all bad news, but just being cruel to be kind to make them figures your reader never forgets. 

About Sharon

Dr Sharon Zink is a former English Literature academic and the author of Welcome to Sharonville (Unthank Books, 2014), which was longlisted for The Guardian First Book Award. 

 She is also a feminist writing coach, long-term Jericho Writers editor and founder of The Feminist Writing School which has a mission to get more womxn’s books written, published and out there changing the world, hosting online courses and in-person workshops and retreats 

She lives in the UK by the sea with her cat, Muse, and a large book collection. You can receive her weekly Love Letters from the Literary Revolution with a bundle of articles on writing as a thank you for joining her community, follow her on Instagram where she is drsharonzink or join her supportive feminist writing group on Facebook as she loves getting to know her fellow authors.  

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Protagonists and Antagonists: all you need to know

header protagonist antagonist 1


by Dr Sharon Zink

Having a strong protagonist and antagonist is key to making a novel compelling, no matter what genre you are writing in.

In this piece, we’ll look at what protagonists and antagonists are and the different types of characters which can play these roles, as well as exploring the key elements which can bring them alive and give your manuscript the kick which will grab agents’ and editors’ attention from the opening page.


Sometimes also referred to as the lead or main character or a hero or heroine, an enthralling protagonist gives your work a powerful story arc as this is based on their narrative goals.

However, the antagonist – which is also talked about as an opposition character or villain – creates much-needed conflict by getting in the way of the protagonist as they pursue their plot aims, usually wanting the exact opposite of the lead and doing all they can to stop them attaining their desires.

Hence, whilst other factors like the protagonist’s own inner fears and turmoils, plus external factors like the environment, institutional bureaucracy and even the weather can all get in a lead’s way, the best means of really generating conflict, which is, arguably, the lifeblood of fiction, is to create a flesh and blood protagonist who matches the antagonist in strength, so there’s an exciting and equal fight played out in the pages of your book 

This gives the lead a great foil to fight against as they travel through their story arc, which, in turn, injects energy into the plot and keeps readers rooting for the main figure, whilst also allowing the protagonist to grow in a way which is vital to their character development as they face the obstacles the protagonist presents. 

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What is a Protagonist?

A protagonist is the central character of a novel – the one whose journey we follow as readers.  

Usually, they have the lion’s share of the viewpoint in the book and their narrative aims – which might represent one goal for the main story arc and another for the subplot – dominate the novel, being the focus of the reader’s attention and what they keep turning pages to discover.  

The standard plot begins with the protagonist’s world being turned upside down by an inciting incident or trigger event which sets them off on a quest to find a new ‘normal’ by the end of the novel, this journey representing the backbone of the story arc. 

Hence what the protagonist wants and why – their character arc – is key to creating an intriguing plot which readers will invest in.  

Types of Protagonists

Every book needs a protagonist or lead character, even if other figures are given viewpoints in the plot too, but the nature of this main player can differ according to the particular genre you are writing in.

For example, in police procedural fiction, a cop usually takes centre stage, but crime novels also often feature ordinary citizens who have personal motivations to solve a murder, such as in Rosamund Lupton’s bestseller, ‘Sister,’ in which the protagonist is out to find the family member given in the title.  

In chick lit or women’s commercial fiction though, the protagonist is usually a woman out to get a guy or rescue a romantic relationship and, in fantasy writing, the lead is often sent on a quest, such as Frodo in ‘Lord of the Rings’ who sets out to take the ring to Mordor and save his world from dark forces. 

Indeed, action and adventure fiction often has a similarly heroic lead who combats an evil villain to stop him/her destroying civilisation (just think of James Bond). 

In young adult writing, there’s often a teen who is either simply navigating the struggles of coming of age or who can also adopt the roles of an action or fantasy protagonist by engaging in a quest to free their imagined realm. 

In terms of literary fiction though, the protagonist’s identity is more diverse and their goals often more subtle, but they will always be there, often involving themes such as the lead finding redemption or healing, with romance still frequently being the core of the subplot.  

Whatever you write then, a strong protagonist who has clear narrative aims is crucial to creating a powerful character and story arc and so this is something to really ponder and plan before beginning work, preferably, unless you’re the kind of writer who needs to hit the keys to discover one’s plot and characters.

Can the Protagonist be a Villain?

This question often pops up as we’re largely taught that our protagonist should be sympathetic and likeable so we can root for them to get their goals and there is some truth to the power of a lead having a noble aim in a novel.

However, the key thing is that we understand a protagonist’s motives, even if they’re badly behaved or even overtly negative or evil, as once we comprehend why a figure is acting a certain way, we can usually find ourselves drawn into their story.

Hence Satan is, arguably, the most intriguing figure in Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ and we’re often drawn to serial killer and Mafia stories in true crime and fiction, this perhaps revealing the shadow side of human nature.

So, yes, you can create what is often called an anti-hero or heroine, so long as you’re able to convey the reasoning behind their immoral actions in a way your readers can easily follow. This can be a delicate and complex act of characterisation though, so only engage in this if you’ve got the will to really delve into the darkness of the psyche and the reasons why bad people do what they do.

How to Write a Protagonist

If your protagonist is so important then, no matter what kind of book you’re writing, it’s essential to ensure that you create a powerful lead with a compelling need to meet certain narrative aims by the end of the book.

You need to know what they want and why and to show them doggedly going after this throughout the story arc, entering each scene attempting to get their goal, whether the main one or that of the subplot (these are interwoven throughout with the main plot getting the most narrative space), but failing or progressing, only to find themselves facing an even bigger obstacle.

Their story arc could involve solving a crime, saving the world in a thriller with the clock ticking or getting a guy’s love in chick lit. Often the protagonist’s story arc in literary fiction will be somewhat less obvious, but it is commonly concerned with getting freedom from something (like oppression, war, a bad marriage and so on) or freedom to do a certain thing (travel, seek spiritual peace, justice and so forth).  

If you’ve got an anti-hero or heroine in play, the story arc may involve them in murder, world domination or other evil schemes, but it will be something which to them – and thus to the reader – makes sense.  

The same is true when writing magical realist or fantasy protagonists who may have special powers – so long as you can make the reader believe in the lead’s clairvoyant skills or their blue head with a hundred eyes, then all is well! 

Getting into a protagonist’s inner monologue or thoughts and the physical sense of being in their particular body and really using the senses and how they perceive the world via the lens of their own specific background, education, beliefs, relationships and so on and also giving them flaws and inner conflicts, like Hamlet’s notorious indecision, is really how you can creating rich and three-dimensional leads which readers both find ‘real’ and won’t forget, much as Shakespeare’s protagonists remain vivid to us now, hundreds of years after the Renaissance. 

Generally, though, it’s important to get the reader on the protagonist’s side, giving them a clear grasp of the character’s reason for wanting a certain goal for the main and subplots of the story arc from the start and showing them developing as characters as they face obstacles and conflicts as they fight for their aims in each scene, usually regularly confronting the antagonist who is the main thing standing between them and what they want most in the novel.

It’s this all-important baddie figure which I will explore next.  

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What is an Antagonist?

As I mentioned above, an antagonist is the main figure who stands in the way of your protagonist’s story arc goals – the villain or opposition character who adds the most conflict to a narrative by doing their utmost to stop the lead getting their narrative aims, with their own character arc often focussing on obtaining the exact opposite of what the lead wants.  

Types of Antagonists

In a mystery, a cop lead will want to solve a murder, but the antagonist then may be the killer who’s out to flout being captured or stopped in his bloody rampage, no matter what.

In a women’s commercial or chick flick novel, the protagonist may be in love with and out to catch a certain guy, but she might find herself face-to-face with an antagonist in the form of a love rival, such as his poisonous ex, or being distracted, at least temporarily, from winning the heart of the real romantic interest by a guy who is bad news.

In literary fiction, where the protagonist’s character and story arcs may be more understated, the antagonist will have to be shaped more specifically to the lead’s particular narrative aims. Hence if they want freedom from a painful marriage, the main figure’s spouse could stand in their way, suffocating their bid for personal liberty and a new life.

Indeed, as much as larger obstacles, such as war, can cause huge issues for a protagonists, very much getting in the way of their goals – such as, for instance, a refugee’s attempt to escape dangerous lands with their child – it’s almost always crucial to actually embody these issues in a specific antagonist figure. Hence a refugee could be confronted by a cruel or unyieldingly bureaucratic guard at a detainment camp which thus symbolises the broader struggle the lead is facing.

This allows the protagonist to face a tangible threat in the form of an antagonist figure, rather than the mere abstractions of a situation and this offers way more opportunities in the story arc then for juicy conflicts for, as much as a refugee having to trek across a hostile landscape is impactful, one-on-one fights between a lead and the opposition figure (who in this scenario could be separating the lead from their children and imprisoning them) are definitely more memorable, especially if ‘shown’ in ‘live action’, like dialogue between the two enemies.

In this way then, a strong antagonist is crucial to create a powerful story arc and to make the protagonist’s journey all the more of an interesting and wild ride and, therefore, it’s key that you create a figure who’s equally matched to your lead and has as much determination to stop them getting their story goals as the lead has in terms of achieving them.

Don’t start a novel then without knowing your antagonist as well as your protagonist, even though the lead will take up most of the reader’s attention, as the opposition figure is key in adding essential dramatic tension to the story arc as everyone loves bad news (just watch a soap opera to see the truth of this!).

The antagonist also brings both the main character’s grit and inner issues to the fore, thus making them more three-dimensional and providing the reader with the expected sense of the protagonist’s personal growth over the course of their character arc.

Hence an antagonist injects conflict into a story arc, but facing off against the opposition figure often makes the protagonist grow positively during the course of the novel by forcing them to confront their worst fears or work on their less pleasant personality traits. In this way, the baddie has the ‘side-effect’ of bringing out the best in your lead and thus performs a vitally important function.

How to Write an Antagonist

If it’s often, arguably, a good idea to make your lead likeable, so that readers cheer for them to get their story arc aims, with the antagonist, you can really have fun creating chaos and a figure everyone loves to hate.

Look carefully at your protagonist’s story arc goals – for example, maybe they’re a woman detective looking to solve a murder in the main plot and to find love with a fellow cop in the romantic subplot – and then create a figure who’s going to make their life hell by blocking the lead’s plot aims as best they can.

Basically, the development of the antagonist is the primary means by which the writer puts their protagonist up a tree and then cuts it down, as the saying goes!

Hence, the antagonist in the above hypothetical cop’s story could be the murderer who’s going to fight being caught tooth and nail, but they may perhaps threaten her beloved’s life as well or even make matters personal by sending unsavoury materials from the past to her love interest in order to taunt the detective and ruin her life, as well as killing others.

You can see then that the protagonist and antagonist are really mirror images of each other, wanting exactly opposite aims and being just as dogged about getting them. The antagonist’s motives for acting the way they do needs to be understandable here, though in a standard fight against a protagonist, as much as if you’re making a villain central. The reader needs to understand, even if the antagonist’s logic is warped.

Hence we may see a tragic childhood which has shaped the killer’s psychopathy in a crime novel or a jealous ex’s refusal to give up on her past love which gets in the way of a couple getting together in women’s commercial fiction. In literary fiction, a toxic family member may refuse to let the lead grow up and be their own person, but only because they are insecure about being abandoned.

Whatever their rationale is, it’s key to balance the book so that the protagonist’s aims in the story arc are mostly blocked by the antagonist in the plot ‘til towards the end, making the story arc, an uphill battle, and for reasons which make sense to the opposition figure and are as clear to the reader as the lead’s narrative goals.

We may not agree with the antagonist’s perceptions or incentives, but we must understand what they are and what they want and why as much as with the main character.

Again, the importance of face-to-face confrontations in dialogue or even physical fights, depending on the genre, cannot be overstated in terms of creating the requisite drama to really give a story arc adequate oomph.

It’s possible to have an antagonist operating secretly against the lead, with the plot building up to a betrayal at the end, with the reader being privy to this hidden villain’s ill doings when the protagonist is not – a literary trope which is called dramatic irony. This can work as the reader is then on the edge of their seat as they wait for the horrible truth to hit home – just as Shakespeare shows Iago’s manipulation of Othello leads to the latter killing his wife, Desdemona, in jealous rage, although she is innocent of committing adultery, as the audience watches helplessly on, but also with a grim fascination.

However, this sort of plot, without direct confrontations between the antagonist and protagonist until the very end, when the deceit and horror is revealed, is hard to pull off, so I’d encourage you to consider bringing your lead and opposition characters into each other’s immediate orbits, with verbal conflict and machinations by the antagonist which ensure the lead has to fight ever harder for their story arc goals, until we reach a crisis point in the plot where we think it’s impossible for the main character to get their narrative aims … except usually they then prevail and get their narrative aims at the end as negative conclusions are also tricky, so most shy away from them, especially as fiction offers the chance to offer positive resolutions, closure and justice which we so crave as humans, but so often, arguably, find missing in real life.

Thus, the antagonist is central to making a compelling book, so I’d recommend getting to know them as well as the protagonist – who can take up all your attention if you’re not careful – as without a strong baddie, a story arc can lose its sense of drama and your lead can be seen to too seamlessly flow towards their goals, with the other characters they meet all being too pleasant, something which may wind up losing the readers’ interest as we want to see the lead facing major challenges and preferably having a particular villain to focus our wrath on as the person who’s doing all they can to mess with our treasured protagonist’s story aims.

However, I’d also be wary of going over-the-top when creating an antagonist as we have to be careful not to lean on stereotypes of the moustache-twirling villain and, instead, come up with more original figures. You don’t have to recreate the wheel with genre fiction, but it’s always good to bring some freshness to writing as agents, editors and the general reader love to see angles they’ve never seen before, such as unusual and unexpected murderers or love rivals.

We absolutely need then to create a protagonist who readers can get behind and to make it crystal clear what they want and why, so the reader can root for them to succeed throughout and be thrilled by their wins and sigh about their failures.

However, an antagonist is a key part of developing the relationship our audience has with the main character by giving them a figure who they can see confronting and obstructing their beloved lead, being someone they can dread and loathe, but also are intrigued by and maybe they may even have some small sympathy for in all their damaged humanity.

It’s crucial then to know your antagonist as well as the lead, giving them good sides as well as flaws to make them more rounded and comprehensible, even if this takes some deep thought about the past or present circumstances which make them act the way they do.

Indeed, if you’re struggling to come up with an antagonist to stand in the way of your protagonist, think who is most likely to have the most power to obstruct your lead’s story goals and who represents their deepest fears – and can make them come true.

In this way, sometimes creating an antagonist to fight our lead can feel rather mean to us writers, but just remember this is how you bring plots to life and, ultimately, develop your protagonist and allow them to shine.

By making a powerful villain, you’re really being cruel to be kind as antagonists bring out the best in both your narrative and lead and get your manuscript one more step towards being published.

About Sharon

Dr Sharon Zink is a former English Literature academic and the author of ‘Welcome to Sharonville’ (Unthank Books, 2014), which was long-listed for The Guardian First Book Award. 

Sharon is also a feminist writing coach, long-term Jericho Writers editor and founder of The Feminist Writing School which has a mission to get more womxn’s books written, published and out there changing the world, hosting online courses and in-person workshops and retreats 

She lives in the UK by the sea with her cat, Muse, and a large book collection. You can receive her weekly Love Letters from the Literary Revolution with a bundle of articles on writing as a thank you for joining her community, follow her on Instagram where she is drsharonzink or join her supportive feminist writing group on Facebook as she loves getting to know her fellow authors.  

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NaNoWriMo: How To Write A Novel In 30 Days


NaNoWriMo: How To Write A Novel In 30 Days

By Elizabeth Haynes

In this article New York Times bestseller and NaNoWriMo veteran, Elizabeth Haynes gives you her top tips for a successful NaNoWriMo.

Ah, autumn. Crisp mornings. Brisk winds. Back to school weather, new pencil cases, pumpkin-flavoured everything, and writers all over the world preparing to take part in NaNoWriMo. They’re all a bit bonkers – right? Surely there is no sensible reason to write 50,000 words in 30 days?

I beg to disagree. It’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do, and if you’re reading this then I am hoping that it’s something that you’re considering, and if you are, then let me share five good reasons why you should go for it. 

  1. November is a great month to write. The weather’s dire, we might all be in lockdown anyway, so why not put every moment of spare time to use and write? And if not now – when?
  2. You have nothing to lose. It’s only thirty days, and at the end of it you will potentially have 50,000 words that you didn’t have before. The key to it is letting go of the expectation of writing something GOOD. Nobody can write a perfect novel in a month. Whatever you end up with will need serious editing, if you feel like it. You’re not writing a masterpiece in a month, you’re just going to WRITE. And that is tremendously liberating.
  3. It’s great fun! Writing is by nature a solitary business, but this is an annual opportunity to be cheered along whilst you do it, to engage in competitive sprinting (writing for a given amount of time without stopping) if that’s your thing, or at least to be encouraged by a host of pep talks and discussions with fellow writers locally and around the world. And a side note: if you’re having fun while you’re writing, it will probably be better than anything you’ve written that’s felt like a chore.
  4. It’s a magic cure for Writer’s Block. No, really – it is. There is nothing like the pressure of a deadline to get you writing. If you get stuck, you can skip to the next scene, or change your story completely, or even throw in the Travelling Shovel of Death (a traditional NaNoWriMo technique). There are many suggestions on the NaNoWriMo forums to help you if you get stuck, and because there is no pressure for your writing to be good, then there is nothing stopping you bouncing off that metaphorical wall and back into the story.
  5. You never know where this might lead. There are many published novels that started life in November, Have a look here if you don’t believe me. Seven out of my eight published novels were NaNoWriMo novels. Admittedly each one took a year or more to edit, but we’re not talking about editing now, we’re talking about writing. What I’m saying is: I’m a normal person, whatever that is, and if I can do it, you can do it.

How do I plan for NaNoWriMo?

There’s plenty you can be doing now to prepare to write your novel. If you’ve already got a story idea, there are some brilliant, encouraging and comprehensive guides to planning your novel right here on the Jericho Writers website – see How To Plan A Novel and this guide on how to flesh out your ideas quickly with The Snowflake Method.

Planning is just part of it, however. You’re writing a novel, you’ll need to take yourself seriously. If you tell all your friends and family that you’re going to do NaNoWrimo, then you are making yourself accountable, because you can bet they’ll all be asking you how the novel’s going during November and beyond – and as a bonus, it’s a great excuse to get you out of things you don’t want to do. Social events can wait till December – you’re writing a novel. The laundry can wait for a bit – you’ve got writing to do. Shopping? Let someone else take their turn.

(On a practical level, if you celebrate Christmas, it’s a good idea to do some festive shopping and Christmas card writing now – December is going to come around mighty quickly if you’ve spent the whole of November writing.)

It’s also worth pointing out (in case you’re reading this on 31st October) that you don’t need to plan at all. You can dive straight in on day one, or even several days in, if you missed the start. You can write an entire novel without planning – it’s called Pantsing, or writing by the seat of your pants. It will mean that you’ll probably have more editing to do later, but it’s no less valid a technique. In fact – hands up – I am a Pantser and proud. I never plan. I get bored if I know what’s going to happen.

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How many words am I going to have to write?

To reach your goal by the end of the month, you’ll need to write 1,667 words a day. That sounds like a lot – and it IS a challenge, let’s be honest: if it was easy, everyone would be doing it, wouldn’t they?

But if you manage to turn off your inner editor, put aside the urge to fix problems as you go along, and just WRITE – you’ll be surprised how quickly your total goes up. Remember, NaNoWriMo is all about quantity, not quality – and while that might sound counter-productive, actually in the process of writing freely you’ll find that some of what you’ve written is really pretty good.

As a 15-year veteran of NaNoWriMo, here are my top tips for getting it done:

  1. Try and get ahead of the game. Inevitably, there will be some days in the month when real life will intervene, and you won’t be able to write. If you’re ahead in terms of word count, it won’t feel quite such a slog to get back to the story. Aim for 2,000 words or more a day in the first week, if you can.
  2. Track your progress and celebrate milestones. The NaNoWriMo website has a helpful graph to show your progress and it’s very motivating to stay on or ahead of that target line. Every 10,000 words is a victory!
  3. Sprints are great. You might not be accustomed to writing at speed, but in fact, the only writer you are competing against is yourself. If you can write 300 words in 20 minutes, set a timer and try to do 320 words next time.

How can I stay motivated?

Writing a novel in a month is something of a rollercoaster. There will be days when your story just flies and it’s hard to write fast enough, and then there are days when every word is painful. There is an acknowledged ‘Wall’ that most participants hit, often around Week Three – so if you’re struggling, you’re definitely not alone.

This is where your writing buddies can help. Others in the Jericho Writers community will also be taking part – find a friend for a bit of mutual accountability, and maybe do some sprints together.

Join your local NaNoWriMo region, too. There are no in-person events taking place this year, but every region will have its own community and online writing events throughout the month to help you with your wordcount.

If you’re not feeling sociable, there are plenty of other resources to keep you going – personally, I can recommend Focusmate and Brain FM  to help maintain concentration.

Tell yourself that this is only a month, and the achievement at the end will feel amazing. Give yourself rewards for sticking with it, and try to write every day – or don’t go more than a day without writing at least something, even if it’s a sentence. You’ll probably write more.

If you’re stuck, the NaNoWriMo forums provide solutions to most problems. You can ask others to unravel your plot dilemmas (often the act of describing the issue to someone else will help your brain to find the solution). You’ll also find extensive lists of user-provided ‘adoptables’ – for example, ‘adopt a plot twist’, or ‘adopt a character’ – ideas for you to throw in to your story when you get stuck. They might not work, but they will keep you writing while your brain works out how to pick up your story again. Beware of procrastination, and getting in your own way!

At this point I think it’s important to say it again: YOU CAN DO IT.

How much should I edit my writing?

Not at all. Just – don’t. It’ll interrupt your flow, cause you to doubt yourself, and takes valuable time away from driving that word count forward. November is not the time for editing – your inner editor should be locked in a virtual cupboard for the duration.

I’ve made that sound very absolute, but it’s not quite that brutal. If you make a spelling mistake as you go along, by all means fix it, especially if it makes you twitchy. But what you shouldn’t do is delete anything. If what you’ve just written doesn’t make sense, type ‘FIX THIS’ or some other searchable place marker, and write the paragraph or chapter again. If your plot takes an unexpected detour that you know is horrendously waffly, leave it be. If your characters end up having a long conversation about pandemics, let them carry on and maybe encourage them to discuss Brexit while they’re at it.

You know you’re making a mess. You know you’ll read this all later and wail ‘what was I thinking?’ but that doesn’t matter during November. Quantity, not quality!

What next?

Whether you make 50,000 (or more!), or any amount at all, celebrate your achievement, collect your winner’s goodies from the NaNoWriMo website and have a well-deserved rest. It’s a good idea to let that novel sit undisturbed for a while, certainly at least a month.

In the dark days of the new year you can revisit it, read through (and marvel at the bits you can’t even remember writing) and decide whether your story has potential. Mostly, despite the mess, it will have some really rather brilliant bits, and then the work of untangling, restructuring and developing can begin.

Have I convinced you to have a go? I hope so. It’s a complete blast. In the words of Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo, the world is waiting for your novel. This is your chance!

About Elizabeth

elizabeth HaynesElizabeth Haynes is a former police intelligence analyst who lives in Norfolk with her husband and son. Her first novel, Into the Darkest Corner, was Amazon’s Best Book of the Year 2011 and a New York Times bestseller. Now published in 37 countries, it was originally written as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), an online challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November.

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Writing goals | Jericho Writers


Writing goals: how to set them and how to make sure you achieve them!

by Sarah Ann Juckes

What is it that you want to achieve from your writing this year?  

Maybe you want to finally write that book. Or perhaps you have a book that you want to get published. 

The fact is that thousands of would-be writers around the world share this very same goal. But only a handful have the dedication, passion and ability to make that happen.  

This blog post will give you the tools you need to set a realistic target for your writing this year and ensure you reach it before the year is out.  

4 steps to setting achievable writing goals:

  1. Be specific about what you’re trying to achieve and how you’re going to do it
  2. Record your progress
  3. Set realistic targets (not just ‘I want to be a multi-award-winning author’ but smaller, more achievable goals)
  4. Ensure they’re relevant to YOU
  5. Set a deadline – and keep to it!

Why most writers fail at goal-setting

But first – let’s look at why so many writers never get to where they want to go (because you’ll want to make sure you’re not going to be one of them!) 

The primary reason writers never finish their books is because they set unrealistic targets for themselves.  

In the world of writing, theres a LOT of advice floating around. Mantras like “kill your darlings” and “show, don’t tell” have made it into a writers everyday life now. And although it’s true that sometimes you need to cut elements that aren’t pulling their weight, and that action scenes are generally a more exciting way to relay information – this advice isn’t always correct for every single writer, every single time. Some of our favourite scenes should stay. And sometimes, a little bit of telling is necessary for clarification.  

The same goes for writing targets. There’s a myth floating around the writing world that any writer worth their weight should be writing every single day.  

Reader – this is a lie.  

Some writers may well find that setting themselves a target to write every day helps them remain creative. But for others – myself included – writing every day just isn’t realistic.  

For instance – if I’m ill, I don’t want to write. I want to sit in my pyjamas and watch Netflix. And sometimes, LIFE gets in the way of best laid plans. Sometimes instead of writing, I need to be a carer, or a daughter, or a friend first.  

The advice to ‘write every day’ often leads writers to set goals that are unrealistic for them. They might keep to it for a week, and then something will inevitably get in their way and they’ll stop. And once you break a goal like ‘write every day’, it’s difficult to start again. It becomes easier and easier to find excuses not to. And before you know it, you’ve not written anything for a month and are feeling so bad about that, the guilt feels like it might stop you writing forever.  

So – leave any pre-conceived ideas on what a writer should be and do and how often right here. 

This blog post is about YOU. You as a writer, as well as all the other hats you have to wear (including, occasionally, ‘sick person’).   

Now we’ve got that out of the way, let’s look at how to set a goal that is realistic for you.  


How to set your realistic writing goal

Let’s look to the world of business. 

There, entrepreneurs set themselves a target to reach, and if they don’t reach it, there are consequences. There’s a boss to answer to, or customers wanting their money back.  

We writers don’t have a boss. Eventually, once you get a publishing deal, you might have a deadline set by a publisher (which really does make it easier to put pen to paper!) But until then – we’re on our own.  

So – what do entrepreneurs use to set themselves targets that they need to stick to?  

SMART targets aren’t just for work 

In the world of work, a clear and reachable goal is SMART:  

S – Specific  

M – Measurable 

A – Achievable  

R – Relevant  

T – Time-bound  

 So, what does this look like in the world of writing?  

 Get SPECIFIC about your target 

It’s no good saying that you “want to become a better writer”. How are you going to achieve that? What actionable things can you do to improve your writing craft?  

SMART targets ask people to answer the five ‘W’ questions to help them narrow this down: What; Why; Who; Where; Which.  

Let’s say your goal was to learn how to plot a novel. Your specific target might look like this:  

  • WHAT? I want to learn how to plot a novel.  
  • WHY? So I can put this knowledge into practice when I come to write.  
  • WHO? I can learn how to plot by taking a course. 
  • WHERE? I work full-time, so an online course would be best for my lifestyle.  
  • WHICH? I could watch this masterclass on how write a great plot, and further my reading with this blog post on fixing plot problems 

Okay, so now we’ve narrowed our goal down to something actionable. How do you make sure you achieve it?  

MEASURE your progress 

There’s nothing more motivating than seeing yourself getting closer to reaching your goal.  

Wherever possible, you should try to assign a number or percentage to your goal. If that’s something like “write ten thousand words”, then this is easy – you can record how any words youve written so far in a notebook and watch that counter go up and up.  

Ticking off a to-do list is similarly useful. Give yourself a tick, gold star or treat every time you complete a step towards your goal.  

As well as motivating you to keep ticking, measuring your progress will also help you identify when you’re falling behind, so you can keep yourself on track.  

Make your goal ACHIEVABLE

There’s no point setting yourself a goal that you have no power over. “Sign with a literary agent” might seem like a good goal, but you can’t affect an agent’s decision to sign you. This, unfortunately, is more of a dream.  

What you can do, is learn how to create a professional submission package, or submit to ten hand-picked literary agents to give you the best chance of reaching that dream.  

Similarly, you need to think about other realistic factors that are out of your control. Finances are a big one, as is time, health and other commitments. I myself am a carer. My writing will need to take a back seat occasionallyand I need to factor that into every goal I set myself if I’m serious about achieving it 

Make sure your goal is RELEVANT to you 

Do you want to write that book? Do you really want it to be published?  

Both writing and publishing is a huge undertaking and requires a lot of sacrifice, dedication and time. Many writers who set out to write a good story quickly realise just how difficult it is and throw in the towel when they realise that other things are more important to them.  

The same goes for publishing. It took me twelve years and four books to find a literary agent – and that’s not so unusual a tale. Publishing is also a rollercoaster ride that can take a serious toll on a writer’s mental health. Is this something you really want?  

Remember – it’s completely fine to want to write a book and not want to get it published. Publishing is a career, but writing can happily remain a passion without it! 

Another thing to consider here is timing. Is your maternity leave the best time to write a book, or are you going to have your hands full? Can your other half support you with the kids whilst you write, or is this goal better suited for another time, when they also have more space?  

Keep your goal TIME-BOUND 

This is the part most writers slip up on.  

When is a reasonable deadline for your goal?  

Your target needs to push you, whilst also taking into account the other things life might throw in your path.  

When I’m setting my goal, I like to think about what my deadline would look like if I worked all day, every day on my goal, until it was done. I then deduct the time that I know I’m spending on my day job; sleeping; doing my other commitments. And then I add in a few more days on top of that for emergencies too.  

Giving yourself a deadline is a blessing when it’s done properly, as it makes you sit in your chair and make stuff happen. But when it’s too tight to too loose, it can cause anxiety, guilt or laziness!  

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How to stick to your goal once you’ve set it

Those in the world of work might have a boss to answer to – but writers don’t.  

There are ways to trick yourself into being accountable, though.  

One trick I like to do is to use social media. Now there are downsides to using Twitter and Instagram around your writing (not least that they are a pit of procrastination!). But I find that doing an #accountabilitythread on Twitter is a great way to stay motivated. I write my goal and my deadline in a tweet it for all to see. Then, I update the thread every time I take a step forwards (or back!) And invite writers who are working on their own similar goals to celebrate and commiserate with me.  

Similarly, writing communities like the one at Jericho Writers are brilliant platforms for accountability. We writers are all in the same boat, so finding someone to give you the tough-love you need can often be the difference between success and failure.  

Hell might be other people – but achieving goals is so much easier and more fulfilling with others around you.  

header-image-goal setting

An example of a SMART writing Goal

Let’s put all of this into practice. 

“I want to finish writing my book” 

This goal is measured in word counts. It’s a goal shared by complete newbies, all the way to seasoned writers on a deadline for their one-hundredth book. And – wherever you are in that scale – the SMART target is a same.  

The SPECIFIC goal 

Wanting to finish writing a book is too vague. Let’s narrow it down as an example – you can switch the details here for those that work for you.  

  • WHAT? A novel in my genre is around 80,000 words and I have written 40,000 so far. Therefore, I want to write 40,000 words (give or take).  
  • WHY? Because becoming a published writer is my dream job.   
  • WHO? I can use social media to become accountable for my word count. My friend Jane will be my sponsor and will check in weekly to see how I’m getting on. I can rely on her to give me the encouragement I need.  
  • WHERE? I will clear the desk in the study and shut the door at weekends. I will take my laptop on the train and write when I can on my commute.   
  • WHICH? I will use Scrivener to write, as I’ve found it the best tool for me. 

How it will be MEASURED 

Good news! A word count is the easiest way to measure a writing goal. Here’s how I do mine, around my other commitments:  

  • I can write 800 words in one go, before my attention wavers. 1,000 words is a push.  
  • If I write 1,000 words every day, I will reach my target in 40 days.  
  • I buy a diary. On day one, I write the word count Im at now (let’s say, 40,000 words). And for the next ten days, I write what the word count would be if I wrote 1,000 words each day. On the tenth day, I write “50,000 words milestone” and circle it.  
  • I now have a micro-goal that works for me. I know I can’t always write 1,000 words every day, but I can commit to writing 10,000 in ten days. If I’m ill one day, then I can make up for it another day. As along as I reach 10,000 in ten days, I’ve reached my goal.  

How it remains ACHIEVABLE 

Again – the above is something that works for me. You might prefer a calendar on the wall. You might find you can only write one hundred words a day before you burn out. Make it realistic and achievable for you.  

The good news is that writing words is absolutely in your control. Books are written through hard work, dedication and sitting down in that chair and writing.  

Nobody else is involved in that. It’s entirely down to you.  

How to ensure it is RELEVANT 

Speak to the people who are reliant on you to be anything else other than a writer. Explain to them why this goal is important to you, and how they might be able to help you achieve it.  

If it looks like this might not be the right time to do this, then that’s okay. Spend time planning until it is the right time, so you can ensure you stick to those word goals.  

How to keep it TIME-BOUND 

Do you work best when you make yourself write every day? Then do that.  

Do you work best when you set yourself a target like above, when you do a certain amount of words by a certain date? Then do that.  

When setting your deadline, you can set long-term ones and short-term ones. You might say for example that you want to write 40,000 words by the end of the year. But to keep this relevant and actionable, try splitting this into smaller chunks, such as “write 10,000 words during my holiday” – or, yes – “write 1,000 words a day for ten days” 

A great tool for writing on a deadline like this is something like National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).  

This is geared specifically for writers who want to write a large number of words in a very short time, so it won’t be right for everyone. However, if you would like to write 50,000 words in 30 days, then this platform connects you to writers from all over the world who are doing the same thing. It gives you a pre-determined goal and deadline, plus a handy way to measure it in the form of a graph. There’s also the added incentive of prizes waiting for you on the other side of the finish line! 

Remember – your goals are entirely yours

This post has given you the tools to set yourself a goal that you can realistically reach.  

This will look different to every single writer, so don’t worry if yours seems small compared to others. When it comes to crossing the finish line, it’s not how fast you go, but how well you pace yourself. 

The other thing about having a goal that is entirely yours? Only you can achieve it.  

So – go get ‘em. You’ve got this.  

About the author

Sarah Ann Juckes writes books for young people. Her debut Young Adult novel ‘Outside’ (Penguin) was nominated for the Carnegie Medal Award 2020 and shortlisted for both the Mslexia Children’s Novel Award and the Bath Novel Award. She is the Content and Membership Manager for Jericho Writers, working with writers from all over the world. She is also on the Board for Creative Future, working with under-represented writers, and works creatively with young people in and out of school. She lives in East Sussex, UK. Find out more about her at 

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Clarity in Writing | Jericho Writers


The Four Fundamentals of Clarity in Writing

by guest author, Hayley Milliman

In this article, guest author Hayley Milliman takes us through four ways to improve the clarity of your writing.

Clarity is key in getting our point across as writers. When our writing is clear, our meaning is clear. When our writing is unclear, our meaning is muddled. And when our meaning is muddled, our readers can’t properly engage with our work.

Fortunately, you can improve the clarity of your writing by brushing up on a few key fundamentals. 

How to Improve the Clarity of Your Writing

Clarity starts at the sentence level. Think about your sentences as mini movies that your readers play in their heads. They need to know the actors and the actions of these mini movies to correctly picture what’s going on. If your writing is unclear at the sentence level, your readers won’t understand what’s happening in your work. Worse yet, they may disengage from your writing because they can’t understand it.

We start by thinking about clarity at the sentence level because if your sentences aren’t clear, your paragraphs won’t be clear. If your paragraphs aren’t clear, the rest of your work won’t be clear. 

Unsure about how to ensure your sentences are clear and easy to read? Not to worry. Let’s take a look at four easy ways to improve sentence level clarity.

1. Reduce Sticky Sentences

There are two types of words in sentences: working words, which convey meaning to the reader and are essential to the purpose of the sentence, and glue words, which are the extra words that hold sentences together. 

Glue words aren’t essential to the meaning of your sentence. They’re not the actors or the actions. If you remove or rewrite your sentence to eliminate these glue words, the sentence will have the same meaning. It may even be more clear for your readers to understand. 

Sticky sentences are sentences that contain too many glue words. They should be rewritten to improve clarity for your readers.

pro writing aid header 1

While glue words are important to make your sentence coherent, when you have too many in a sentence, it becomes hard to read. By removing unnecessary glue words, your sentence becomes clearer.

Consider the following: 

  • It doesn’t matter what kind of coffee I buy, where it’s from, or if it’s organic or not—I need to have cream because I really don’t like how the bitterness makes me feel.
  • I add cream to my coffee because the bitter taste makes me feel unwell.

Each sentence has the same main idea: that the narrator can’t drink coffee because it makes him or her feel sick. However, the second sentence is clearer and easier to read than the first because it has fewer glue words. The meaning isn’t obscured by extra words.

You should aim for an average of less than 40% glue words in your sentences. That doesn’t mean that all of your sentences have less than 40% glue words. Some may have 50%, some may have 30%. As long as your document averages at 40% glue words, your work will be clear.

You can read up on how to write a great opening sentence for your novel, here.

2. Avoid Clichés

Clichés are phrases like actions speak louder than words, love is blind, and the grass is always greener on the other side. Many writers use clichés when they’re trying to sound relatable or to make their writing more accessible. Unfortunately, clichés often do the opposite: alienate readers that aren’t familiar with the phrase or do not understand it.

Even though these expressions are older than dirt (see what I did there?), when isolated, their meaning isn’t clear. This reduces the chance that your audience will engage with your work, especially if your audience is made up of non-native speakers. 

When editing, aim to remove phrases that aren’t universal or don’t translate well into a different language. That way, your work is accessible to everyone.

header3 clarity writing

3. Make Your Subjects and Verbs Shine with Active Voice

When your sentence is in the active voice, your subjects and verbs are clear. When it’s in passive voice, your subject is unclear.

Here’s an example of passive voice:

The sample was selected.

Who is selecting the sample? We’re not sure, because the sentence doesn’t say so. Passive voice leaves your sentence open for interpretation by the reader, especially when it’s uncertain who or what is performing the action in the sentence.

Consider the same sentence in active voice:

Researchers selected the sample.

Now, the subject is clear. Readers won’t need to think very hard to understand this sentence.

There are a few types of writing where passive voice has its place, but typically, active voice is better. While passive voice isn’t technically wrong, it can make your writing harder to understand, which, in turn, makes it less engaging. 

4. Use Precise Words

Adverbs are words that add colour or style to your adjectives and verbs. Like passive voice, adverbs aren’t grammatically incorrect, but they can reduce clarity because they prop up boring, imprecise verbs.

For instance: 

  • Scarlett ran really fast.
  • Scarlett sprinted.

In the first example, the word “really” is an adverb that modifies “fast,” which is itself an adverb that modifies the verb “ran.” The word choice in the second sentence, “sprinted,” is more precise. Replacing adverb + verb constructions with a precise strong verb will paint a clear picture for your reader.

Common adverbs that are guilty of propping up weak word choices include:

  • really
  • just
  • very
  • actually
  • in order to
  • definitely
  • absolutely

If you see these words in your writing, you can likely improve your clarity by cutting them and choosing a more specific verb or adjective in your sentence.

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Do You Want Help From ProWritingAid?

Wondering how you can easily improve the clarity of your writing? An editing tool can help. ProWritingAid’s 20 reports identify clarity issues in your writing and make suggestions for fixing them. Here’s just a taste of what ProWritingAid can do:

Clarity in Writing: Final Thoughts

You can have the best idea in the world, but if your writing isn’t clear, readers won’t know it. 

To make your writing clearer, you have to start with your sentences: the fundamental building blocks of your writing. By eliminating adverbs, making passive verbs active, forgoing clichés, and removing extra words in your sentences, you’ll ensure your writing effectively communicates your ideas.

About the author

Hayley Milliman is thrilled to be ProWritingAid’s Content Lead, as it gives her an excuse to think deeply about words every single day. Prior to joining ProWritingAid, Hayley spent a number of years as an elementary school teacher, which was a crash course in learning how to entertain an indifferent audience. These days, she puts her storytelling skills to use writing blog articles and working on her first novel.

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The unreliable narrator: All you need to know

Omniscient narrator

The Omniscient Narrator: All You Need to Know

Omniscient narrator

The Omniscient Narrator: All You Need to Know

In this article, guest author, Philip Womack, discusses the omniscient narrator.

When you sit down to write, with that all-important, all-consuming story bursting to get out of your mind and onto the page, you’re facing a multitude of decisions to do with technique and style.

One of the very first things you’ll need to consider, and one of the most important, is which narrative voice to use. Do you want to be intimate, and employ the first person? J D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye is a fine example of this at its most gripping and involving, as is Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now. Or do you want to adopt something that’s more universal? 
Most contemporary novelists write in the third person limited, which means that the narrative is limited to what the protagonist knows, and everything is filtered through the protagonist’s viewpoint. Point of view is important and allows the writer to play with perspective. 
With the rise of post-modernism and other theories that questioned accepted fictional structures, the omniscient narrator fell out of fashion. Novelists began to play games with perception, and the unreliable narrator came to the fore. This can be delivered in the first person or the third person. Ian McEwan’s third person Atonement presents itself as a straightforward novel, but actually has a sting in the tail, which causes the reader to question all that has gone before; you can contrast this with Kazuo Ishiguro’s first person The Remains of the Day, where the narrator isn’t quite telling us the truth. 
The omniscient narrator has been used for centuries. Homer’s Iliad, which stands at the very beginning of Western literature, is a fine example of a narrator who knows everything: the gods, the heroes, even the details of individual battles. 
When you sit down to tell your story, you may find your writing naturally falls into it. It’s what we’ve been brought up on: Once upon a time, there was a little princess… Of course, the narrator / narrative voice isn’t actually omniscient (he/she isn’t God). The effect of it suggests there is a separate entity from the other characters in the book, able to see all of them and even know what’s happening in their hearts and minds. It’s a powerful tool, and if used properly, it can lend an authoritative sheen to your work.

Omniscient narrator: A Definition

The omniscient narrator is (usually) in the third person singular: 
“When Sebastian walked through the heavy committee room door, a group of people were already there, seated and rustling papers. The light was dim, electricity guttering, their faces obscure. The commander was tapping his fingers on the table-top. Outside, buses clattered down the road, bursting with commuters on their way to work, checking their newspapers, feeling for loose change in their pockets, staring at pigeons, little knowing that what was happening in this tiny room off Whitehall would affect each and every one of them today…” 
The narrative switches from Sebastian to the people on the buses; but the voice, being omniscient, is able to convince the reader it knows what’s going on. It also allows the narrator to paint a wider picture and create suspense. 
The omniscient narrative voice is totally in charge of the story: like a director, pointing you towards images and people as it sees fit, acting in the same way as a camera. The omniscient narrator feeds us information about characters and plot in a structured, orderly way to maximise atmosphere, tension and suspense. 


What is the omniscient point of view and how to use it to your advantage?

The advantage of an omniscient point of view is that you can write about any aspect of the story you like. Ursula Le Guin, in A Wizard of Earthsea, uses it to great effect: she begins with a description of the island of Gont, rising up above the waves, and then focuses in on the island itself, and a boy, Ged, who is to be the hero of the story. The world that she creates has the texture of myth and truth, in part because of this narrative choice. The narrative voice sounds confident and traditional: it urges the reader to listen. 
There are problems with the third person omniscient. When you have too many characters in a room together, a writer can start “head-hopping”: that is, switching from one character to another. 
“John was angry, and said so. Sarah was sad because she wanted to go out. Henry, on the other hand, was pleased.” 
Too much of this can be fragmented and unconvincing. It can be done well: D H Lawrence is always doing it, for example; and there are many passages in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast which gain their power from head-hopping; but most debut authors are advised to avoid it as much as possible.

You can still use third person omniscient and gain better effects: “John was angry, and said so. Sarah, turning away, continued to apply her lipstick in defiance. Henry threw his car keys onto the table, and sat down.” 
The main advantage of a third person omniscient narrator is scope. The disadvantage is that you’ve got to make sure that you know everything about the story – you have to be able to understand it and its world inside out, otherwise it can come across as unconvincing. 

What is an example of an omniscient narrator?

Charles Dickens’ 19th century novel, A Tale of Two Cities, is a classic example of the technique. It famously begins: 
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair …” 
These kind of general, sweeping statements are probably best avoided in your novel (unless you really know your onions). 19th century novelists also have a tendency to step in to comment on the action: George Eliot, in Middlemarchmoves seamlessly between commenting on action and going into people’s thoughts and feelings. 
The following, from Celeste Ng, in her debut Everything I Never Told You (2014), deploys the omniscient narrator in a more modern fashion: 
“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast. As always, next to her cereal bowl, her mother has placed a sharpened pencil and Lydia’s physics homework, six problems flagged with small ticks. Driving to work, Lydia’s father nudges the dial toward WXKP, Northwest Ohio’s Best News Source, vexed by the crackles of static. On the stairs, Lydia’s brother yawns, still twined in the tail end of his dream. And in her chair in the corner of the kitchen, Lydia’s sister hunches moon-eyed over her cornflakes, sucking them to pieces one by one, waiting for Lydia to appear. It’s she who says, at last, “Lydia’s taking a long time today.” 
Right from the start, the narrative voice tells you things that the characters are unaware of. The effect of this is to heighten suspense. She switches from character to character, painting a picture of a family going about its business: the father in the car, the brother on the stairs, the sister eating cornflakes. It’s a haunting effect, and it’s something that a third person limited narration couldn’t achieve. 
The omniscient narrator, then, can offer up plenty of exciting avenues for your writing. But you have to plan especially carefully. Avoid the portentous and the heavy, and aim for clarity, and watch your writing take off. 

So, there it is. Everything we needed to know about the omniscient narrator. Have we missed anything? Anything else you’d like to add? Head on over to the Jericho Townhouse and let us know what you think. 

About the author

Philip Womack is a published author and JW Editor. If you’d like some detailed feedback on your manuscript from Philip, then check out our editorial services page.   

Philip’s critically acclaimed children’s novels include: The Double Axe (2016), The King’s Revenge(2016), The King’s Shadow (2015), The Broken King (2014), The Liberators (2010), and The Other Book (2008). His latest novel, The Arrow of Apollo will be published by Unbound in 2020. Philip is also contributing editor with the Literary Review and writes for a range of publications, including The Daily TelegraphThe Guardian, The Spectator, and The Times Literary Supplement. He teaches at the Royal Holloway University and City University.  

You can find more on Philip here and here, and you can follow him on twitter, here.   

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Character motivation: All you need to know


Character motivation: All you need to know

Guest author, Philip Womack, tells us all we need to know about character motivation.

Character motivation and plot are very tightly linked.

They are the Little and Large of writing fiction. A strong character will have a clear motivation, which will generate the plot. In J R R Tolkien’s fantasy novel Lord of the Rings, the hobbit Frodo needs to destroy the Ring of Power to save Middle Earth. In Daphne du Maurier’s psychological thriller Don’t Look Now, a husband needs to protect his family from what he considers are sinister forces. Ideally speaking, the character’s development will be linked very closely to the points in the plot: each stage will have an effect on the character; but the motivation will always push the character towards achieving a goal.   
Motivation is the force which pulls the reader through the story, as it creates a sense of empathy with the character. If a character’s motives are unclear or repellent, then it can cause the reader confusion or unease. And we don’t want that. Writing fiction is in part about trying to make sense of the world around us, which means trying to understand ourselves.

Is a character’s motivation the same as a goal?

A character’s goal is ultimately the end result of the motivation. Think of a footballer: his goal is to win a match; his motivation is more complex, linked to ambition and to the pride in his team and to his financial success.

Frodo’s final goal is the destruction of the ring; his motivation is to save Middle Earth. In Don’t Look Now, the goals change: initially, the protagonist, John, wants to protect his wife from what the narrator believes are sinister forces, which means that his specific goal is to remove her from their influence. Then it’s to find his wife; then it’s to reach home. But his motivation is always to make sure that his family are safe.

How does a character’s motivation affect a story’s plot?

A character’s motivation will be the major plot driver. In Homer’s Iliad, the motivation of Achilles is his anger at being dishonoured by King Agamemnon. This means that he withdraws from fighting the Trojans, which means that the Greek forces are routed. When his best friend, Patroclus, is killed, Achilles is then motivated to take revenge on the Trojans, and thus fights and kills Hector. 
Motivation is important. Without it characters are limp and lifeless. Too often I see characters are wetter than the wettest blanket. They are flat, and events happen to them, and they let things carry them along without questioning or thinking. A character must have life, and motivation is partly what brings it. It’s the electricity pouring into the assembled body parts of your creation. You are Victor Frankenstein: your character needs to be galvanised into life!

Should readers relate?

This is an eternal question: and the answer is, not necessarily. The general consensus is that a character must create empathy: that doesn’t necessarily mean sympathy. Our protagonists do not have to be saints: too much of that, and your reader will fling the book aside in disbelief. But on the other hand, if they are too cruel or unhinged, then the reader can be disgusted. 
An excellent example of an artful, successful and complex character is Humbert Humbert, the hero of Nabokov’s Lolita: he’s a murderous child molestor. His voice is exceptionally compelling: but we do not need to like him. The key is to create characters that aren’t cliches. So we are instead fascinated by his language and his style, seduced by him as much as we are revolted by his desires. 

(If you want to know more about writing villains, then read this.)


How do you determine a character’s motivation?

A character’s determination is determined by what he or she wants. When you’re writing, you will develop your own process, but it’s a good idea to begin with your setting. A setting will produce a character: a general on a spaceship hurtling towards unknown planets will want very different things from a housewife on a farm in Wyoming. 
It’s a good idea to test your characters. Put them into normal situations and see what they do; then introduce an element of surprise. How does your character react? That will help you to understand what motivates them. Need and necessity are two very powerful things that produce the friction and the energy for a good story. Powerful motivations include a desire to survive; to save or to protect, or to change things for the good. 
You then need to decide what your character’s goal is in relation to the plot. This is very much determined by genre: the rational motivation of a detective is to find the murderer, so his goals will be step by step movements to uncover evidence against him; the motivation of Humbert Humbert is to avoid detection and to seduce Lolita, so his goals change as he travels across America. The former is a rational motivation; the latter is more conflicting and complicated. 

How do you write a powerful character?

There are many techniques to develop a powerful character, and as you continue to write, you will find that you will hone your own. Different things work for different people. Some writers like to create little biographies or dossiers for each character, detailing every aspect of their life from cheese preference to first sexual encounter to number of moles on their cheek. Others prefer to go with the flow and allow the story to shape the characters. 
Whichever way you choose, a character must have fully formed motivation. Ged, in Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, is motivated to find a dark shadow that he himself has released; as it’s also a part of himself, the novel becomes an exploration of psychology and a movement towards a mending of a fractured psyche. 
In a T C Boyle short story, The Lie, two middle class American teenagers fall in love; the girl becomes pregnant. The lovers don’t want the baby to disrupt their young lives; and so, they fall into a pattern of deception that has a tragic, terrifying consequence. Their motivation is to get through college and become successful adults; but their goal is to do so by hiding a pregnancy. And thus the complexities of character are born: we empathise with them, but we are horrified by their actions. 

When all else fails, put your character in a pub, and see what he or she does. Do they go to the bar and ask for a drink? Or do they sit by the side, nervously scanning the room for a friend? You can then draw out the more general motivation. And maybe treat yourself to a glass of wine as well. Your motivation: relaxation; your goal: finish the wine.

So, there we have it, a full breakdown of character motivations. Have we missed anything? Anything else you’d like to add? Head on over to the Jericho Townhouse and let us know what you think. 

About the author

Philip Womack is a published author and JW Editor. If you’d like some detailed feedback on your manuscript from Philip, then check out our editorial services page.

Philip’s critically acclaimed children’s novels include: The Double Axe (2016), The King’s Revenge (2016), The King’s Shadow (2015), The Broken King (2014), The Liberators (2010), and The Other Book (2008). His latest novel, The Arrow of Apollo will be published by Unbound in 2020. Philip is also contributing editor with the Literary Review and writes for a range of publications, including The Daily TelegraphThe Guardian, The Spectator, and The Times Literary Supplement. He teaches at the Royal Holloway University and City University.

You can find more on Philip here and here, and you can follow him on twitter, here.

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