Building a Strong Story: 7 Critical Elements

By: Patty and Mike Nov 12, 2016

Patty recently taught a class on writing for authors. The class was completely sold out, and in my completely unbiased opinion, Patty did a fine job. So, I've stolen her class notes, and I'll try to summarize the class on the website.

Introductory Remarks

Writing is a bit like wine-making. Picture a famous sommelier holding aloft a crystal decanter and nattering on about notes of citrus and nutmeg and a smooth yet perky finish (whatever that means). Now, imagine in some basement workshop, the amateur vintner surrounded by bottles, filters and tubes. All the talk of being "effervescent to point of insouciance" is fine for the critic, but it doesn't tell the vintner how to achieve that effect. Similarly, there are lots of literature classes that dissect the final product, but fewer that discuss how a book is written. What follows is a view of writing from a writer's viewpoint, which may differ from that of an editor, a bookseller or a literary scholar.

The first thing you need to know is that whenever someone says there are X number of elements of Y, they're lying. I needed a title for the class, and grabbed something out of thin air. There aren't seven magic elements that will suddenly make your writing amazing: there are probably hundreds of important, necessary or critical elements. However, we're going to try to discuss seven of them.

1 The Beginning: It All Starts Here

I feel confident in stating that every story needs a beginning. Indeed, every story ever told, good or bad, had a beginning. Even the author of Genesis chose, as his introductory text, "In the beginning . . .". The difficulty lies in the sad but undeniable fact that not all beginnings are created equal. A story's beginnings set the scope and shape of story arcs, the tone and language of the work, and lay the groundwork for all that is to come.

Well begun is half done.

It is not enough to merely begin, we must essay to begin well — and thus we run headlong into the first of many stumbling blocks an author must overcome. There are few things as daunting as staring at a pristine, white screen with its patiently-blinking cursor, while the pressure to write the perfect opening line builds into a thundering frustration. The significance of the first line (and first paragraph and first page) is often overstated by English professors and writing teachers, and causes no end of anxiety for new writers.

Patience. Your first draft is not your last and authors are the gods of their creation. Your first miracle is time travel, and as the story takes shape you can traverse the warp and weft of its fabric from beginning to end, making adjustments subtle or dire as needed. It is often the case that the truest and best beginning is penned after the story's ending.

Your beginning doesn't have to be sublime, but it should be workmanly. Having pacified the pressure to pen the perfect paragon of preludes, let us turn our attention to writing a functional and practical beginning.

A story begins with a person, in a place with a problem. These are the scaffolding for character, setting and plot.

A good beginning needs to introduce the reader to the protagonist and possibly other characters. It should acquaint us with the world, including the technology, magic and social norms that govern it. And finally, it needs to introduce the source of the character's discontent.

Stories are seldom told about happy characters who wake each morning to find that all is right in their world. Characters must engage the world, and become involved in all manner of unpleasant and possibly dangerous activity. That requires motivation, and motivation is closely wedded with discontent. Your character needs to start out unhappy about something and be willing to do something about it. Happy people tell no tales.

Which brings us to another hurdle. When I wrote The Hob's Bargain the protagonist refused to solidify for me. I knew where the story needed to go, but I just couldn't connect to the main character. Generally, tormented characters are sympathetic so I abused her. I killed her husband, laid waste to her lands, and did everything short of actually killing her while she trembled in fear in the basement of her home. Still nothing. No spark, no life, no character.

I was, at that time, a member of the Wordos workshop in Eugene OR, and I ran the story through the group for critique. Jerry Oltion read it, and instantly found the source of my problem: the character never did anything. I argued with him, saying that there was nothing she could do against the forces I'd set against her. He asserted that it didn't matter if she was victorious, or even successful, but she had to do something.

I re-wrote the story so that she was trapped in the cellar, struggling to get out. As soon as she began hammering on the trap-door something clicked. My character had character, and suddenly I could connect with her, understand her, and the story was off and running. The character happens to the plot. The plot doesn't happen to the character. That little gem will save you some serious hair-pulling, and you're welcome!

I'd like to end our discussion of beginnings with a note on technique. Authors are often broadly categorized as either plotters or pantzers. Those appellations referring respectively to authors who plot their works with outlines and those authors who write "by the seat of their pants" and make everything up as they go along.

If you were to talk to ten successful authors, and ask them about their writing process, you will get more than ten different answers. Process is as individual as a painter's preferred brushes, and many authors have tried multiple methods. There's no right answer, there is only what works for you.

There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, And every single one of them is right!

However, it's important to know that how you choose to write your book strongly influences the types of problems you're likely to encounter. The smart author knows the weaknesses of their chosen method, and takes appropriate measures.

A plotter, having successfully completed a detailed outline, can write with confidence. He knows how the character will overcome each obstacle and how the book will end. However, the plotter needs to be careful to insure that his plot is not predictable (after all, if it was written in a few hours or even a couple of days, there's a limit to how much creativity could be brought to bear). The plotter may also struggle with character motivation. The outline may call for the protagonist to venture into the spooky-looking cave following the bloody footprints, armed with nothing but a wooden spoon. However, an intelligent character should need some serious motivation to do so. If that motivation isn't adequately provided the character appears stupid, or the hand of the author becomes obvious. The best plotters learn when to follow the outline strictly, and when the story calls for the outline to change.

The pantzer's plots are seldom predictable. However, they are often undirected, with the character wandering randomly around the world exploring bunny-trails and engaging every random stranger in pointless conversations. Endless dithering is the hallmark of the pantzer. The pantzer needs to be very disciplined about pruning away sub-plots and chapters that don't do enough to advance the main story, and that pruning means that often dozens, or even hundreds of pages are thrown away. Not terribly efficient, and many pantzers become emotionally invested in the parts of the book that most need to be pruned. The pantzer may also have difficulty bringing the story to a satisfactory conclusion. I'm convinced that several book series are the result, not of careful planning, but of an author who has no idea how to end the fifteen different sub-plots and story arcs they've unwittingly opened!

2The Middle: Sailing the Doldrums

The beginning of the book, with all of the world building, character building, and introductory material is usually accomplished in a blaze of creative energy. The page count rises as quickly as the author can type in a manic rush. And then the rush is over, the creative flood slows to a trickle, and you still need to fill hundreds of pages with something before you get to the triumphant end scene. Welcome to the middle of the book.

Years ago, in the age of sail, ships used the trade winds to cross the oceans east and west routinely. However, crossing the equator was tricky. Near the equator the winds still, and a ship can lie trapped for days or weeks, waiting for that next breeze. With water being in limited supply, becalmed ships often killed livestock and tossed them overboard to conserve it. The resulting abundance of rotting corpses led to the colorful term "horse latitudes". The more common name for these windless latitudes was the doldrums.

Writers sometimes call this part of a novel the "middle doldrums", and a great many authors have languished here for weeks or months. The middle doldrums are littered with the pallid pages of unfinished novels (which admittedly smell better than rotting horses). Welcome to the graveyard of abandoned books.

Avast! I've Been Becalmed

When you first encounter the middle doldrums you may feel a terrible sense of being adrift. Things went so well for the beginning of the story, and here you sit. You need a plan. More accurately, your story needs a plan. Your character needs to do something to try to fix his problem. If his first effort is successful, you're probably looking at a short story instead of a novel, and maybe not a very good short story. You need your character's first attempt to fail.

What that sounds trite and predictable, there are many ways to fail. For example, suppose we have a simple hobbit in a lovely shire who finds himself in possession of a ring imbued with dark magic. He's told he must take it to a nearby town, where a powerful wizard will deal with the problem. You'll notice our character has a problem, and he's motivated to take corrective action. The problem seems small, the goal easily attainable. Of course he must fail, but the art of storytelling is in deciding how he will fail. Consider the following possibilities:

  1. He refuses to leave home. Now any evil seeking the ring also endangers the shire.
  2. He leaves the shire but decides to keep the ring and joins a caravan traveling to a distant land.
  3. He gets lost in the forest. Now he can't find his destination or the shire. The woods are dangerous, and he may be eaten by a grue.
  4. He's killed by wolves in the forest, and the ring is once again lost . . . for a time.
  5. He travels to the nearby town, but becomes suspicious of the wizard and decides to continue the quest alone.
  6. He gets to the town safely. The wizard is trustworthy, but tells him that the situation is more dire than expected, and the hobbit must now venture even further from home to give the ring to some elves instead.

Any of these outcomes represents a failure to solve the problem, but each one would turn the story in a different direction. Often a character's first attempt either makes the situation worse, or reveals that the problem is much more complex or serious than originally believed. And this, dear reader, is where the author really begins to flex their creative chops. Each decision leads to additional problems, opportunities and pitfalls. The beginning you lavished such care creating was really just putting pieces on the game board, and now the game begins in earnest.

Eventually, of course, through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, our hero must eventually arrive at a final moment of truth. But that is the end of the story, a topic we shall presently address. The middle of the book is about the struggle. It is often modeled as a try-fail cycle. The hero tries to solve his problem and fails. That failure presents a new problem, which he again tries to solve, and fails. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The try-fail cycle is, of course, not the only way to cross the doldrums. But it is a way and it works. In more abstract terms, then, here is how to use it. Character has a problem. Tries to solve the problem resulting in A) miserable failure B) solving the problem but finding that the real problem is something else entirely or C) solving the problem resulting in a much more disastrous situation. Algis Budrys, in his terrific book, Writing to the Point, recommends two failures and a third try that is the climax of the story. But whatever works for the story is fine (I say). The point of the try-fail-cycle is that it gives the writer a way to fill the space between the beginning and the ending with something that is interesting.

The try-fail cycle will insure that you are no longer stalled in the middle doldrums. I've heard it said that if all else fails, have a shadowy figure appear and kill one of the characters. Suddenly, you have a nice mystery to solve, a murder to avenge, and a new antagonist to develop. Becalmed no longer!

Help! My Story is Adrift

Of course, plotting a book isn't as simple as simply tormenting your character by moving the cheese every time he gets close. Without careful planning, your character may careen erratically from one setback to another. The character arcs collapse in disarray, the plot feels like it's being pulled out of a hat, and all of your character's frenzied efforts aren't actually going anywhere. It's undeniable: you've lost your way.

Don't panic. It happens to everyone. A good story is more than a string of random failures. The failures and the subsequent efforts should have a direction to them. You need to chart a course that shows that all this trying and failing is leading somewhere more meaningful than filling three-hundred pages before the ending.

These waters are not uncharted, and there are maps readily available. Generally called plot maps, these are a series of recognizable landmarks for traversing the middle doldrums. For example, if you search for "The Hero's Journey" you'll find a well-marked route that's been used by a great many authors.

A plot map, like the try-fail-cycle is a just a handy crutch. It's sailing the shallow coastal waters between the landmarks on somebody else's map. It's safe, but limiting. To brave the open waters you'll need to acquire your own compass. You need to learn to feel when the book is sailing steady and when it's drifting off course. Sadly, developing those instincts involves good deal of time, and the willingness to backtrack, evaluate your story and delete your failures. Over and over again. I've deleted many hundreds of pages, and still regularly make mistakes. After all these years, though, I make far fewer of them, and I catch them more quickly.

Just Keep Swimming

The middle doldrums stop a lot of authors. Everyone struggles. You're not unique, and you're not cursed. If you pull your hair out, don't worry, it will probably grow back, and bald is sexy. In the words of a certain blue fish, "Just keep swimming!"

Men fail much oftener from want of perseverance than from want of talent.

Eventually, you'll realize that your character has struggled for several hundred pages, overcome the dangers, setbacks and trials set before him, and is ready for the final cataclysmic challenge. You have navigated the middle doldrums, and the trade winds fill your sails once more. Congratulations!

3The End: A Thunderous Climax and Graceful Goodbye

While I generally eschew formalized methods of storytelling (pantzer here, remember?) the end of a story really needs to contain certain elements. In this case, the elements from the ever popular Freytag's Pyramid are appropriate: Climax, Falling Action,and Resolution.

Climax: Go Big. Now Go Bigger!

The climax is, in may respects, the most important single element of a story. Your readers have borne with you for hours of worldbuilding, character development, triumphs and setbacks. If you've laid your foundations well, the stage is now set for the thundering final conflict. You can practically hear the tympani rolling up to a slow crescendo in the background. This is the emotional payoff for all of that painstaking groundwork, so you need to make it count.

A great climax is supported by three pillars:

1) The Protagonist Risks Everything
This doesn't necessarily mean death. From the beginning of the story, your character has wanted something. The character's motivation may have changed during the story, but at this point the character must show himself willing to risk losing what he holds most dear. That may be love, social standing, approval of peers or parents, or life itself. If the protagonist is not invested in the outcome of the conflict, why should your reader be?
2) Failure Must Be An Option
The author must have established that bad things can, in fact, happen, and convince the reader that the protagonist faces very real risks. If your entire story is prancing unicorns and fluffy bunnies, the reader won't believe the hero can fail, destroying the emotional impact of the climax.
3) The Piper Must Be Paid
The climax must have a cost. Win or lose, the attempt must cost the character something. There is no glory in an effort made without cost. The cost should be painful and personal. If a wealthy hero simply pays an assassin to terminate his opponent, they have neither glory in triumph nor pain in defeat. It didn't matter enough. The payment doesn't need to be monetary, of course. Giving up a dearly-held moral standard, losing a friend or loved one, being forced to leave a beloved homeland, or destroying an heirloom are all meaningful forms of payment.

Falling Action: Give the Reader a Break

One problem I have with the traditional Freytag's Pyramid is that it's generally drawn to show the climax as a high point on a symmetrical diagram, leading many readers to assume there should be as much verbiage after the climax as before it. After the climax, your story is largely told. The remaining elements are important, but can often be done with a sentence or two. If you're writing multiple chapters after the climax, you risk weakening your story.

There are some literary types who say that the climax is the emotional peak of the book, where the protagonist decides to enter the final conflict, and the final conflict is part of the falling action. I'm not going to argue semantics, but I'm using the term slightly differently. Following the emotional high of the climax, the author needs to signal the reader that it's actually over. The bad guy is truly dead, not just faking it. The bomb didn't go off, and is now harmless. The princess is finally safe. The reader can now relax their white-knuckled grip on the cover, breathe normally and continue reading. It can be as simple as "Nobody spoke on the drive home, and the blood on Duke's knuckles dried slowly."

Resolution: Or "Where did the hero leave his horse?"

Formally called dénouement (derived from the old French for untying), this is the true end of your story. Once again, a good resolution should accomplish several tasks:

1) Tie Up Loose Ends
Did the hero steal a car, destroy public property, or leave his horse double-parked outside the castle wall? Is his sidekick still crawling through ventilation shafts trying to summon the police? Are we still not sure the princess actually loves him? This is the time to do a little house keeping and tidy things up. You don't have to resolve everything, and sometimes leaving some minor threads hanging makes a more realistic ending (after all, how often have you had a day where everything in your life got tied up with a neat bow at the same time?) Those little unresolved threads also provide a convenient place to begin weaving a sequel if you decide to do so. However, don't leave animals, children, or the faithful sidekick in unresolved danger.
2) Final Resolution of Emotional Arcs
What did the victory or loss of the climax mean to the protagonist. How has he changed, and how is he reacting to that change? The real power of most stories is not epic sword fights or clashing space-ships. It's emotional/internal changes in a character. Ending the story without acknowledging that change leaves a story incomplete and empty. Show the change.
3) Catharsis
Catharsis, in the literary sense, is the release of tension for your reader. The story should continue until the reader's heart rate is back to normal and they will able to sleep at night. A little witty banter between characters, a sense of returning to a "normal" life, even if that's quite different than the old normal, and generally reassuring the reader that life will go on for their imaginary friends.

We've talked about the thematic parts of a story: beginning, middle and ending. Now I'd like to discuss some of the building blocks of the written word: scene, transitions and tension.

4Scenes: The Building Blocks of Story

In High School, your English teacher probably taught you the basics of writing. A sentence has a subject and a verb, often combined with clauses and phrases. Well-crafted sentences can be combined into paragraphs to express a single idea, and paragraphs can be ordered to facilitate complex ideas. Since most English papers are only a few pages long you didn't need larger structures. However, building a skyscraper is different than building a doghouse, and to write long fiction you're going to need bigger building blocks.

The most commonly-used big-story block is the scene. A scene is a sequence of continuous action. (In theater, film, and literature studies scenes are divided into sequences, settings, scenes and acts, with each having a particular definition and use.) Basically, a scene is everything that happens until you insert a new chapter or a scene break. A scene is analogous the noun of a sentence, it's a block of stuff that tells part of a story.

Imagine a scene, a little block of story, as a domino. A book is a chain of tautly-written scenes, one following another like a line of dominoes. Reading should be like toppling that line, each scene transferring its momentum to the next one in line. It takes a bit of practice to view your work as a string of discrete scenes instead of a continuous thread, but it will improve your writing.

Visualizing the novel as a series of scenes give the author an eagle's-eye view of the story. Each scene is a complete structure that encapsulates a part of the story. A scene can be pulled out, examined, altered and replaced or even (allowing for dependencies) placed in a different location without disturbing the overall story.

However, gaining an eagle's-eye view of your story often involves a some harsh truths. Instead of a orderly line of dominoes, you may well find branching trails and dead ends, and maybe a handful of dominoes standing all alone by themselves. And now, the fun is over and the work begins.

A scene can explain, offer insight, increase risk, or perform some other story-related task while driving the plot forward. Every scene must accomplish something for the story and drive the plot forward.

If a scene doesn't do both of those things, it doesn't belong in the book. That's a harsh statement. Let me repeat it so you'll know it was intentional. If a scene doesn't do both of those things, it doesn't belong in the book. It may belong in another book. It may belong in a writer's file of "precious but abandoned scenes" but it doesn't belong in the current book.

There's always another option.
There's always another one.
It's never only 'this' or 'that,'
The moon or else the sun.

Don't sigh and choose the greater
Or lesser of two plights.
But look to see the stars beyond
For options vast and bright.

The sad truth is that when you find a scene that doesn't belong, it's almost guaranteed to be your favorite scene in the book. Subconsciously you probably knew it didn't belong, but you wanted to write it, so you told your inner critic to sit down and shut up while you indulged yourself. Now your inner critic smirking as you realize that it didn't belong after all. My advice? Do the right thing for the story, and treat yourself to a slice of pie afterwards.

5Transitions: Movement with Grace

If scenes are the nouns of storytelling, transitions are the verbs. Between the blocks of story are the explanatory passages, signposts, and gentle redirections known as transitions. Transitions are often overlooked but are as important as scenes; just as the spaces in a sentence are as important as the letters.

In older styles of storytelling, transitions were often the work of the narrator. The story's host, who often addressed the reader directly, interrupting story flow. "Gentle reader I do implore, my efforts laud, my faults ignore. From now until the last encore I am thy humble troubadour." The narrator would appear to offer introductions and explanations, guiding the flow of the story.

While modern storytellers no longer use a narrator, the task of directing the readers to changing scenes and important explanations remains. In modern writing, transitions are usually brief — often only a line or two.

Suppose you are writing a fantasy novel, and your plucky heroine, along with a half-dozen of her companions, must travel by horse to a distant city. You have several options. First, you could detail the journey scene by scene. This approach allows the author to use the travel time as an opportunity for character development and party bonding, and slip in some world-building for good measure. However, detailing a week or more of travel without cutting away is going to be a very long scene. In fact, whatever your story had been, you've probably now committed to Volume 1: The Journey There.

A more traditional transition would be a short passage in third person. "The journey was long, but uneventful, and on the tenth day the party left the forest, descending to tended fields and the city beyond." This type of transition is just a slightly-less-obvious version of the narrator; sort of a ghostly news-anchor speaking from offstage. Expository transitions lack tension, so keep them short and simple.

The briefest possible transition is invisible: the end of chapter or a blank line (sometimes with a random graphic, for improved "visibility"). It's the cinematic equivalent of fading to black. The reader mentally closes the cover on what has gone before, and begins reading anew prepared to have leaped in time, space, or even into another character's viewpoint. It's like magic!

However, like all magic, this particular trick comes with a price. You've signaled that things have changed, and your reader has trustingly followed, but the reader is moving forward blindly. You need to quickly inform the reader of where they now are, who they're following, and how much time has passed. For example: "After ten days of riding, I was glad to see signs of civilization. The narrow trail we'd been following widened into a narrow road, and a faint smudge of smoke marked the presence of a town ahead."

Good transitions insure that the story moves along briskly with a minimum of confusion. At one point in time I needed Mercy to load a badly-wounded Adam into her van. I wrote for several days, working through the logistics of having Mercy transport her much-larger mate, being careful not to bang his head dragging him down stairs or accidentally drop him off the cargo deck. I wrestled with describing each action clearly, so the reader could visualize the complex process. The final scene was ten or fifteen pages long, but it by-golly worked, and I was sort of proud of it. One of the members of my writer's group said, "delete it". I balked, but in the end he was right. I'd used a scene to do a transition's job. The final version was something like, "I loaded Adam in the van and drove away."

Transitions are an art of understatement and subtlety; saying just enough to redirect the reader's attention without interrupting the flow of the story. A whisper is better than a shout. Try to avoid clunky, obvious structures that pull the reader out of your story: "Meanwhile, back in the dungeons of the evil Marduke, Penelope was still hanging in chains, waiting for her missing prince."

6Tension: The Power of the Tale

Imagine a bow and arrow. You can analyze the components and construction, but it's ultimately tension that makes it work. So far we've discussed structural elements of story: the equivalent of limbs, shafts and fletching. Those are all important parts of craft, but they could equally apply to a book on the history of Scottish grazing rights (well, except maybe for the climax scene, I have no idea what the climax of such a book would look like). So far, we've discussed building a bow and arrow, and now it's time to use it. Drawing a bow builds potential energy to propel an arrow. Scene tension builds emotional energy to propel the reader onward.

Every author has slightly different talents, and different tools in their writer's toolbox. I've always been strong in character, and struggled in other areas. Years ago, I sat down and really studied how a couple of my favorite authors create tension. One of them is an author who has some serious flaws: gaping plot holes, glaring continuity errors, etc. However, her books are irresistible. She grabs her reader's attention on the first page, and compels them to flip pages like a lunatic all the way to the end, scarcely daring to breathe for hours. I wanted to discover her particular magic, and take it for myself. Sadly, I've only been partially successful.

The Magic Mirror

Even a hack writer can make a reader feel sad by killing puppies, and righteous anger over a two-dimensional tyrant, but a good writer can do far more. One of the really interesting things about storytelling is that the reader mentally maps their emotions to those of the protagonist. This emotional mirroring is the heart and soul of creating tension.

Emotional mirroring depends on a clearly-shared context. The author gives enough clues for the reader to decipher not only what the protagonist is doing, but how they feel. If the reader is given the right clues and the protagonist's actions are rational, the reader will experience echoes of the same emotions.

Now, before you go all "Doctor Evil" you need to recognize that the mirror is fragile. Playing with emotions is playing with fire. We all have checks on our emotions, an internal firewall that evaluates whether what we're feeling is reasonable and proportionate. If you suddenly have your character fly into a towering rage over a trivial offense, the reader will not only not share the rage, they will experience an uncomfortable bit of cognitive dissonance, a little mental whiplash from the mirror breaking. The manipulation became heavy-handed and tripped the reader's firewall, "Oh heck no, that is not how I feel!" The gig is up, the reader feels manipulated, and your book may be heading for the nearest wall at high velocity.

Of course, you can condition the reader to expect a disproportionate reaction. For example, suppose your character is a woman engineer, and for the past ten years she's worked under a sexist and oppressive boss who constantly questions her competency because of her gender. Suppose you've just described this character angrily quitting her job. She's worried about money, she's worried about her future, she's nursing a ten-year hurt, and goes to the pub to unwind. When some drunk calls her "girlie", the reader is primed and ready for the coming explosion. Mirror intact. Reader furiously on-board.

A skillfully-cultivated mirror can provide all the tension you need to keep the pages turning.

If you're confused and looking for inspiration, the daytime soap operas are absolute masters of creating tension, though they are often a bit heavy-handed. After all, that's the only way for a show with a limited budget and a ridiculous production schedule to keep millions of people glued to their TV five days a week for years on end. What will happen next week? Will Mary tell Mark that the baby isn't his? Will we find out why George wears a mask? And, for those curling your lips at soap operas (I don't watch them either) remember that Game of Thrones is just a high-budget soap opera.

Bonus Trick: The Hidden Dagger

The hidden dagger is when the author tells the reader about a danger that is unknown to the protagonist. It's a tried, tested and effective technique. The reader is mentally playing two roles: they are mirroring the protagonist, but they are also a reader privy to secrets and events that the protagonist doesn't know about. You can build tension in both halves.

For example, suppose our trusty heroine and her small band of rebels is trying to rescue the prince from the Dread Duke's Dungeons™ She doesn't know that her most trusted confederate, the one she left guarding their only escape, is actually a traitor working for the duke.

Now the reader is following along with the usual trepidation and anxiety as the heroine stealthily moves deeper into the dungeons. But the reader also knows about the traitor, and their anxiety is heightened.

Personal Favorite: The Shared Secret

This is sort of a feel-good twin to "The Hidden Dagger" It happens when the reader knows something about the protagonist that the characters in the story don't. It's empowering for the reader, and instead of anxiety is often used to elicit anticipation.

This is a standard trope of superhero stories. When mild-mannered Bruce Wayne is blackmailed by some low-rent thugs you just know that Batman is going to kick some serious butt soon. This trope is also very common in urban fantasy. Character X is a werewolf/vampire/wizard/kisune or whatever, and that fact is only known to a select few, which of course includes the reader.

Shared secrets are powerful, they invite the reader into the inner circle. That's affirming and reassuring, and the shared secret is among the best-loved and most used tools in my personal writer's toolbox.

Scene Tension and Dialog

Fiction writing depends on dialog, in fact the majority of the story is told through dialog. Sadly, most high school and college writing courses barely touch on dialog at all, leaving many new authors struggling to even punctuate it properly. I fought the same battles, and have learned a couple of tricks.

Scenes work with best with two people. There can, of course, be other people present, but ideally you want two principal speakers. Three is manageable, but anything more than that becomes very, very difficult to do well. ProTip: To mimic a group discussion, break it into several smaller two-person conversations and stack them back-to-back.

There's a reason to reduce the number of participants in a conversation: tension. Think of every business meeting you've ever attended. Twenty or more people sitting around a big conference table while the boss drones on. Now, think about the last fight you had with your significant other. Which scene had more tension? In which were you more emotionally invested?

In dialog, tension happens when the participants want different things. If participants want the same thing or are disinterested there is no tension and the conversation is flat and lifeless. However, most conversations don't involve screaming and threats. Humans are subtle, and that subtlety is nowhere more evident that in conversations. A lifted eyebrow, a tightening of the lips, a flex of the hand all convey emotion. A good conversation has as many thrusts, parries, and ripostes as a sword fight. Two opponents face each other with different goals, and the sparring begins. The author's task is to convey the non-verbal battle through a few well-chosen descriptions. It takes skill to accomplish in a conversation between two people.

If you add a third party to the conversation, the non vocal complexity goes up by an order of magnitude. As the participants oh-so-peacefully duke it out, a world of shifting alliances, temporary truces, intrigue and betrayal plays out silently. Trying to capture this level of interplay requires a very skilled author. Add a fourth participant and it's virtually impossible to do well.

7Viewpoint: The Lens Also Shapes the Story

Anyone who's dabbled in photography can attest to the importance of high-quality lenses, and of having sevaral options available. The lens used for landscapes is a poor choice for portraits, and a multi-purpose zoom is a world of compromises. As an author, you face an analogous choice as you frame and focus your story through your selected viewpoint.

First Person: I

The first person viewpoint, while once popular in literature, has largely fallen out of favor. However, it is a staple of gumshoe detective novels and noir. It's also very common in urban fantasy, which emulates the dark, edgy feel of noir. First person means it's told from the protagonist's viewpoint, and the protagonist refers to themselves as 'I'. This feels familiar and comforting, we're used to hearing our friends tell stories in first person.

It's surprisingly hard to do well. I once had a workshopped chapter returned with the following comment: "This sounds like a Mexican song - I - I - I -I!" Although far from politically correct, the complaint had merit.

The first person viewpoint presents unique difficulties for the storyteller. Since the whole story is told from the protagonists viewpoint, it's almost impossible to introduce plot elements beyond the character's knowledge. That sounds minor, until you're three hundred pages in and discover the plot hinges on some event that the character can't possibly know about.

On the other hand, writing first person gives easy access to the thoughts and internal dialog of the protagonist, so you can describe not only what he sees and does, but also what he thinks and feels.

Second Person: You

Thankfully, few books are written in second person, where the protagonist is 'you'. Second person is supposed to make the reader feel connected and involved in the story. Personally, I find it incredibly annoying. When I read, "You go to the fridge, and make yourself a tofu sandwich with extra sprouts and relish." I don't feel involved, I feel indignant. I don't even like tofu, and I certainly didn't add extra relish!

Second person was used to very good effect in the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books. It's occasionally employed by avant-garde literary authors, and even more occasionally by authors looking to stand out in genre fiction. Many readers dislike second-person (although literary critics seem to respond more favorably). I've never used it, and I would suggest doing some additional research before choosing to write in second person.

Third Person: He, She, It

This is the most commonly-employed viewpoint in fiction. Third person is sort of like a really nice wide-range zoom lens for the story. A number of different artistic effects can be achieved using the extremely-versatile third person.

Third person can "zoom out" to an all-seeing omniscient viewpoint. The thoughts and actions of characters near and far can be laid bare, complex plots can be explained clearly. It's an older style of storytelling that has largely fallen out of favor. The all-knowing character is a narrator, conversationally laying bare the thoughts, plots and actions of others for the reader. It's generally agreed that the story tension is greatly reduced in this viewpoint.

However, you can also "zoom way, way in" to focus on a single character, while still keeping the omniscient ability to read the character's mind. For example, "Rodrick stalked down the street, fuming. Harry's owl had come last week, and Hermione was already studying the second-year books. His own hadn't come. He imagined his stupid owl plastered across the grill of a huge semi. Shit. At this rate, he wasn't going to get into the books at all."

The magic of a close third person (also called limited omniscient) is that it feels nearly as connected as first person, while allowing the author the freedom to pan the focus to another character or zoom out for an expository transition without jarring the reader. This flexibility is the reason that for this viewpoint's enduring popularity.

Of course, every tool is subject to abuse. While the limited omniscient viewpoint allows the writer to change focus, and head-hop between characters, this can be disorienting for the reader. In most fiction, it is considered good form to stay in the protagonists head as much as possible to avoid taxing your readers. The exception is romance. Romance readers have been trained to expect head-hopping between the two romantic leads. If you're writing romance (including paranormal romance) you are free to head-hop between the leads as long as your transitions are clear. Hopping without a clear transition will give your poor readers mental whiplash!

Nota Bene

I have a final word of caution. Having chosen a viewpoint and viewpoint character, it's important to stay anchored. It's surprisingly easy to drift into sort of an unfocused-omniscient haze while describing things. It's not only an easy mistake to make, it's difficult to catch, but it leaves the scene feeling lifeless, flat and boring. It's also something many writers don't look for.

When I have a scene that's limp and boring, my leading suspect is unclear motivation, which is actually an issue with scene tension. Basically, if I've forgotten the character's motivation then I can't possibly be writing in the subtle cues needed to maintain the emotional mirror, and suddenly the whole thing goes flat as a pancake. However, the second suspect is that the viewpoint has drifted. One of the surest signs of a viewpoint drift is if there are details in the story that my viewpoint character shouldn't know -- like what the guy next to him is thinking! Again, these errors are sneaky, and easy to miss so don't just assume that you're too good to make a rookie mistake.

That's All Folks!

If you've made it all the way down here, thank you. I hope that you've found something useful to bring to your own writing. Writing, like any art, is never truly mastered. There's always more to learn, and each piece brings fresh challenges. May you enjoy both the craft and the journey.

Patty (and Mike) Briggs.