What Creates a Story’s Theme?

by Jami Gold on December 18, 2014

in Writing Stuff

Scattered puzzled pieces with text: What Story Elements Create a Theme?

Many stories that stick with us over time resonate with some aspect of our life, belief, or worldview. Often, the theme of the story creates that resonance.

If we agree with the theme of the story, we’re likely to love the message conveyed between the covers. If we don’t agree with the theme of the story, we might still appreciate the opportunity to examine our beliefs or enjoy the challenge of finding something relatable within the pages. Either way, themes can make us think more deeply about a story.

But theme is also tricky to write. We might have a hard time defining it and an even more difficult time incorporating theme into our stories. Worse, it’s frustratingly easy to include unintended themes.

So we need some tips to help us understand what creates a story’s theme. With that information, we might be able to improve the themes of our stories and write something that will resonate more strongly with readers.

What Is a Theme?

We probably all learned in school that theme is a story’s “message”—the ideas that a reader is supposed to take away from the story. However, one thing that many teachers don’t emphasize is that a story can (and probably will) have multiple themes. (So those teachers who marked us wrong for pointing out the theme we saw instead of the theme they saw? Yeah, they were full of it. *smile*)

Most themes are revealed through subtext, which doesn’t help with our understanding or identification of them. But we can usually find the main themes by analyzing how things change over the story. How does the situation change, and how do the characters change? Let’s take a closer look…

Theme Element #1: The Story’s Premise

As I’ve posted about before, themes are often intertwined with a story’s premise. A premise is usually very high level and somewhat generic. For example, the premise of Finding Nemo could be stated along the lines of: A father’s love for his son pushes him past his fears.

The high-level aspect means that even pantsers might have a basic idea of the premise of their story:

  • A woman struggles to believe in love.
  • A boy learns to trust himself.
  • A team races to save the world.

Now take that same premise for Finding Nemo and make it even more generic: Love is stronger than fear. Based off just five words—love is stronger than fear—we’d expect a story where a character has to face their fears (implied conflict) and win (implied ending).

More importantly for our goals today, that generic line is a theme. Or we could go even more generic by taking out the implied conflict and ending: Love is strong.

Similarly, the themes of the other examples above might be:

  • Love is worth believing in.
  • Self-confidence is good.
  • The world is worth saving.

So one aspect of theme is the premise of the story. The story theme comes from knowing who’s supposed to win or lose—and why.

Theme Element #2: The Protagonist’s Arc

Another major theme element is created by how the character changes over the course of the story. What does the character learn?

This type of theme is essentially trying to convince readers to consider another view of the world: what to value, what to believe, what to aim for, etc. And we make our case by presenting a character who learns the lesson for them.

If we show a character who’s miserable when they believe people are awful and they learn that others can help them become happy and fulfilled, the reader learns right along with the character. The character theme would be the lesson: Humanity has the potential to be helpful (and good).

  • If we’re writing a positive character arc story, our protagonist would usually start with a false belief, and over the course of the story, they’d learn they were wrong, like in the example above.
  • In a flat character arc story, our protagonist would know a truth that could be simplified into a high-level theme (Hard work yields results), and they’d work to share that truth with the world.
  • In a negative arc story, our protagonist might have a tragic ending in several ways. For our purposes here, we can simplify the theme aspect to two possibilities: their negative belief (People suck) would be proven true, or their positive belief (People don’t suck) would be proven false.

As an example, let’s take a look at how a theme involving trust, such as “only through trusting others can we succeed,” could play out over a romance story’s turning points:

  • The Inciting Incident introduces the heroine to the hero, and boy, she does not trust him, or anyone for that matter.
  • At the End of the Beginning (First Plot Point), she has to work with him, and her distrust causes conflict that prevents them from making progress toward the story goal.
  • The Pinch Points make her trust him about minor things, forcing her out of her comfort zone.
  • At the Midpoint, the hero calls her out on her trust issues and points out how they’re doomed to fail because of it.
  • In the Crisis of the Black Moment, she has an epiphany about her trust issues, but now it’s too late to fix things.
  • The stakes of the Climax rip her comfort zone to shreds and she takes a leap of faith, which involves trust in some way, to overcome the conflict.
  • In the Resolution, we see her interacting with the hero (and maybe with others) with her new-found trust on display.

Note that in stories with multiple protagonists, such as romances, each main character would have an arc and thus have a theme.

Theme Element #3: The Plot Events

The first two elements are themes that we often consciously develop in the story, but now we’re going to talk about some elements that are too frequently responsible for unintended themes, simply because we might not be as aware of how these aspects create a message.

For the first of these, we want to look at the plot events, especially the turning points. What things do the characters attempt—do they succeed or fail? More importantly, why do they succeed or fail?

For example, let’s say we’re trying to develop a story theme of: Friends help us through tough situations. We’d want to look at the difficult plot events the protagonist faces.

When they succeed, is it due to their friends’ help? When they fail, is it because their friends weren’t there to help them?

If our story included plot events where the character failed, even with their friends’ help, we might be creating an unintentional theme of: Luck helps us more than friends. So the success or failure during plot events can create a plot theme.

A plot theme should reinforce the story theme, either by being identical to the story theme or by playing nicely with the story theme. If these themes conflict, we’ll often create problems in our story theme.

Theme Element #4: The Protagonist’s Choices

Similar to above, we want to look at the choices the character makes and whether those choices lead to good or bad things for them.

  • Are they making choices that disagree with the story or character theme? Do they succeed anyway? Why?
  • Are they making choices that agree with the story or character theme? Do they fail anyway? Why?

We sometimes need characters to make choices that are the “right” thing to do, but that lead to failure despite their efforts. That’s often part of the definition of the Black Moment. Characters are trying to improve and learn, and then the rug is pulled out from under them.

If we’re not careful, that issue can create an unintended theme. Instead, we could ensure that the character wasn’t doing the “right” thing completely enough yet, or they were doing the “right” thing for the wrong reasons, or we could show how they’ve “lost faith.” After all, they still have 25% of the book left to learn more and get ready for the big demonstration of the lesson in the Climax. *smile*

So the choices they make during the story create a choices theme. Like the plot theme, this theme should reinforce the character and/or story theme, either by being identical or by playing nicely together. If the themes conflict, that’s when we’ll run into trouble.

For example, our character theme might be “embracing responsibility.” The choices the character faces might create a theme of “rising to our potential.” Those can work together: Taking responsibility allows us to rise to our potential.

On the other hand, if the choices the character makes have them guilting others into doing things for them—and the other characters never call them out on this, force them to change, or they never realize this is wrong and change their ways—we’d create an unintentional theme of: A good way to take responsibility is to get others to do our work for us.

Theme Element #5: The Villain

Just like with our protagonist, if our antagonist is a person (rather than a force of nature, a culture’s rules, etc.), they’ll also have beliefs and might go through a positive, negative, or flat arc. How their beliefs are reinforced or disproved by the plot events create a villain theme.

Do they believe the opposite of the protagonist?  Or is their belief a twisted version of the protagonist’s beliefs (“Love can be forced”)? Do their beliefs bring them success before they fail? Why?

We might create an unintentional theme by showing that the villain’s beliefs work for them up until the end. Why would their beliefs work earlier and not later? Just luck? If so, we’re creating an unintended theme of luck being more important than our beliefs.

A safer way to use the villain when developing themes is to create more “evidence” related to the protagonist’s belief. Sometimes the antagonist is the antagonist simply because they don’t learn the lesson, and their failure can demonstrate the perils of false beliefs. Other times the villain can find redemption by learning the lesson too, which bolsters the protagonist’s experience. Either possibility reinforces the theme.

Fixing a Broken Theme

All together, these elements (and probably more that I can’t think of off the top of my head) build themes in our readers’ impressions. If we build our themes well, our whole story will resonate with our message. If we don’t, readers might be left with the opposite impression than we intended.

Broken themes are fixable. First, we need to discover what’s creating that wrong impression:

  • Do we have plot events developing the wrong theme?
  • Is the climax (or other emotional turning points) the source of the problem (often the case)?
  • Is a plot event itself a problem, or just the results/decisions for the event or scene?
  • Would changing earlier scenes improve the theme arc by showing a “trying and failing” approach until they learn to do it right?
  • Is it a characterization problem (how they’re shown) or a word choice problem (too harsh of words)?
  • Do our themes conflict?
  • Do minor characters tell one theme but character actions show another?
  • Etc., etc.

Then, we need to clarify what theme we want and what needs to change to get our story there. Broken themes can seem overwhelming to fix. Themes lurk in the subtext, and they emerge from the big picture, the way plot events and character reactions add up over the entire book. So a broken theme implies that the whole story might be “off.”

But more often than not, we simply need to identify what’s creating the wrong impression. It might even be just one scene, one reaction, one description. And if we find that one thing, tweaking it can be enough to fix the theme for the whole story.

This is yet another area where beta readers, critique partners, or editors are invaluable. They can help us find those details creating the wrong impression. Just like plot events, reader impressions are based on cause and effect, so if we find and change the cause, we change and fix the effect.

The better we can make our themes play together, the stronger our message will be. And as stronger themes often resonate more with readers, they’ll remember our story and be eagerly awaiting our next book. *smile*

Do you have trouble identifying your stories themes? Will this list help know where to look for them? Can you think of other elements that create themes? Have you ever accidentally created an unintended theme? How did you fix it?

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Black-and-white image of cemetery cross with text: What Creates a Black Moment?

If you’ve seen or used beat sheets before, you’ve probably noticed a beat that is often called the Black Moment. The Black Moment is usually one of the most emotional sections of a story, so it can be difficult to pull together.

It doesn’t help that different beat sheets will sometimes place the Black Moment in slightly different places in the story. Or that different story structure systems use different names for the beat. A Black Moment plot point beat might also be called Crisis, Second Plot Point, All Is Lost, or Break Into (Act) Three. It’s enough to make us crazy and worry that we don’t know what we’re doing. *smile*

But as I’ve mentioned before, the names of the beats don’t matter. No matter what we call them, our story will have scenes or events that fulfill the Black Moment function:

  • an event that steals the protagonist’s hope for a solution

And if we read stories (or watch movies), we’ve seen this beat play out endless times, so we probably understand the plot point more than we may think. But let’s take a closer look and see if we can learn something new.

The Black Moment: The What

At some point in our story, our character will symbolically “die.” This usually means they’re stripped of their hope, but it can also mean they’ve lost other aspects as well, such as goals or plans. In a romance, this is often the breakup scene, or the “boy loses girl” scene.

The characters will seem further from their destination (goals) than ever, and the reader shouldn’t see a solution either. Maybe the antagonist is bigger, stronger, or more pervasive than they thought. Maybe they’ve been betrayed. Or maybe they just lost their mentor.

In my stories, the Black Moments include betrayals, abandonments, kidnappings, soul-crushing shame, etc. It seems like the couple can’t reach their Happily Ever After. Think “angst.” *smile*

Whatever happens, our characters are so devastated that they give up despite the consequences. Those stakes that have been carrying them through the rest of the story aren’t enough to force them through this defeat. They give up.

Black Moments in Plot-Focused Stories

In plot-focused stories, we want this moment to invalidate all their plans for success. Do they need to do one certain thing to thwart the bad guy’s scheme? Great! Make that thing literally impossible.

If they need to unravel a puzzle, the one person with the answer just died, they lose their one lead in a crowd, the password they risked everything to find doesn’t work, etc. They’ve reached a dead end, and their hope for solving the problem has died.

Black Moments in Character-Focused Stories

In character-focused stories, we want this moment to break them. Do they have a backstory wound or fear? Great! Echo that wound or fear and make them feel the pain. Any progress they’ve made in changing who they are during the course of the story should seem like a mistake.

If our character started out not trusting others, but over the first three-quarters of the story, they’d begun to trust again, we now need them to feel betrayed and untrusting all over again. Their hope for trust being the answer to happiness or success has died.

Our stories will likely include both plot and character aspects of a Black Moment, so don’t worry about trying to decide one over the other. But either way, hope should die.

It’s only after that symbolic death that our character will find the courage to do the things or take the risks or make the changes necessary to “win.” It’s only after losing everything that they’ll be willing to do anything—because they have nothing left to lose.

The Black Moment: The When

Depending on the story structure system we use, the Black Moment is supposed to land around 75-80% of the way through the story. In three-act stories, the Black Moment usually signals the end of Act Two and the beginning of Act Three.

In the beat sheets on my site, I use the 75% mark and not 80%. Why?

Partly that’s because I like the symmetry of 25% for each beat (or in the case of Act Two, a double of 25%). *smile* But honestly, most of us tend to underwrite our Act Three because we’re racing to the finish just like our characters.

There’s a lot we have to wrap up in that final act, and we don’t do ourselves any favors if we use a percentage that encourages us to rush through details rather than diving deeper to bring together our plot arc, subplots, character arcs, and themes in a cohesive way. We’ve probably all read stories that fell apart, shortchanged, or rushed the ending in some way, and we don’t want that for our stories.

Most systems that use the 80% mark are based on screenwriting, where the action of the Climax’s showdown will be shown and not shared in words. For the visual medium of movies, 80% works.

For novelists, an action sequence that might take up a line or two in a screenplay (“Hero fights with villain”) might take up several pages in our manuscript. We need that extra 5% for our Act Three.

But even with that knowledge, we still might not be sure what counts as our Black Moment. Is it the devastating event that causes a loss of hope? Or the decision to give up? Or in a plot-focused story, is it the start of the consequences taking effect? Or in a character-focused story, is it the exploration of the characters’ depression?

I usually aim for the triggering event to occur around that 75% mark because beat sheets are primarily plot-focused. However, as a major beat, the Black Moment is like a big version of a scene and sequel. The event itself is the scene, and the fallout of that event—the decision to give up and the plot consequences or depression or both—is the sequel.

A bad event without any fallout wouldn’t be a Black Moment. So when I think about the Black Moment in a story, I think of all sides of the event and consequences.

How Is a Black Moment Different from a Climax’s Setbacks?

The Climax plot beat takes up most of Act Three and is sometimes also called Finale, Showdown, or Final Battle. The Climax is another major beat and is also very emotional, so sometimes it might be difficult to know what makes one emotional scene a Black Moment and another emotional scene a Climax.

After our characters give up for the Black Moment, something makes them un-give-up. They give up giving up. Maybe the consequences are worse than they thought. Maybe they learn something that gives them hope again. Or maybe a sidekick gives them a kick in the pants.

As soon as they decide to pick themselves up and start working toward the story goals again, the Climax has begun. As I’ve mentioned before:

The Climax is a special case in that the (beat sheet’s word or page count) range encompasses everything leading up to up to the Climax as well as the actual “showdown.” For example, the Climax would include: deciding to storm the castle, gathering weapons and allies, traveling to the castle, breaching the castle’s defenses, battling the minor bad guys, rescuing the good guys, and fighting the big bad villain.

It’s difficult to separate those steps into separate beats, so they’re frequently lumped together in one breathless-race-to-the-end-of-the-story rush. All of the Climax-related scenes typically take up the majority of Act Three.”

In a long string of events like that, our characters will experience setbacks. The castle will be guarded by a dragon. The love of their life has already left to catch a flight to the other side of the globe. The lighting near the bomb makes it impossible to tell the difference between the red and green wires. Etc., etc.

The difference is that these setbacks, while depressing or terrifying or hopeless-seeming, will not cause our characters to give up completely. They might lose hope for a minute and then recover to reach the “what the heck, if I’m going to lose anyway, I may as well lose by trying” attitude.

In other words, it’s the fallout of the Black Moment that makes it different from these setbacks. In the Climax, they’ll recover quickly enough to not need a scene-or-more-length sequel exploring how hopeless things are.

Instead, in a plot-focused story, the characters will push through the obstacles. They’ll fight through the pain of injuries, find innovative ways to take down the henchmen, and risk blowing up the bomb by following their gut instinct on which wire to cut no matter the advice they receive.

In a character-focused story, the characters will prove that they’ve put their weaknesses, fears, backstory wounds, etc. behind them. They refuse to let their issues hold them back from their goals. Our characters won’t be utterly broken by any setbacks. They’ve found their courage and/or made a leap of faith and are now willing to do or risk things they wouldn’t (or couldn’t) do before.

Whether our Climax’s setbacks involve plot events, risks to our character’s courage, or both, the characters will reject the idea of letting obstacles stop them. They realize that whatever they have to do to overcome the setbacks is worth it, even if they have to sacrifice themselves.

They’ve survived the fire of the Black Moment and risen from the ashes stronger and more determined than before. The decisions, actions, and knowledge they apply during the Climax form the crux of our story’s theme. And as long as our story isn’t a tragedy, they’ll succeed on some level and reach the story’s goal. *smile*

Do you struggle with writing Black Moments? Is it hard to torture your characters and “break” them? Have you ever wondered what made the Black Moment different from other obstacles they encounter, especially during the Climax? Do you write plot-focused or character-focused Black Moments? Or do you write a mixture?

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Ask Jami: How Can We Make a Story Believable?

by Jami Gold on December 11, 2014

in Writing Stuff

Card hand of 4 aces with text: What Makes a Story Unbelievable?

Years ago, I talked about some of the issues that can take a reader out of the story. It’s an important problem to learn about because as soon as immersion is broken for a reader, their suspension of disbelief is at risk.

There are plenty of books and movies I’ve enjoyed until about five minutes after the end. Then my analytical nature takes over and thinks, “Hey, wait a minute…,” and I start deconstructing all the aspects that didn’t make sense. (My family’s plot hole analyses are epic. *smile*)

At least in those cases, I was pulled enough into the story that I didn’t notice the issues until after the fact (which is why it’s so important to keep readers immersed). What’s even worse is if the unbelievable aspects are bad enough to kick readers out of the story midway.

Those readers aren’t likely to pick up the book again. Or if they do, it might be to live tweet all the details they find craptastic or to write a hate-read review. Obviously then, we want to make our story as believable as possible, within the expectations of our genre.

Today’s post is prompted by a question from P.J. Quirino:

“What does it mean to make a story believable? Does it mean to create scenes and world and emotions in the story that a reader can relate to and can feel what the character feels?”

That’s not a straightforward question because there are many ways our stories can feel unbelievable. Let’s dig deeper and see if we can discover some tips and elements to watch out for.

The Many Faces of Unbelievable Storytelling

Storytelling is always about finding a balance. We have to make our stories clear enough to avoid confusion, but we also need to leave enough in the subtext that our prose isn’t too on-the-nose. We have to explore our characters’ emotions to lure in our readers, but we don’t want to slow down the pace. And we have to make our plot both unexpected and inevitable at the same time.

(Easy, right? Or not…)

When it comes to believability, issues could crop up within the plot, characters, or worldbuilding. We have to find the right balance within each of those areas, or readers won’t buy the story we’re selling (literally and figuratively).

(I really hope no one ever told you that writing would be easy. *smile*)

However, there’s no always-right “don’t do this” advice because believability varies widely by genre. Unless we’re writing the equivalent of the novel version of the movie From Dusk to Dawn, what’s going to be believable in a contemporary bank heist story is going to be different from what’s believable in a vampire horror story.

So the first aspect of believability to check might be:

  • Ensure the premise is plausible within the bounds of genre expectations.

As I mentioned in my older post:

“Science fiction authors have to make the technology sound believable. Legal thrillers have to play out according to set laws. Paranormal authors have to decide if modified DNA, magic, or other things determine the rules of the world.”

Furthermore, within each of the genres, there’s variety based on tone, mood, setting, etc. A spy thriller could be based in U.S. Revolutionary War days and be light but serious, or a spy thriller could be based in contemporary Japan and be dark but funny. Each of those variations will change the suspension of disbelief necessary, as well as the line for plausible and believable.

If we receive feedback that our story isn’t believable, but we’re not suffering from any of the specific problems below, we might want to double check reader expectations. Was there a mismatch between our genre, premise, style, or setting? Did readers expect one kind of story and we delivered a different kind of story?

In that case, we might look at our genre category, book description, tagline, or marketing. Those are all things we could change to match the story we have, rather than trying to redesign our whole story.

However, many times something might be unbelievable within the story itself and need to be resolved. Let’s take a look at the most likely culprits.

Frequent Issues with Unbelievable Plots


Storytelling doesn’t like coincidences when they make the situation too easy on the character. This is the “Oh, she just happened to run into the person she was looking for but didn’t know how to find” problem. It’s too convenient to be believable.

Random events that are coincidences are only liked when they make things harder on the characters. Harder = Okay. Easier = Not Okay.

Too Convoluted:

When plots get so convoluted that readers are confused, they might give up trying to figure it out and just think it’s too implausible. In other words, this is the opposite of too many easy coincidences. Here, there are too many moving pieces to believe that they’d all come together for the resolution in a realistic way.

Not Enough Conflict or Tension:

This is similar to the coincidences issue, in that things are too easy for our characters. Life is hard, so readers want to see the characters struggle. It’s too unbelievable when they skate through the story.

Forcing Too Stupid To Live (TSTL) Actions

Some plot events force the character to act as puppets to the plot. They have to do something the character would know was A Bad Idea because without it, the plot falls apart. Readers can’t believe the character would do such a stupid thing.

Frequent Issues with Unbelievable Characters

No Motivation:

This is the character side of the issue of being a puppet to the plot. If we have to make characters do something for the plot to work, we need to give them really good reasons to do that thing, and those reasons need to fit their character. We can’t have a character suddenly take a stand on, say, violence, unless we’ve established their commitment to pacifism earlier. The motivations have to feel true to the character to be believable.

Too Perfect:

Real people are flawed, so characters that have no flaws don’t seem real. It’s often our characters’ flaws that make them relatable. Imperfect characters are more believable.

Mary Sue/Gary Stu:

Mary Sue or Gary Stu characters are often too perfect and cliché, but another common trait of these characters is that all the other characters love and adore them. This trait creates low conflict and makes things too easy for them during the story. All those problems added together create a very unbelievable character.

Inconsistent Characterization:

Nice people aren’t always nice, but in books, if a character acts differently from how readers expect, more explanation is needed. For example, a character could be nice but show meanness in a scene if a reason is given.

Were they upset or tired? Do they feel guilty now? If those reasons aren’t given to show how their different character traits interact and relate, the character’s characterization will feel too convoluted and unbelievable.

Mismatched Emotions:

Part of making a character relatable is making them somewhat predictable based on what we know of real people. If we know a character has a horrible backstory wound about being betrayed, we’d predict that their motivations would lead them to try to avoid being betrayed again, and if it happens again anyway, we’d predict that they’d be devastated, or at least upset.

If characters don’t react strongly enough—or react too strongly—that mismatch can make them seem not real. Readers need to buy into our characters to suspend their disbelief for everything else. Like the characterization issue above, if characters don’t react as readers expect, an explanation is needed to keep them believable.

Frequent Issues with Worldbuilding

Details Don’t Make Sense or Fit Together:

Was the magic system explained one way in this scene and another way in that scene? Was an Army Private placed in charge of a platoon? Was a billionaire flying coach?

Some worldbuilding issues come down to premise issues, while others suffer from being poorly thought out or explained. Either way, the details have to make sense to be believable.

Not Enough Details:

Even worse than a poor explanation is not explaining some aspect of the world at all. At least with a poor explanation, readers might assume that we thought about the issue. When there’s no explanation, we leave readers with the impression that we couldn’t be bothered or that we were oblivious to the need.

If you’ve ever heard the phrase “hand-waved it away,” the core problem is often a lack of details. Think of the wizard saying, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” Dorothy and her companions didn’t believe that line and neither will our readers.

Finding and Fixing Believability Issues

Honestly, that list above is just the issues I thought of off the top of my head. I’m sure there are more, and I hope we’ll compare notes in the comments.

Like many aspects of our writing, we might not be able to find these problems on our own. We once again have to rely on our beta readers, critique groups, or editors to help us identify aspects that aren’t believable. Hopefully this list will give us a head start on figuring out what the cause might be.

By analyzing those problems above, we can see many similar threads. Our stories need to:

  • be plausible within our genre,
  • mesh the style, setting, and genre,
  • avoid making things too easy for our characters (show the struggle),
  • not make things so convoluted that only coincidences could force the pieces into place,
  • provide appropriate explanations for actions, motivations, and worldbuilding specifics, and
  • make characters seem real and relatable through flaws, emotions, hardships, etc.

All that said, believability is often a subjective measure. Some readers can’t suspend their disbelief enough to read fantastical stories at all. So don’t panic if one reader thinks something isn’t believable that others think is just fine. Our goal here is to make our story believable enough that most readers will become immersed. Because immersed readers turn the page. *smile*

Have you ever read an unbelievable story, and if so, what made it unbelievable to you? Have you ever received feedback that your story was unbelievable? Did you figure out the issue, and if so, how? Can you think of other issues that frequently cause believability issues? Do you have other advice for how to fix those issues?

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Ladder up to a question mark with text: One Step to Check Our Plot

In the comments of my posts, conversations often pop up that explore various ideas. Last week, Serena Yung and I were going off on tangents about creating emotions and tension in scenes.

Specifically, we were discussing the use of anticipation and dread to pull readers from one scene to another. But I pointed out that readers’ anticipation or dread doesn’t count if it’s relevant only for events that might come to pass beyond the scope of the story.

For example, if a character experiences a near-miss accident that doesn’t affect them or the story at all, we’re not going to be anticipating or dreading that they might experience post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of that event twenty years after the story ends. *grin*

Either the events affect the character and the story, or they don’t. One style is common in storytelling, and one might sink our writing.

If we understand the difference, we can fix any problems before we start drafting. (Or if you write by the seat of your pants the way I do, you’ll know how to analyze the story you’ve written during the editing process.)

Let’s dig deeper and explore the different ways our scenes can fit together and learn what to look out for.

Storytelling Styles

Have you ever heard the term “episodic” in terms of a story? Some agents give feedback along the lines of “the story felt too episodic.” (And this is generally considered A Bad Thing.)

Or maybe we’ve heard that “too episodic” complaint about a synopsis. (Which of course, can then lead agents, editors, or contest judges to think the same problem exists in the story itself.)

What the heck does “episodic” mean? Let’s compare styles.

Style #1: Cause-and-Effect Chain

The common approach to storytelling is a cause-and-effect chainA causes B, which causes C, etc.

Cause-and-effect storytelling is not episodic. Each event builds on the events that happened previously, and later events will be affected by what’s happening now. The past, present, and future of the story all matter.

Even if a story uses a non-chronological story form, it can still follow a cause-and-effect style. The point isn’t the passage of time but the fact that each event affects others.

Style #2: Episodic or Slice-of-Life

On the other hand, if an event happens in the plot (not just shared in summary) and doesn’t affect the character or story at all, we’ve veered into episodic storytelling. The term is most commonly used to describe certain TV shows.

Recent TV series have experimented more with a non-episodic format, but in the past, virtually all TV shows used a style where one episode didn’t affect later episodes. The main character might narrowly escape death in an episode, and the next episode wouldn’t mention the traumatic events at all.

In writing, this style is sometimes also called “slice of life” or “vignette.” While this style works for flash fiction and some short stories, it doesn’t work for most longer form writing.

Longer Stories Need Stakes

Why doesn’t episodic work for most longer form stories? Simply put, storytelling outside of some literary styles requires stakes.

As Serena and my conversation pointed out, anticipation and/or dread pulls readers from one scene to another. Those emotions require risk. There’s a risk this good thing might not come to pass. There’s a risk that bad thing will happen. That risk is what the reader anticipates or dreads and why they read on to see what happens.

But in episodic styles, events don’t have consequences. A plot event won’t have consequences, good or bad, for the rest of the story or the characters.

Some literary fiction styles can get away with a story where nothing changes and nothing matters, but for the rest of us, we need to build momentum and a sense of forward movement in our story. We need tension for that anticipation and dread that carry readers through our story. We need events that build up to a story.

No Consequences
No Risk
No Stakes
No Tension
No Pacing
No Emotional Response
No Journey
No Story

All of these issues are related. Episodic styles sink the pace, tension, and emotion of most long-form writing. Period.

The human brain likes seeing meaning and relevance in things. How often do we see intentions behind actions that aren’t really there? Or how often do we see animals in the clouds or among the stars? *smile* We want meaning in our lives, not randomness.

How Can We Tell If We’ve Used an Episodic Style?

The easiest explanation I’ve heard came from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park. (Note: Language at that link.) They call it the “But” and “Therefore” rule…

Bad: “And Then” Transitions

When we’re describing our story, we might use the phrase “And Then.” A happened and then B happened. However, “And Then” creates an episodic feel because it doesn’t tie A and B together.

It’s like a clunky transition:

  • She fell asleep, and then the blimp blew up.

Huh? What does A have to do with B?

Many, many synopses are written in this style, and it prevents them from feeling like a mini-story. As I’ve mentioned before, every action in a synopsis should have a motivation (cause) and a reaction (effect), so the episodic style doesn’t work well for synopses either.

Good: “Therefore” or “But” Transitions

A cause-and-effect style means that plot events (or story beats or scenes) should be connected. So we want to be able to mentally replace those “And Then”s with a “Therefore/So” or a “But”:

  • If one plot event causes another (or causes a decision or response in another scene), we could tie them together with a “Therefore” or a “So.”
  • If one plot event causes a setback from previous events, we could tie them together with a “But.”

For example, instead of our clunky transition sentence above, we could say:

  • She fell asleep, therefore she wasn’t manning the controls and the blimp blew up.
  • She fell asleep, but the blimp blew up over her house and woke her.

Either of those sentences show how one event is related to the other. We now know how A and B are connected. We see the cause-and-effect chain. There’s a setup and a payoff, even at this micro level.

That action-and-reaction chain should provide consequences, show growth, add challenges, force changes, raise the stakes, or escalate the emotions. If nothing new is happening and the emotion is the same as the previous event, the action won’t feel dramatic.

Exception #1: “Meanwhile” Transitions

In some stories, we might follow multiple plot lines. In that case, it’s okay to use “Meanwhile” transitions:

  • She fell asleep. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, he fought to get the last bull into the holding pen.

However, each of those plot lines would need to follow its own internal cause-and-effect, “But” or “Therefore/So,” chain:

  • But an explosion in the sky above startled him, so he lost his grip on the bull.

(Of course, “she fell asleep” isn’t an interesting place to end that first plot line, so we wouldn’t really do that. When switching between plot lines, we’d want to leave off at a hook so readers still want to continue. *smile*)

Exception #2: Occasional Unconnected Events Are Okay

None of this is meant to say that we can’t ever have a plot event that doesn’t immediately tie together. Sometimes the connections between events won’t be apparent until later, or sometimes we need a random event to trigger the next part of the cause-and-effect chain. The point here is that we wouldn’t want more than one of those coincidental “And Then”s or unrelated “Meanwhile”s in a row and that they should be rare.

We’ve probably all read a story that jumped to a scene that seemed unrelated to what was going on. Maybe that scene turned out to be a “Meanwhile” or maybe it was a rare “And Then.” The problem is that jump can break our readers’ immersion in our story, and that’s always a risky thing.

The One-Step Test for an Episodic Style

  • If we’re a plotter, we could take our outline, beat sheet, or synopsis and make sure events and scenes are connected by a “Therefore” or “But.”
  • If we’re a pantser, we can keep this rule in mind while drafting and make sure one event follows from the consequences of the previous events, but we can also analyze our story after the fact the same way plotters do.

From Janice Hardy’s post:

“Look at your plot and outline a scene using these techniques. Focus on what your protagonist actually does, not how they feel. Those feelings might be the motivators for the therefore or and so connections, but it won’t do much for the plot, because plot is what the character does, not how they feel.

List what they do, what happens, and what they do in response to that. If you find yourself writing a lot of and then, you know you don’t have enough conflict and your character’s goals aren’t being thwarted. You don’t actually have a plot, just a series of scenes.

But if you find a lot of but, therefore or and so, then you can rest easy that you have a plot and it’s driving the story.”

What If We Find a Lot of “And Then” Scenes?

If a scene doesn’t tie into other events, we can either:

  • change the plot to create that connection,
  • summarize the events in a different scene, or
  • get rid of the scene entirely.

Note, however, that scenes can relate in many ways. For example, a sequel to a scene might seem like it doesn’t cause changes, but sequels usually end with a character making a decision for a new goal or action. In other words, the previous scene caused an effect in the sequel, and the decision of what action to take next is a cause for the following scenes.

On the other hand, if we like an “And Then” scene, we may not want to get rid of it. Deleting fun banter or cute interactions can feel like a waste, and if our readers love our characters as much as we do, they might appreciate more vignettes of their lives.

Slice of life scenes can be perfect bonus material for our website (or enhanced ebook). Those readers who love the characters would enjoy reading these bonus scenes, and at the same time, the “And Then” scenes won’t slow down our pacing. Perfect!

Knowing how our scenes or plot events fit together (or don’t fit together) is a great way to improve many aspects of our story. Better cause-and-effect means that our stakes, pacing, and storytelling are all improved too. And that’s a bonus we’ll all enjoy. *smile*

Do you think the episodic style can work in long-form writing, and if so, how? Do you agree or disagree with how all the elements of our story are related (consequences to pacing to storytelling)? Had you heard of the “Therefore” and “But” rule before? Have you ever analyzed your stories with that rule, and if so, what was the result? Can you think of other exceptions or ways to use “And Then” scenes?

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Are Multimedia Books a “Game Changer”?

by Jami Gold on December 4, 2014

in Writing Stuff

Green light in a tunnel with text: Is Multimedia the Future of Books?

While I was deep in NaNoWriMo and running guest posts, a story circulated about how the release of a multimedia fiction ebook was a “game changer.” (Full disclosure: I tend to roll my eyes at such breathless headlines. *smile*) But beyond my eye-rolling, I want to talk about whether multimedia ebooks could be the wave of the future for fiction.

In any profession, we have to stay on top of industry changes, and publishing is no different. Authors have had to adjust to the rise of self-publishing and the opportunities that option brings us. We’ve had to adjust to the increasing importance of branding and taking on more marketing responsibilities. And we’ve had to adjust to the social media tools available for reaching readers directly.

So it’s in our best interest to have a conversation about whether storytelling will evolve into multimedia ebooks as the primary medium. Let’s take a closer look…

The Background: What Is a Multimedia Ebook?

The terms “interactive” and “multimedia” usually refer to ebooks that include elements such as:

  • images and maps
  • “extended editions” or deleted scenes (like DVDs)
  • embedded audio/video
  • in-book glossary/encyclopedia entries, etc.

Despite the breathless press, the story lauded as the “game changer,” Find Me I’m Yours, by Hillary Carlip, wasn’t the first interactive, multimedia ebook. Different platforms have included interactive and multimedia aspects for children’s books for at least a decade, and I bought my first interactive “choose your own adventure” style Kindle book almost three years ago.

However, this ebook is the first to embrace this path to such a large extent, with custom videos, images, original artwork, 33 websites, etc. (You can scroll through the Amazon Look Inside free sample to get an idea of its scope.)

Is this the future for all books? Some say yes. But is it really?

Obstacle #1: Who Has the Ability to Develop All of That?

Writing a book is already a heck of a lot of work. Adding multimedia pieces just adds that much more work and would take time and skills that we might not have.

How many of us would have the ability to create custom fictional websites to fit our story world—and be able to maintain them? Or the ability to find and photograph or record the people or places to embed in the story?

Now I could see some genres, such as fantasy, including the maps that the author already made for their own notes. Ditto for “deleted scenes” and the like. But while many of us have Pinterest boards for inspiration, we don’t have the rights to publish those images in a book.

In other words, it’s one thing to share elements we’ve already developed. It’s another thing to create and develop elements in addition to what we needed for our storytelling process. And if we don’t have the time or ability to develop multimedia elements, we’d have to pay someone to do it for us.

Obstacle #2: Who Can Afford to Develop All of That?

In the case of this “game changer,” Hillary and her entertainment company spent $400,000 to develop all of the custom elements. What author has that kind of money? Or what author wouldn’t rather their publisher spent that money on an advance? *smile*

Hillary and her company financed the development work by negotiating payment for product placement in the story. The company behind an artificial sweetener paid $1.3 million for the right to have positive information about their product included in the story and to sponsor one of the websites. The story includes many other brand names, and the author’s entertainment company is in negotiations with other companies, presumably for the inevitable sequel.

Obstacle #3: Wait, Our Stories Become a Commercial?

In other words, negotiating this payment for funding the multimedia development isn’t something most authors could do—even if we wanted to. Many have already weighed in with their thoughts about the ethics of product placement and the commercialization of storytelling.

In this case, even though the main character quotes company-provided research statistics for health claims about the artificial sweetener product, the book doesn’t reveal the payment connection in footnotes or a mention on the copyright page. Needless to say, arrangements for product placement leave a bad taste in the mouth of many authors and readers, and without that financing, we’re back to the problems listed in #1 and #2 above.

So if we don’t have the money, clout, connections, time, skills, resources, etc. to create multimedia ebooks, should we be worried? Will we be be left behind in the future?

Obstacle #4: Most Stories Don’t Fit the Multimedia Structure

In the story mentioned above, the storytelling structure itself was changed to accommodate the multimedia elements. The story wouldn’t make sense if printed, or even if read on an older ereader. Some stories will work with a multimedia structure, but most won’t.

Stories that don’t lend themselves to a multimedia structure won’t disappear, just as the “choose your own adventure” structure didn’t banish traditional storytelling. Multimedia-driven stories can only become an option, not a requirement.

Far more likely is that normal stories would offer multimedia bonuses. Fantasy stories might include a link to a map. Science fiction stories might include a schematic of the spaceship. Mystery stories might include copies of the clues so the reader can try to solve the case along with the detective. But are bonuses really a game changer?

Obstacle #5: Do Readers Even Want Multimedia Ebooks?

As a reader, I read stories to become immersed. Anything that pulls me out of the story is a bad thing.

For me, that includes storytelling issues, poor writing craft, and obvious product placement, but it also includes multimedia elements. When, exactly, is a reader supposed to explore these multimedia bonuses?

Am I supposed to interrupt my reading of the story to check out this website or that song or video? Will I have to look at this map or that schematic to follow along because the author was lazy and decided to skip the written description? If so, I’ve lost immersion into the story.

Or would these multimedia aspects be explored after the story (like the deleted scenes on a DVD)? In that case, I don’t think multimedia becomes a game changer because all that’s doing is including the bonuses we’d usually see on an author’s website within the book itself. Eh. Whatever.

My Verdict? Not a Game Changer

I can see a few, select styles of stories embracing multimedia to the fullest extent, but I don’t ever see multimedia becoming the dominant storytelling structure. There are too many stories in the world that won’t lend themselves to the multimedia structure, and those stories won’t go untold.

Storytelling has existed forever—since caveman days—and our brains are far more wired to relate to stories than anything else. Written language didn’t kill verbal storytelling, and multimedia isn’t a bigger game changer than writing itself. So multimedia can’t make all other forms of storytelling obsolete.

Multimedia is a storytelling option now and in the future, but it’s not “the future of storytelling” or the direction that all storytelling will go. Developing multimedia elements in addition to what the author naturally creates takes too much time, costs too much money, and too often doesn’t make sense from a storytelling perspective.

If we take the “Ooo, shiny” technological terms out of the description, multimedia stories are essentially listening to a storyteller who constantly interrupts themselves with tangents. If a friend started telling us about an important thing that happened during their trip to the beach, and they interrupted themselves to show us a map of the boardwalk and play music they’d recorded from a beach-side club patio, we’d want them to get on with the story: “Yes, but what happened?” In other words, in real life, I’d want to smack a storyteller who acted this way. *smile*

Right now, there is an “Ooo, shiny” aspect to multimedia, and readers are excitedly exploring the possibilities just as much as authors. However, multimedia won’t be accepted long-term unless it seamlessly enhances the storytelling itself. In other words, the multimedia elements must serve the storytelling, not the other way around.

Whether we choose to incorporate multimedia or not, storytelling itself doesn’t change. As long as we’re able to tell a good story, the medium doesn’t matter. *smile*

A cranky, old-school reader who wants to remain immersed in the story, no matter how it’s told… *grin*

How much do multimedia books interest you? Do some kinds of multimedia ebooks interest you more than others, and if so, why? Can you think of other obstacles for incorporating multimedia into books? How do you feel about using product placement to finance multimedia development for ebooks? Do you agree or disagree with my theory of storytelling and how multimedia won’t be a game changer for the evolution of all books?

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NaNo Wrap-Up: How to Move Forward

December 2, 2014 Writing Stuff
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Whether we won NaNoWriMo or not, we survived November, and I want to take a moment to gasp—er, breathe. After everything that went wrong with my month, winning feels like a miracle. So let’s talk about how we can move forward from any draft, NaNo or not.

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The Best Reason to Blog — 2014 Edition

November 27, 2014 Random Musings
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Every Thanksgiving, I write a “the best reason to blog” post because gratitude is such a powerful tool. Thinking about what we’re thankful for forces us to pay attention to our priorities. The daily grind can make us forget why we do what we do, but being grateful for the good things reminds us of what matters most.

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The Ultimate Gift Guide for Writers

November 25, 2014 Writing Stuff
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Many of us need help knowing what gifts to buy for people, so with that in mind, I’m sharing my Ultimate Gift Guide for Writers. If you’re a writer, this might help you give suggestions to family or friends. Or you can direct your family to this post for ideas. Something on this list is bound to please every writer out there.

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Should Authors on the Traditional Path Pay an Editor? — Guest: Sharon Hughson

November 20, 2014 Writing Stuff
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Writers pursuing traditional publishing are often told not to pay for editing before submitting to agents or publishers. But the landscape has changed and we’ve had to change our opinion and attitude about many old-school advice “rules.” Should this advice should be next on the chopping block?

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The Psychology of Emotions — Guest: Kassandra Lamb

November 18, 2014 Writing Stuff
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We usually want to keep the reader immersed in the story and keep readers’ interest by engaging their emotions. But when we understand the psychology driving emotions, we might be able to make those emotions more realistic or recognize when there’s a disconnect on a character’s emotional journey.

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