Are There Story Elements You Avoid Writing?

by Jami Gold on February 23, 2017

in Writing Stuff

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We’ve talked before about how the stories we write are affected by our worldview. Our view of the world—optimistic or pessimistic, God does or doesn’t exist, true love is possible or not, people are basically good or selfish, technology will help us or kill us, etc.—is reflected in our stories and themes.

In fact, we might not even be able to write against our worldview. If we’re drawn to strong heroines, we probably wouldn’t write a doormat type.  If we enjoy rooting for the underdogs in stories, it’s doubtful an idea to make a bully into a hero would appeal to us.  Or if we believe in the power of love, our muse is unlikely to nag us to start a story where everyone dies miserable and alone.

However, our worldview isn’t the only thing that might prevent us from writing about certain elements. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons we might have for avoiding particular elements so we can decide whether our avoidance makes sense or points out an opportunity to improve. *smile*

5 Reasons We Might Avoid Writing Certain Elements

#1: It Would Be Bad for Our Brand

Once we’ve starting making a name for ourselves, people form an impression of us:

  • who we are
  • what matters to us
  • what types of stories we tend to write (premise, voice, genre, etc.)
  • what readers can expect from our stories, etc.

That impression is essentially our brand. So if we were to suddenly change our writing style, readers might be disappointed.

For example, if readers have learned to expect sweet, YA-style stories of first love, they would likely be shocked (and maybe offended) if our next release was a hot-and-heavy romance filled with sex scenes and profanity.

That’s not to say that we can’t tweak our brand, but we’d have to be careful to give readers the heads-up so they’d know what to expect. I’ve seen romance authors writing outside the genre include a warning with their new release: “Not a romance. Happily Ever After not guaranteed.”

For some of us, we might decide the risk would be too great to start including elements our readers aren’t used to or expecting. Or if we’re traditionally published, we might run into issues with our publisher or editor (or might even have to find another publisher). In other words, this reason makes sense. *smile*

There’s no point in suddenly including edgy material into our sweet brand, religious material into our secular brand, romance material into our non-romance brand, supernatural material into our real-world brand, etc. unless we’ve consciously decided to adjust our brand and have a plan for communicating to readers.

#2: It Would Potentially Be Controversial

For a similar reason as “bad for branding,” we might want to avoid including controversial elements. In many cases, this can be a smart choice.

Just because our muse gives us a Nazi-Jewish romance story idea doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Or a story idea focused on a marginalized character’s journey (LGBTQ+ character coming out, a person of color’s struggle to escape racism, etc.) might be “outside our lane” and best to leave to those with personal experiences.

Avoiding controversial elements is often good for storytelling as well. I’ve mentioned before that in the first draft of my story Pure Sacrifice, a secondary character’s dialogue was so shocking that it interrupted the story flow for readers. Toning down the language improved the story.

That said, we wouldn’t want to avoid everything that might be controversial. “Potentially controversial” could apply to almost anything: profanity, violence, abuse, sexual content, LGBTQ+ characters, characters of color, drug use, etc. Heck, even first-person point of view or present tense can be “controversial.” *smile*

So for this reason, we’d have to dig deeper to see if our decision is sound. Making choices that respect marginalized communities is a good idea, but being so worried about potential issues that we play it safe rather than exploring human nature might mean that other reasons are influencing our decisions as well (as we’ll explore below).

#3: We Don’t Feel Confident Enough to Do It Well

Another reason we might avoid writing certain elements is that we lack the confidence to do it well. I know many writers who don’t write sex scenes because they feel too intimidated.

Or some writers don’t feel confident enough to write characters from marginalized communities. Others might avoid writing scenes that require specialized knowledge—anything from fight scenes to helicopter-flying scenes.

While it’s good to make sure our writing is accurate and not harmful (not to mention well-crafted), we have the ability to learn, ask for help, and gain confidence. So this is one justification that we might want to question and push back against.

Some knowledge can be gained by research. I’ve seen several posts with tips about writing fight scenes (even some specific by weapon or technique), and I wrote a post years ago to address the dread of writing sexy scenes. *smile* In other cases, we’d want an expert to double-check our writing for inaccuracies or harmful stereotypes, such as using sensitivity readers for marginalized characters.

Either way, unless we’re anti-research or don’t feel like doing that much work to get it right, we can work to overcome this issue if we want. So if we are interested in including those elements, we shouldn’t let our lack of confidence hold us back.

#4: It Would Be Too Much Work to Do It Well

As I mentioned above, we might choose not to include elements because it would be too much work to get it right. For example, while I love reading historical romance, I have no plans to write them because the amount of historical research necessary is too daunting for me to get excited about any story idea.

There’s nothing wrong with making a decision based on “too much work.” We don’t have unlimited time, so we’re allowed to prioritize our writing time on things other than research or time-and-energy sucks.

#5: We Don’t Enjoy Reading About It Either

The last reason I can think of for avoiding writing about certain elements is simply that we don’t care to include them. We often write stories that we’d like to read, so we’re unlikely to write stories that include our pet peeves or other disliked elements (unless we’re showing how to twist the element around).

As a reader, I’m not fond of the alpha-jerk *sshole “heroes” known as alpha-holes. So you can bet that I don’t write them either. *grin*

We’re allowed to have preferences—likes and dislikes, pet peeves and favorite tropes. Sometimes the answer to why we don’t include certain elements simply comes down to that we don’t want to, and that’s okay.

However, we want to make sure that we know and understand our reasons. Sometimes our avoidance is a sign that we can learn and improve our skills, and that’s always a good thing for us to do. *smile*

Have you ever decided against including certain elements in your story? Did one of these reasons apply, and if so, which one? Can you think of other reasons we might avoid elements in our writing? Do you agree with my take of whether these justifications are valid, or do you have other thoughts?

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Calculator focused on addition key with text: Add Meaning to Our Writing with Images

Many forms of writing include visual elements. While the internet conveys most information through text, it’s also a visual medium with GIFs, YouTube videos, and user-focused website design. Even simple blogs frequently include images to increase interest.

Social media—from Facebook and Pinterest to Instagram and Twitter—often focus on images. Tweets with images attached grab more attention than those without. Same with Facebook posts. So our blogs will not only look better with at least one image, but we’ll also likely increase readers and shares if we include images.

But there’s a difference between blog images that simply provide a visual element, and images that add to the post itself. Maybe the image reinforces the message of the post, or maybe it gives another perspective to aid understanding or make the message easier to remember.

As Donovan Quesenberry, one of my blog readers, noted about my blog image for my post on trilogies:

“…The image at the top of this page is really insightful. I don’t think I would ever have thought to use three lounge chairs that way.
Possibly many of us write for different venues where visual aids add something extra. Could be Church, at the office, or for a social club. Whatever. So for a future post someday, if you would be so kind, expose your process for image picks.”

do try to make the images at the top of each blog post mean something, so I love this suggestion from Donovan. Thanks for the idea! *smile*

Let’s take a look at how we can make the visuals we include with our work (whether that’s a blog post or something else, as Donovan mentioned) add to the meaning of our words.

Using Images to Add Context to Our Writing

As I mentioned above, images can provide additional context to our words. They can:

  • reinforce our message with an image and/or headline that echoes our point
  • provide another perspective with an insight expanding readers’ understanding of the topic
  • enhance readers’ memory for the topic with visual shortcut cues and memory aids

And those benefits of strong images are just what I can think of off the top of my head. *smile*

But what makes a strong image in this context? It’s about more than just being visually arresting—it’s about adding to the story behind our words.

So how do we choose and create images that will tell a story related to our writing?

#1: Start with Our Words

There are times when we might start with an image, but that’s a different situation. In that case, the image is already telling us a story that inspires us to write more.

Instead, we’re assuming that we’re trying to find an image that works for a piece of our writing. In that case, our blog post, article, or whatever should already be complete, so we know what message we’re trying to get across.

#2: Think of Keywords

Once we know our message, think of keywords that would apply. Using this post as an example, keywords can come from the article’s…:

  • title: such as “how to,” “blog,” “images,” “tell,” “story”
  • categories/tags: such as “writing advice,” “blogging,” “social media,” etc.
  • text: such as “message,” “context,” “visual,” “reinforce,” “adding,” etc.

#3: Choose a Legal Source for Images

All images on the internet are covered by copyright, so we must ensure we have permission to use the image (either directly from the photographer or via a Creative Commons license, etc.). In other words, don’t use Google Images to search for pictures, as it’s impossible to tell with most of those search results who owns the copyright.

Instead, search for images where we have a better idea of the photographer’s polices:

#4: Search on Photo Site for Keywords

With experience, we’ll probably find a few sites that work well for us and become our go-to sources. Our favorite sites might be the ones with the biggest selection of images, the easiest sharing restrictions, or the types of photos that work best for our work.

Most photo sites have search capability, so we can search for a couple of our favorite keywords from the post. What we’re looking for is an image that goes along with our message.

  • Does it match something referenced in the article?
  • Does it inspire a headline or caption to go along with article?
  • Does it cleverly twist a point of our article?
  • Does it tell a story?

#5: Narrow Down Our Options

If we have several images that could work, we can then choose by the most visually interesting image. Or by which one we could modify to work best.

For example, for online writing, we usually want an image that we can add words to, either in a blank area or one that words could be overlaid on top without obscuring the meaning of the image.

The reasons for wanting to add text to online images are two-fold:

  • Online images might be separated from our words, such as if a reader posts our image on Pinterest to bookmark our article. A sunset picture might add visual interest to our blog post, but without text to give context, someone sharing that image on Pinterest would just be sharing a pretty picture—not our post.
  • Text on images can also act as a secondary headline to add to our message, like for those three benefits mentioned at the top of this post.

#6: Edit Our Image

We can use free image-editing sites to crop, resize, use effects, and add text to our images to make them more visually interesting. A few years ago, I wrote a blog post with a tutorial about PicMonkey for Writers Helping Writers.

PicMonkey is an online image-editing site that allows us to crop, add Instagram-style filters, borders, thought balloons, text, etc. to any image. In that tutorial, I walk through how to go from the before to the after:

Before and after blog image

#6a: Add Text to Tell a Story

As part of editing our image, we want to add text. Text is the most important aspect of giving additional context to our words, as like I mentioned above, the text on a image acts like a secondary headline for our article.

The text can…:

  • echo our article’s headline, rewording it slightly
  • emphasize an aspect of our article
  • use clever wordplay
  • tell a story along with the image
  • share a memory aid, such as highlighting the number of tips or steps in a post
  • tie together the message of a post with the message of an image, so they each add meaning to the other

With a bit of creativity, we can create images that make our articles more interesting to readers—and more likely to be shared. Just as our writing can be more meaningful with echoes and references, the combination of our words and images can make our blog posts and other writing more meaningful as well. *smile*

Do you notice the images on blog posts and articles? Have some images helped make the information more interesting or memorable? What makes images stand out to you? Do you ever share images from posts on social media like Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest? What makes you more likely to share images?

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Egg in a cup with text: Using

No matter how much we study and try different approaches, we often struggle with our story’s first pages. We know how important it is to create a good first impression with our readers, yet there are so many elements we have to juggle that the pieces often don’t come together easily.

We might describe nail-biting action, but forget to help readers connect with the character. Or we might spend too much time in our character’s head and fail to anchor readers in the setting to give them something tangible to imagine. Etc., etc.

The ways we can screw up are almost infinite. That’s why I’m always on the lookout for new ways of thinking about that critical opening page.

Today, I’m excited to introduce Shaila Patel, who’s going to share her insights on the right mix of elements for creating a great first impression. Complete with example excerpts, she shows us how a little of this and a little of that will cook up the best opening for our story.

Please welcome Shaila Patel! *smile*

*****

An EGG for Your First Impression

It’s pretty well-established that we judge books by their covers. We all know why we shouldn’t, but let’s face it, whether we’re browsing for books at a bookstore, or surfing the Top 100 lists on Amazon, it’s the cover that catches our eye.

But that’s not really what I’ll be discussing today.

It’s about what happens after that. An interested reader will skim the back cover copy or the online description, and if they need a little something more to convince them to buy your book, they’ll read the first page. If your first page can’t convince a reader to plunk down their money, you’ve just ruined your first impression.

That’s what we’ll be talking about today: Making the perfect EGG. (No, no, not really. I just love mnemonics!)

E is for Emotions and Empathy

My debut novel, Soulmated, is a teen paranormal romance about empaths, people who can read emotions. You’d think that would help me with this, right? Well, judging by my original first chapter—not so much. (Technically it was my second chapter, but I’ll get to that later.)

If a reader can’t connect to a character, they’ll lose interest, and it won’t matter how beautiful your writing is. So how does a reader connect with a character? By empathizing with a character’s emotion. Show the reader whatever it is the character is feeling, and you’re bound to elicit some empathy.

Yes, action and plot are important, but for those few seconds where you have the reader’s undivided attention, it isn’t enough. They have to care about the character.

Let’s say you open your book with a woman baking cookies. What’s there to care about? Well, what if the woman is talking to an urn while she bakes?

Now we connect, and we’re even more curious than before.

How you elicit that emotion depends on your style, voice, and/or tone of the story—be it humorous, eerie, shocking, or engaging. Use it as a tool to appeal to the reader, giving them that dose of emotion they don’t realize they’re seeking.

That brings us back to my EGG.

G is for Grab their Attention

Some of the best story openings not only elicit some sort of empathy from the reader, but they also grab their attention with some interesting action, unexpected or intriguing dialogue or statement, or a bit of mystery—something to puzzle out.

In my cookies and urn example above, don’t spend the next 300 words reflecting on why the urn is there, or why she’s baking cookies. Jump right into the action.

Have a golf ball fly through the window and break the urn. Have the oven catch on fire. Have a living person enter the kitchen and throw a tantrum about being neglected. Have an imaginary angel come down and play tug-of-war with the urn.

See what I mean? No backstory. Get right to the action.

Based on your sub-genre, there are sure to be other ways to do this, but whichever way you draw the reader in, you have mere seconds to ensnare them. And once you do, you’ve kinda sorta made a promise that what they’re reading is what they’re going to get in the rest of the novel.

Which briiiings us back to EGG, EGG, EGG, EGG… (Sorry, had a bit of a Sound of Music moment.)

G is for Ground the Reader

Grounding a reader with regard to setting is crucial. It lets them know when and where the characters are so that your readers know what’s happening. The setting is only one part of it though.

Grounding a reader also involves style, tone, and voice. Think of it as laying the foundation of your storytelling.

If your first page (or first chapter) is hilarious, the expectation is that the rest of the book is too. If you have a snarky snap to your dialogue or voice, the reader will probably expect to hear it again. And if you write long flowing sentences that provide an escape—the rest of the book should be a ticket to your world.

This point may seem obvious to you, but believe me, when you edit your first chapter hundreds of times, it will read so much better than the rest of the book which gets less and less attention as the pages rack up. Have you ever read a review that sounds like this?

The story started out great, but I don’t know, the rest of the book just didn’t feel the same.

Not good.

It’s like those Food Court ladies giving you a sample of some tasty, perfectly cooked morsel of meat on a toothpick. If it convinces you to eat there, you certainly don’t want your meal-size portion to taste reheated, tough, and cold.

Don’t make your readers regret getting the toothpick.

Seeing it in Action

So let’s see how I used EGG on my own novel. My paranormal romance Soulmated is told in alternating points of view between my hero and heroine.

Originally, my manuscript started with my heroine’s chapter, but she’s a non-empath—which, for my paranormal story, wasn’t grounding the reader in what they could expect. So one of the first things I did was change my first chapter to my paranormal-hero’s point of view instead. (That’s why this excerpt of the original manuscript starts with Chapter 2.)

First Attempt:

CHAPTER 2 – LIAM

We parked on yet another dull street, in another dull neighborhood, of another dull city—but at least it was a new state. North Carolina.

I stepped out of Mum’s Audi and stretched. It felt good to be walking around since our last stop was back in Asheville four hours ago. We’d taken a self-guided sightseeing tour for three days, from Memphis to Cary, and if I never saw another Cracker Barrel, I’d die a happy man. Since Dad had gone on ahead to meet the movers, he’d missed all the fun.

I reached for the football I’d tossed in the boot back in Memphis and spun it on my finger. Agh, they call it a soccer ball in the States, Liam! The sounds of a lived-in neighborhood met my ears—dogs barking, lawn mowers running, and kids laughing. There were more trees around us than in our last few neighborhoods, but their thick, dark green canopies felt oppressive, nothing like the lively green from back home in Ireland.

Dad stood on the porch, rubbing his hands together, a smile glued to his face. He was always excited at the prospect of a new lead from another one of his visions.

“Isn’t this grand?” he asked. “The mountains on the drive here were fantastic, were they not?”

I rolled my eyes and bounced the football between my knees and feet.

My brother arrived minutes later, having flown into the Raleigh-Durham airport about an hour ago. Ciarán would only be staying for the weekend to help us with the unpacking. He’d be flying back home early Monday, and I’d be starting a new high school, looking for my next target. Again.

As you can see, the first version of Liam’s chapter described his reaction to moving to Cary, NC. Yawn. Well, I didn’t realize that at the time.

The only reason I changed it was because I got feedback from a prominent literary agent during a workshop, and her blunt assessment of this chapter made me cringe. She’d said: “Why would a teenaged-reader care about a boy who moved to a new town?”

Ouch.

But she was right. Liam had expressed an emotion which could have elicited some empathy from a reader, but overall, there wasn’t anything exciting about a boy moving to a new town. What’s grabbing the reader?

Would said reader be racing to the register to buy my book after reading those two hundred and eighty words? Probably not.

So I changed the beginning. Not only did I rearrange my opening chapter to Liam’s to better ground the reader, but I moved the story back six weeks to what prompted him to come to the United States in the first place—a much more exciting part.

This excerpt is only one page, but the entire first chapter addresses what the test is for, why he’s having to undergo it, and how he ends up in North Carolina—a far cry from “Woe is me, I have to move!”

So after adding a bit more EGG to my first chapter, this is how it turned out:

Final Version:

CHAPTER 1 (USED TO BE CHAPTER 2) – LIAM

They’re calling this a test?

Not even a ping grazed my mind as the five Elders tried to slip past my mental blocks and into my emotions. A sheen of sweat over William’s lip proved he wasn’t faring as well. Of all the cousins now come of age, William and I were the last to be sitting before the Elders. I’d have felt guilty for his not doing so well had he ever shown an interest in leading the family. But, we all knew he’d rather have his head in a library. Now his heart was with his wife Colleen. He at least seemed to have a choice about his fate.

I sighed. Not so for me.

“Are we boring you, Prince Liam?”

I snapped my eyes up to Elder Adebayo. He wore his trademark bow tie with a traditional fila atop his head. In the fraction of a second it took me to untangle the meaning from his heavy Nigerian accent, I’d blanked my expression and sat upright. The Elders sat along one side of an antique conference table, facing William and myself. The manor staff had rearranged the study to hold both the testing and signing-over ceremonies. Gone were the leather club chairs and stained glass lamps normally dotting the large space, giving it the air of a posh library. Now it seemed more an election night headquarters, like the sort you saw on the telly, with bright lights and a gathering of family strewn about, waiting for the results. A photographer hung about in one corner, camera in hand. Not far from him stood a team of solicitors guarding rolling briefcases that were no doubt stuffed with legal documents for the victor to sign.

My throat-clearing echoed in the now silent room, and my cheeks warmed. “No, sir, not at all. Although, uh … I’d like to know when it is you’ll begin with me.” I pasted on an oh-so innocent smirk and watched William shake his head and smother a grin. I shrugged at him, hoping to lighten the mood.

To me, this version says so much more about my character and leaves the reader with more questions than just “Yeah, so? He moved. Why should I care?”

This test Liam is taking and his reaction to it are both things to puzzle out, drawing the reader further into the chapter to have these questions answered. Aaand, now my readers know there’s something paranormal about my story right from the second sentence:

Not even a ping grazed my mind as the five Elders tried to slip past my mental blocks and into my emotions.”

I kept these excerpts relatively short for this post, but if you’d like to read the entire first chapter of Soulmated, you can do so on Goodreads or on Amazon.

Tell me which version of Liam’s chapter you liked better and why. Then go look at your first page of your work in progress and see if you’ve started your story in the right place:

  • where you can elicit some empathy,
  • where you can grab a reader’s attention, and
  • where you can ground your reader in the setting, tone, style, and voice of your story.

Go get some EGG on it!

*****

Shaila PatelAs an unabashed lover of all things happily ever after, Shaila Patel’s younger self would finish reading Cinderella and fling her copy across the room because it didn’t mention what happened next. Now she writes from her home in the Carolinas and dreams up all sorts of stories with epilogues.

Soulmated, her debut paranormal romance, won first place in the Young Adult category of the 2015 Chanticleer Book Reviews Paranormal Awards. A member of the Romance Writers of America, Shaila is a pharmacist by training, a medical office manager by day, and a writer by night. She enjoys traveling, craft beer, tea, and loves reading books—especially in cozy window seats. You might find her sneaking in a few paragraphs at a red light or connecting with other readers online.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest | Goodreads

*****

About Soulmated:

Soulmated coverTwo souls. One Fate.

Eighteen-year-old Liam Whelan, an Irish royal empath, has been searching for his elusive soulmate. The rare union will cement his family’s standing in empath politics and afford the couple legendary powers, while also making them targets of those seeking to oust them.

Laxshmi Kapadia, an Indian-American high school student from a traditional family, faces her mother’s ultimatum: Graduate early and go to medical school, or commit to an arranged marriage.

When Liam moves next door to Laxshmi, he’s immediately and inexplicably drawn to her. In Liam, Laxshmi envisions a future with the freedom to follow her heart.

Liam’s father isn’t convinced Laxshmi is “The One” and Laxshmi’s mother won’t even let her talk to their handsome new neighbor. Will Liam and Laxshmi defy expectations and embrace a shared destiny? Or is the risk of choosing one’s own fate too great a price for the soulmated?

Amazon | B&N | Book Depository | Kobo | Google Play | Books-a-Million

*****

Thank you, Shaila! “EGG” is a fantastic way to remember to give our opening pages:

  • something to connect with readers (empathy)
  • something to make readers keep reading (grabbing attention)
  • something to set readers’ expectations (grounding)

As Shaila said, depending on our genre and our story, we might emphasize one of those more than the others, but the best story beginnings will usually have at least some of each of those elements. We can always revise and ask for feedback to find the right mix for our story.

Depending on what kind of stories we like, some might have even liked her first example better—and that’s okay! The point is to find the first page that will best give readers the right impression for the kind of story we’re going to tell.

For Shaila’s unique story, a first page that sounded like all the other “new kid moves to town” young adult stories wouldn’t give the right impression. There are all kinds of readers and all kinds of stories, and finding the right readers for our story starts with creating the right impression with our first page. *smile*

Do you struggle with your opening pages? Have you thought about what elements you need to include on your first page? Do you know what mix of elements would work best for your story or genre? Which excerpt did you like better? Do you have any questions for Shaila?

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Three blue chairs against a wall with text: Making Trilogies Work

Even though I’m a pantser (writing by the seat of my pants), I still enjoy digging into the structure of stories. (Hence, all my beat sheets. *smile*) In fact, I suspect most of the stereotypical issues of those who pants rather than plot come down to a need for understanding story structure better.

In my opinion, every writer should have at least a subconscious understanding of story structure. After all, if we don’t understand what helps readers experience a story’s ups and downs or keep turning pages for the next twist, we won’t be successful at plotting a story either.

So I was intrigued by a comment on one of my older posts about character and plot arcs. Specifically, she wanted to know how trilogies should approach story structure.

Joanna asked:

“I’m wondering though how this works in a trilogy that focuses on the Hero/Heroine’s journey? At which point does the first book get cut off? Will the character/s heal the wound in the first book, then heal another wound in the second? I’ve noticed many romance books cutoff the first book right at the Black Moment. What are your thoughts?”

Great question, right? *grin* (I love when my readers help me come up with blog post ideas!)

Now, before I get into my thoughts, even though Joanna’s asking about romance trilogies, much of what I mention here would apply equally well to other genres as well. That said, I know the romance genre better than others, so I’ll be focusing on that genre the most.

What Is Story Structure?

Story structure—at the most basic level—is how a story is put together. From our youngest days of reading, we’ve seen that stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Each of those three sections (or three Acts) has a purpose:

  • Act One: introducing the story, character, and problem
  • Act Two: adding complications
  • Act Three: resolving the story or problem in some way (failure counts too)

Story structure (and the beat sheets that quantify the turning points of story structure) simply give guidelines on the timing of story events to improve storytelling:

  • Near 25% (end of Act One), a starting point for the main conflict:
    • an event that drags the protagonist into the situation —or—
    • an event that forces a choice to get involved.
  • Near 50% (middle of Act Two):
    • an event that changes the protagonist’s goals/choices —or—
    • an event that adds new stakes to the situation.
  • Near 75% (end of Act Two):
    • an event that steals the protagonist’s hope for a solution.
  • From about 80-95% (Act Three), an ending point for the main conflict:
    • an event that forces the protagonist to face the antagonist.

(Note that some story structure systems break out the acts differently or use slightly different percentages. That only proves that all these numbers are guidelines and not rules. *smile* All that really matters is our finished product and whether it feels like a story.)

How Do Those Percentages Apply to Trilogies?

Quick answer? It depends. *grin*

I’ve seen series of all genres—including romance—handle trilogies differently, so I don’t think there’s one “always right” answer. We can look at the different structure styles and see if one fits our story better than others, but even the styles themselves aren’t held to hard-and-fast rules.

However, we can dig into the three most common trilogy structures I’ve seen to understand our options and why those structures are the way they are…

#1: Complete Stories with No Cliffhangers

One common approach to trilogies is for the three books to each contain a full story structure (all three acts, with all the major turning points) and end with enough of a resolution to avoid cliffhangers.

In other words, Book One would solve one plot problem (and potentially one character flaw) but leave other issues to solve in future books. Those other issues might be mentioned in the first book and left as intriguing hanging threads, but the main goal for that story would be resolved.

Style #1:
The trilogy is a journey with significant progress marked by milestones at the end of each book, reaching the final destination in the last book.

Think of the Harry Potter books for an example of this style. The main conflict/antagonist of each book (the basilisk, Dolores Umbridge, etc.) is resolved by the end. Obviously, the struggle with Voldemort carries over from book to book, resulting in bigger cliffhangers for that plot thread as the books progress, but each story’s current situation comes to a resolution.

In the romance genre, this can be a tricky structure to make work because the genre of romance expects happy endings (especially if there’s no cliffhanger), and that would be the goal to reach for each story to feel complete. Yet at the same time, the romance of the couple can’t reach completion until the end of the trilogy.

So if each story is complete, the first and second book should end with a Happily For Now ending and save the Happily Ever After (HEA) for the final book. For example, the couple might agree to start dating in one book, decide to get serious in another, and get married in the last one.

Other tricky aspects are that we might struggle to write books that each feel fresh and not reboots of the previous story. Or we might struggle to increase the stakes from book to book, making the later books feel like a downward trend.

Story Structure for This Style of Trilogy

  • Book One:
    Act One / Act Two / Act Three
    (with each of the turning points usually found in each act)
  • Book Two:
    Act One / Act Two / Act Three
  • Book Three:
    Act One / Act Two / Act Three

Arc Structure for This Style of Trilogy

  • Plot Arc: Most plot complications and obstacles would be resolved within each book, perhaps with different antagonists in each (major villains and subplots could carry over).
  • Character Arc: The character arc can either heal different wounds in each story or make progress on healing a single wound in each book (much as the romance arc is about making progress).

#2: Each Book Is an Act

Another common structure for trilogies is to think of each story as one of the three acts. Each story would contain the turning points for their act (with plenty of complications to fill in-between). (Some of these trilogies actually start as one 1000-page story that the author splits up for friendlier publication.)

So Book One would end with the protagonist moving forward with their new situation and/or choosing to get involved in the bigger situation, like the turning point found at the 25% mark. Book Two would end on the cliffhanger of the Black Moment usually found at the 75% mark. And Book Three would resolve all the issues.

Style #2:
The trilogy is essentially a single story broken into three parts.

A frequently cited example of this style is the original Star Wars:

  • In New Hope‘s “Act One,” Luke accepts the mantle of hero from Obi Wan at the end, stepping into that role for the “new world.”
  • Empire‘s “Act Two” ends with the Black Moment cliffhanger—Vader isn’t so easily beaten, as Luke has literally lost a part of himself, and Han Solo needs rescuing.
  • Jedi‘s “Act Three” brings it all together for the Climax.

Just as many consider Empire Strikes Back to be the strongest of the Star Wars movies, the second book in this style of trilogy would have to carry a heavy load. Many writers struggle to avoid a sagging middle with their books, and this style creates an entire book that could fall victim to that fate.

In the romance genre, the first and third books might have a similar feel to the structure mentioned in #1 above. Acceptance of the “new world” could include acceptance of the relationship, and just because the first book doesn’t need a Black Moment in this style, often a dilemma of some sort would force the couple to reach a decision to move forward.

Likewise, an HEA would fit the final book of either structure. However, unlike above, the second book would end on a cliffhanger, as the couple seems to be doomed by their Black Moment.

The tricky aspect of this structure for the romance genre is that with a positive-ish ending for the first book, readers might not expect a cliffhanger for the second book. Especially if the conflicts in the second book feel like filler, readers might suspect the author of dragging out the story for more sales and money.

On the good-news side, because style #1 and #2 are so similar for book one, we might be able to put off the decision of which style to follow until book two (good for pantsers!). And we can hope that after two books, readers will be hooked enough to not abandon the series in disgust because of the cliffhanger. *smile*

Story Structure for This Style of Trilogy

  • Book One:
    Act One (25% mark turning point)
  • Book Two:
    Act Two (50% and 75% mark turning points)
  • Book Three:
    Act Three (story climax)

Arc Structure for This Style of Trilogy

  • Plot Arc: Some plot conflicts will be resolved at the end of book one (those relating to taking up the larger cause), but the remainder won’t be resolved until book three.
  • Character Arc: Book one will often show progress in emotional growth, but that growth might be erased in book two’s Black Moment and not be fully healed until book three.

#3: Cliffhangers Everywhere

The last common trilogy structure I can think of off the top of my head is when the author chooses to use cliffhangers every chance they can. Only the final book contains resolutions.

In this case, Book One and Book Two would each end with a cliffhanger, as they would generally include the turning points for Act One and Act Two, breaking off at the Black Moment. (Depending on the story, book 2’s Act One might wrap up the Black Moment from book 1.) Book Three would wrap up the story either with just the Act Three turning points or with all the turning points for a full story.

Style #3:
The trilogy is a journey (like style #1), but each book is marked not with progress but with setbacks, only finding success in the last book.

This style is often seen in high-energy stories of various genres. For the cliffhangers to act as an effective hook to interest readers in the next book, this style usually works best with stories filled with action and angst. (I’ve heard them called literary crack. *smile*)

A few genres that have successfully used this style are Young Adult, New Adult, and Erotic Romance. However, there are a few issues that can make this style ineffective, especially for some romance stories.

No matter the genre, it’s easy for these types of stories to go “over the top” with too much angst or melodrama, or the multiple Black Moments can feel repetitive. Even more than with #2 above, readers can suspect the author of adding angsty drama just to drag out the story over more books.

Before using this style, we’d want to make sure that our story idea had enough genuine, non-repetitive conflict to justify three books. Many stories simply won’t have the amount of meaty conflict necessary for this style to avoid melodrama (unless that’s what we were going for), as there are essentially two books that focus on what could potentially be a “sagging middle.”

In romance specifically, outside of some subgenres that specialize in higher-angst stories, the multiple Black Moments can make the couple look less stable and able to survive for the long haul. Unless one of the Black Moments deals with a life-and-death situation or something other than romance issues, this back-and-forth drama of the couple breaking up and getting back together several times can feel like flip-flopping and make readers less likely root for the couple.

The multiple cliffhangers automatically add a sense of angst and drama, so authors need to be sure that’s the right tone for their story before trying to make this style work. For genres or subgenres that thrive on those elements, this style can work well to pull readers in, especially if our book description warns readers about the cliffhanger ending (preventing angry reviews from pissed-off readers).

If we’re reluctant to notify readers of the cliffhanger ending because we’re afraid they’ll pass on our story, we might want to ask ourselves if this style is a good match for our story’s tone, angst and drama level, and genre. Readers who love high-angst won’t be put off by a cliffhanger ending, but if our readers or stories aren’t a good fit for drama, we might want to think twice before using this style.

Story Structure for This Style of Trilogy

  • Book One:
    Act One / Act Two (25%, 50%, & 75% mark turning points)
  • Book Two:
    Act One / Act Two (25%, 50%, & 75% mark turning points)
  • Book Three:
    Act Three (story climax) (or could include Acts One/Two/Three)

Arc Structure for This Style of Trilogy

  • Plot Arc: The plot conflicts increase in stakes (perhaps with different antagonists growing in strength) and aren’t resolved until the third book.
  • Character Arc: With the multiple Black Moments, emotional issues are often revisited in the first two books, which could feel repetitive if we’re not careful.

*whew* There are probably other styles I’m forgetting or other pros and cons to each of these, but that’s far more of a brain dump than I thought I had time for while being sick. Hopefully, with this information we can match our story to the structure that will work best for us, our characters and plot, and our readers. *smile*

Have you read or written trilogies before? What style were they? Do you have preferred styles or styles you avoid? Can you think of other styles or other insights to these I’ve listed? Do you have any story structure questions about trilogies that weren’t answered here?

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Pile of scrap metal with text: Is Your Writing Cluttered?

Back when we were newbie writers, we might have assumed our goal would be to perfectly replicate our ideas in our readers’ brains. We might have thought readers should picture our settings and characters exactly as we do, hear precisely the same tones of voices, and grasp every nuance of our characters’ emotions that we imagined.

However, that assumption of thinking every detail is equally important to understanding and enjoying our story leads many writers down the path of overwriting. And unfortunately, just because we’ve since learned that assumption was wrong, our overwriting habits might remain.

Imagine if an author described a character traveling from a store to their home by listing every single action:

She inserted the key into the ignition. Turned the key. Waited for the engine to engage. Slipped the engine into reverse. Expertly maneuvered the car out of its parking spot…

Yeeks. Not only is that boring to read, but if nothing happened during the drive to create an obstacle or conflict or epiphany, that all should be deleted and replaced with a transition like:

Back home, she carried her shopping bags inside and…
(get to the point of the next scene, like finding her ex had broken in and was waiting for her)

Unfortunately, I’ve seen passages like that in stories, which is a type of overwriting known as giving too much stage direction. Readers don’t need to be told that a character reached out their hand to open the door; a character can simply open the door.

Other types of overwriting include:

  • too-long or repetitive introspection
  • irrelevant or poorly-timed information dumps
  • meaningless details in descriptions
  • emotionally overwrought passages of purple prose

Obviously, as in the example above, overwriting slows down our pacing, but it can create other issues as well, such as repeating ideas and adding redundant information, preventing subtext, and not leaving room for our readers’ imaginations.

Whatever the type of overwriting, the cause is usually the same: not trusting our readers (or ourselves).

Last time Christina Delay joined us, she shared her advice on how to include unique sensory details when describing our settings. Today, she’s here with five steps to break the overwriting habit.

Please welcome Christina Delay! *smile*

*****

The Curse of the Overwriter

I used to belong to a select group of writers who loved words. Not just loved, but lurved.

We loved words so much, we used them in redundant plethora, searching through the thesaurus to find the right word to fit tone and genre and our all-important voice. We emphasized this word, expanding on it with mountainous detail and lyrical setting, adding drama at every turn, and over-reactions to every conflict, no matter how small.

In short, we were a club of overwriters. Once I began to learn more about writing craft, I realized the Overwriter’s Club was less of a club and more of a curse.

What is Overwriting?

Overwriting happens when an author steps into the story, bulldozing characters out of the way like a bully at recess. The author cares more about writing the most beautiful, heart-stopping line, than letting the story unfold and characters play.

Otherwise known as purple prose, writing too many details, or getting too deep in the weeds of your story, overwriting is something we’ve probably all done at some point.

If you overwrite a line or two, then revise and trim during edits, don’t worry. You’re probably safe from the curse.

But if you’ve self-trained that every word you write matters and more is always better than less…it’s time to face the truth.

You’ve been cursed.

The Curse

The Overwriter’s Curse is, I believe, one of the most dangerous writing curses out there. Why? Because it’s often invisible to the author who has been cursed.

Overwriting causes hiccups in the story. It pulls the reader out of your scene and makes them remember that there is a real world surrounding them. A world that may include folding laundry or feeding kids.

We don’t want that.

Some of my favorite lines in earlier drafts of my WIP were overwritten lines. They were beautiful lines. Lines that, when I shared them out of context, got comments like OMG and NYT and Love this!

For example, this, from my young adult novel, Nocturne:

I stuffed the pain deep inside a fraying bag attached to my soul. Right between the one that overflowed with anger and the other that bulged with fear.

These lines had received rave reviews. And out of context, they ain’t so bad.

But in context…those shiny lines are revealed for what they truly are. A distraction.

But her words, her sympathy, slit tiny papercuts into everything I believed to be true.

I stuffed the pain deep inside a fraying bag attached to my soul. Right between the one that overflowed with anger and the other that bulged with fear. I sat down on the front steps and buried my face in my knees. The urge to work on my art had been snatched by a pair of talons and carried far away on shimmering wings.

Do you see how it’s too much? It halts the story. We don’t get to the action that comes next because I spent way too much time on my lovely metaphors. (I lurve metaphors.)

Final Draft:

But her words, her sympathy, slit tiny papercuts into everything I believed to be true.

I sat on the front steps of Prospect Prep and buried my face in my knees. The urge to work on my art had been snatched by a pair of talons and carried far away on shimmering wings.

Now, we’ve got story movement. I got to keep one of my pretty lines. And then I got right back to the business of storytelling.

The Underlying Issue

Trust.

Or rather, mistrust.

This happens in one of two ways. Or, in cases of the extremely cursed, both.

  • First, the author mistrusts the reader to pick up on emotion, tone and mood through the subtle clues already woven into the story. (*waves hand and blushes*)
  • Second, the author mistrusts his or herself to communicate to the reader what the emotion is during the scene. (*waves hand and blushes again*)

In the example above, did I need to go into the detail about the exact emotion my main character was feeling? Certainly not. The action did that for me.

Not only that, but leaving out the express telling of the emotion left a microscopic puzzle for the reader to solve. And if the reader is solving puzzle after puzzle in your story, you can bet they feel invested and connected to your characters and no amount of the dryer buzzing or the kids whining will pull them out.

Five Steps to Break the Curse

If any of the above sounds familiar to you, don’t panic! I was cured, you can be too.

  1. Ask a critique partner to flag any moment where they get pulled out of the story. As you read through their comments, you’ll begin retraining your brain to notice those moments as well.
         
  2. Look for large chunks of text, especially if that text is setting or introspection. Ask yourself these questions: What can you cut? What is redundant? What are you telling that you have already shown?
         
  3. Search for moments of action that are proceeded by moments of reflection. Quite often, that reflection should be cut or trimmed.
         
  4. Trust yourself and trust your reader. Your critique partners are there to tell you when the story doesn’t work. Once you’ve been through multiple critiques and drafts, learn to trust. You’ve got this. You don’t need the crutch of words to explain everything that’s going on under the surface.
         
  5. Finally, read. Read, read, read. But read with intention. Pick bestsellers from your genre and study how those authors communicate emotion, mood, and tone to the reader.

Follow these steps to retrain your brain and soon the overwriter’s curse will be a kicked habit, one both recognizable and avoidable in all your future manuscripts.

*****

Christina DelayAbout Christina Delay:

Christina Delay is the hostess of Cruising Writers and an award-winning author represented by Deidre Knight of The Knight Agency. When she’s not leading retreats, she’s dreaming up new destinations to take talented authors on or writing the stories of the imaginary people that live in her heart.

ChristinaDelay.com | Facebook | Twitter

About Cruising Writers:

Cruising Writers invitation to FranceCruising Writers brings aspiring authors together with bestselling authors, an agent, an editor, and a world-renowned writing craft instructor together on writing retreats.

Join us in the beautiful Languedoc of Southern France this April and stay in a historic chateau with world-renown writing craft instructor Margie Lawson, NYC-based literary agent Louise Fury, Publisher Liz Pelletier with Entangled Publishing, Amazon bestselling author Shelley Adina, European Manager for Kobo Writing Life Camille Mofidi, and President of Literary Translations Athina Papa.

CruisingWriters.com | Facebook | Twitter

*****

Thank you for another fantastic post, Christina! I love your point about how the problem is that we lack trust in our readers or in ourselves. That’s so true, especially as we first start writing.

Now, that I’m experienced, I can find and fix the issues easily, but my first drafts of big emotional turning points still tend toward one extreme or another. One time I might underwrite and fail to lead readers through the character’s emotional journey, and the next time I might overwrite with paragraphs all expressing the same ideas, as I search for the perfect wording.

As long as we can recognize our habits and fix them in editing, we’ll be fine. Our first draft is all about discovering our story, and we can worry later about adding or cutting as needed to reach the right balance for our story.

However, if we struggle with bad habits—especially if we can’t recognize them ourselves—hopefully Christina’s advice will get us back on track. No matter how beautiful our writing, overwriting can be a distraction for our story and our readers, but the right balance can keep our readers engaged with our story. *smile*

Have you seen overwriting in stories before? Can you think of other overwriting types that weren’t mentioned here? Have you struggled with overwriting? Do you have other tips to share? Do you have questions for Christina?

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Editing Tips: Top 3 Writing Craft Issues — Guest: Naomi Hughes

February 7, 2017 Writing Stuff
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Editor Naomi Hughes is here with the third post in a series to share her writing craft and editing advice. Today, she’s highlighting the most common issues she sees at the line-edit level—and giving tips on how to avoid them!

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Self Publishing? Match Your Plans to Your Goals — Part Two

February 2, 2017 Writing Stuff
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My series about Indie Publishing Paths at Fiction University has highlighted some of the choices we have to make as self-published authors, including how to keep readers. Can our goals help us decide?

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Editing Tips: Top 3 Scene Issues — Guest: Naomi Hughes

January 31, 2017 Writing Stuff
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Editor Naomi Hughes is here with the second post in a series to share her writing craft and editing advice. Today, she’s highlighting the most common issues she sees at the scene level of editing—and giving tips on how to fix those issues!

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The Most Important Question in Storytelling: “Why?”

January 26, 2017 Writing Stuff
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A common problem—even in traditionally published books—is Missing Motivations. A character’s goal can feel irrelevant if readers don’t understand why they have that goal. Or a character might seem stupid or unlikable if readers don’t know why they’re acting a certain way.

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Editing Tips: Top 3 Story Issues — Guest: Naomi Hughes

January 24, 2017 Writing Stuff
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Editor Naomi Hughes is here with the first post in a series to share her writing craft and editing advice. Today, she’s highlighting the most common issues she sees at the story level of developmental editing—and giving tips on how to fix those issues!

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