path of the storyteller / blog

Don’t be a passive writer

process Oct 05, 2022

Watch out for these seven traps the “passive writer” can fall into.

I often talk about the dangers of a “passive hero.” That’s the kind of main character who has no clear overall goal for the story.

Imagine if Dorothy didn’t really want to get back to Kansas! She arrives in Oz, looks around, and shrugs. What’s that story going to be about? Beats me. 

It’s not hard to see why your hero shouldn’t be passive. 

Yet what about the passive writer? 

I don’t mean the would-be novelist who says they’re going to write but never gets around to it. That is a real issue, for sure. Some combination of limiting beliefs and simply not knowing how to get started is usually the culprit. 

I’m talking about the writer who sits in front of their laptop and grapples intently with last week’s scribbling, their stack of research, their journal full of themes and concepts—and yet comes away...

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Is there a crack in the foundation?

story structure Sep 27, 2022

A strong premise is what delivers the storytelling—and it starts before page one. 

I am just loving working with the new cohort of Path of the Storyteller students! What a terrific group. In our early explorations we’re taking story beginnings apart in a step-by-step way.

Which brings us to today’s question: How—and when—does a story truly begin?

My answer? Long before page one. In fact, your storytelling begins before anything happens at all. 

Just as a farmer must prepare the soil before the first seed is planted, your first job as a writer is to conceive of a central character in a circumstance that does not merely allow a story to begin, but demands it. The situation is unsustainable. Something has to change.

I call this the crack in the foundation.

Failure to conceive of a premise that rises from this core instability is going to cause problems all along the way. What looks like first act confusion,...

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Stuck in your hero’s head


Five do’s—and five don’ts—of writing the inner life of your characters

One of the unique and fantastic properties of fiction is how it allows us to travel inside our characters’ innermost thoughts, feelings, and sensations. 

It’s so Vulcan mind-meld! In real life, we often struggle to understand and be understood by others. In fiction, we can dissolve that boundary between me and you and dive right in there. It’s really a superpower.

But like any superpower, the ability to depict the inside of our character’s heads can be used for good or for ill. Writers soon encounter all kinds of pitfalls in figuring out how to manage this internal landscape of consciousness.

For example: We know we’re supposed to show not tell, but eavesdropping on the voice in someone’s head often feels like nothing but telling.

And we know what goes on inside our ...

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The truth about drafts

process Sep 13, 2022

What is a draft, anyway? 

This deceptively simple question came from a fine writer I mentor, and at once I was struck by its profound implications! 

“Draft” is one of those words writers sling around, but it’s not always clear what we mean by it.

Does it mean a stream-of-consciousness jumble of words, or a neatly organized tale that's just a few turns of the screwdriver short of being publishable?

Writers confuse themselves needlessly by calling the complex, varied process of writing a book “drafting and revision,” as if it were two simple steps, like doing the cha-cha. When the real workload turns out to be so much more than that, who can they blame for “not doing it right” but themselves?

My dear storytellers, it’s not your fault! The process is mysterious because we don’t get to see other writers do it. We only see the outcome.

Today, let’s explore the idea of process. How do we pluck the...

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Writing, one step at a time


Our creative impulses sometimes arrive all at once, like a wave crashing on the shore.

It’s an exhilarating feeling when it happens. Like there’s a perfect, finished version of our book floating right there in front of us, just out of reach. All we have to do is write it down!

And then comes the writing it down part. 

What can I say but LOL, my friends! Right away we discover that we are not, in fact, “writing it down,” but assembling it in the dark out of rough materials we have to create ourselves.

We are inventing, experimenting, discovering, designing, building, choosing. We are wringing it out thin air, drop by drop.

Half (or more) of what we do will prove to be a dead end, and so we'll try again, but differently.

And then we get to revise all of that! 

Writing fiction is an incremental process. We don’t do it all in one go. We don’t “get it right” the first time.

And yet so many writers...

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Thinking about theme

theme Aug 20, 2022

I had a great conversation this week with The Christian Science Monitor about ALICE’S FARM, A RABBIT’S TALE. You can see it here

We talk about vulnerability, bravery, and hope, and how these ideas are expressed in the book. 

In short, we talk about theme. Which got me thinking: Where do the themes of our books come from? At what point in our creative process does theme coalesce? 

Do we put theme in on purpose? Does it bubble up on its own? Is it even our responsibility, or are readers free to decode our themes however they like? 

These are interesting questions, and they’re far from academic. When our books fly the nest and wander out in the world, it will indeed be their themes that people want to talk about, and that will attract or repel readers.

All storytelling ends up expressing theme whether we put it there intentionally or not. In this talk I invite you to explore how we can think about theme in a way that...

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Fun with flashbacks

flashbacks Aug 11, 2022

One of the many cool things about fiction is that it comes with a built-in time machine. 

With a few well-chosen words, writers can make our readers travel backwards in time, or forward.

We can speed up time or slow it down. 

We can juxtapose the experience of one generation with another, flood the page with memories, or depict the future outcomes of today’s choices. 

But like all great powers, the writer’s ability to time travel must be used responsibly. A carelessly jumbled timeline is a surefire way to confuse the reader, and that is never what we want.

Today, let’s explore the use of flashbacks. This technique brings scenes from the past into the present timeline of our narrative. 

When is a flashback truly necessary? What other options do we have when the past needs to come into view?

Most importantly: How do we manage these time-traveling leaps without leaving our...

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The obstacle is the storytelling

conflict second acts Aug 04, 2022

In the mood for a little Stoic wisdom? Check out this quote from Marcus Aurelius, who was a Roman Emperor, a philosopher, and in this case, a source of some spot-on advice about storytelling:

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

Isn’t that great? Of course, Marcus Aurelius was talking about real life, which he rightly observed was full of obstacles. 

We often think of obstacles as misfortunes, setbacks, or strokes of bad luck. Not our normal condition, but a rough patch we have to get through so we can resume the smooth sailing that we think of as our due. 

Marcus Aurelius asserts that's not so. The obstacle is the way. There is no other. 

Which brings us to the topic of story structure. Yes, there are three acts, and stages of the hero’s journey, and character archetypes, and arcs of transformation—all of these are incredibly useful and practical ideas that...

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Big wants, little wants


What does your hero want?

This is the core question of storytelling, but writers don’t always find it easy to answer. 

What do any of us want? To be happy, or happier. To love and be loved. To achieve some particular goal that has meaning to us. (Whether this goal is an admirable one depends a bit on the person wanting, of course!)

Put it all together and we all basically seek to live a life that feels like it matters, to avoid suffering and to experience contentment, achievement, and connection along the way. 

So: If we all want some version of same things, what is it that makes our hero’s wants story-worthy? How do we use these wants to shape our plot, not only on a book-length level, but scene by scene?

What I want today is to talk about wants as they pertain to your storytelling! There are big wants and little wants, and they are (or should be) pulsing on every page you write. 

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The pattern interrupt (and the myth of “flow”)

pace tension Jul 27, 2022

Many of us don't like to be interrupted. And yet, all of us are guilty of interrupting others on occasion. Some people consider interruptions to be profoundly rude, an act of not-listening. Others consider it a normal part of boisterous, engaged conversation. “We finish each other’s sentences” is how we might describe someone with whom we feel especially attuned.  

So is interrupting good, or bad? More importantly, what does it have to do with writing?

The concept of the “pattern interrupt” is well studied in the field of communication. Briefly put, when we shake up people’s expectations by doing something unexpected, we get their attention. And we also make them more open to new experiences. Once one pattern is broken, all the rest become more negotiable, too.

Yet I cannot tell you how many times writers talk to me about seeking “flow” in their writing. They want the language to “flow.” They...

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