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The right scenes in the right order—easy, right?

scenes story structure Jun 07, 2023

The award for “Sassiest Writing Advice” has got to go to the great English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who once described the secret to writing good poetry as simply putting “the best words in the best order.” 

I mean, LOL. If only it were that easy, right? 

We fiction writers have a similar problem, though. We know our books need great stories to succeed.

We need to write tight, forward-leaning plots that engage the reader and make them demand that all their friends read what they just read so they can talk about “what happened.”

That’s the key. Poetry may rely on the words, but stories are about what happens, scene after scene after scene.

To paraphrase Coleridge, the secret of writing great stories is simply putting “the right scenes in the right order.”

No sass intended here. This is practical, learnable stuff. In fact, learning to structure good stories is an essential part...

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Action and motivation are the keys to great storytelling

goals motivation scenes Mar 15, 2023

“What’s my motivation?” It’s the classic actor’s question, but writers depend on it too. Let’s talk about all the reasons your characters do the things they do.

You probably know that I spent my formative years working in the theatre. What a valuable experience! Among the storytelling lessons I learned was this:

Every action has a motive. 

It’s the classic actor’s question: What’s my motivation? Story doesn't happen without it. But just in case you missed that day in drama class, let me define some terms:

Action is what a character does. 

There's a reason they call it acting. Characters act. They do stuff. They walk. They talk. They pour another glass of booze (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), hide behind the curtains and eavesdrop (Hamlet), and run their enemies through with a sword (also Hamlet). 

Our characters explore spooky attics and travel through dangerous...

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Every scene is a love scene

scenes story structure Feb 21, 2023

You probably know that I started my storytelling career in the theatre. When I was about to graduate high school and was auditioning for college acting programs, my brother Tom gave me a fantastic gift: a copy of a book by Michael Shurtleff called Audition: Everything an Actor Needs to Know to Get the Part. 

I still have that book, forty-odd years later. Thanks, Tom! 

And I still think about one of the central ideas I learned from it, which is this:

Every scene is a love scene. 

Shurtleff breaks this idea down for actors. But what does it mean for writers? 

Here’s how I’ve come to think of it: Every scene is driven by desire. Something is wanted. Something is pursued. Even when it's not a romance scene, there is desire on the page. 

And something, or someone, or even some fearful or ambivalent part of our hero’s inner landscape—stands in the way. If it weren’t so, the hero would already...

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No more prodraftinating!


Anyone who’s read my Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place books knows I like making up words. 

The most popular invention in that series was “optoomuchism,” which is the tendency to take optimism much, much too far. Spending your Powerball winnings before actually checking to see if you have the winning ticket would be an example of optoomuchism. 

Well, today, dear storytellers, I have a new word for you: prodraftinating

It’s what happens when we use drafting as a means of procrastinating.

Now, before you get all flustered, know that I want you to be drafting your books! I want you to have fun doing it, too. Creative work is a form of play, and it should feel like that while you’re drafting.

But what I want you to consider is that scribbling pages of words without making actual choices about what happens is a red flag. It’s using that good “look at me, I’m drafting!”...

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good bones

You know the old joke about “boneless chicken,” right? How did it walk?

As a long-time vegetarian, I don’t worry much about bones in my cooking! But I think about them All. The. Time. in my writing.

Just as the overall story has a structure, so must each scene. This is especially true in the middle, or second act.

Why? The middle is most of your book. A long expanse without some sturdy support is not going to hold up. It’s a tent without a tentpole.

The middle’s job is to place obstacle after obstacle in the way of your hero’s progress toward her goal, or mission. Think of it as a series of tests. Some, your hero will pass; some she’ll fail; some she’ll barely scrape through.

Each test forces her to level up in some way (a story is a journey of change, as I’m sure you recall!). But a series of tests can too easily look like this: Test. Test. Test. Test. Test. Scene after scene after scene.

Monotonous, no? And...

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skip to the good stuff

Fern woke and sat up in bed; she stretched, she yawned. She checked the weather—damp again!— chose an outfit, and got dressed in her favorite blue shirt.

She wandered downstairs and wheedled some breakfast from her mother. "Say, Mother," she said, as they finished eating. "Where’s Poppa going with that axe?”

Sincere apologies to E. B. White! But this unfortunate opening—let’s say it’s from Charlotte's Web in the bizarro universe where Spock has a beard — while perfectly “correct” in a grammatical sense, commits an all-too-common faux pas. It wastes words and the reader’s precious attention by clearing its throat and taking a bunch of practice swings while the STORY is just sitting there on the table getting cold. 

“Where’s Poppa going with that axe?” is where this story begins. There is no need to start sooner. We can assume Fern gets up in the morning and gets dressed before...

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