Tea & Empathy for Writers

January 26, 2019   



Creative Writing: Introduction to Fiction – 4

Over the month of January, we’ve discussed four of the six key elements to develop a story worth reading; a credible protagonist, other interesting characters, plots – the events deliberately arranged to be interesting, and points of view. Today, we’re wrapping up with the last two key elements: setting and tension.


One of my go-to experts on all things writing is Donald Maass. In his book, The Fire of Fiction, he readily acknowledges that readers often skim over settings, because authors generally write settings objectively.

What if I wrote: It was a gray house with white shutters and a red door, boxwoods spread evenly across the front.

Or if I wrote: Gerald membered the day Clarice and he decided to paint the house gray. It was the first day it snowed after they bought it, and the white house looked too pale. They painted the door a bright red the day Clarice got a good five-year report post chemotherapy for breast cancer.
The second example clearly has heart and is seen through the eyes of a character, which is exactly what Maass prescribes to make a place come alive.

I always find it interesting to see how each of the characters see the same thing. In M. C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth mystery series, Hamish lets other police officers take credit for his brilliant crime-solving because he doesn’t want to be promoted and forced to leave his beloved Scottish Highlands. Most of the people he meets think he’s crazy to stay in the isolated place with the bizarre weather conditions, and readers can see the settings clearly through the eyes and feelings of the characters. As authors, we have a clear picture, but we too often leave the reader wandering around in white space looking for the place.

In 21st Century Tips by Donald Maass, there is a great list of questions to help writers create a viable setting that speaks to the readers, even though what it may be saying is “Gross!” It’s similar to a developing character list. Here are a few similar questions he poses.

  • What’s the smell that never goes away?  Sugar & vanilla, sea, fish, pine, peat smoke
  • What’s a sound you hear? Waves crashing, train whistles, cows mooing, seagulls
  • What food is it famous for? Barbeque, Fried shrimp, Rye bread, Pizza, Crab soup
  • Why can’t your protagonist leave? Family land, Isolated safety, Loves it (Tara)

Grounding with Clear Settings  One final word on settings; you must ground the reader when the scene changes. Don’t leave them floating in the ether.  

She hated spending Thanksgiving at Aunt Mary’s. Her husband was always a grouch and her dressing usually had something weird in it, like salted pretzels or green grapes. But they had to go. Tomorrow would be a long day. She flipped off the light and went to bed.

She finished washing the dishes and put the cake dish away. Why in the world did Priscilla bring Melody home with her? She was a vegan, and their family biggest serving on the plates was roast beef on Sundays. And now Priscilla was angry, and Norman and she had a screaming match about red meat versus sweet potatoes. Dear Lord, what would happen next?

How did we get from Wednesday night before Thanksgiving?  Where are we? A few simple words could have clarified things.

Two weeks later Georgia finished…. Why in the world did Priscilla bring Melody home on a Sunday?…..

Here are a few ideas to get you on the path to grounding your readers. 

One week later…    I’m still….     Once I was back in my room, ….

End a previous scene/chapter with a cliff hanger, then open with the same cliff hanger.

Always let the reader know where they are, when it is through time, days, years, etc., who is there, how they got there, what has transpired in time or events – using the ending of the previous scene as the catalyst.

Tension vs. Conflict

Conflict is filled with Tension.    ~   Tension isn’t always filled with Conflict.

This is an important principle to master. Tension should be on every page of your book/story to keep the story interesting and leaves the reader wanting to know what happens next.  Conflict is the master of moving the story towards the final big conflict and resolution.

While I’m sure a list of philosophers would have a field day arguing the tenets of conflict and tension, I’m not one. Certainly, you can be filled with tension, which might cause internal conflict, but then…….. Oh, forget it and read this.

Pages can be drenched with tension because the character(s) are:

  • Happy, sad, lost as in on the wrong road, dejected, angry, thrilled
  • Curious/Concerned about (and genre is a definite factor in these):
    • How to get to the next step on a rocky cliff.
    • How to skip out on a blind date.
    • If their cake met with the bride’s approval.
    • If they passed the test.
    • If their parent/friend/spouse/boss is angry at them.
    • Whether people will come to the party?
    • Whether their hair will fall out with chemo?
    • If the house is haunted?
    • Will they find out?
    • Who is the murderer?
    • Why only one shoe is on the dead man?
    • Will (s)he marry me?

Each tension concern in the list above could certainly lead to conflict if there is direct opposition or a direct challenge between two or more characters. These characters may be acting independently, as a gang, as a consortium, representing a company, a family, a political opinion, the police, bad guys, etc.

In literature classes, the mantra for conflict is usually 1) man against self (The Book Thief, Macbeth, A Christmas Carol),  2) man against man (The Hunger Games, The Hobbit, The Giver), 3) man against nature (Deliverance, The Old Man and the Sea, Robinson Crusoe). Over time, a fourth one has appeared, 4) man against society (The Handmaid’s Tale, Fahrenheit 451, Romeo & Juliet), and new conflict categories for other genres hover in the wings. Robots or creatures as characters 5) man against technology and 6) supernatural forces. But one could argue that creatures and robots and society all fall within the original three, which takes us back to philosophy and well, read on….

While tension keeps the pages turning, conflict moves the story to the major turning point, which transitions the protagonist and solves a problem that seems unsolvable. That, in fact, is the definition of conflict?   

Direct Conflict: arguments, fist-a-cuffs, gunshots, throwing things, firing a person, slash,  burn, murder, hang, torture, luring, rape, fire, chasing, being chased, stalking, arson, abandonment, abduction, inheritance, peer pressure, horse race, baseball,  boxing, blackmail, car crash, football,  divorce, embezzlement, theft, etc.

“I will get him/her this time, no matter what.”     “Who would want to steal my child?”

Internal Conflict: self-doubt, need to leave, have to stay, loathing self or another, failure, physical debilities, intellectual disability, social misfit, lonely, aging, agoraphobia, anorexia, shock, fears, priesthood, affair, fear of abandonment, moving, college, major,  driving.

“I’m an idiot!”   “I won’t put her in a nursing home.”    “My best is never good enough.”


I hope you’ve enjoyed these mini classes and learned a few things along the way. New mini classes begin next week. Your worksheets to help you decide which areas you feel comfortable in and which you want to learn more about will be sent this week via email.

I am delighted to announce that I will be teaching through ESILL once again. The Art of Writing and Word Magic in March and April and May, both on Thursdays from 10 – 12. More information once the final schedule is published. I hope to see you in class!

Write Like You Mean It!   Mahala


January 18, 2019

Creative Writing: Introduction to Fiction – 3

The glorious magic of creativity is the lack of requirements. Whether it’s pottery, paintings, music, or books, each creator has their own voice. It’s a good thing that we find kindred spirits in the creativity of others. It’s not a good thing when we try to copy them. When you find your “voice”, your critique groups, fans, agents, and editors will react with gusto and help you as you trek through the revision process, which when it works well, burgeons with creativity.

Point of View is the driving force of storytelling. It weaves emotion and the five senses into the fabric, adding color and sparkle. POV reveals the protagonist’s personality, their education, their strengths and weaknesses, their world perceptions, their beliefs, their goals and yearnings.

But, wait! There are all kinds of POV. Can they all do that? Not really. That’s why choosing a POV based on your genre and the story’s goals is important in choosing your POV. Each POV brings slightly different assets, and taking the time to learn to use the basic three is important—and then you can master the other less frequently used POVs in fiction.

First Person POV is most popular and used often in young adult fiction, because young readers like the immediacy of the story, including actions and reactions, feelings, and emotions. I do too. This is one of the reasons I’m a fan of Dickens.

In first person, the protagonist speaks to the reader directly. It uses pronouns such as me and I. The reader experiences their emotions, actions, and reactions at an intimate level.

Examples of first-person POV in popular novels include Twilight (most), Hunger Games, Evie and the Upside Down World of Nevermore, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Great Expectations, To Kill a Mockingbird, Moby Dick, Gone Girl, The Life of Pi.

Third Person Limited POV is the second most popular and commonly used in young adult fiction. It uses pronouns such as he and she when talking about the protagonist. It’s called limited because readers are limited to the POV of only the protagonist. Writers who use this style like it because it offers more flexibility to describe the surroundings and other characters, but it is still quite personal. This is a useful POV when the lead character has prominent sidekicks that are on the page almost as much as the lead. For example, the Harry Potter books uses third person limited primarily, which allows Hermione and Ron to reveal their perceptions of Harry and the events surrounding him.

Examples: The Giver, 1984, Cuckoo Calling, Hills Like White Elephants, Harry Potter, The Book Thief, Fahrenheit 451, Coraline, Little Fires Everywhere, Charlotte’s Web, The Lord of the Rings.

Omniscient Third Person POV is narrated by an all-knowing third person. It also uses he and she pronouns to tell the story, but the narrator has the ability to expose the motivations and thoughts of other characters objectively.

Omniscient POV fiction is often more complex, exploring a multiplicity of character studies. If that sounds exciting, it is, especially if you write family sagas or epic adventures. Your narrator has the advantage of knowing everything about every person in the book – a gossip on steroids.

Examples: Pride and Prejudice, Brokeback Mountain, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Mrs. Dalloway, Brave New World, Scarlett Letter, Da Vinci Code, Little Women.

Unfortunately, writers often forget to fill the driving force (machine) with gas before they start writing. As you plan your book, think carefully about how much you want the reader to know as your plot unfolds. Whom do you want to do the telling? Do you want everything the reader experiences to be only the things the narrator experiences, or do you want them to understand what other characters experience? How immediate to do you want the experience?

You know the protagonist who only gives other characters a long look or stares at the setting and doesn’t speak in movies and on television? Think Longmire, Jessie Stone, NCIS. Those looks are difficult to put on paper unless the reader knows what they’re thinking and feeling. Which POV would work best for you with characters like these? Or is your protagonist a twelve-year-old who can’t stop talking? Or maybe you write romances; do you want the reader to know how all the love interest are feeling and what they’re thinking?

Give it some thought and Write Like You Mean It! 



January 8, 2019

Creative Writing: Introduction to Fiction – 2

Creativity: Literature is an art, and the beauty of art is that everyone can interpret differently. The message of a fiction book is much like the message of a beautiful painting. Not stated in a particular sentence or easily located, creativity is comprehended upon reflection. It’s that special word or phrase used in a story that causes you as an author to pause with wonder. How did they think of that?

And while this is true, there are a few things in fiction that are important to master before venturing out to change them. These are the absolute basic elements sacrosanct to all written fiction. 

6 Key Elements of Fiction 
  1. Protagonist            star of the show
  2. Characters             people to talk to the protagonist
  3. Plot                           events deliberately arranged
  4. Point of view        who is telling the story. Is it today or yesterday or the future?
  5. Setting                    where the action takes place
  6. Tension                  not the same as conflict
The Protagonist Is The Star

a.  Identify the physical, psychological, and sociological traits of their lead character. You may have a highly functional character or a highly dysfunctional character such as Cormoran Strike in Galbraith’s series, but the spotlight is on them throughout the book. (Remember throughlines last week?)

b.  Must want/yearn for something—not necessarily tangible—and in fact, it is often something intangible such as love, acceptance, compassion. The Girl on the Train, Hunger Games, Shrek, Miss Havisham, Rebecca, Jane Eyre to name a few.

c.  Many books have a complex protagonist that yearns for many things. Vera Stanhope in Ann Cleeves’ series, Eleanor Oliphant, Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes, Fr. Tim in Mitford, Scarlett, and Mary Jebb in A Taste for Nightshade.

It’s our job as authors to define the protagonist’s central goal/need/yearning clearly and write to reveal what it is, incorporating their other needs into subplots, or as is the case in a series, revealing or acknowledging them in a later book. It is also our job to take them to the end by changing them, whether they are successful in meeting their goals. Mrs. Dalloway and A Good Man Is Hard to Find are exceptional examples.

d. This one character must always be developed fully, using their physiological, psychological, and sociological characteristics, to open them up to the readers.

Some of these same techniques are used for an exceptionally strong antagonist, but we’ll talk about that later. If you have more than one protagonist, the same rules apply for each of them.

Strong Character Development Required

a.  Create other characters in your stories that you and your readers look forward to spending time with. Here are a few that have stood the test of time: Indiana Jones, Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes, Pippi Longstocking, Christopher Robin, Romeo and Juliet, Ebenezer Scrooge, Alice, Holden Caulfield, Jane Eyre, Mr. Darcy, Oliver Twist, Jo, and Ahab.

b.  Create characters your audience will care about whether they like them or not. Draco Malfoy, Lisbeth, Miss Havisham, Havers in the Lynley Mysteries, Dracula, Frankenstein, Fagin.

c.  If you develop interesting/unique characters that you know and either understand or come to understand, half the battle is won. Remember these: Anne of Green Gables, Georgia Bottoms, Monk,  Santini, Kay Scarpetta and her sidekicks, Gerritsen’s Risoli and Isles, Alexander McCall Smith’s series – all of them, and Atticus.

d.  Define the Enemy of the protagonist (Antagonist). They can be the protagonist, parent, friend, society, bad guy, etc. What about – The Joker, President Snow, Dorian Gray, Romans in The Dovekeepers, Hazel Marie Puckett, Mr. Rochester, The Emperor of Ocean Park, Scarlett,  Nazis, Scrooge.  Bleak, dystopian science fiction is replete with these.  1984, Farenheit 451, Animal Farm, and Brave New World.

Plots are the Ups and Downs of Life   

a.  An effective plot must appeal to human emotions. Favorites writers use are anger, hate, competition, love, friendship, parenting, revenge for plotting.

b.  With the exception of backstory, flashbacks, and flash-forwards, most plots are roughly in chronological order.

Create your chronology as though you are talking and sharing a story with friends. You want that reader to keep the pages to see what will happen next. All of these books achieved this flawlessly: Rebecca, Carrie, The Shining, Fried Green Tomatoes, Big Stone Gap, To Kill A Mockingbird, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Hunger Games, Gone With the Wind, Under the Harrow.

c.  There are distinctions between how books open the plots in literary and commercial fiction. Most commercial fiction devotees think literary fiction opens too slowly. However, both—BOTH—require the opening to be interesting, and the plot to follow logically from the first word on the first page of the first chapter. Look at the first page of A Christmas Carol by Dickens, which I’ve left sections out of to save space here, but you can find them on Amazon when you “look Inside”. The points are still obvious.

“Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk…. Scrooge signed it…Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail….

Scrooge and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor…his sole friend, and sole mourner….

The mention of Marley’s funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate."

Step back and look at this from a first reader’s perspective. What do they discover?

  • It is clear that Scrooge is the protagonist from the tone and his frequent place in this opening by Dickens.
  • The humor says this isn’t an ordinary story.
  • The emphasis on death is a key factor and made plain by the last two sentences.

d.  The opening page doesn’t have to startle the reader, but it can, and I love it when it does. It must grab the reader’s attention (hook them) to keep them reading. Wandering without direction on any page is not a good thing, but on the first page, avoid it at all cost.

See you next week when we will discuss the other three key elements. Be sure and check your email for some activity sheets coming your way soon.

Write Like You Mean It!