Tag Archives: characters

4 Ways to Incorporate Unity of Tone

Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery by Diane Holmes, Chief Alchemist of Pitch University

I just invented a new term in fiction!  Unity of Tone.

(Okay, I invented it until I Googled it.  Turns out other people invented it too.  Darn other people. Although, everyone is using it in different ways.  Well, I’m right, in case you’re wondering.  After all, I should know because I did invent it.)

What is it?


Unity of Tone is the essential tone evoked across all craft-of-writing elements and native to them (part of their creation), including character, plot, “how the story’s told”, language, dialogue, and so forth.

(“So forth” makes me sound so grand, don’t cha think?”)

How does it work?

An example.

I read a wonderful mystery (which I mentioned before!) by the brilliant Steve Thayer.  The novel’s called Wolf Pass, and it’s set in 1962 with flashbacks to WWII, because the two stories are linked.

The plot is summed up on the back cover:

A railroad engineer is shot at long range by an unseen marksman–and soon afterward, his sexy young wife meets a similar fate.

Deputy Sheriff P. A. Pennington–a former Army Ranger sniper–falls under immediate suspicion. But he has a suspect of his own.

Though he hasn’t seen the man since World War II, Pennington is convinced that an old wartime nemesis–Nazi colonel Christian Wolfgang Strangl–is to blame. Back then, it was Pennington’s sharpshooting that disrupted the operations of a crucial Bavarian railroad pass commanded by the colonel.

Now it’s 1962–and the Wolf is at the door….”

The Charleston Post calls it a “wild ride” and USA calls it “quirky and refreshing,” but it is NONE of these. These don’t describe the tone at all.

The NYT has it right when it says,: “A graceful stylist,” but that leaves you thinking it might be graceful in the way of the Old South.

What I remember is the tone of bleakness, the lyrical language reflecting the mood of being “shell shocked” and kind of “broken.” Everything and everyone is tenuous, as if life and death might accidentally collide and death would easily win.

Both the past and the present are frozen in time, just waiting for the violence to shatter the present moments that existed then and still exist now.

I remember how the main character seemed to hold all of humanity, all the loss and preciousness of life, in his heart and yet at a distance, as if that’s how you survive it better. And that’s how the town had survived. In fact, it’s how the world had survived the war.

This story could’ve been told using many different tones. The main character would’ve had any temperament. The dialogue could’ve flowed along using any number of rhythms, sensibilities, or lines of discussion. And the setting could’ve been anywhere in the whole world.

So how does what I remember as his Unity of Tone line up with his choices?

Let’s look at some specifics.

1) Unity of Tone in Setting

Thayer chose Wisconsin for it’s distance from much of the US population and for the history that ties the story together.

Back during WWII, the town, Kickapoo Falls, had a Nazi detention camp, Camp McCoy.

This history, this distance, this isolation from progress are important to every aspect of this story, as is the tenuousness of the people found here and disappearing rural life you fight hardest for.

Thayer describes the setting like this:

In all my life the hills never changed.  They were born of glaciers, mountains of ice that reached two miles high.  <snip> But too often over the years, unmitigated evil found its way into those beautiful hills.  Then violence would shatter this hushed and peaceful world, and spill down into the villages nestled in the valleys.  Like my hometown.

2) Unity of Tone in Inciting Incident Continue reading 4 Ways to Incorporate Unity of Tone

The Secret Link Between Theme and The Plot of Your Book (well, it’s not secret now)

Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery by Diane Holmes, Chief Alchemist of Pitch University

Power Moments

planet explosion

Writers talk about theme as if it’s a mystical addition that makes you, the writer, look deep.

I’m all for looking deep. It goes so well with my eyes, but let’s look at the practical side of theme.

Your theme tells you, the writer, where and what kind of POWER MOMENTS to include in your plot.

Your theme comes to life through the actions of characters over the course of Story Unfolding.  And how does a story unfold?  In specific scenes that create the cause and effect of plot.

Theme becomes real only when it becomes the events and turning points of your story.

To read more about this, you’ll want to check out Turns Out Theme is Actually Good for Something (this just in).

To put this another way, what is your story?

  • It’s the trajectory of your theme.
  • It’s theme tested over time.
  • And in the end, the climax of your book the culmination of choices and actions tell the reader exactly how your theme is true.

I know, I know. You think them has to do with character and internal angsty stuff, like “what the character needs to learn.” But it has to be more than that.

Without focused action, scenes that bring together to culmination of all the causes and effects that have gone before (hello Power Moment), that angsty stuff is just talk.

You’re confused, I know. This isn’t what you were taught in the past. I hear ya.  Me, too.  I’ve heard the talks, read the articles, and bought the t-shirts.

In 3 Definitions of Theme I’d Like to Flush I very politely trussed up, set on fire, and catapulted the commonly taught definitions of theme out to sea, to die-die-die.  The bundle made a nice sizzle as it hit the water’s surface somewhere over by Australia.  The Coral Sea, maybe.  Hard to tell from here.

Why did I do this?

At best, these pretty unhelpful definitions create over-arching theme categories. Groupings of themes for the purpose of collecting them into genus and species.

But I think the theme for your book has a useful meaning that is much more specific to you and your story.

We’re talking Power Moments, baby.  Scenes, characters, gritty essentials.

The One Thing That Matters?  The Reader.

That’s right. If you have a theme, then your plot is the way the reader experiences your theme.

I thought a quick reminder of that would prove helpful.  Theme gets so self-involved for authors, and it is.  But it an exercise in therapy if you never move past what you the author want to do and embrace the reader’s experience of your story.

So keep that always in mind.  Theme needs to be useful to you as the creator of your specific story, but it ultimately must mean something to the reader in order for it to really exist in something other than your head.  Or to be more than characters caught up in their own heads.

Surely story and theme must be more than you or your characters thinking and mulling over stuff.  It’s more than journaling.  More than FaceBook posts of random thoughts.

That’s why I’m talking about things you can point to on the page.  Scenes and plot.  Power Moments.

Theme Explores the Infinite Complexity of Experiences

Let’s take a break for a  moment from scenes and actions and take a look at the big picture of story. Any story?  No.  Great story.

No matter how simple, no matter how focused on entertainment, great stories have…

  • impact,
  • meaning, and
  • resonance

…for both the reader and the author.  This, I’d like to suggest, is the proof of theme.

Theme is about how your characters cope, how they parse together a reality lived over time into something that defines who they are and what actions they’ll take all the way to the end (and beyond).

It’s a lens you can use to make sense of the story world and of the events that have led you to “here.”

It’s what they’ve been hitting up against over and over that’s hard work, invites resistance, and is worth the effort.

Or maybe it’s trap that is only illuminated with 20-20 hindsight and a trail of broken stepping stones.

***Theme is the effect and understanding (of your character and reader) of every single event in your story so that, in the end, the experiences of the character and the reader coalesce, as if caught by your story’s gravity into a simple pattern that captures a life-time of understanding.

Bingo. Now you understand how the big picture of theme and story relates to the little picture of events, actions, and scenesbingo

What creates all the complexity of experience that leads to this simple understanding?

Continue reading The Secret Link Between Theme and The Plot of Your Book (well, it’s not secret now)

Turns Out Theme is Actually Good for Something (this just in)

Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery by Diane Holmes, Chief Alchemist of Pitch University

Theme, theme, theme.

In 3 Definitions of Theme I’d Like to Flush I pointed out that when the word “theme” comes up in writerly conversation, no one responds, “Theme is one of the most useful tools I have.”

It’s time to make you a useful tool in creating story and not just understanding or analyzing  it.


Theme is What You Explore

Yup, that’s my basic definition.


It’s what you want to explore in this story because you have something nuanced to say about it.


It’s what you need to explore because you don’t have it all figured out yet.


It’s what your characters will end up explore as well, because it’s written into the texture of their lives and the things that bring change.


And finally, it’s the experience you hope to give your readers that leads to an understanding.

BONUS: And while you were probably taught you only have one theme per story, I give you permission to have as many as you want.

Life is complex.

People are complex.

Using Theme to Create Your Story

Think about the story that you want to create and finish the sentences:


I’m exploring the nature of ______________ and how it _____________.

What really draws me to this story are the moments when you can see/understand what ________ is like.

I’m exploring what it’s like to ____________ so much that you can only.can’t  _______________.

EXAMPLE:  I’m exploring the nature of family and how you can create your family by added people, even if you aren’t related to them.

EXAMPLE:  What really draws me to this story are the moments when you have to do something right regardless of the chaos around you, the grayness, the fact that what’s right and what’s legal aren’t in agreement.

EXAMPLE:  I’m exploring what it’s like to need to protect someone so much that you’ll sacrifice everything you have for them, all, because you won’t know who you are if something happens to them.  You’ll lose who you think you are and who you want to be in the world.


Look at what your theme tells you…. Continue reading Turns Out Theme is Actually Good for Something (this just in)

3 Definitions of Theme I’d Like to Flush

Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery by Diane Holmes, Chief Alchemist of Pitch University

When writers talk about theme in fiction, the conversation quickly goes south.  It’s all abstraction and morning fog and candy that looks good until you bite into it.

No one responds, “Theme is one of the most useful tools I have.”

Because theme is usually defined in a way that is, what I call, “pure and content free.”  Knowing the answer doesn’t mean anything specific to your book in a way that’s different from other books.

flush Here are 3 ways I think theme should not be defined (and a call to action to define it in a whole new way).

#1 Theme Isn’t Just One Word

(Warning: this will probably go against what you’ve been taught. Be brave, buckaroo.)

Theme is not just one word. You can’t just say, “Family, that’s my theme.” Or, “My book is about loss.”

Why? Because if your theme is only one word, then all you need is one scene about family or loss and you’re done. Theme fully explored. Eureka.

Isn’t it the unfolding of understanding (of theme) that makes it, uh, the theme of the book? Theme isn’t a item you point to, it’s the meaning you demonstrate (another word for “explore”) over the course of your story.

Theme is exploration.

#2 Simplistic Mottos are Just as Unhelpful

And while I’m smashing the sacred cows of theme, let me also say you’d be well-served to move away from generic “truisms,” like…

  • The world is a hard place.
  • You have to fight for justice.
  • Hatred has negative effects on people.
  • Hard work leads to success.
  • Bad luck happens for no reason.

Heresy, I know.

But when you only look at theme like this, you’re pretty much looking to fiction as having a generic teaching message with a pop quiz at the end. “Read this book, and then extrapolate the one rule you need for real life!”

It’s sort of like watching comedy movie and coming out with the message, “Wow, banana peels happen out of nowhere. Great theme. And wow, I should make sure I teach this to my kids”

Or it’s like watching a romance, and saying, “People kiss when they like each other. I see it now. It’s a wonder I ever got married!  Why didn’t my wife tell me?”

Beyond the issue of “proving” something people already know, after the first banana peel, the first kiss, we readers don’t need any other movies or books to prove this point.

We’ve learned our lesson.

Message received.

And really, readers aren’t that dense. They don’t need 400 pages to get the message that the world is a hard place. Seems like one good scene ought to do the trick.

So while you can often sum up theme into a simplistic, overly-generalized motto, like the one-word-theme, this, too, is pretty unhelpful for the writer.

Aren’t you pretty sure, as a writer, that you have something fresh to say? A viewpoint that no one else has?

Aren’t you creating a story that is uniquely yours, characters and plot that only YOU could tell?

Do you really go out and say, “I’m writing a mystery novel that’s already been written before, and I have nothing new to say!”?

#3 Theme Is Not a Yes or No Question

And finally, another popular definition of theme is the Yes/No Question that the author then proves. Scientifically, one assumes.

  • Is it possible to find true love?
  • Can youth be recaptured?
  • Can a liar be reformed?
  • Will jealousy lead to insanity?
  • Will good triumph over evil?

Seriously? That’s your theme? In that case, I can just answer the questions and not read the books.

What this tends to lead to is a book filled with “Yes it does!” “No, wait, it doesn’t!” “Wait! Thank gawd I was wrong! It does!” “Oh, my broken heart! I was more wrong than I ever thought I could be!’ “Wait…!”

Yes, no, yes, no, yes, no… Just jerking the characters back and forth. And this has been scientifically proven to annoy readers.

At the end, the reader shrugs and says, “Okay, I guess it really is impossible to recapture youth. I give up. You proved it.”

The Truth About Theme in Fiction

Doling out the same fortune cookie advice over and over is not what’s really happening with all the thousands and thousands of stories available to read.

And we’re not providing the same pop quiz answer over and over or testing a true/false statement.

Why?  Because we’re not done inventing fresh stories. And if we could think about theme in a way that is specific, then maybe it would actually be more useful to us.

Using an example from above…

  • Maybe the world is a hard place in more than one way, for more than one reason, and with more than one result.
  • Maybe there’s a whole lot to say about how you cope with the hardness of life, how you absorb that hardness or dance with it as your circumstances change.
  • Maybe there are a thousand ways to respond to the world in all its callus glory and this response is more important than any desire to point and say, “Oh, life is hard. I get it. Tough out there in the world. Never knew that before.”

So the one-word theme, the generic “truism” approach, the Yes/No Question–maybe, at best, these create over-arching theme categories. Groupings of themes for the purpose of collecting them into genus and species.

But I think the theme for your book has a meaning that is much more specific to you and your story.

Maybe we can come up with a new definition of theme.

Yeah, let’s do that.  Let’s bring theme into the world of useful storytelling and story-creating tools.


clip_image004Diane writes two alternating columns for Freelance-Zone:Fiction-Zone: Leaps in FictionMastery and Marketing-Zone:Marketing-Zone: Marketing Yourself and Your Book.

Nomination For Worst Writing Advice: Show Don’t Tell

Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery by Diane Holmes, Chief Alchemist of Pitch University

Let me just be upfront that this is a rant on my part, because I think this SHOW DON’T TELL advice is totally useless to advanced writers. And probably of limited usefulness to baby writers.

bad advice

I hereby (with my pointed ranty stick) lead the charge to remove the generic advice called SHOW DON’T TELL from the writer’s lobe of our collective brains.

We need showing and we need telling. We wouldn’t even be having this conversation, if all those people who said, “Show Don’t Tell,” actually looked at their favorite books and underlined all the telling.

<Insert Revelation HERE>

Die, Rule, Die!

Instead of this bad-bad-no-no-you’re-doing-it-wrong “rule,”  what we really need are 9 conversation starters that get to the heart of learning the power of both showing and telling.

(Better yet, they focus on what’s important: creating the most effective reading experience for your reader.  And what do readers like?  Story.)

1) When is it better to have the story unfold and experienced in real-time scenes vs. just skimming over details and summing up quickly what happened over time (transitions)?  Or even summing up a conclusion reached in an instant?

2) How do we authors know which details, which observations, which emotional reactions, or which physical actions are important vs. unimportant to the story experience?

3) How can we most effectively get to the stuff that matters in each scene vs. stuff no one cares about (especially the reader and viewpoint character)?

4) When is compressing (summing) the wisest choice vs. expanding experiences(squeezing out the last drop) for effect?

5) When should we focus on factual vs. emotional experiences (emotional to the character, to the reader)?  When should we linger in that focus and bring the full weight of the story to bear upon it?

6) How many details and at what magnification level should we use in this specific paragraph, when selecting fresh and riveting details?  Should they be observed before the point-of-view character’s thought kicks in, or after reason and logic have filtered the detail for meaning?  What about emotion?  Or is that pre-thought?

7) How does a distant point-of-view (experiencing story more as a “viewer”) vs. a deep-immersion point-of-view (experiencing at the level of “I am the protagonist’s brain cell”) affect the need to write about a certain detail?

8) When does it benefit us as authors to use generic details vs. specific and “in-focus” details?

9) What are the genre needs, story needs, reader needs, character needs vs. the number of pages I have for this book, reader attention span, etc.?

An Example

A friend recently asked a writer’s e-group for insight into showing vs. telling, and used the following example to see if she “got it.”  That’s what inspired today’s rant-a-post, of course.

Donna was pissed.


Donna’s jaw clenched.

But here’s what I wonder.

Do I care about Donna?

Is the character’s realization that she’s pissed more important than seeing the indicators of being pissed? Does having a clenched jaw mean that she’s even pissed? What if she’s in pain? Well, in that case, coming to an incorrect conclusion and having it pointed out might be important.

And what’s going on in the story? Are we being shot at by a police officer because we’re criminals? I probably care more about running at that point.

Well, unless Donna is my sister. Unless I’ve seen this jaw clenching that she does before. Unless I know it means she’s made a decision, and she’s already turning around, raising her gun.

Or then again, maybe time has slowed. I blink. I hear my heart. I turn to look at Donna. Her jaw is clenched. I don’t know why. Before I can figure it out, she jerks forward, reaches out, screams, and I know that she’s been shot.

Or maybe, it’s just the two of us in the carpool lane waiting to pick up my daughter. And she’s pissed. Been pissed. Still pissed. What matters is that I know this and am ignoring her. And the reason she’s pissed is because I told her that I was the one who called the cops on her son last year. What matters to the reader is that I feel guilty, cause this kid killed himself a couple months ago. And now we’re picking up my daughter who’s still alive.

As the author, I could ground us in that reality, that carpool lane, in a
hundred different ways. And maybe knowing the sister is pissed is enough. Maybe having my character refuse to look at her gets to the theme of “how we create the realities we live in, even the ugly ones, by the things we won’t acknowledge as much as those things we accept” better than “showing.”

Take that SHOW DON’T TELL!

clip_image004Diane writes two alternating columns for Freelance-Zone:Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery and Marketing-Zone:Marketing-Zone: Marketing Yourself and Your Book.

5 Outrageous Ways Writers Change The World

Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery by Diane Holmes, Chief Alchemist of Pitch University

Just for today, let’s be outrageous.


Let’s find everything within us that is wild and improbable, that is fantastic beyond imagination, and let’s use it to elevate our writing.  To seize the moment.  To be the writers we were meant to be.

Let’s realize, just for today, that we have the ability to use words so that no reader walks away unchanged.

“What?  Are we in the business of changing people?”

Only if you think writing something worth remembering is your calling.

Only if you care about your reader.

Only if you believe it’s possible for humans to change and grow and that this means you, too.

Because, really, how do you think they do that, that change and grow thing? Is it by thinking the same thoughts over and over?  By taking the same actions?  By seeing the world in the same way?  By feeling only what they’ve felt before?

No, no, a thousand times no.

In the world of change, writers burn bright.

We are among the few who are allowed inside the mind and hearts of complete strangers. We change the world one page at a time, one reader at a time.

We go in there and use their own imaginations to create a reality (guided by our words) they have never experienced until they read what we have written.  They “see” what we write, entire worlds not just words.  Their bodies respond with real chemical changes.  We can even change how they breathe.

That’s some heady stuff.

But I think most writers waste this opportunity to change the world.  They retell stories we’ve heard before, with only slight variation.  They write what we already know.  They forget that the first person to change is themselves.

Imagine writing something that expands you?  You are your first audience, right?

So back to being outrageous.  The point is that writing is powerful stuff, and it’s easy to slip into meeting writing deadlines, getting the story told, and getting a check mark.

A good way to kick yourself in the butt is to be outrageous.  On purpose.  Outrageously amazing writing will get you a little bit closer to that heady stuff.

5 Outrageous Ways To Focus Your Writing and Change the World

#1 Write Outrageous Moments

You know the ones.  It’s what you’ll forever remember after you’re done reading and why you clip the article, save the book, and underline the passage.

It’s that one scene that will forever be frozen in your memory..

The moment you see the hidden web of connection.

The illuminated conclusion.

The conversation that changed the trajectory of all action to come.

The moment that your breathing changed.

#2  Write Outrageous Characters

Give us a new myth, a new version of who we are or could become.

Show us that part of ourselves that we wouldn’t look at if we had a choice.

Make us realize we are more complex than we thought possible. Scare us, heal us, amaze us, or leave us shocked.  But above all, mesmerize us through the lens of character.

#3  Uncover Outrageous Truths

Don’t stop writing until you do.  Until you have told a truth, you have only flung words onto the page.  Nice words. Well behaved. Pseudo-deep and full of empty spaces held together with twine and half-hearted glue.

#4  Take Outrageous Risks

As a writer, you need to feel the brisk and ice-cold wind of near death.  Safe prose, workable scenes, they don’t change anything or anyone.

Take a risk and let your brave face take the onslaught of cutting ice and jagged, wild expression, that razor-sharp prose with teeth.  You’ll feel alive and so will your reader.

#5  Find the Outrageous Ending that is Greater than the Sum of the Words.

Go somewhere important.  Blow our doors off.  Realize what your subconscious was telling you as your wrote everything that came before, and then write it with everything you’ve got.

The reverberation will be something to behold.

And today, you’ll have been outrageous.

clip_image004Diane writes two alternating columns for Freelance-Zone:Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery and Marketing-Zone:Marketing-Zone: Marketing Yourself and Your Book.