Tag Archives: fiction

How To Screw Up an Action Scene

by Diane Holmes, (a) Chief Alchemist of Pitch University, (b) lover of learning, and (c) writer of fiction, non-fiction, and the occasional manifesto.

As a thriller writer, I love me a good action scene.


In fact, there are no thrills without something actually happening.  Color me obvious, but a lot of writers don’t link these two concepts together.

Thrills without something happening?  How would that work?

So, this is the first part of an occasional series about how writers screw up their action scenes and what to do to fix them.

Today I want to focus on the order of your action.  This is something more than story, plot, or scenes.  It’s how you break story information up into little pieces to give the reader an adrenaline rush.

And how you can screw this up.

It’s all about “Visual Grammar”

OpenCulture’s recent post The Dark Knight: Anatomy of a Flawed Action Scene, features a brilliant breakdown of action-scene failure by film critic Jim Emerson.

Read it.  Watch it.  Master it.

Even novelists must master how to create a movie in the reader’s head.

The danger of “The Storyteller Cut”

One of my favorite fiction experts is Terry Rossio.  And of all his brilliant articles (on his site and available free), I find myself recommending The Storyteller Cut over and over, even to advanced writers.

Okay, especially to advanced writers.  Sometimes this is the only thing holding an advanced writer back.

I truly believe that understanding the pitfalls of this type of storytelling can save your novel, script, or stageplay.

Okay, that’s it this time!

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.

Where Should I Start My Story? (the truth)

by Diane Holmes, (a) Chief Alchemist of Pitch University, (b) lover of learning, and (c) writer of fiction, non-fiction, and the occasional manifesto.


Where to begin: Isn’t this the worst question ever? 

questions It’s so important (readers won’t read on unless you nail the opening), so frustrating (why isn’t it right yet?), and so "unprovable" (this one is 93% right, woohoo!). 

And heck, even if you do happen to stumble upon the right place to start, you’ll never know it. 

It’ll still look like lame words on a page.  You’ll rewrite it into something worse. (Oh, the agony.  The shame.  The total irony of being a writer and finding out that Words. Are. The. Enemy.)


The idea that there’s a perfect place to start at story is wrong.  There are many perfect places to start a story.

We writers get confused, because we study stories that are already written, and we talk about how opening X is the perfect opening for a specific book.  As if it’s the only opening that could ever exist.

But in truth, what we’re really noticing is that a particular opening did work very well, and the writer avoided a sucky opening.

So, if there are many perfect openings and many sucky openings, how do you find at least ONE perfect opening?  How do you know where to start your story?

And this, my friend, is where all the advice fails us.


Pretty much all the advice out there falls into this category for me.

Example 1:  Open "in medias res." 

You mean “anywhere” anywhere, as long as it’s in the middle of things will do? Boring things, violent things, things that don’t matter? 

Of course it is Latin, so it sounds smart. 

Example 2: When things change!  (Or at the Inciting Incident or In The Ordinary World of the protagonist, etc.)

There’re lots of changes, so which one?  But more importantly, doing this doesn’t make it a "right" opening.  You’re not guaranteed an opening that works for the reader.  There’s nothing here about quality, nothing about the needs of your story or the hopes of the reader.

Example 3: Open with the character and setting, and make sure to get across everything we need to know, plus a really good hook!"

Thanks for the laundry list.

But isn’t this advice sort of like telling a chef to make sure to use food, probably a protein and a carb?  Oh, and vegetables are nice, too?


Open any place where you can…

(a) enter with a JUICY piece of story information (character, plot, setting, anything!)…

(b) that captures the reader’s IMAGINATION and…

(c) ultimately PULLS her into a story JOURNEY…

(d) that SPANS the book or script or whatever.


Gone Girl‘ By Gillian Flynn

When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with. The very ?rst time I saw her, it was the back of the head I saw, and there was something lovely about it, the angles of it. Like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil. She had what the Victorians would call a ?nely shaped head.You could imagine the skull quite easily.

I’d know her head anywhere.


(a) Whoa, a husband who obsesses about his wife’s head and can imagine the skull quite easily.  Now that’s a creepy-interesting character.

(b) This isn’t going to turn out well, is it?  I’m already imagining stuff that could happen.  Bad stuff.  Oh, noes.  Maybe it’s already happened….

(c) I’ve got to find out where this goes, because I know this links directly to the story I was hoping for (when I read the back blurb):

On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick Dunne’s clever and beautiful wife disappears from their rented McMansion on the Mississippi River.

(d) I’m being pulled into the story question that matters, the one that will be resolved by the time the book is over:  What happened to the wife?

Plus there’s all that mighty fine prose.  That’s a bonus for sure.

Put it all together and bam!  The reader and the story are well served.  And they’re joined together for all the pages to come.

And that’s how you start a story.

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.

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

How To Be a Weaver Bird – And Win a Story Contest

Yeo-HS-Right(1)by John Yeoman

Are you a peacock or a weaver bird? Some writers – peacocks – flaunt their lovely words and beg us to admire them. Others are weaver birds, patiently building a structure that’s serviceable but dull.

Some preen. Some delve.

Or so I’ve discovered from three years of judging the Writers’ Village story competition. Who wins the prizes? Peacocks or weaver birds? Neither. The cash goes to those who combine both colour and craft, preening and delving – with flair.

Here are three fast ways to blend colour and craft and write a best-selling story – or, at least, win a cash award in a story contest:

1. Welcome clichés

You have a plot idea, right? A few dramatic events? A snatch or two of dialogue? Scribble it all down as fast as you can. Don’t wait for the ‘right’ words to come to you. Clichés, stagy incidents, clumsy expressions? Welcome them. They’re fine. Just get the tale written!

Then throw it in a closet for a month. Pluck it out with a sniff, tone it down and tune each sentence so it sings. The job should now be easy.

‘She rolled her eyes to heaven. “Joe,” she spat. “You are a lying bastard!”’

That’s formulaic. Boring. What are you really trying to express?

‘Camilla toyed with her bread stick. She wouldn’t look at me. “Is there somebody else?” I tried to smile. “Of course, not.” I leaned back in my chair. “That’s what you said before.” The bread stick crumbled in her hand.’

Now the incident, underplayed but loaded with body language, has gained depth.

2. Knock out the ‘show off’ language

Peacocks love to display their metaphors, fine sensibilities and erudite tropes. Tropes?  ‘Tropes’ is itself an erudite term. They wouldn’t buy it at WalMart. Why didn’t I simply write ‘tricks of style’? Because I was showing off.

‘Show off’ writing stops the reader. It says: ‘forget the story. Look at me, the author!’ In commercial fiction, we are allowed to use just one show-off expression per thousand words. More than that and our name is Umberto Eco and the reader loses the plot.

‘Literary’ works are another matter. If our name is Umberto Eco we can strut our ego in every line. Alas, our name is not Eco.

3. Firm up the structure

A good story is a ‘globed compacted thing’ (Virginia Woolf). Every word, incident and exchange of speech should support the plot. Is your structure strong? Does your story cling close to the plot? Is your first paragraph arresting and the close emphatic and clear?

Does the reader finish your story and sigh? Like somebody who has just consumed a filet de bouef without a shred of gristle?

True, you can end with a mystery or question but the reader must feel: ‘nothing could have been added or taken away from this. The story works.’

Here’s a tip. Give your tale to a friend who has no cause to love you. Ask: ‘does it work? Can you spot my deliberate howler?’ Bless them when they frown and chortle and ask you: ‘What’s the point of all that silly chatter between Joe and Madge? Why does Joe dump her? Why doesn’t Madge protest? And what, exactly, is the wretched story all about?’

It’s music to your ears. We’re all too close to our own story to spot passages that do nothing or are obscure to the reader. Or, for that matter, stories that make no sense at all.

Just apply that three-step process. Add flair. And you’ll be points ahead of the average story contestant. Gulp, I might enjoy your story. I might love it so much that I read it three times. Worse, I may even have to pay you a cash prize!

Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. His free 14-part course in writing fiction for profit can be found at: http://www.writers-village.org/contest-success

Today’s Writing Tip Is on Contradicting Yourself

An important part of writing is making sure that what you say is consistent. You don’t want to say one thing when you mean another.

Here’s an example: “I don’t plan on coming back, at least not for a while,” Jonathan said aloud, thinking to himself silently. That’s an obvious no-no. It’s either one or the other – you say something out loud or you think it to yourself; you don’t do both.

What other problems are there with that sentence? Redundancy. Two redundancies, in fact. It’s not necessary to say “thinking to himself” because who else was he thinking to? You could just say, “Jonathan thought.” And there is no need to say, “Thinking to himself silently” because all thoughts are silent by definition.

Usually when we make these kinds of boneheaded mistakes, it’s when we are writing our first or second draft. Don’t worry about them when you’re getting your story down. It’s when you go back to refine your blog post, article, or manuscript that you want to keep a keen eye for contradictions and redundancies.

Sigrid Macdonald is the author of three books, including Be Your Own Editor, and two erotic short stories, which she wrote under the pen name Tiffanie Good. Silver Publishing just released “The Pink Triangle,” a tale of friendship, lust, and betrayal. You can view her story here: http://tinyurl.com/6v65rgr

Today’s Writing Tip Is about Creating Conflict

Recently, I wrote a book review on Fifty Shades of Grey, the new runaway bestseller about Anastasia Steele, a naïve young woman who falls for Christian Grey, a man who can only derive pleasure from a dominant/submissive relationship. Christian is perfect in every respect except sexually; he is damaged and can only be aroused by inflicting pain. This is not exactly our dream man, but readers love the book. Why? Aside from some very steamy sex scenes, Anastasia is confused, bewildered, and ambivalent about her relationship with Christian. This creates good reading.

It makes her a three-dimensional character and provides suspense; we don’t know if she will stay with Christian. It makes her sympathetic. We feel for her dilemma. She’s crazy about him, but he’s just plain old crazy (unless you’re a fan of sadomasochism).

Thus, in real life we may prefer partners who are relatively drama free, but this would make for very boring literature. When you are developing your characters, make sure they have enough conflict, both internally, within themselves, and externally with other people.

Sigrid Macdonald is the author of three books, including Be Your Own Editor, and two erotic short stories, which she wrote under the pen name Tiffanie Good. Silver Publishing just released “The Pink Triangle,” a tale of friendship, lust, and betrayal. You can view her story here: http://tinyurl.com/6v65rgr