Tag Archives: plot

5 Sneaky Questions to Tell The Story Behind the Story

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

The Story Behind The Story

From the reader’s perspective, you’re not writing one story, you’re writing two. The first is the story of what the reader knows based on what you’ve written so far.

Hidden story

But the second is the mysterious world of what the reader hasn’t been told yet.  What she wants to uncover desperately enough to read late into the night. 

This second story is the story behind the story.  The story simmering underneath the prose, lurking in the corner and about to jump forward with sharp teeth.

That’s the story that captures your reader’s attention.

Look at any random page of your novel-in-progress, and then ask these questions.

1) What’s hidden at this very moment that the reader can’t see?

Everything is a Mystery Box to the reader: every character, every situation, every goal, every line of dialogue, and every action.

Or, it should be.  The reader is reading to uncover the story and the characters.  What will they do next?  What will happen?  Why are they doing that?  How will they handle that?  And on and on.

So your story isn’t about you telling the reader every motivation or explaining every situation like an analyst….  It’s about the reader uncovering it (along with the viewpoint character).

And it’s about that act of uncovering having a profound impact.

2)  Is the answer to what’s hidden (out of all the infinite answers) mind-blowing-ly satisfying to the reader?

Don’t aim for ordinary.  Ordinary is already taken.

3)  Is the answer revealed at a time when the reader is still highly interested?  Does the place of revelation create a “wow” or only an “oh, okay”?

Timing is everything. 

Sometimes revealing answers immediately creates great forward momentum.  Sometimes it deflates the interest before it even really got going.

4)  Does the answer impact and change the trajectory of the page, scene, chapter, act, or the whole shebang? Does it raise even more questions?

If it doesn’t, then it’s really just a trick.  “Oh, look, this is interesting… now it’s over.  Move along.”

5) Is the answer revealed in a way that makes the reader care even more about what happens next?
  • Does it generate more mystery about additional Mystery Boxes? 
  • Does it add complexity to what the reader already knows? 
  • Does it add higher stakes? 
  • Can it be used to move the story understanding ahead? 
  • Can it be combined with other knowledge to create a truly staggering understanding?

clip_image001[4]Diane writes two columns for Freelance-Zone: (1) Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery and (2) Marketing-Zone: Marketing Yourself and Your Writing.

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.

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.