Tag Archives: story

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.

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)

5 Shockingly Easy Ways to Create a Successful Pitch

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

In my other life, the one where I wear my “evil genius” costume and am secretly a billionaire, I help writers with their verbal pitches.

It’s rather addictive.



Today, I share 5 secrets that I usually guard with my life.  No, wait.  Make that your life. (Cue evil laugh.)

1. Tell us how to listen to your pitch.

Assume we’re expecting to hear a pitch for something that is not remotely like your book.  Perhaps we expect an a story about an alien love-child’s secret trip to corporate America where she falls in love with a janitor?  Yes, why not.

Now, correct our expectation.  This is your opening.


  • This is a young adult, fantasy romance about a 16-year-old high-school student who falls for an exchange student from the North Pole.
  • This is a literary mystery about two murders that happen 300 years apart but are unfolding in parallel timelines.
  • This is a non-fiction book about the inconsistencies in courtroom testimony and how to correct that during a trial.

2. Talk about people.

Most books involve people or characters (fake people) doing things. 

Coincidentally, that is how readers think about books, too. 

So even if you start out with an epic situation, setting, or high concept, tell us about the most central players and their initial actions (the big thing that really gets the plot going).


* This book is about the Gold Rush.  When Mira’s husband dies, she takes her 5 children to California to pan for gold.

* An asteroid is headed to Earth.  Arnold is a boy of 7 whose believes he’s an alien, and his missing family will be on that asteroid.  He sets out to the projected Ground Zero to make sure they’re able to find him.

*  Set across war-torn Europe during World War II, Jim searches for his younger, disabled sister, who is missing after their town is bombed.

3. Tell us only the stuff that makes up important scenes.

We listeners think everything you tell us equals “a whole lotta important scenes.” 

  • Sean, a comic book writer… (Oh, good, there will be lots of scenes where Sean is drafting a new comic book!)
  • Terry, an Admiral in the Navy… (Yes!  This is a story set in the world of the Navy, and we’ll get to see Terry fulfilling the role of Admiral!)
  • Jauny, the wife of a serial killer… (Cool!  This will be a story about a woman who is married to a serial killer… and that life.)

Imagine our confusion when we find out that…

  • Sean is on vacation in Costa Rica and never references writing comic books.
  • Terry’s story is about his ancestral home which is haunted, and the whole story is set there, not on the High Seas.
  • Jauny left her husband before he was caught 10years ago, and now she’s a chef on a cruise line, who wants to sing.

4. Take out every generic description and cliché.

Tempted to say things like “she must learn to trust again,” or “he’s handsome and sexy”?


This tells us nothing about how your book is special.  Instead it tells us that your book is like all the others.  Pass.


Instead of  this: “A jaded cop doggedly pursues a serial killer before he kills again.”

Tell us only what makes your story unique: “Tom Mallory, A rookie patrol officer, gets involved with a homicide detective obsessed with the work of a famous serial killer—a killer who might be her twin brother.”

5.  Don’t tell us the end.

In most cases, it will only sound underwhelming.

And disjointed.

And a big, fat let down.

(Or so obvious we roll our eyes.)


  • And they do find gold after an earthquake and a stampede.
  • But the asteroid misses Earth.
  • He looks for a long time and finally finds her.  She’s okay.


And notice, nowhere did I tell you the number of words your pitch needs to be or any other silly rule. 

Also, no formulas to fill in. 

And certainly no threats that you’ll fail if you don’t follow everything I said in this column.

You don’t have to be perfect.  Just be the best and most interesting you can be today.

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

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.