Tag Archive: creating tension and conflict

10 Things I (Don’t) Hate About You

10_Things_I_Hate_About_You_filmKat, the protagonist (portrayed by Julia Stiles) in the film 10 Things I Hate About You, is not a likable character.

Nor does she strive to be likable. It’s more the reverse with her; she’s intentionally rude, domineering, and opinionated.

Since the film is based on The Taming of the Shrew, making her a bit of a tyrant is the main point of the story. And Kat comes through like a champ; she attacks life with her unbridled opposition. She never lets conventions, other people’s opinions or even rules stand in the way of what she wants. She speaks her mind, argues with her friends, questions her teachers and disagrees with her family.

As a consequence of her no-holds-barred personality, she’s feared, avoided, disliked, and antagonized by everyone who knows her. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Kat must classify herself to her guidance counselor.


The point is Kat — people perceive you
as somewhat …

Kat smiles at her, daring her to say it.


No … I believe “heinous bitch” is the
term used most often.


Many of the writers I know are working their fingers to the bone trying to create characters that are the opposite of a Kat. They want to craft the quintessential book friend, someone so universally likable that every agent, editor and reader will want that character to walk off the page and join them for a cup of coffee.

When I’m confronted with a protagonist like Kat, I’m conflicted. Shouldn’t I want to root for her? She is the heroine of the story and I do enjoy a character with a few rough edges. But shouldn’t I also dislike her (at least a little bit) for being so confrontational?

Why do millions of us enjoy watching cynical, intimidating Kat in action? What makes this character work, when so many more likable characters don’t?


  1. Comic Relief: Kat delivers her insults in droll, clever and sarcastic bursts. The humorous, intellectual nature of her one-liners defuses some of the power of her cutting barbs and we’re always laughing with her, not at her.
  2. She Has a Supportive Backstory: Kat has deep, emotionally-charged reasons for most of her behaviors, reasons she chooses not to disclose until she’s ready. Characters in pain should show it, it’s scary if they don’t. Everything Kat does makes sense in the context of her character’s history.
  3. Her Goals Are Evident: Every character needs to want something and Kat wants to attend a prestigious university. However, her controlling father wants to thwart her plans. She’s willing to wage an all-out war with her father to achieve her objective.
  4. Our Own Expectations: We know how this story turns out, and that happy-ever-after ending makes us feel good. We Happy Ending Shotmentally gloss over any negative emotions and rejoice that true love eventually conquers all. Expectation is a powerful tool, it’s also easier to accept annoying behavior if it’s predictable and fits the storyline perfectly.
  5. We Can Relate: We can all remember feeling like Kat, a smug, scared, pissed off teen. It often takes some kernel of empathy to help us connect with a prickly character. And it helps if we can understand the character’s choices and believe we would act the same way in a similar situation.
  6. Superior Intellect: Let face it, we value the truly brainy and we’ll often look away when they act like toddlers. This simple fact is the foundation of many unlikable characters. If you must create a character that embodies a number of negative traits, make sure they can calculate data with the speed of a super computer and it’s all good. Kat is brilliant, hard working, politically aware and a great student.
  7. It’s All About Balance: This film is a game of dysfunctional character bingo; we lose Kat’s actions in a sea of imperfect characters. This story is interwoven with too many conflicting motives, lies, and schemes and no one is playing fair or being honest.
  8. The Train Wreck Effect: Sometimes you just can’t look away from an impending disaster, seeing characters get the crushing defeat they so richly deserve can be the main reason we stick around till the end. In this case Kat’s ego gets tattered, but she survives. However her antagonist, Joey, will go down hard.
  9. We Learn to Flip Our Perceptions: Kat is a character with a large number of negative traits, but those same traits become positive in a fresh context. It’s stubbornness when Kat battles someone, and determination and resilience when she joins their cause.
  10. They Included A Softener: Kat isn’t bad, she’s smart and sassy. She truly loves her family and when it comes down to protecting her own secrets or helping her sister, she chooses her family. She also learns forgiveness and to focus on others for their good qualities, instead of dwelling on their negative ones.

Granted, what makes a character likable for me, might make them unlikable to another person and creating potentially unlikable characters isn’t the safe choice. But it’s taken me a while to realize I’m not very interested in safe. I want twisted, confused, conflicted characters and I think Kat’s a great example of how to do it effectively. I don’t want to have coffee with Kat or become her BFF, but she’s a challenging character. I could have hated Kat, but I didn’t, and that’s because for the most part, she was written just right.


For more WriteOnSisters posts by Robin click here. Or more posts about character development click here.

Take the Quiz: Which character are you from 10 Things I Hate About You?

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Could Your Book Make the 10% Mark?


Love it or hate it, the new Amazon Kindle Unlimited just made it easier for avid readers to sample a huge number of books while paying a fraction of the total cover price. The new program will give subscribers access to over 600,000 titles, many of them Indies, but also some big name authors. This is an all you can read buffet program, with no unit cap, a marked change from the Prime lending program. All this access will cost readers $9.99 a month in the US.

Some writers are thrilled; you can already find them using the URL in their marketing campaigns, others not so much.

The thing I noted about this new program is authors only get paid if the reader gets past the 10% mark of the book. That’s right, downloading the book is no longer the defining act; it’s reading that counts toward achieving a royalty payment. This is another big change from the Prime program where the loan of a book always resulted in a small author payment, usually about $2.00 in US dollars per each loan. This means how a novel opens and if it manages to hold the reader’s interest just got even more important.

Novel beginnings aren’t a new topic for this blog, from prologues to opening sentences the Sisters have a lot to say about literary first impressions. And we’re not shy about the books we don’t like or why in our reviews.

However, this time I’m doing something different.

I decided to give a group of authors I’ve never read before a test drive. I wanted to see how many of the books I picked at random would stand a chance of getting me over the 10% threshold for their share of the money pie. I’ve selected some Indies, and some traditionally published books from a few different genres. After reading the first 9% or so, I tried to honestly evaluate why I would or would not want to read beyond that point. I selected only books that appealed to me from their descriptions. I did not read the samples, or any reviews before selecting these books. I had no preconceived notions about this group of authors; and I gave each one of them a fair chance at converting me into a fan or critic. I’m not revealing the names of the books because I have no desire to cause these authors problems just because I wouldn’t finish their books.

Here are the five books I would gladly put down before the 10% mark and why I feel the author failed me as a reader. Please note, I read more than these five books, however I’m focusing on these as the best examples.

Book 1: I was so excited by the blurb on this adventure book, and I couldn’t wait to read it. However the book starts with a 53 word sentence so convoluted I needed to read it twice. It followed that with a second sentence of 41 words. The two massive run-ons created the first paragraph and managed to insult women, as well as the English language. I am not a short sentence snob. I do read a lot of classics, so I know (and love) long sentences. However, 53 words is a tad long even for me. To make sure this wasn’t a fluke I kept reading, although I found the protagonist’s disrespect for the women characters distasteful. I couldn’t stop myself from counting the longer ones as I read. In the back of my mind I kept wondering if I would find a sentence that broke 60 words. Sadly I did, a 65 word mess showed up. When I read back-to-back overly long sentences I start feeling like I’m reading a text book. I can’t enjoy myself when I need to reread for clarity after every few lines.

Book 2: The concept on this mystery blew me away, and I went into it with high hopes. It started with “Once upon a time” and I wanted to stop reading right there! I made myself press on for the sake of literary science, but honestly even if the author meant this as quirky and ironic, the line left me cold. I love it when a writer knocks me down with a great original first sentence, however it’s not usually a deal breaker for me if they don’t. After this unpromising first line, the book’s prologue consisted of a rather long info dump. For newer writers, an info dump is when books use pages and pages of exposition to fill the reader in on backstory details before a single bit of action takes place. It’s a bit like trying to cram an elephant into a shoe box; the pages are densely packed with facts the reader has no context for or any reason to care about. Without regrets I moved on.

Book 3: This time I picked something from the historical fiction group. This book was set in an era and location I love to read about. Unfortunately the author started using modern terms almost immediately. The writer coupled this stylistic decision, with some faulty historical research (wrong century), and this bad fact played a small but consistent role in the main plot. I write historical fiction too, so I know it’s easy to make a mistake. However, I do expect most writers to keep it together and try to stay in the target historical era. At least for the first few chapters. For me the best part of any historical novel is it immerses me in another time and place, if I’m constantly being jerked out of the fantasy by the writer’s modernism’s or research mistakes, I move on.

Book 4: Of all the books I picked up for this post I wanted to love this one the most. The idea of this book, a paranormal thriller, seemed interesting and original, something that’s not easy to do in paranormal. However, it opened with one of the big cliché opening no-nos. It started with a battle, the protagonist is cornered, things look bleak and it fizzled. The protagonist wakes up. That’s right, it’s all a dream folks. Ugh! This is more common than it should be, there are tons of advice posts out there warning people to avoid a fake opening hook, so why oh why are we still having this problem? Of the five this is the one I might still finish, that is if I can forgive the overused, unoriginal opening that promised something it didn’t deliver: action!

Book 5: I picked up a contemporary romance for this last one. I don’t tend to read romance, but I’m trying to read more of them. The story felt predictable, a Romeo and Juliet vibe, but the couple seemed okay, ordinary but likeable. I read to the 10% mark mostly waiting for something more to happen. In the end what really got to me was that about 75% of the sentences started with the pronoun I. Of course in first person point of view you do see a lot of these, but I found myself bored by the lack of sentence variation. I don’t expect every book to read like a literary masterwork, but this one is too predictable and simplistic for my taste.

And there you have it, five book openings that couldn’t hold my attention as a reader.
How about you? Would you read past 10% or would you move on knowing another 599,999 books awaited you?


Read more posts by Robin here.


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Creating Tension: Can There Be Too Much Conflict in a Story?

Studio shot of a young couple fightingThe other evening I was watching Scandal. Admittedly I came late to the party, missing the first season, then watching it on demand and jumping into season two enthusiastically. But the other night I very nearly turned it off. Aside from the constant snarl on Olivia’s face—which irritates me to no end—the relentless arguing, fighting and violence displaying the characters as devious, abrasive, confrontational, cruel, disloyal, greedy, hypocritical, hostile, manipulative, melodramatic, self-destructive, self-indulgent, unethical, immoral and well, just plain evil, resulted in me asking the question: Can there be too much conflict in a story? (Okay, I turned to my copy of the NEGATIVE TRAIT THESAURUS to fully state my case.)

Every writer knows that tension and conflict are essential when writing fiction and even in much of nonfiction. It’s what keeps your reader turning the page and I can’t deny I love a story that gets your pulse racing. But the episode of Scandal the other night made me angry. There was so much yelling and aggressive body language that I discovered I had my jaw set and my teeth clenched. I wanted to scream! “Stop it! Stop it! Settle down. Can’t you sit and work out your differences like intelligent adults?” I mean, he is the President of the United States! The leader of the free world! (Something he tells us in nearly every episode.) He should negotiate with dignity, be calm under pressure, patient, and use logic to navigate treacherous waters.

This led me to wonder if perhaps we’ve been influenced too much by reality TV. Ugh, I truly dislike reality TV. When my college-age sons lived home, they coerced me into watching shows like: The Osbournes, The Biggest Loser, American Idol, and a few others. I relished this time with them and was truly interested in what captured their attention. Initially I found it mildly entertaining, although much of it was difficult to watch. I’m uncomfortable seeing people humiliate themselves in front of others or being humiliated by someone else. I couldn’t, and still don’t, understand why people find this funny. I wanted to look away, and I did, often. I’ll admit that watching someone slip on a banana peel does make me laugh, but I’m not proud of it and I only feel okay if someone 3d render of cartoon character with banana peeldoesn’t get hurt. I actually wrote to the Ellen DeGeneres show once. She has a habit of scaring people, which is often hilarious, but the time she did it to Taylor Swift, the poor child slipped off her ridiculously high-heeled boots and landed on her keister, hard. I was not only embarrassed for her but I bet she had a serious bruise on her ass to take home as a reminder of Ellen’s prank.

And then there’s this trend of killing off major characters. I didn’t see Will’s death coming the other night on The Good Wife, or the cruel, bloody, and violent death of James on Scandal a few weeks back. There are countless others and it’s been a trending topic on talk shows. Have we become so addicted to the rush? The shock value? The violence? Don’t get me started on that—a topic for another post.

I’m probably not typical of many people, I really hate confrontation and although I can stand up for myself and negotiate peace treaties (20 years as an assistant principal and handling discipline for 11th graders honed that skill) I don’t really want to spend my time watching TV or reading stories that elicit that amount of anxiety for me.

I don’t have an answer to my question. Maybe I’m just getting old. My mantra is pretty much: Why can’t we all just get along? Negotiate agreements when we can and just accept or at least tolerate the differences when we can’t.

What do you think? Is there such a thing as too much conflict? Or perhaps it’s just the way we express it in our writing. I don’t know…

Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/creating-tension/

He Said, She Said: Writing Dialogue

Cocktail Party GossipWriting dialogue is the heart of my writing. A scene always takes shape in my mind with two or more people having a conversation. I put the dialogue to paper and then add the physical setting, background details, emotions, inner monologue and body language. It’s the only way I know how to write. As I’ve confessed before, an outline doesn’t work for me and I’m very unstructured in my development of a story. For me, it’s organic and springs to life at its own pace. I sometimes use index cards, but that’s only to keep details organized as the novel progresses.

I love to muse over what my characters are going to do next. It’s my bedtime ritual. I snuggle into the covers under the blanket of darkness and let the door to my mind swing open. Or I do it on a long drive or when I ride the train into the city. I try not to do it when I’m in the company of others, but sometimes people call me out on it… “Where are you?” they say, “Are you hanging out with your characters instead of us?” It’s embarrassing.

The conversation always unfurls, usually by two characters having some type of conflict and the words begin to fly. My imagination picks the setting without me having to consciously decide and soon I have my scene. I write scene after scene like this, placing them before or after others within what becomes the time frame of the story. Sometimes I have to adapt the scene/dialogue to include backstory or details from other scenes once I have them in the proper sequence.Arguing businesswoman

When the story is complete I do a final read-through and make sure everything flows and the details are correct, the segue ways smooth. Here’s where I edit the dialogue and these are my rules:

  1. Avoid a dialogue tag whenever possible. Never use it if it’s just two people unless you want to convey who is the first to speak or you want to indicate an emotion or action, which you can usually accomplish without the tag anyway. Instead use action and body language to indicate who is speaking.
  2. Write the way people talk. This means using contractions unless you have a character who speaks formally, eg. a professor, boss or perhaps an older and wiser mentor. Craft the dialogue specific to each character. Reserve certain expressions just for them so the reader quickly identifies who is speaking.
  3. Keep it short and snappy. The use of overly long speeches usually bogs the reader down and if you work at it you can keep it punchy and informative at the same time.
  4. Use it to convey plot details and to move the story forward. It should increase the tension and detail the relationships between characters.
  5. Use indirect speech* or more creative ways of saying something boring. Instead of, “Sorry I’m late,” say, “I nearly had three accidents on the way here, the traffic was so bad.”
  6. Learn the punctuation. I recommend: http://fictionwriting.about.com/od/writingexercises/qt/punctuation.htm
  7. Don’t consider he said, she said as boring. It’s actually the preferred tag as most readers pass it by without stopping. Their eyes drift over it effortlessly, like punctuation. Be careful of tags such as gasped, sighed, or yelled. It’s overkill and wrong. What’s meant as a physical action shouldn’t appear as a dialogue tag. You can’t sigh, gasp, chortle, laugh and talk at the same time. The action happens either before or after a character speaks: She gasped. “You scared me half to death!  OR “I’m so tired.” She sighed. And why say she asked when you’ve got a question mark? Or say she yelled with an exclamation point. It’s redundant.
  8. Keep his mouth shut. Not every dialogue statement requires an answer. Sometimes what ISN’T said has more impact.
  9. Show don’t tell. Don’t have a character state that h/she is confused, angry, sad, or happy in the dialogue. Demonstrate it by what h/she says or insert a facial expression. Alexa frowned. “Why are you doing this to me?” When you show an action or indicate body language, the reader will know the next line of dialogue is by that character, so no tag needed.
  10. Show conflict. Dialogue needs tension, otherwise it’s boring. If not conflict, then at least some confusion. Maybe your characters are working together to solve a problem or one of them reveals a secret.
  11. Read it aloud. Or have a friend read it with you, as if you’re auditioning for a play. Or record it and play it back. Notice the flow and rhythm of the words. Your ears will tell you if it sounds authentic. You need not do this all the time, but just until you get the hang of it.
  12. Use starts and stops when writing an emotional scene, or portions of words, or perhaps the ellipsis (…) to show hesitation.
  13. Look for lists of dialogue tags online. There are tons you can print out and keep handy for adding variety. But beware that some are incorrect as stated above and don’t fall into the abyss of of what I call over-creative dialogue syndrome. Partake like fine chocolates. Savor them and consume sparingly.
  14. Read a lot. Note sections of dialogue that sing and use them as a guide.
  15. Listen to people talk. Take yourself to your local coffee shop or bar and record snippets of dialogue. (Not with a tape recorder, that’s creepy and illegal.) But take some notes. Embrace your inner covert agent.

Here’s an example of dialogue from one of my novels. See how many rules I incorporated.

             Alyx sat on the over-stuffed chair and propped her bare feet on the table. She wiggled her garish red toes and chuckled.

            “For your new sexy persona?” Matt pointed the neck of his beer bottle at Alyx’s toes. He smirked.

            “Might as well go whole hog if I’m going to be convincing.”

            “You’re scaring me. Who are you and what have you done with Alyx? I think some sex-crazed alien has snatched her body.”

            “It’s kinda weird. I waver between terror and excitement.”

            “Well, I came over because I was worried about you, but it seems like you’ve got this under control. But having kinky sex for a week with a total stranger … I don’t know.”  Matt seemed to consider the situation carefully for a minute. “Although, I could see where it could be kinda interesting. Like a fantasy.”

            “Exactly! That’s kind of where my head’s at. It’ll be…for the greater good. I have to admit, his body is like a god’s.” Alyx blushed.

            Matt laughed out loud. “Shit, Alyx, you’re hysterical! I think you’re actually looking forward to it!”

            Matt drained the last of his beer and slammed it down hard on the coffee table. “Well, I’m glad I stopped by. You’ve put my mind at ease, mostly. But if this whole thing goes south, call me. I’ll drop everything and come get you.”

            “Thanks, Matt. Sure, I know you always have my back. I’ll be fine. It’s only for a week. How much stuff could he do to me in a week?” Well, she’d already done the math on that and had concluded … a lot!

            Matt slipped on his jacket, pulled Alyx into a hug and kissed her forehead. “All right, I’m outta here. Jillian is going out with her girlfriends tonight and I’m on baby duty. Sure is nothing like my old Saturday nights. At least there’s a good game on tonight.”          

           They shared a wave goodbye as the elevator doors closed. The clock on her kitchen wall said 6:30. Yikes! She only had a half-hour to finish drying her hair, put on a little makeup and throw on some clothes.

Not a single dialogue tag. Yay me!

Good Luck! And follow the rules! I’m just sayin…

Up Next from Caryn: *Indirect Speech




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Character Chemistry: 6 Dos and Don’ts for Getting a Group Together.

traits imageWe’ve all had this experience, we hear about a new book, movie or TV show and it resonates with us. We know we’re going to love it. We count down the days to the release. During the waiting agony, we talk the ears off anyone who stands still long enough, eagerness dripping from every gushing syllable. The “big” day arrives and we finally get to sit down with our story, every nerve tingling as the characters we dreamed about finally emerge from the shadows of our anticipation and start talking to each other. We crunch popcorn, chocolate, or our nails, while we wait for the magic to happen.

And … Nothing! A big fat zero on our emotional wow meter.

Sure, the story is the one we hoped for, but it’s flat. Not even a shimmer of our pre-viewing sparkle lingers by the end. Disappointed, we move on, or perhaps (if we’re also writers) we analyze what went wrong. Many times the problem stems from characters lacking chemistry, both with each other, and/or with us the reader/watcher. While reader chemistry is unique to each of us, there are tricks to creating better character chemistry.

  • Do remember to address gender, but Don’t use stereotypes to do it.

Let’s face it, men and woman are different. Regardless of how those relationships are structured, (romance, mentor, friend) gender plays a role in how each character interacts. Ignoring gender can come across as fake or forced. Making it too apparent in non-romantic relationships can feel creepy. The battle between the sexes plays out in life and on the page, so experiment until you balance those polarizing forces for each character.

  • Do let characters get angry and/or say something stupid.

No one can sail through life without some missteps. Friends and lovers argue, disagree, and otherwise have moments of discord. A spirited argument is a great way to show a character has a deeper (or even a darker) side. Let some old baggage slip out during an emotional outburst, or show they have a hidden tender spot by having them defend something unexpected. True colors can shine when characters engage in a round of super-heated words. A fight also gives your characters a chance to show growth by apologizing, or repairing a bad situation with new-found insight and maturity.

  • Realistic relationships Do take time and need a compelling reason to exist.

Friendships evolve from a balance of complicated variables, shared likes, similar goals, history, even a common enemy can factor into their success. Watch out for relationships that evolve too quickly and lack commonalities. When opposites attract for no apparent reason (beyond looks, or lust) you make it harder to create believable chemistry. Some writers can meet this challenge and make it work anyway, but others can’t and will lose the reader. Build stronger relationships with back-story and a blend of realistic emotional connections, concern, affection, even bouts of disappointment, anger and/or jealousy.

  • Don’t make everyone friends.

Everyday we meet people that rub us the wrong way. It’s the guy who cuts you off in traffic, and the woman who lets her dog poop on your front lawn twice a week. You don’t have to like everyone in the world and neither should your characters. Too many novice writers shy away from making anyone unlikable. Even their antagonists are misunderstood characters with a secret heart of gold and the best of intentions. Everyone should have a blend of good and bad traits. Toxic, codependent or otherwise negative relationships are all realistic and a writer should feel free to make use of them. If you forego giving anyone bad traits you wreck your story’s tension. You need characters to do bad things to give other characters a chance to shine.

  • Don’t forget triangles, and octagons.

One of my favorite things is a huge ensemble cast of characters. Group dynamics are fascinating, and the bigger the interconnected group of characters the greater the number of relationship combinations you can create. A large well constructed group is often the foundation of a stellar multi-book series. Remember you don’t have to resort to the most common use for the triangle (battling love interests) nor should you, since it’s becoming an overused device. The possibilities for character triangles is actually limitless. Two coaches can fight over how to train a promising athlete. Former partners can fight for the same promotion. Whenever two or more people want to attain the same end goal, you have the potential to create friction.

  • Don’t forget to map out all the relationships.

Now that you have a diverse group of relationships, you need to know how every character feels about the others in your story. Using a large plain sheet of paper create a character flow chart. Make sure to use (+) for a good relationship, (-) for a negative one and (=) for a neutral one. Each relationship should have a line and a qualifying sign going in every direction. Just because a protagonist dislikes her BFF’s partner doesn’t mean the partner feels the same way about the protagonist. Unequal relationships are part of life. Some people have a greater capacity for acceptance and have an easier time forging positive relationship than others do. Someone in a position of authority might feel neutral about a large group of employees or students, all of whom have strong feelings about the person in charge. Relationships can change over the course of the story; a positive relationship can move to neutral ground or even negative. Make sure to indicate changes in status on your map. The mapping step is the perfect way to see if you have too many positive relationships and/or too few interconnected relationships.

When a group of super strong characters all work together, it’s an undeniable force for good in any story. Strive to create balance and complexity by enlisting different types of emotional connections, varied levels of affection or discord, until you have a memorable cast.

Up Next from Robin… 3 Fictional Character Archetypes

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The Controlling Idea – Not Your English Teacher’s Theme

My last post about Theme turned out to be a little contentious. Not everyone agreed with the definition, which isn’t surprising considering we were all taught in English class that theme is a) usually distilled down to one word, like “salvation” or “death”, and b) open to interpretation. This approach to theme works in a classroom setting where the point is to explore a work of fiction, but it’s not very helpful when trying to write.

Perhaps I should follow McKee’s lead and call this writing-centric theme something else:

Theme has become a rather vague term in the writer’s vocabulary. … I prefer the phrase Controlling Idea, for like theme, it names a story’s root or central idea, but it also implies function.” STORY by Robert McKee, pg. 115

So, to avoid further confusion and controversy, let’s refer to Theme as The Controlling Idea. To review, this Controlling Idea consists of a value at stake (like love, justice or freedom) and a cause that changes that value from negative to positive (or positive to negative) by the end of the story.


For example: Justice (VALUE) triumphs (the change) because the hero is smarter than the villain (CAUSE).

As stated in McKee’s quote above, the Controlling Idea implies function – it doesn’t just exist as the end meaning of a story, rather it works to build the story towards the end meaning. And if you know how the Controlling Idea does that, you can write a stronger story.

Using The Controlling Idea To Strengthen Your Story

1 – Define the Conflict. Just like every hero needs a villain, every Controlling Idea needs a Counter Idea. So if the Controlling Idea is Justice triumphs because the hero is smarter than the criminal, then the Counter Idea is Injustice reigns because the criminal is smarter than the hero.

2 – Create Dramatic Tension by making the Controlling Idea and the Counter Idea fight! In great stories, these opposite values battle for supremacy – in one scene Justice looks like it will prevail, and in the next scene Injustice seems poised for victory, and back and forth. Make the Controlling and Counter Ideas so well matched that it is unclear which will win until the very end. A fantastic example of this is the BBC series “Sherlock” – we expect Sherlock Holmes to solve the case and justice to triumph, but the show is so well written and the villains so brilliant that we really do doubt right up to the final moment whether Sherlock will succeed.

3 – Cut Meaningless Scenes. All scenes must argue for or against the Controlling Idea, otherwise the story loses dramatic tension. Take The Hunger Games series, for example. Every scene presents freedom from the Capitol as attainable or unattainable. Each time something goes right for Katniss we think, “Katniss and the citizens of Panem will get their freedom!” and then something goes wrong and we think, “Oh no, the Capitol is going to rule them forever.” The Controlling Idea doesn’t have to be obvious and in your face, but it must always be there, informing everything the characters do and everything that happens to them. If it’s not, cut the scene.

And that’s how to use a writer’s theme (aka Controlling Idea) to write a dramatic tale full of conflict, tension and meaning.

Next Up from Heather… How to stay motivated without deadlines or money.

Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/the-controlling-idea-not-your-english-teachers-theme/

8 Ways to End a Chapter With a Cliffhanger


Early movie shorts made use of the cliffhanger to keep viewers coming back for more.

As I mentioned in my last post, Pace, Friend or Foe, one great way to drive a novel’s pace and keep people reading, is to end your chapters with a cliffhanger. Most people are familiar with the cliffhanger at the end of a novel (encouraging you to buy the next book in the series) or with TV shows where the storyline continues from week to week. However, you can use the same principle for a chapter ending. The key to using this story device is to make sure the cliffhanger is relevant to the plot. Also that you keep the teaser information brief, unexpected, exciting, and/or mysterious.

1. The provocative question. This works for a character’s internal question, a narrative question, or a question exchanged between two or more characters. The question is the easiest method to master and tends to focus on the “W” questions, Who, What, Where, When, and Why. I find the W questions low on the cliffhanger scale, but they’re an old standby. This style works best when the question is one the reader is already considering.

2. The statement of fact or accusation. Use this cliffhanger for one character to confront another with damaging information or to announce some life changing news. “I’m pregnant.” This cliffhanger will usually create emotional tension, and drive the story toward a new short or long-term goal or plot complication. It also works for a plot reversal or setback.

3. The description of the next chapter’s opening setting. This is a mystery technique, often used to unveil a dead body at the end of a chapter. This type of cliffhanger often leads to an introspective phase of the story. You don’t have to kill off a character to make this one work, you can also fill the room with streamers and balloons. The descriptive cliffhanger marks the start of a new storyline, or a reversal.

4. The demand for action or response. This cliffhanger centers on an event the characters can’t ignore, and may include elements of danger. The classic example is a police officer knocking at the front door. The demand for action works great for leading into a major event, or an event that drives a group into action, such as a river flooding over its banks. The demand for action always precedes a dramatic part of the story, or you’re not using it correctly. Be careful of using a fake demand for action, (an anticlimactic problem) the reader can interpret that as cheating.

5. The kiss, the almost kiss and the slap in the face. This method is the romance writer’s workhorse and helps heighten the character’s emotional tension. Variations of this one are the mistaken identity reveal, or the refused gift. This one works best early in the novel when the characters are still a bit unsure of each other.  

6. The mystery/missing object. We’ve all read these cliffhangers, it’s the old trunk in the attic, the long-lost letter that slipped behind the china hutch; or any other object of significance. Make sure you do not try to trick the reader with this one either, the missing letter should never turn out to be a shopping list, unless something very incriminating (strychnine) is on it. This is a suspense style of cliffhanger, good for revealing a major clue. This method works great at the start of the ending climax, but you can also use it for a mid book complication.    

7. Foreshadowing. You can use this cliffhanger when the characters are at a crossroad, or a big change in the plot is coming. Foreshadowing works great for building suspense at any stage of a book.

8. The pledge/declaration. This one is commonly an internal commitment for action on the part of a lead character. “I will avenge my father’s death.” Antagonists also use them when they vow to create mayhem or take revenge. This is a dramatically charged cliffhanger, and it always follows some emotional catharsis or a feeling of being cornered. This cliffhanger always changes the character’s path in a profound way. This method can work early or late in a novel. You should not use this for a minor decision and you really only get one shot at this type of cliffhanger. If you over use the pledge your character looks uncommitted.  

The one thing you must never do with a cliffhanger chapter ending is use it to trick your readers, or to cover up a dragging story.

Up Next from Robin… Write Fast or Write Well: Can You Have it Both Ways? Lessons From The NaNoWriMo Trenches

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Pace, Friend or Foe?

Snail_(PSF)About a year ago I sat down at a table with a large number of authors, some published, some not. We talked about everything, our writing successes, hopes, and failures. Toward the end of the meal, someone hit on a subject that proved a hot button for many of us.

The topic in question regarded pace, the speed at which the writer allows the story to move forward. Several of the writers felt a great book should read at the pace of a frantic blockbuster movie, one explosive event, followed by another. They thought each event should be bigger than the last, until the final near death event when the hero saves the day, but blows up a city block in the process. I know many writing coaches would agree with my quick-paced friends, however, it occurred to me that I like getting a pause in the action.

For me, these bits of lull time give me a chance to settle in, maybe get to know a few characters. It’s during these slower times that many skilled writers deliver something emotional and/or character-driven about the story, something that makes me care that another explosion is brewing just beyond the current page. It’s the way a writer handles the slower periods that tell me if I’m reading a good book, or a great book. If the writer knows how to make the normal sound interesting, they have a true gift.

For the rest of us a few pacing tricks might help.

1. Consider genre and targeted age range when setting your pace. Younger readers tend to have shorter attention spans, so Middle Grade, Young Adult, and New Adult books need to move fast and have something closer to that thriller level of pacing. Older and/or literary readers have longer attention spans and are willing to give you some time to flesh out the settings and/or the emotional aspects of your story.

2. Don’t used older books as your pacing models. I love classical literature, but it’s a product of a lost age, a time when people didn’t have access to other entertainments. Austen, Dickens, Hugo also wrote when a book cost a huge amount of money. For a family to own even a handful of books was a luxury. These readers wanted a book they could sink their teeth into, packed with details and a large cast of characters so when they reread the book they could count on another pleasurable experience. Today, even readers who gladly read the classics, will not give the same leeway to a lesser writer. Pulling off a long slow novel is the domain of only the most gifted of us.

3. I’ll go even deeper with this thread and say never copy any writer’s pacing. I hear this excuse all the time from fellow writers. Some big name writer will publish a book where nothing of substance happens for hundreds of pages, and thousands of novice writers think they can follow their example. No, you can’t. Just because that writer got lucky and found a way of creating a Best Seller with the pace of two snails mating, does not mean lightning will strike for you. Also, longer books cost more to produce and are harder to sell to publishers. If you really have a story that must fill seven hundred pages, find a way to make it two books.

4. Change the pace with your language choices. We all know varying the length of your words and sentences will help create a more interesting novel, but it also influences the pace. Longer sentences slow the reader down, sometimes to savor the language, sometimes because they get lost or don’t understand the vocabulary. Shorter, simple sentences increase the speed of the reader. One rule of thumb is to write thrilling dramatic parts with more details and longer chapters, but trim the ordinary or lull sections to the bare bones.   

5. Don’t overdo the character failure. There’s something depressing about a character that keeps doing the same stupid thing and failing. We all expect the protagonist to struggle, but repeating the same hurdles with the same outcome kills the pace. You need to make sure the challenges are new ones, or that the protagonist tackles the challenge in a new way, which shows character growth. Also, make sure you let the protagonist have some success, if they fail at an emotional problem, maybe let them complete a physical challenge, this will give your reader hope and make them want to keep going.

6. End chapters with something unresolved. This is the most overlooked writing tip and one worthy of it’s own blog post, so see my post next week for more detail. Never hand readers a neatly packaged chapter ending, always leave us hanging. Introduce something dramatic, a new character, or perhaps foreshadow a coming event. Use anything you can think of to get us to start reading the next chapter and you will change the pacing. However, never tease the reader; if you leave the chapter with a cliffhanger make sure you follow up.

Regardless of what type of pace you create as a writer, a speeding-bullet train, or something slower, pace is a challenge for all of us, and perhaps the number one killer of a great storyline.

Up Next from Robin… 8 Ways to End a Chapter With a Cliffhanger

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The Stink of Blue Jasmine: Writing the Protagonist

2013 has turned out to be a really bad year for me, physically that is. First, I broke my left ankle and then a few months later broke the right. Perhaps a little investigation into bone density is in order? The first one wasn’t so bad because after six weeks of no-weight bearing I could at least drive. The other one, not so much. In all, I’ve spent nearly eight months confined to quarters. On the plus side, I had copious amounts of time to write.


Cate Blanchett photo by Brendan Connolly

Last month, a friend decided to rescue me for the evening and took me to see Blue Jasmine. The critics couldn’t find enough stars for their reviews, apparently, and many raved beyond the stellar limit of five. Now, I’m a huge fan of Woody Allen movies, even when others trash them. I get his sense of irony and humor, and embrace his sad-sack characters without question, so when this one got such an amazing review I jumped at the chance to go. Okay, I didn’t jump. I limped, hobbled on my crutches, hot pink cast in tow… on my toes.

I left angry and frustrated and so did my companion. My first time out of the house in weeks and I sat through two hours of miserable characters who whined and complained, did terrible things, and in the end were exactly where they were at the beginning of the movie. In my mind, Woody broke all the rules for writing characters, especially the protagonist. Of course, Woody is world famous, and rich, as a direct result of his writing and movie-making, so who am I to criticize him? But really, in my humble opinion, he missed the mark in every way. Your protagonist has to do something and you have to care about it.

For example, your protagonist should…

  1. Be likeable, for the most part. His character traits might be despicable with few redeeming qualities, but he has to have at least one. Many characters can be difficult to love. Take Tony Soprano, Lena Dunham’s character in the HBO series Girls, or Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Even if they make us cringe sometimes, we find a heart in them and we root for them. We get a thrill imagining what it would be like to be them.
  2. Do something that matters! Two hours and the characters lied, cheated, stole, swindled, embezzled and in the end had absolutely nothing to show for it. Maybe they did stuff, but I didn’t care about it because something must change and it didn’t. They weren’t better or worse off in the end, but exactly in the same place.
  3. Be on a quest with a goal. These characters spun in circles the entire time and they didn’t pass go, didn’t collect $200- well they kinda did, but then they lost it and wound up penniless again. Even if you don’t want to embrace the “hero model” your protagonist should be complicated, in conflict, fighting for something. Well, these characters did plenty of fighting, there was lots of conflict, but absolutely no resolution!
  4. Be the prime mover of the story line. He shapes the story and usually is reshaped in return. Not here. One main character leaves her obnoxious boyfriend, gets involved with some seemingly wonderful new guy, but then he turns out to be married and she goes back to the other guy. The main character lies and manipulates another guy after her husband goes to jail for swindling people out of their hard earned savings and when he finds out, he dumps her. Well, duh, I could see that coming a mile away. Then she tries to rekindle her relationship with her son and you hope there is some redemption at hand, but he tells her to go to hell and he never wants to see her again.
  5. Be active, not passive. He should act, not react in the story. Otherwise you create a boring protagonist. I’d rather loathe the protagonist than be bored by him.
  6. Center the story. He defines the plot and moves it forward. His fate determines whether the story is a tragedy or comedy. Maybe Woody meant for this to be a tragedy, I could almost get on board with that, except that you have to care about the people in a tragedy and I couldn’t care less about these characters. Any of them!

Despite the universal praise from reviewers and I’m sure many would take issue with my comments, I found its fractured protagonist too abrasive to warrant my empathy.  If I wanted to spend two hours with someone involved in nightmares, anxiety attacks and a nervous breakdown I’d call my next-door neighbor, who I admittedly try to avoid at all costs. One can only take so much wry melancholy, scathing satire and dark-hearted asides and call it entertainment. I could get that for free next-door.

Up Next from Caryn? Writing the Antagonist.

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Avoid Rejections by Making Sure Your MS is Agent Worthy

So, you’ve written a novel. Let’s admit it. Writing a book is hard.


How many people have told you they’ve been thinking of writing a book too. And they say it like they mean it. But they don’t. And writing may be hard, but editing is downright painful; and knowing when you “finished” is nearly impossible.

You’ve fallen madly in love with your characters. You think about them as you fall asleep at night. They greet you first thing in the morning, you dream about them. Your mind wanders while you’re driving, riding the train, out for a run, talking to people. Heaven forbid someone asks you how the book is coming along. You start jabbering about it until his eyes glaze over and you have to stop yourself. You begin to think you’re suffering from some form of personality disorder. You tell yourself you need to step away from the keyboard, get out of the house and start socializing again. And then finally, it’s done. The satisfaction is overwhelming and yet you’re a little sad that the journey has come to an end. Now, you just have to sell it, and thousands, maybe millions, of people will read your amazing story!

You learn how to write a query letter, you attend workshops, you reach out to your writer group. They love your story and your optimism is sky high. Wait until people read my story! They’ll be blown away, they’ll love it, and agents will be in a bidding war. The movie will be a blockbuster!

Rejections start pouring in. You’re up. You’re down. Sometimes you get a bite from an agent, you submit the manuscript. She says no thanks. Maybe she suggests a rewrite and she’ll take another look. She still says no. If you’re lucky an agent will tell you what she doesn’t like about your story and you attack the rewrite with the vengeance of a spurned lover. It’s still rejected. A year has elapsed and you’re absolutely nowhere. You’re resentful. You ask yourself  “How much am I going to have to pervert my story to sell it?” Do I even care if I sell it anymore? I hate my story!

But have faith. The Sisters can save you a lot of wasted time. I’ll share some tips I picked up as I travel through the maze of editors and agents who’ve taken the time to offer advice. So, before you write that query letter make sure your manuscript is in tip-top shape. Oh, the time I would have saved if I’d known these things a year ago!

What’s up next? The Elements of an Opening Scene. Those first ten pages can make you or break you.


                                     “It was a dark and stormy night.”

…an often-mocked and parodied phrase written by English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton in the opening sentence of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford.  The phrase is considered to represent “the archetypal example of a florid, melodramatic style of fiction writing” also known as purple prose.  (Wikipedia)

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