First Story Part 2 – How To Write It

mood01So how do you get a 9-year-old to write a story? Sure, it’s hard to get his butt in the chair and actually write, but once there, what does he do? What have they taught him in grade 4?

Much to my shock, it’s actually quite a bit. And yet, it’s also quite simple.

Here’s the thing. There are hundreds and hundreds of books about how to craft a story. Seems everyone has an idea. Stephen King. James Scott Bell. Dilbert.

But looking at the 5 page hand out the teachers gave The-Youngest, it made me realize that sometimes it’s actually not that complex.

Forget the 400 page books on character. Forget the tomes on plot. Forget everything about what you’ve read. Here’s how to write.

Like you were 9 and you had nothing in your head on how to actually do it.

#1. Ask what if. It’s that easy. It’s the basics of story-telling. What if you were transported to the minecraft world? What if you were an NHL goalie and you were in a shootout for the Stanley Cup? What if you were a new Stepdad and spent most the time being constantly confused and bewildered?

What if we could bring dinosaurs back to life?

What if we could bring dinosaurs back to life?

All stories can start from there. All of them. What if Dinosaurs came back to life? Jurassic Park. What if a giant shark decided to attack a beach community? Jaws. What if there was a school for wizards and by writing about it, you could make billions of dollars? Harry Potter. What if women liked porn and bad writing? Fifty Shades of Grey.

See? If in doubt, start with what if.

#2 But where can you get the what if ideas? Try, Building Ideas With Memories. I call it mining your own life, but it’s the same thing. The-Youngest looked at what he did on vacation, what made him scared, what hobbies he had, what events in his life were important.

#3 Begin with Something Happening. In the case of The-Youngest, he had to follow “The night I followed the (blank), this happened”. So, “The night I followed the cat and the cat had to fight a dog.” Isn’t this the essence of how to get a story going? A character, in movement (following), another character, (a cat or turtle or bunny) when something happens.

So, what could happen in Minecraft? Or in an NHL game? Or to some poor stepdad who has no idea how to scorekeep?

After much thinking and talking with The-prettiest-girl-in-the-world, aka his mom, he settled on a minecraft story.

#4 Figure out who your good character is. Figure out your bad guy. What traits do they have? What defines them? Make notes.

Dark Knight succeeds mostly due to its characters

Dark Knight succeeds mostly due to its characters

All stories, yes, all stories, succeed or fail on their characters. Howard the Duck sucked so bad because, well, Howard the Duck sucked so bad. The Dark Knight succeeded because it had a tortured Batman and one of the greatest villains of all time, Heather Ledger’s Joker.

So, The-Youngest made himself a list of traits. (Interestingly enough, one trait was that the bad guy was good looking, while his good guy was ‘not good looking.’ Hmmmm. Interesting.

#5 When you write, use feeling words. It’s how we connect to the characters. We need to feel what they feel if we are to feel for them. Wait, does that make sense? It sounded good in my head, but whatever, think about how your character reacts to what happens. Not just physically, but emotionally. How does it affect them?

Annoyed. Scared. Disgusted.

He made a list.

#6 Use your senses. Smell. Taste. Sound. Sight. Touch.

This is to draw us into the world. A world with 5 senses becomes real. It becomes relatable. Now, I’m not sure he actually remembered this in his final draft, but it’s something to keep in mind when writing. Eating zombie flesh tastes yucky, right? Smells bad too, right? But how does it taste? How would it feel in your hands? What details are so totally gross that you can barely stand to look at it?

He may have forgotten about this one a bit. As do I.

#7 How does your story begin? How does it end?

I always know this, but I struggle with the middle. Still, as a learning tool, it’s vital. If you know where it starts, you can, uhm, you know, start, and if you know where the story is going, where it will end, you can throw things at the characters that prevent them from getting there. Until they do. The end.

#8 Then you write.


So he began with an idea.

What if someone hacked into his minecraft account and destroyed his valuable supply of diamonds, blocks of gold and stacks of ender pearls?

He worked on his characters, the good guys, Florence and Flo. He worked on his bad guys who had made a fatal mistake of leaving a small electronic trail F&F could follow and exact revenge.

He knew where he wanted to start, he used a few ‘feeling’ words, and he wrote a pretty damn good story.

It is here if you want to read it.

Nothing like a good minecraft story

Nothing like a good minecraft story


This is a story about how 2 cousins named Floyd and Florence helped the police capture Henry and Jerry. They are wanted all over canada for major robberies. Floyd is 15 and Florence is 12. Floyd is an expert minecrafter and Florence is a noob at the game. Florence is staying for the summer break at Floyds house.

 Floyd helped Florence make a tree house. Florence learned how to place a block, how to hit, how to move, how to mine and how to craft. Together they created a giant castle with a moat.They have 3 double chests full of diamond blocks. These are super hard to get.

One night when Floyd is out with Florence at mc donalds, SOMEONE BROKE IN TO Floyds back door and went straight after the computer. They put it in their bag and they left. Henry and Jerry (the bad guys) hacked into Floyds computer and got on their server. They destroyed Floyd and Florence’s castle but they accidently left a sign there saying where their campsite is on the server. Floyd and Florence were very upset at first but then remembered that they had a backup laptop hidden in the basement.

While Florence is asleep Floyd goes on to the backup computer and gets the server. He follows the sign Henry and Jerry put there and he finds their camp site and gets their stuff back. Floyd sets up a trap at the camp site so when they go in their big main shack it will blow up. The trap is also a virus. It tells the police where they live.

When the police get to Henry and Jerry’s they arrest them. They find $3,000,000 worth of stolen things. Floyd and Florence get rewarded $1,000,000 and really good laptops. Floyd and Florence bought a lot of NERF GUNS and video games. Their parents let them play Minecraft any time they wanted.

the end

I was so proud of him. The ending even made me laugh.

It’s amazing what your children can teach you. In this case, it was to remember, at the end of the day, a story is pretty simple (and writing one can even be fun!)

Write to create anticipation. Readers love it.

Karalee’s Post #118

More and more I’m consciously experiencing the world around me from a writer’s perspective and focusing on how it makes me feel.

My medical background and experience helps too. It’s fairly common for people training in the medical field (like physiotherapists, doctors, nurses, etc.) to “feel like they are experiencing” the symptoms of different conditions they are learning about. It’s a weird phenomenon with weird feelings, and one I went through with various diseases and conditions myself.

It was nothing compared to what I experienced in my first job as a new graduate over 30 years ago.

I’ve always been interested in orthopedics and way back then, when I was working with the surgeon on the orthopedic ward, I decided it would be good for me to see real surgeries. I was granted permission to watch a total hip replacement and I went to work early that morning to partake in the exciting experience. I headed to the operating rooms, scrubbed up and gowned like a nurse instructed me to before I was escorted to the room where the surgery was to be performed. I was told to sit on “that chair” and the patient would be in shortly.

The nurse left and I was alone. With my thoughts. And anticipations.

Well, sitting and waiting let the demons in to play havoc. I have a special talent of conjuring up images (good for writing) and my mind went into overdrive, anticipating everything I was about to see and smell and what I worried about like, “what if the doctor asked me questions and I didn’t know the answer?” and “what if something went wrong”….

It was an interesting experience to say the least. One I am still emotionally attached to and have NEVER forgotten.

In the fifteen minutes I waited I had three strokes. I swear. Three.

I thought I was dying. The right side of my body was weak. Surely my brain was hemorrhaging! There was no way I was going to survive! I hadn’t made a will….

Apparently I was introduced to the art of fainting. Blacking out. BOOM. On the floor out cold!

One minute I’m sitting and staring at the equipment in the room-without-a-doctor-or-patient, and the next BAM. Somehow I’m on the floor. I woke the first time (and the second) and got myself back on the chair, feeling very stupid and vulnerable — and scared. After all, I was having a stroke!

Then the patient came in on wheels, on a stainless steel bed pushed by a couple of nurses. No blood. No weird cutting noises. Yet.

No doctor. Yet.


I’m on the floor again. Out cold.

This time a nurse helped me back onto the chair. I was convinced I was dying. My brain was fuzzy. My body was weak and buzzing. My heart was racing. But of course I said I was alright.

Apparently it’s not uncommon to have this type of reaction your first time!

I didn’t realize back then, but this was GREAT writing stuff! I was definitely emotionally involved and over 30 years later those feelings are only a thought away and still as vivid as the day it happened. Like Silk talked about in her last post, Write with emotion, it’s creating the emotions and caring that readers remember and attach to.

Now THIS is what I want to create in my writing!

So, did I see the surgery? You bet! Once the initial cut was over, I had no problem. I even stood up next to the patient to watch the goings on and stayed on my feet.

The interesting point it highlights for me is that ANTICIPATION is incredibly important in upping the emotional involvement. Anticipation means that we are invested in the character or the outcome of something before it happens. To anticipate something, we CARE about the event or person and what is going on in the story.

I was invested in watching surgeries to increase my understanding and empathy of what patients undergo, and to help me in the rehabilitation process post-surgery. I wanted to know what physically happened under anesthesia, but the anticipation of blood and guts took over my composure as though I had no control.


Powerful stuff.

Powerful enough to evoke intense feelings. Powerful enough to remember years later.

Powerful enough for writers to invest time and energy in producing in their writing!


Achievements this week:

  • feeling great about my daughter’s wedding and enjoying the experience! This means my daughter’s dress and shoes are sorted, and in Mexico arrangements are made for getting hair and nails done! The hacienda hotel takes care of the other details, so we can relax and ENJOY!
  • my new business is challenging me and I love it!
  • grateful for where I am in life.
  • 1 hr/day writing. July 5th is on its way!

Keeping balance in my life: 

  • Still sticking to the Slight Edge philosophy.
  • Daily meditation and exercise. Gratitude keeps me in a place of peace.
  • Staying in touch with fellow 5Writers every week is rewarding and our group grows closer as life events happen. We are there for each other.
  • Staying positive is a choice, and I’ve decided to practice being positive daily.

Perspective Photos from days gone by:

My daughter and me having fun






Remembering my close friend that passed. Her daughter is a new mother. Memories….




Happy writing!

Are fiction characters real?

Karalee’s Post #86

Recently I watched the Ted Talk by children’s author Mac Barnett published on June 19, 2014 called ‘How kids can teach adults to read.’ He explores the relationship between fiction and reality and as a child he loved the quote by Picasso.

picasso quote


I find the quote amusing as fiction writers are in effect, trying to convince our readers of the “truthfulness of our lies (made-up stories).”


Mac Barnett drew the Venn diagram below and explained that for him the overlap between truth and lies is what he calls the art.







I have often chuckled at the thought of “us writers” creating characters and we talk about them as though they are real people.

Truthfully, in my writer’s imagination my characters are real and have a real family and a life history. Put to paper, the characters can then come alive in every reader’s mind. That’s the magic of storytelling. And when any author’s book is made into a movie their characters can become even more “real” through the actors.

I must be in a bit of a philosophical or maybe a scientific mindset at the moment, but really, what is reality? Are our thoughts “real?” In the physical scientific sense how can we even measure a thought?  And if we agree that thoughts are real, then is everything we think of also real?

Now there’s a thought!

Why do any of us think about famous characters such as Sherlock Holmes, Jane Austin, Jack Reacher, etc. as “real?” Or even fantasy characters such as Peter Pan or Whinnie the Pooh, even though we know they aren’t?

It really is all in our heads.

Then Mac Barnett said it in plain words and brought home to me yet again what everyone in our writing group has learned and talked about.

Mac Barnett said, “The characters aren’t real, but we have real feelings about them.”

That’s what we as writers are striving to achieve.

That’s what Queen Scheherazade of 1001 Nights (a.k.a. The Arabian Nights) that Helga talked about in her last post achieved in her storytelling to her husband, the Persian King Shahryar each and every night for almost three years. It literally saved her life.

And that’s what all those debut authors did that made the bestseller’s list that Silk referred to this week.

All these storytellers made their listeners or readers have real feelings about their fictional characters.

Understanding that and then achieving it is the real magic in fiction writing, don’t you think?

Happy writing!



Symbols in writing

Karalee’s Post #66

My husband organized a weekend away to celebrate Valentine’s Day, a ‘staycation’ in our own city of Vancouver, Canada. It’s unusual for us to celebrate this occasion as we’ve considered it mainly as an avenue for the card, flower and chocolate companies to cash in on commercialized symbols of love. 

But, as Paula has shown us through many examples of older writers coming into their own, it is never too late and one is never too old.

And I can bet one never tires of being appreciated and shown how much they are loved. Of course, it doesn’t have to be on Valentine’s Day, but who cares if it is?

I believe it is human nature for us to make generalizations according to our culture and experiences (whether right or wrong), and it is this tendency that certain ‘things’ come to symbolize other ‘things,’ such as a heart = love; flowers = love/caring; a car = travel/status/freedom; house = love/family/security; and many personal things can have personal meanings.

Often the media and marketing by companies add hype to these symbols to cash in on them in the form of gifts to celebrate occasions such as birthdays, special religious or historical events, Valentine’s Day, and on and on.

But let’s not forget that writers use symbols too. Just as a picture says a thousand words, an action by one of our characters doing something to someone/something can convey emotions or give information that otherwise takes hundreds of words to describe by ‘long-hand.’  For example:

  • a man giving his lover a bouquet of red roses as she runs to catch a plane to her new job in a new country
  • a beggar giving food to a starving dog
  • an pianist caressing a lucky necklace before her debut concert
  • a man clenching his fist at neighbours who are keeping him awake while they party
  • a man clenching his fist in excitement in a crowd that is screaming at the win of an Olympic medal

When you consider the above actions, not only do they convey emotions, they also reveal something about the character of the person doing the action. This is a powerful way to show who a character is. Conversely, if a reader expects a character to react a certain way to a situation and she doesn’t, this also reveals who the character is and/or gives information about the situation.

For instance in the example above, the man bringing roses for his lover is showing that he has strong feelings for her, and the reader would expect the woman to receive them with gratitude. But, if she throws them down and stomps on them, the reader is shown in very few words that the relationship isn’t so warm and cozy.

Using symbols  to convey emotions and characterization, whether they are cultural or unique to your character, can add depth to your writing and is another tool to keep in mind during the writing process.

What symbols do you use in your writing?

Breadcrumb trails to the heart

Silk’s Post # 68 — In my December 30th post, “The top 10 most overlooked emotions,” I listed what I thought were some interesting emotional shadings, like Schadenfreude, that could add complexity to a character. Then I closed with this:

“And yes, I’ve completely skipped the really hard challenge regarding characters and emotions here: how to convey their feelings through actions, rather than spending endless, brutally boring, pages inside their heads. Maybe that’ll be my next list?”

How does a writer plant clues for the reader about the emotional state of a character, without falling back on exposition? Let’s face it: “She felt dreadful after getting the heartbreaking news,” is about as emotionally engaging as reading the ingredients on a box of cereal.

I believe readers can only feel something if they’re active participants in the world of the story and the lives of its characters. They crave “aha!” moments. So how can we leave an enticing trail of breadcrumbs for the reader to follow into the depths of a character’s heart?

characters kressI started researching for a list of “Top 10 ways to convey characters’ emotions” in an effort to unlock the secrets of emotionally moving storytelling. A quixotic quest, you might think. An attempt to quantify magic, to capture light in a jar.

There is plenty of “how-to” advice out there, and some of it is certainly worth mining, such as Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress. You’ll find 200 plus pages on craft and psychology: character types, points of view, basic techniques like dialogue and thoughts, and some more artful approaches like metaphor and sensory details used to convey feelings.

Not what I was hoping for, exactly. I wanted both a wider-angle picture, and a more intimate one, of emotional expression. I trashed the glib “Top 10” format I started with and went beachcombing through books, articles and memory, looking for gems. I chose only three treasures. These seem, to me, like basic storytelling wisdom inspired by real life, rather than craft techniques. But you be the judge.

1. Actions Speak Louder …

This isn’t exactly a surprise, rather it’s an old chestnut of the writer’s trade. But it’s easy to brush off as an obvious truth, and not so easy to actually execute.

Sometimes if you want to find a truth, it’s useful to seek out clichés. They usually got to be clichés for a reason. A little bit of googling a half-remembered phrase landed me back in the book of Matthew, same place I dredged up The Beatitudes in my December 23rd post. Matthew boils character down to its essence in a few quick strokes:

“Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.”

Morality lesson aside, it’s a pretty basic truth in fiction (as in life) that what characters do tells the story of who they are. If a character behaves selfishly, readers are entitled to believe she’s selfish. Even if the author tells us that she’s really a sweetheart, she was just having a bad hair day.

The fundamental character of a character is the Rosetta Stone by which readers interpret that character’s emotions in a given circumstance. In previous 5writers posts, we’ve discussed how (for some of us at least) it seems easier to clearly define a secondary character than a complex protagonist, leaving the reader confused about exactly what kind of fruit is growing on the main character’s “tree”.

Past actions also set up expectations for future actions. An interesting twist is when a character acts out of character. Did we previously misinterpret who she really is inside? Or has she fundamentally changed? Or is she faking it for some reason? Or is the author just confused about human nature?

2. Are You Looking at Me?

taxi-driver-mirrorOne of the most memorable scenes in the Martin Scorsese classic, Taxi Driver, had to be Robert DeNiro talking to himself in the mirror. Alone with his craziness, he brilliantly invented a second “self” to have a conversation with and react to. This tense, emotional piece of theatre opened the door into Travis Bickle’s mind and let the audience glimpse his pain, loneliness, confusion and frightening instability.

Seeing a character through another character’s eyes is a different trail of breadcrumbs to their emotional state.

The perennial advice to “put another person in the scene” is given for good reason. A pas de deux shows readers a rich array of emotional detail … not only in the characters’ actions and words, but also their reactions to each other. The increase in emotional content can be exponential.

3. Speaking in Body Language

The tales our bodies tell about how we feel, often without our express permission, are pure gold to a writer. Micro-expressions, tics and sweats, darting eyes and throbbing veins all give us away. These “tells” come from the limbic brain, where emotion rules. They are raw, unfiltered by the cortex.

How much more powerful than “telling” is showing the reader a character’s interior feelings through the way he sits stiff with tension, or squirms with impatience, or slumps with grief. You can even delete most of the unneeded explanatory words. If a person is waiting for something to happen and is squirming in a chair, we know he’s impatient.

After all, most of the word “emotion” is made up of “motion”.

emotion thesaurusThanks to a book recommendation from my wonderful long-time friend Della, another survivor of the marketing communications profession who is now writing for herself, I found the biggest gem of my quest for a breadcrumb trail to the heart. The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi is a crash course in body language. It takes a long list of feelings, from Adoration to Worry, and provides physical signals, internal sensations, mental responses and other cues for each emotion. It’s a great resource, unique among the books for writers that I’ve seen.

Here’s an example of an emotion I had on my top 10 list: Embarrassment, which the book defines as “a lack of composure due to self-conscious discomfort.” A random sampling of physical signals from their long list:

  • A flush that creeps across the cheeks
  • The body freezing in place
  • Grimacing or swallowing
  • A bent spine
  • The chest caving
  • Covering oneself (crossing the arms, closing a jacket)
  • Flinching away from touches
  • A weakened voice
  • Knees pulling together
  • Looking down, unable to meet someone’e eyes
  • Shoving hands in pockets
  • A walk that accelerates into a sprint
  • Glancing about for help, an exit, or escape
  • (And my favourite) … Hiding behind a book

May your writing be amply laced with breadcrumb trails that go straight to the heart of your characters’ emotions!

The top 10 most overlooked emotions


Silk’s Post #66 — It’s New Year’s week, and as everyone who’s ever read a newspaper or magazine, watched a TV talk show, or surfed the web knows … that means it’s the season for holiday-weary writers everywhere to fulfill their obligations to readers and viewers by coming up with “Top 10” lists.

Okay, it’s a bit of a cheat, a cheap filler. Top 10 sports bloopers; Top 10 political gaffes; Top 10 heartwarming stories; Top 10 weather events; Top 10 celebrity break-ups. It’s not really writing, it’s packaging. But let’s face it: people eat it up. The urge to add one’s own picks is practically irresistible.

So I’m giving in to the Top 10 urge. If it’s enough fun, I may even devote all my January posts to Top 10’s for Writers. This week’s Top 10 is a reminder of some perfectly good emotions that I think writers neglect too often when animating their main characters.

EMOTION, to quote the Oxford Dictionary, is “a strong mental or instinctive feeling such as love or fear; a passion, sentiment, sensation.” Wikipedia calls it “a subjective, conscious experience” that is associated with “mood, temperament, personality, disposition and motivation.” 

In the service of the writer’s twin holy grails – TENSION and CONFLICT – we cram in the obvious basic feelings like LOVE, HATE, FEAR, HOPE, ANGER, HAPPINESS, IMPATIENCE, RESENTMENT, DOUBT, and EXCITEMENT. 

But it’s the subtler shades of emotion that help elevate characters from bland and predictable to spicy and complex. Without these grace notes, emotions can come across as cartoon-like as emoticons. Here are some to consider …

1. SCHADENFREUDE – You have to love German literature, so full of capital letters and long, jaw-cracking words for complex states of mind. Schadenfreude is a combination of the words for harm and joy. It describes the “pleasure derived from the misfortune of others,” even those one ostensibly cares about. Everyone feels it sometimes, but nobody admits it. Nice people immediately feel guilty afterwards. Why is this rich source of conflict so underused in commercial fiction? If you’re looking for a character flaw for your overly-saintly protagonist, maybe you should forget those irritating faux flaws like eating crackers in bed and give him a dose of Schadenfreude.

2. EMBARRASSMENT – This is an underrated emotion. It sounds almost frivolous, but is a powerful de-motivator on the fear spectrum. Apparently, fear of speaking in public (stage fright) comes up near the top of many people’s lists of experiences they most wish to avoid. Even seasoned performers have been known to puke before going onstage. In everyday life, it’s amazing what lengths people will go to to avoid embarrassment. Why are we so afraid of ridicule and rejection? Perhaps because it’s a kind of shunning, thrusting us outside the safety of the tribal circle. I’m just guessing here, having absolutely no training in psychology, but I know it’s common, it’s strong, and it creates inner conflict. What more could you ask for as a writer?

3. GENEROSITY and its companions FORGIVENESS and COMPASSION – Generosity makes any character bigger. Sometimes we torture our protagonists so thoroughly that they seem too besieged to feel much generosity, but if you want a relatable character you have to give him a heart. You don’t have to create a do-gooder caricature. Generosity can be demonstrated in the briefest of flashes. When I was a little girl, I remember my Aunt Raggy taking me on a big adventure to New York City to see the natural history museum. We were riding through the Bowery – a terribly down-at-the-heels neighbourhood in those days, populated by what we then called ‘bums’ and now call ‘the homeless’. When we stopped at a light, a ruined looking old man in rags with few teeth and red-rimmed eyes banged on our window. I was scared and repulsed. My Aunt looked at him with sympathy and a smile. “The poor soul,” she murmured to me. In that one moment I learned everything I’ve ever needed to know about generosity of spirit.

4. LONGING – We’re always told our characters, especially our protagonist, have to have a ‘want’ that drives them forward towards a goal. It’s critical to make that ‘want’ explicit and front-of-mind. But if you want to create more depth, add some longing as a deeper, back-of-mind ‘want’ that persists. The presence of a yearning desire, a longing that may be unfulfillable in the literal sense, adds a kind of haunting texture and makes characters more memorable.

5. STUBBORNNESS – There’s a whole cluster of head-in-the-sand emotions that relate to stubbornness: skepticism, reluctance, pride, fear of change, unwillingness to admit that something previously believed is wrong. Doesn’t everyone have a little bit of this in them? Well, so can a protagonist. A character’s stubbornness can be a very handy obstruction to add complication and conflict to a plot, or a relationship. It doesn’t have to be reserved for hopeless mules. It can be used as a hurdle to be overcome in a positive character arc.

6. ADVENTUROUSNESS – Perhaps the opposite of #5, this doesn’t necessarily mean taking up mountain climbing and bungee jumping. There’s a kind of adventurous open-mindedness that prompts people to try new foods, seek new kinds of friends, explore new knowledge, and maybe once in a while do something a little wild and crazy. However, it’s as easy to turn the adventurous character into a cartoon as it is to turn the stubborn character into one. If you’re writing an epic, this is fine – otherwise it may be unhelpful. However, adding an adventurous streak is one way to help a character find a bit of trouble, which is always a good thing. Because then they have to get out of it.

7. JOY – This is a word that seems to have been somewhat captured by religion (wasn’t “Joy to the World” the first thing that popped into your mind?), and that’s kind of a shame. For me, joy is deeper, more exuberant and less passive than happiness, and it does have a spiritual tinge to it. For my money, a character’s emotional range is incomplete if they can’t manage to demonstrate some joy and some sorrow – or at least I want to know a protagonist is capable of feeling them, even if they stay in the background of the story. These are grown-up emotions, yin and yang, a natural part of life’s experience.

8. INTUITION – This emotion is a writer’s playground. It should probably be used thoughtfully unless you’re writing in a genre like paranormal, but I think a whiff of the ‘sixth sense’ – animal instinct – brings a whole intriguing dimension to both plot and character. While it’s a writing sin to use an unexplained ‘hunch’ to get out of a plot jam, there are lots of tasty treats in the intuition basket that can add flavour to a story, be it visceral or ethereal.

9. DISDAIN – Another word that’s somewhat fallen out of favour, but the meaning: “to regard or treat with haughty contempt; despise” still paints a rich picture of a character. This is a complex emotion that combines a sense of superiority, entitlement, judgement, fear of the ‘other’, and a lack of empathy. Hmm, makes you wonder why we aren’t citing it more often, given today’s ever-widening gap between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’.

10. WONDER – This is the return-to-childhood emotion. What we feel when we stop pretending that we know it all, and give in to our sense of awe at something inexplicably impressive. It’s what makes us say “wow!” For me, it goes hand-in-hand with adventurousness and joy. I love the idea of using this emotion to humanize a hard-boiled character in an unexpected plot turn. When a character who’s slightly cynical or world-weary experiences wonder, it really amplifies the point that something special has happened.

Given that emotions are the fuel that gives light and heat to conflict and tension, every story depends on them at a deep level.

What emotions would you put on this list? Which ones have you used? Is your palette of emotions wide enough for your story? Complex and subtle enough?

And, yes, I’ve completely skipped the really hard challenge regarding characters and emotions here: how to convey their feelings through actions, rather than spending endless, brutally boring, pages inside their heads. Maybe that’ll be my next list?

Joyful New Year to you!

A painful topic


Silk’s Post #60 — I have a confession to make: I don’t do pain very well. Any kind of pain, physical or emotional – my own pain, someone else’s pain, even the pain of fictional characters.

My natural reaction to pain is to avoid it, turn my back on it, run from it. If I can’t manage that, I try to deny it, ignore it, make light of it. Or just change the subject. Pain is way out of my comfort zone.

What prompted this thought stream are some recent real life passages. The death of a friend. My lameness from hips and knees that recently decided to seize up without notice, just in time to remind me that I’ve passed the milestone beyond which I can’t really claim to be “middle-aged”. The horror of the destruction in the Philippines, where another friend lives. People near and dear to me who are struggling with health issues. There’s nothing like real life pain to kill one’s inner Pollyanna.

Fortunately, however, my own inner Pollyanna is an eternal goddess – she refuses to die. And this post is about writing, not moaning or mourning or making believe life is pain-free.

When people decide to become writers, I wonder how many of them know what they’re in for? It sounds easy until you try to do it. Writer dreams can be so charmingly optimistic. I laugh at my own naiveté just a few short years ago, before I learned that there’s so much more to writing than just spinning great yarns. More than just following the how-to-write-a-bestseller prescriptions. More than just making words sing.

Because I’m finally learning that writers must struggle to look unflinchingly at real life, delve into their own souls with eyes wide open, and then translate the truths they see into resonant stories that move people through the whole range of human emotions from laughter to tears. You can’t create the joy without the pain.

We’ve all heard this ad nauseum: make your characters suffer. It’s almost a writer’s mantra. If your protagonist doesn’t suffer and struggle, what does he or she have to overcome? And if there’s nothing to overcome, where is the story? I get that.

But here’s the thing: writing about pain is not altogether natural. It’s different from the rest of the range of human emotions and experiences, because it’s like the negative pole. It repels us. Okay, there are some writers who find pain attractive, but I don’t personally find them attractive. For me, a relentless focus on pathology is deadening.

In critiquing my 5writer friends’ manuscripts, reading a wide range of authors (both great and not-so-great) in various genres, and re-reading my own stuff, I’ve come to an interesting conclusion. The best writers often seem to be the ones who can write about pain bravely, evocatively, in a way that touches the heart without hardening it.

This is a hard balance to achieve. On the one side are squeamish writers, like me, who are inclined to keep the mean parts behind closed doors. On the other side are sensationalist writers who revel in spattering guts, gore and other forms of suffering across the page the way Jackson Pollock flung paint. And then, there are those who get confused about how and where to plant painful-but-necessary scenes (which, in my opinion, probably includes most of us unpublished writers).

An example from my 5writers group (I’m not naming names). One of the best of the manuscripts we’ve collectively turned out over the past couple of years features a fantastically-limned villain who is truly horrific, yet compellingly magnetic. This is a twisted character who loves to torture. There is a chilling and suspenseful lead up when the villain captures a naive and hapless victim. There’s spine-tingling tension as we anticipate the pain scene. Implements of destruction. Harsh and clever interrogation. High jeopardy. The victim sweats. The torturer gloats. Then the victim, in terror, blurts and yields. And the villain relents. What?! The victim gets off with the equivalent of a slap on the wrist. The payoff for all that tension is cancelled. Later in the same manuscript, however, there is a scene of indescribable brutality whose main purpose is to demonstrate another character’s capacity for violence. However, this scene is a pastiche that doesn’t really impact the plot and delivers no real tension. Hence, for me, it seemed gratuitous.

I give this example because, a) it’s from an early draft of a terrific book that I believe should, and will, be published, and b) it demonstrates that even when a writer is able to brilliantly master the difficult painful bits, they have to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right imagery to serve the story and move the heart.

Ultimately, a story that brings real life to the page – with the boring bits taken out, as Alfred Hitchcock famously said – must have a physical effect on readers. They should feel that roller coaster of emotions in their bones.

The joyful scenes should make their hearts swell and bring a smile to their lips. The tense scenes should have their pulses hammering with fear. The sad scenes should make them bawl their eyes out. And the painful scenes should make them wince, suck in their breath, squeeze their eyes shut.

A writer has to be able to pull all these strings, whether implicitly or explicitly, gently or brutally, depending on the nature of the story.

So the painful truth: a writer’s job is to avoid nothing and confront everything.