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Internal Obstacles

For the month of December, I am reissuing a few of my favorite posts. This post was originally published on April 1, 2012.

Internal obstacles are supplied by the protagonist’s own mind. They are difficult to overcome because most characters lack objectivity and insight into their subconscious motivations. Rarely are characters self-aware enough to know their strengths, weaknesses, and triggers. Friends and foes hold up mirrors so the character can see himself better. Friends and foes reinforce these obstacles or help overcome them. All characters have emotional triggers and cause explosions by pulling other people’s emotional triggers.

Internal obstacles prevent a character from achieving his overall story or scene goal due to:

[ Internal resistance based on temperament to things that go against his natural inclinations.

[ Fears and phobias that keep him from going where he needs to go or taking the action he needs to take.

[ Desire for a personal currency that tempts him to do the wrong thing or sidelines his efforts.

[ Low self esteem, arrogance, or pride that keeps him from doing what needs to be done or makes him do things that are better left untried.

 [ Psychological factors, such as conditioning, belief systems, mental illness, anxiety, depression, and addiction keep a character from seeing the situation clearly or keep him from making healthy decisions about what needs to be done or said.

In Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, we explore six types of obstacles, and different types of responses, that help you craft believable conflict. We meet and warp sixteen characters and take them from cradle to grave. We will continue to explore the concepts from the Story Building Blocks Books in this blog. To learn more Story Building Blocks II is available in print and e-book format through Amazon.

Conflicts of The Hunger Games

Studies have suggested that groups of one-hundred or less are pretty good at self-regulation. There is no need for organized law enforcement in such a small community because the members all know each other and are able to keep tabs on one another. If one member commits an act that is detrimental to the group, the other 99 are willing and able to kick their butt. Even in a small community, there are rules that are agreed upon: a social contract.
It isn’t in the group’s best interest if they can’t trust one another. If someone is lying, stealing, killing, or lusting after someone else’s mate, conflict will ensue and the transgressor will be booted out. It’s hard to survive in the world alone, especially if you suck at hunting or gathering.

In groups larger than one-hundred, it is imperative to have some form of social contract with rules that are enforceable and enforced. The golden rule of most societies can be boiled down into the loose statement: “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” This isn’t effective if you’re visiting a community of purple people eaters.

Ancient Egyptians had a long list of “I will not ...” in their Husia. The Jews and Christians embraced commandments which included admonitions to not worship different gods or idols, to not lie or bear false witness against a neighbor, to not murder, commit adultery, steal, or covet their neighbor’s wife. Hinduism’s rules of dharma encouraged patience, forgiveness, self control, honesty, sanctity, control of senses, reason, knowledge or learning, truthfulness and absence of anger.

In your story world, your characters will be subject to the rules of their society's contract. If Dick breaks those rules, there will be consequences. He may fight to change the rules or reveal the dark side to one of his society’s rules.

It is especially important in Fantasy and Sci-Fi when writing about alternative worlds that you consider what the social contracts of that world demand of the people in it. In a historical novel, it is important to understand what the social contract of the time and place required. Morals and practices changed over time and with geography. Small desert tribes had a different social contract than societies in king-ruled Europe and those of hunter-gatherers in Africa.

It is considered a plot hole if someone applies modern sensibilities to the people from an actual historical setting. That doesn’t mean you can’t take some artistic license. However, having Victorian girls behave like the cast from Jersey Shore does not work for most readers, unless you portray an alternate universe in Sci Fi or add a Fantasy twist. Errors of this type will, at the very least, make the reader cringe. At worst, your book will go on the to-be-burned pile.

The terms of the social contract in Dick and Jane’s world will put pressure on them to behave in certain ways. The constraints can make whatever they have to do to solve the story problem difficult, if not impossible. If Dick and Jane violate the social contract in their world, they will pay a price for it.

If you are writing fantasy, come up with your own ten commandments for your fantasy world. How are they enforced? What are the consequences for breaking them? Are some more serious than others? Are some ignored on a routine basis without consequence?

In the Hunger Games, the citizens of District 12 aren’t supposed to hunt outside the fence, yet Gale and Katniss do so regularly. Because they transgress, Katniss is better prepared to survive the Hunger Games, so breaking the social contract benefited her. Katniss and Peeta break the contract again at the end of the first Hunger Games which sets up the conflict for the second book in the series.

Think about your story. Have you directly or indirectly explored social contracts in your story world? Have you put it to work for you in terms of complicating your characters’ lives? Have you utilized transgressions and punishments?

Writing in Three Dimensions

For the month of December, I a reposting a few of my favorite posts. This post was originally published October 28, 2011:

When drawing your characters, there is more to them than where you tell them to go and what you make them say. A well-drawn character is fully fleshed as well as believably motivated. That means understanding that there are three dimensions of your character to consider:

 1) The way Dick really is. What kind of character have you created? What are the facets of Dick’s authentic self? Dick may be patient, kind, and giving but his situation forces him to believe he is otherwise. Decide what kind of person you want your characters to be. This is not limited to your protagonist and antagonist. This encompasses all of your main characters. What are their core traits and personality types? Are they introverted, extraverted, intuitive, sensing, thinking, feeling, judging or perceptive? Are they impatient, funny, wise, silly?

 2) The way Dick sees himself. Characters rarely see themselves clearly. They have their little conceits, their insecurities, and fears. They sometimes act against character when presented with extraordinary circumstances. And that is the point of fiction: to push your character out of their comfort zone. They are sometimes forced to act against character in their encounters with other people to avoid something or gain something. Think about your characters. How do they see themselves in ways that are different from their authentic self? If Dick thinks he is timid, show us in scene that he can be brave. If Dick thinks he is usually right, show us in scene that he is quite wrong. If Dick sees himself as kind, show him being a little rude and have Jane call him on it. When someone calls attention to the fact that Dick is different than he thinks he is, you have sincere conflict.

 3) The way others see Dick. Dick is more than the sum of his fictional parts. He exists in the world. The people in his world may not know the authentic Dick. They may be somewhat aware of the way Dick sees himself. They will take their cues by what he says, what he does, what he supports, and what he protests without knowing the underlying driving force behind them. The façade that Dick shows to the world may vary quite a bit from both his authentic self and his perceived self. If what Dick does or says is contrary to his authentic self, others will view him either positively or negatively based on that encounter. Unless they are an intimate friend or lover, they may never meet the authentic Dick. When other characters have a false impression of Dick, you have multiple layers of conflict. Their treatment of him may strike him at the perceived-self level and the authentic-self level. If Dick feels he is being judged unfairly, it offers an opportunity for him to  prove the error by revealing his true colors.

Peeling back the layers until you reveal Dick's authentic self to the world, and to himself, is a powerful tool to show character growth in your story.

Conflicts of Project Runway

For the month of December, I have decided to rerun a few of my favorite posts from years past. This post was originally published on September 30, 2011.

I have to thank Project Runway for inspiring this post. Design competition shows are filled with creative personalities, which make them a terrific cauldron for conflict.

At some point someone decided to wear clothing, possibly to ward off the elements, keep warm or protect their skin from insects and thorns. Then Jane decided that if Dick could wear a bear skin, she could wear a lynx skin. Then Sally decided that if the others could wear skins, she could wear leaves and flowers. I doubt seriously anyone ever wore fig leaves. They would chafe. Nevertheless, the insanity, once begun led to Paris Fashion Week, America’s Next Top Model, and What Not To Wear.

In the case of Project Runway, clothing designers are given a challenge such as make a garment out of party supplies or garden plants. They are given a specific amount of time (usually little), a budget (miniscule), and are told to “make it work.”

In putting your characters through their paces, having them do something that involves a limited amount of time, materials, or options adds tension. For example, Dick may need to make a bomb out of items from someone’s garage in under ten minutes.

How the characters in your story address a challenge will vary depending on their personality types, life experiences, and level of ingenuity. If Sally, Dick, and Jane were competing on Project Runway, it might go something like this:

Dick quickly assembles the pieces based on a firm understanding of how things fit together. He will construct something fabulous and wearable. He will be focused on the construction of the thing. He will be secure in his talents. He will not be worried about what the rest of the contestants are thinking or even what the judges might want. He knows he can rock it. He is probably completely unaware of what the others are doing, though he may turn his critical eye toward their efforts when he is done early.

Jane dithers and worries and procrastinates until the last minute. She will be worried about doing the right thing. She will keep an eye on what everyone else is doing and change her mind five times. She will worry about whether the rest of the contestants like her efforts and fear the judges will hate it. Because she has wasted time, she will have to throw something together in a panic at the very last moment and hope it passes muster.

Sally will toss everything into a pile and stir it around a bit, admire the color and the sheen. She will enjoy the artistry of the challenge. Nothing is too wild or crazy. She will put together something completely different from what was intended with hot glue. It will be impractical and the model will require double-stick tape to keep it in place while she walks down the runway. It would not even occur to Sally that the others could fail to appreciate her genius. Her methods will feel like fingernails on chalkboard to the other contestants.

The fourth contestant, Ted, might ponder, consider, and plan the details down to the final stitch before he ever picks up shears. When he finally starts, he will work the plan and end up with a finished product as the clock strikes done that is sturdy and workable. He will be confident that his attention to detail will pay off. Ted will be completely oblivious to everyone until he is done. He will disdain both Jane and Sally's garments and think they are idiots. Ted will be hurt when the judges tell him that his garment is too fussy and lacks imagination.

When assigning your character a challenge, think about how they usually go about doing something. What are their strengths? What are their usual methods? Then take all their crutches away. Force them to work at something they are uncomfortable with. Force them to work with people with opposite approaches. The result will be conflict.

The Magic of Voice and A. R. Kahler

There are magical elements that some writers bring to the table that other writers simply lack. Their prose rises from the page to dance with you.

The characters, the setting, the action are all brought to 3-D High Def life by word choice and sentence structure. It is the difference between reading "see spot run" and "see Spot shoot toward the exit, legs fueled by terror, chased by certain death."

When I find these amazing wordsmiths, it is like finding the most delectable dessert.

I recently had the pleasure of reading A. R. Kahler's The Immortal Circus and The Immortal Circus Act Two, a story of Queen Mab's Winter Court turned circus. The enchanting protagonist, Vivienne, runs away to the circus to forget who and what she truly is.

In the hands of a different writer, this tale could have been stale and boring, a sad attempt to rewrite A Midsommer Night's Dream as a tortured YA romance.

Instead, Kahler sets the stage, defines the protagonist, and submerges us in a fantastical tale with his original narrative voice. The fairy realm has been re-imagined and placed in a contemporary setting.  I'll share a few nibbles.


The warmth of the wine is fading, and in the back of my mind I wonder if this is how undercover agents feel. I know that we're on the verge of war, yet everyone else is oblivious. I want to scream the truth in their faces, but instead I just grin and bear it and wait for hellfire to rain down.


Mab glitters onstage, like a disco ball made human. A disco ball with curves to kill, poured into sheer leggings and a ringmaster coat of pale-blue mirror shards. Every inch of her breathes sex and rock and roll and every other thing your mother told you to avoid, from the points of her gunmetal stilettos to the tip of her whip cracking in the spotlight. She is smoke and seduction, the coolest palette of blue and haze. Only her top hat seems out of place, with its ruby as bright and lush as a beating heart.


After Mab's initial whip cracks, Kingston saunters onstage. He's in his usual magician's attire, which is to say, not much at all: sequined black dress slacks, gleaming leather shoes, and a black cape slung over one shoulder. I can practically feel the estrogen flush the moment he walks on stage. And, most likely, a few jolts of a testosterone as well. If Mab is sex and rock and roll, Kingston is slow jazz and cuddling with handcuffs.


And I remember. I remember how her blood tasted. Like chocolate. Like ecstasy. It's how all their blood tasted.


I want to scratch the blood away, want to burn my skin until it flakes, but the power to do that is gone, gone. I am weak and shivering, and running through the empty field, praying no one is waking up, praying the chefs have yet to start breakfast, praying no one heard Sara's strangled screams from last night.

It's worse than any hangover, any caffeine crash, any migraine I've ever had. The moment my eyes open and register light, it's like a buzz saw goes off in my head, and all I can do is stifle a scream and bury my head in the pillows. That doesn't help. The light is still there in the shadows, blinding, searing me through. And it's screaming - screaming louder than the roar of fire in my temples, louder than my muffled groans. I clench the pillow so tight to my head, I wonder if the stars exploding in my vision are from suffocation. I don't care - I don't fucking care at all. It hurts, it hurts so much; I just want it over.


As a book addict, I am always looking for my next literary "high." I keep a list of authors I know will give me a satisfying fix. This author has certainly earned a place on it. I cannot wait for Act Three.

For more information visit

A. R. Kahler's books are available for purchase.

Do you need a B-story?

When I first studied the craft of fiction writing, I was bemused by the term subplot, aka B-story, which is defined as: A plot subordinate to the main plot of a literary work or film.

I examined the story I wanted to write and could not come up with a subordinate plot. I was not plotting a past versus present story. I was not following a secondary character's trajectory. I was not braiding two or more story threads together.

I went back and dissected some of my favorite stories and realized the majority were linear, focusing on one main set of characters going about one specific story goal. I set aside the term subplot and spent more time dissecting stories.

Hunger Games is a linear story. 

Agatha Christie mysteries are linear stories.

The Harry Potter books are linear stories.

A linear story starts at point A and winds its way to the end. There can be twists and turns, but you essentially follow the protagonist, perhaps with a few detours to follow secondary characters or the antagonist. There is a central problem with layers of conflict along the way: internal, external, interpersonal, and antagonist. Linear stories are quite satisfying. Your camera stays focused on the main stage. The camera can travel to view secondary characters interacting with each other and the antagonist to create obstacles.

A B-story is a side plot that runs along and intersects the A-story. Your camera moves between two casts and two stages. It should inform and complicate the A-story, otherwise it is a distraction. A satisfying B-story braids two separate threads together: past versus present mystery, two lives intersecting, or two worlds colliding. It should not be confused with consecutive timeline stories that follow generations of a family, etc. Those are a string of A-story pearls.

In the hands of a story master, you could have an A-, B-, and C-story.

You don’t have to have a B story. In fact, it can sometimes interfere with your readers’ enjoyment.

I recently watched a television series called The Bridge. The A-story was a riveting, multiple murder mystery concerning the border between Texas and Mexico. It shined a light on the dark world of border crossing criminal activity. The B-story involved a rancher who owned a tunnel running under the border. The rancher was murdered, which is the tie in to the A story. They kept up with the rancher's wife in the B-story throughout. The problem was, the B-story wasn’t interesting. The characters were unlikable and the subplot did not add tension to the A story. I fast-forwarded past those segments.

Readers hate distractions. Every distraction you offer gives them a reason to stop reading. If you choose to have a B-story, make sure it complicates the main story in some way instead of running alongside it as a distraction. If it is organic to your story, include it. But don't come up with one to shore up a weak middle.

It is far better to have a strong, well-developed linear story than attempting to stuff in a B-story to pad your plot.

A weak middle can be remedied by layering conflict. Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict explains how.

Catching the Rhythm

I recently put a book down because long strings of sentence fragments were a turn off. My brain kept looking for the missing noun or verb. I will never know if the thriller became thrilling, because I never made it past the first chapter.

Poor sentence structure creates speed bumps that make for a jarring read. Writers are advised to vary sentence length. Many are left asking, "How?" Some have forgotten the basics of how to construct sentences in the first place.

Sentences form the background melody to your story. It is important to craft them like a pro.  Let's go over a few sentence structure basics.

Simple and compound sentences are the workhorses of your chapters. Alternate them for a satisfying base melody.

1) Basic sentence (1 beat) One noun plus one verb create a basic sentence. Short sentences like this call attention to themselves. Make sure there is a good reason for calling attention to them.

     Example: Dick ran.

2) Compound sentence (2 beats) One noun and two verbs with a connector such as and, but, or, nor, and then.

     Example:  Dick ran and laughed. Dick and Jane ran.

3) Compound sentence (3 beats) One noun and three verbs.

     Example: Dick ran and laughed then fell.

4) Simple sentence plus one modifying phrase (2 beats) One noun and verb with a modifying clause.

     Example: Dick ran, the breeze blowing through his hair.

5) Simple sentence plus two modifying phrases (3 beats) One noun and one verb with two modifying clauses.

     Example: Dick ran, the breeze blowing through his hair, laughter rising from his gut.

Complex sentence structure offers crescendos, trills, and cymbal crashes. Use them sparingly for effect.

6) Cumulative sentence (slow motion) One noun and verb with three to five modifying phrases. The cumulative sentence should be used to bring the verbal camera in tight, lingering like a fade out in music, a long plaintive last note, or a rising crescendo.

     Example: Dick ran, the breeze blowing through his hair, laughter rising from his gut, carefree, floating, free.

7) Sentence fragment (1 sharp beat or series of staccato beats)  One verb with no noun or one noun with no verb. Use fragments sparingly for emphasis, like a final cymbal crash. Limit them to perhaps two or three per chapter. Constant clanging gives the reader a headache, much like typing in ALL CAPS. The fewer you use, the more impact they have.

     Example: Dick ran. Laughing. Crying. Gone.

8) Balanced sentences (two even beats)  Two full sentences joined with a semi-colon. They are used only when the first sentence would not make sense without the other or the first sentence would not complete the thought without the second sentence. It contains a noun plus a verb, a semicolon, and second noun plus a verb. Either or both can have modifying clauses.

     Example: Dick won the battle; he lost the war and the only woman he’d ever love.

Take a page or two from your work in progress. Highlight the long sentences and sentence fragments or two word sentences in different colors. Look at how you have structured your paragraphs. Do they have variety? Are your sentences constructed properly? Do you have run-ons or too many fragments? Do all of your sentences have a noun and a verb?

The more you review sentence structure, the more it becomes second nature. Using sentence structure with intention promotes you from amateur to pro.

For an in-depth lesson on using sentence structure to craft language, check out Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers., available in print, Kindle, and Nook.


When I think of melodrama, I think of Dudley DoRight saving the helpless female who has been tied to the railroad tracks by the evil villain. The hero rides up on his horse shouting, "Here I come to save the day!"

Melodrama, as a genre, was a staple of Victorian theater. It took on a negative connotation when electric lights were introduced and the stages were brightly lit. Actors no longer had to use such dramatic makeup or exaggerated gestures.

The tropes included a thoroughly evil villain and sinless hero who saves the equally virtuous heroine from peril.

The villain had nefarious henchmen. The hero and heroine had noble servants, friends, family members, and associates.

As the villain worked his evil plan and the hero worked to overcome him, they were able to explore the plight of the poor, the challenges of the working classes, royal foibles, and the extravagances of the aristocracy.

The hero always defeated the villain. The hero and heroine always ended up together.

In short, standard fictional fare.

Then why is feedback stating a story or scene is "melodramatic" a bad thing?

It could be for one of several reasons:

1. The characters are too one-dimensional and stereotypical.

Fix this by giving your characters depth. They should not be either entirely good or entirely bad. Give them interesting, believable motivations.

2. The dialogue is exaggerated or over the top, perhaps ornate purple prose.

There is more in what people don't say than in the words they speak. Make sure your dialogue isn't on the nose. Imbue it with subtlety and nuance. Avoid lecherous pronouncements, grandiose speeches, and "as you know, Sally" dialogue.

3. The plot point is annoying rather than exciting.

Overt conflict is fine some of the time, but there are many types of conflict. Make sure you utilize them all: internal, external, antagonist, and interpersonal. Avoid "stock scenes" such as the heroine tied to the railroad tracks, the heroine who stumbles while being chased, and macho bragging. Some plot points have been overdone. Don't exaggerate them to the point of stretching credulity either.

4. The characters' reactions or gestures lack subtlety.

Victorian actors were forced to exaggerate their movements so the audience could see them. The gesture often came before the delivery of the line to announce, "I am about to say something important!"

Your verbal camera moves in close when a character is speaking and reacting. It picks up intimate body language. Use it judiciously. The smallest gesture can speak louder than shouting or punching a wall. Avoid wiggling eyebrows, stroking mustaches, and rolling eyes.

5. The theme is too simplistic or exaggerated.

The thematic argument at the heart of your story should feature shades of gray. Often, the antagonist advocates one extreme answer to the question, the hero the opposite. It is more interesting to watch both of them struggle with ambiguity or doubt. Explore all sides of a thematic argument by pulling in your friends and foes.

When crafting your story, strive for drama not melodrama. You don't want your readers to give you the hook.

Free Stuff

Did this photo grab your attention?

Giving away free stuff is a psychological warfare tactic, I mean marketing tactic. I am reminded of this every time Victoria's Secret coupons arrive in the mail. My daughter immediately wants to rush to the store to pick up free panties, even if she does not need new panties. They're free! This often leads to the purchase of additional overpriced items she also does not need and can harpoon her limited budget in a heartbeat. Freebies have the opposite effect on me. Unless it is something I am in dire need of, the ad doesn't even ping on my radar. Unsolicited marketing materials go into the trash bin on arrival.

Writers are advised to market their own product. There is much confusion over how. What marketing tactics should you spend money on? Should you purchase bookmarks or swag with your book's title on it to give away? Should you give print or e-books away? Should you develop free short stories to promote the book?

Do any of these tactics work? It depends on the audience.

Category 1 Consumers love free stuff just because it is free. They take it home to their hoarder cave and never look at it again.

Category 2 Consumers see the ad and look closer to discern whether it is something they would be interested in. If so, they check it out. If not, they shrug and move on.

Category 3 Consumers see the ad and investigate further. They take home the freebie, and if you are lucky, they purchase an additional item.

Category 4 Consumers aren't in the market for your book and ignore the ad entirely.

Let's look at the pros and cons of marketing materials based on this understanding of consumer buying habits.


If you give your book away, there is no incentive for a reader to buy it, unless it is part of a series or you have other titles. Giving away a one-off book is a negative sum game. Oh, sure, someone occasionally downloads a free e-book, reads a snippet, and decides to buy the print version. This is rare.

Thousands of Category 1 buyers download the book and never read it. Category 2 buyers download it only if they are interested in your genre and/or premise. This tactic could help you gain name recognition if you have a second book of a similar type coming out at the same time. Unless your story is so amazing it makes a permanent impression, they will forget you in a few weeks or months.

If I come across a writer that blows my socks off, I friend them on Facebook so I get news of their new releases. If you use this tactic, make yourself available to be followed on social media to keep your name on your new fan's radar. Post stuff and interact, otherwise you drop off their news feed.

A note about Facebook, if you do an author page instead of a profile, people cannot tag you when they rave about your book on their own page. You are not "friends." You are an advertiser. Fans will get notices from you, but you are not interacting with them. It's the difference between a megahorn and a conversation.


Related short stories may or may not entice people to buy the book. I don't download companion short stories or novellas. They don't interest me. Other readers love them. Offer them after the book is available for purchase, or the reader might forget to look for the book when it is released. Short stories are rarely as intriguing as the book, so make sure they are well-written and cleanly edited.


Free chapters and Amazon's Look Inside feature are the best marketing tools available. Whether the buyer is perusing an online store or an actual bricks and mortar store, the description of your story and the first chapter are usually the deciding factors. A clever cover catches the eye as well. When you offer a free chapter on a site other than Amazon, Nook or Smashwords, make sure there is a link at the end of the chapter so the reader can go straight to the online store to purchase it. If you are making a public appearance, you could print out the first chapter and attach a business card or bookmark featuring the cover of the book and ordering information.


Free bling and giveaways may or may not mean anything to the individual consumer. Category 1 and 3 consumers love giveaways and trinkets. They are excited in the moment, but not likely to become long-term fans. Contests intrigue some and bore others. Category 1 consumers sign up for anything and everything. They may never buy your book or read it. Marketing materials are a multi-billion dollar industry largely because they have convinced the gullible public that they need them. However, giveaways often become throwaways. They can't help you sell a book no one wants to read.


Hoarders stuff them in a dark drawer somewhere and forget them. A few readers collect them like baseballs cards. Authors can sign bookmarks when a person buys an e-book version. Readers rarely turn down a bookmark. If they are like me, they have a fantastic collection of clever bookmarks but end up using a torn scrap of paper instead. Paper bookmarks given away at book sales or writing conferences often end up in the trash bin.

Business cards with the cover on one side and ordering information and short synopsis on the other are well worth the investment. You should carry a few with you at all times. You never know when you'll you strike up a conversation with someone who is interested in what you write. This practice has resulted in multiple sales to people I met while traveling.

You should have a stack of book information cards or bookmarks next to your stack of actual books at a personal appearance or conference. A consumer may not buy the book right then, but may refer to the card later. They may prefer the e-book version to the print version.

When I find out about a title that intrigues me, I keep the card or write down the title and look it up the next time I am online. If I Look Inside and like what I see, it goes on my Amazon wishlist or straight to the shopping cart. I still love visiting a physical bookstore and consult my wishlist before I go. I also share this wishlist with my loved ones when they are looking for gift ideas for me.

The most important marketing tool is a book that a reader can't put down and won't forget. They will happily spread the word to their friends, who will read it and report to their friends, and so on. If giving a few copies away sparks word of mouth publicity, it could be worth the investment. Now, go write that book!

And to reward you for reading to the end, I offer a few free story tools on my website:

Dissecting Christie Part 6

This week, we complete the analysis of Agatha Christie's The Crooked House.

Chapter 14:  Sleuth interviews Nannie, Suspect 6, and Suspect 10. Critical piece of evidence is introduced but overlooked. Suspects 1, 4, and 5 are dismissed. Finger points to Suspects 1 and 7. 

Sleuth meets Nannie who hints that Josephine is always listening at doors and writing in a book – another hint that there is a diary to be found. No one  thinks to look at it. But it is the damning piece of evidence at the end.

The Sleuth asks Suspect 6 Sophia who knew about the drops. The Victim told everyone assembled that if his wife mistook his eyedrops for his insulin he’d die. He provided the method. The Sleuth deducts that this actually dismisses Suspect 1 Brenda, because she would have been clever enough to destroy the vial with eserine in it. The police tested the vial because they thought he might have been dispensed the wrong drug or wrong dosage. If she had replaced the vial with a normal vial of insulin, she would have gotten away with it. The poison left no signs.

The family meets to discuss the business problem. They resolve to wait until the will is found.

Sleuth interviews Suspect 5 Clemency. She is relieved the victim is dead because they are finally free of the family home and the business. Dismisses Suspect 4 Roger. He worshiped the victim and he was actually relieved the business failed. Dismisses herself: She would never have killed anyone for money because she doesn’t care about money. She points the finger back to Suspects 1 and 7 Brenda and Laurence as the main suspects.

Sleuth interviews Suspect 10 Edith. She states she loves them all dearly, hinting as to why she withholds the critical evidence at the end and her reason for the final tragic act.

Chapter 15: Sleuth interviews Suspects 3 and 6. Hints at motive for Suspects 8 and 10.

Sophia states she thinks Suspect 8 Eustace hates them all. She also states that her mother Suspect 3 Magda loves drama and gets bored and likes to stir things up.

Suspect 3 Magda joins them and repeats Suspect 10 Edith would do anything for the family and that she had been in love with the victim before he married her sister. She disapproved and was jealous of Suspect 1 Brenda. Also repeats that Suspect 9 Josephine must go away to school. Sleuth incorrectly deducts that she is worried for Josephine’s safety.

Chapter 16: Sleuth recaps what he has learned. Finger points to Suspect 2. False attempt on Suspect 9's life is set up. Critical piece of evidence is planted and misunderstood.

Sleuth considers Suspect 2 Philip, his fiancee’s father is the only one who has avoided him. Considers his motive: he was cold, reserved, a jealous second son. Could he have wanted his brother to fail enough to kill their father to incriminate the brother? The whole family wanted it to be Suspects 1 and 7, Brenda and Laurence, but no one seemed to really believe it. He investigates the bathroom where the insulin was kept. Anyone could have had easy access to it.

Interviews Suspect 8 Eustace. Eustace thought it was well past time for the Victim to go.

Interviews Suspect 7 Laurence. He believes he is being set up. Denies Suspect 1 Brenda had a motive.

Runs into Suspect 9 Josephine who was in the Cistern room and is covered in cobwebs. Says it is about time for the next murder. She is setting up the false attempt on her life. This is important because the sleuth deducts erroneously that Josephine hid the letters later found in the Cistern room, when in fact she followed Suspect 7 Laurence there and read the letters and left them there.

Chapter 17: Sleuth reports to the police. Red herring is extended and provides a motive for Suspect 6.

An outsider was given a sealed envelope from the Victim which he was to forward to the attorney upon the Victim’s death. It is a will written by hand. The will leaves a bequest to Suspect 1 and the rest to Suspect 6 Sophia, presenting his fiancée with a motive if she had known about it. Victim did not consider his sons fit to take his place.

Chapter 18: False attempt on Suspect 9. Find critical piece of evidence. Finger points to Suspects 1 and 7. Important clue is planted.

Suspect 9 is nearly killed by her own device. Sleuth feels guilty for not protecting her. Everyone knew she played there. Important clue: someone stood on a broken chair with muddy feet and Josephine was the only one short enough to need the chair to plant the object that nearly falls on her head. But this is not considered by the sleuth until the end.

She was always snooping and writing things in a little black book. They decide to look for it. They search her room. It was in disarray as if someone had searched it. Anyone could have done it. Sleuth remembers she was in the cistern room. He goes there and finds a packet of letters from Suspect 1 Brenda to Laurence. Evidence convicts Suspects 1 and 7.

Chapter 19: Suspect 1 is dismissed. Finger lands on Suspect 7.

The attempt on Suspect 9 Josephine suggests the murderer does not like direct violence which is why he or she used poison and a booby trap. They dismiss Suspect 1 Brenda based on the assumption that she could not have rigged the booby trap. It must have been Suspect 7 Laurence.

Chapter 20: Suspect 6's possible motive is revealed.

The inquest is held, the contents of the will are revealed. It divides the family. Josephine was in the hospital, so she missed the drama.

Chapter 21:  Suspects 1 and 7 are arrested. Suspect 6 is called into question.

Suspect 6 Sophia is sending Eustace and Josephine off to school. She is letting Laurence go. Suspects 1 and 7 Brenda and Laurence are arrested. Sophie reveals that she had known about the will.

Chapter 22: Suspect 9 falsely accuses Suspect 7 for the attempt on her life.

Josephine returns. She points the finger at Laurence for the attempt on her life. Said she saw him coming out of the cistern room one day and found the letters he hid in there.

Chapter 23: Recaps the arrest with the police. Victim 2 is murdered.

Letters were damning but the defense will twist it to say they were talking about being together after the Victim died of natural causes. Their instincts still place doubt on their guilt. They review the motives. Sleuth realizes that he thought the child’s room was searched for the letters, but she didn’t have or hide the letters. So someone must have been looking for her little black book. Receives the news that the Nannie has been killed.

Chapter 24: Suspect 9 states her motive but it is disregarded. Suspect 9 is taken away by Suspect 10.

Roger and Clemency are on their way out. They deny that they had motive to kill Josephine or Nannie. Josephine states that she never liked Nannie. Josephine tells the Sleuth that she knows who poisoned her grandfather, set up the booby trap, and put poison in her cocoa.  She refuses to tell. Nannie was killed with the digitalin that Edith takes. Edith takes Josephine to London.

Chapter 25:  Suspects 9 and 10 are killed in a car accident. The truth is revealed.

They get the news that Suspects 10 and 9 Edith and Josephine were found dead in the car that had gone off the road into a quarry. The sleuth remembered that he had seen Edith write letters and left them in the hall. He retrieves them.They realize Edith was protecting Josephine. Her little black book is in the second envelope.

Chapter 26: Crime recapped. Important clues recognized. World returns to new normal.

They read the little black book and recognize the signs they missed. The sleuth and Sophia decide to marry despite the madness of her sister.


When I first imagined writing a mystery, the scope of it felt overwhelming. Not only would I have to come up with multiple suspects, I would have to come up with multiple motives. Dissecting Christie's work has given me a better handle on how to plant and payoff evidence and motives. I hope it helps you too.

Dame Agatha is one of the longest lasting, highest selling mystery writers of all time. It's always a good idea to learn from the best.

Dissecting Christie Part 5

The Crooked House by Agatha Christie is a manor house mystery. All of the suspects reside in the house. The amateur sleuth has connections with the police, but is not a professional investigator. His goal is to solve the murder so he can marry his fiancée Sophia.

All of the suspects had access to the victim (the wealthy patriarch), and the method (eye drops substituted for insulin). Everyone had a potential motive. The actual killer was never seriously considered until the very end, though clues were planted if you knew where to look.

*** Warning: Spoilers Ahead ***

Suspects included:
Suspect 1: Brenda, the victim’s much younger widow.
Suspect 2: Victim's son Phillip (Sophia's father).
Suspect 3: Phillip's wife Magda, an actress (Sophia's mother).
Suspect 4: Victim's son Roger.
Suspect 5: Roger's wife Clemency.
Suspect 6: Sophia, the victim’s granddaughter and sleuth's fiancée
Suspect 7: Laurence, the children’s tutor.
Suspect 8: The grandchild Eustace, 16.
Suspect 9: The grandchild Josephine, 12.
Suspect 10: Victim's sister-in-law Edith.

Chapter 1: Introduce Sleuth.

We meet the amateur sleuth and find out he wants to marry the victim's granddaughter.

Chapter 2: The inciting incident.

The victim is murdered and the sleuth is made aware of it.

Chapter 3: Suspects are lined up. Challenge is stated.

Amateur sleuth talks to his father, of Scotland Yard, about the case. They agree he is in a unique position to find out who had the most compelling motive. All suspects had access to the method and opportunity. It is a question of who had the greatest motive. The victim was killed when his insulin was replaced with eye drops and he received the wrong injection by his wife. She is the most likely candidate.

Chapter 4: Suspect 6 is discounted.

Sleuth arrives at the scene. His story goal is repeated: to find out who murdered the victim so he can marry his fiancée. Sophia had no apparent motive, so she is ruled out.

Chapter 5: Finger points to Suspect 1.

The sons were already financially cared for but would inherit more money. The young widow would be free to remarry.

Chapter 6: Sleuth interviews Suspect 2.

Sleuth interviews Suspect 2 Phillip, who insists he had no motive.

Chapter 7: Sleuth interviews Suspects 3, 4, and 5. The finger points to Suspects 1 and 7.

Magda is overly dramatic but had no apparent motive other than the victim refused to fund one of her plays.

Suspects 4 Roger and 5 Clemency point the finger at Suspect 1 Brenda who they believe was having an affair with Suspect 7 Laurence. Brenda administered the injection and had the strongest motive.

Chapter 8: Sleuth interviews Suspects 1 and 7 who deny their guilt.

Brenda insists she didn’t notice anything odd about the insulin and gave him the shot as scheduled. She denies having an affair with Suspect 7 Laurence. She felt safe with the Victim, why would she ruin that?
Sleuth interviews Suspect 7 Laurence who denies the affair. Both are lying. It could be the prime motive.

Chapter 9: Sleuth interviews Suspect 1 again. Important clue 1 is planted.

First hint that Suspect 9 Josephine is the killer. Brenda mentions that Josephine isn’t quite right.

Chapter 10: Sleuth interviews Suspect 9. Important clue 2 is planted. Finger points at Suspects 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 7. Red herring is planted.

Josephine brags that she knows things and always wanted to be a detective. She insists she is more intelligent than the police. She knows the name of the poison and how it was administered. She also states that she did not like the Victim. She points the finger at other suspects. Tells the sleuth Suspects 4 Roger and 5 Clemency were packed to leave town. She overheard a conversation between the Victim and Suspect 4 Roger that suggested Roger was guilty of embezzlement.

She points the finger at her own father and mother. Suspect 2 Philip and Suspect 3 Magda are now free to move to London. The Victim refused to fund one of Magda’s plays.

Suspect 9 Josephine also states she has seen love letters between Suspects 1 Brenda and 7 Laurence.

The red herring is planted. The terms of the will are discussed. The Victim asked for a revised will which his attorney sent to him. He left money to everyone. The revised will was discussed with everyone and everyone saw him sign it. However, the signed will was never sent back to the attorney. The Victim stated that he mailed it to his bank. However, they find the revised will provided by the attorney and it is not signed.

Chapter 11: Recap with police. Finger points to Suspects 4 and 5. They have proof they had no motive. Suggests alternative motive for Suspect 2.

Sleuth reveals Suspect 4 Roger’s motive: hide embezzlement from the victim and get money to solve problem. The police confirm that his business was on the rocks. They believe Suspect 4 is too bumbling and it must have been his wife Suspect 5 Clemency.

Sleuth confronts Suspect 4 Roger. He admits that he discussed his business failure with the Victim but produces a letter the Victim wrote instructing his agent to fix the problem. He was going to mail it then the Victim was murdered so it was still in his pocket. He had no motive. If the victim had lived, his problems would be over. He was back to having a problem.

Which leads to a new conjecture: Did someone in the house want Roger to fail? Depends on what happens with the will. If the revised will disappeared, the person most likely to benefit from it is the widow, Suspect 1 Brenda.

Chapter 12: Theme stated. Important clue 3 planted.

Thematic statement is made: murder is an amateur crime. Reinforces second clue that Suspect 9 Josephine is the killer, though the sleuth and the police have not seriously considered her.

"Murderers are vain. They think they are far too clever to be caught and want to talk about it."

Sleuth is encouraged to look for people who give false information. They always slip up. He is also admonished to protect the child, suggesting the child could be in danger from the killer because she is always listening at doors and might know something she shouldn’t.

This is a critical chapter. It lays the foundation for Suspect 9’s guilt and dismisses her as a potential suspect in the same paragraph. The Sleuth is told that children sometimes kill on accident but feel horrible when they realize what they have done. This reinforces that children do not kill intentionally, further removing any possibility in the Sleuth’s mind that the child is guilty of premeditated murder.

Chapter 13: Sleuth interviews Suspect 9. Plants important evidence.

The Sleuth did not tell the police about the love letters. He interviews Suspect 9 Josephine. She states she lied about the love letters. Reinforces that Josephine is a snoop. The letters play a critical role later.

Next week, we finish the analysis of The Crooked House.

Dissecting Christie Part 4

If you read Agatha Christie for pleasure, by all means start at the beginning. If you read Christie for craft, start at the end. Her sleuths always put the puzzle together in the final scenes, revealing the clues you may or may not have picked up on. This week, we will look at the key pieces of evidence Christie planted in The Crooked House.


1) The murderer kept saying how clever she was and how stupid the police were.

2) She was a child. People assume children don’t kill intentionally.

3) The victim told her how to kill him. All she had to do was avoid fingerprints.

4) She faked an attempt on her own life and claimed she was in danger.

5) She made it look like someone had searched her room.

7) She provided motives for others.

8) She made it look like she was a target. She stole the poison and put in her own cup and left it untouched. Victim 2 drank it.

9) She had to be kept at home because she was a danger, not in danger. When her mother decided to send her away to school, it triggered the murderous rampage.

10) A witness found her confession in a diary but kept it hidden.

11) The murderer blatantly threatened to kill Victims 2 and 3.

Next week, we will look at the story skeleton to see when and where she planted the critical clues and false evidence.

Dissecting Christie Part 3

This week, we take a look at how Agatha Christie used description of place to set the scene and reveal character in The Crooked House.

Chapter 2

I returned to England on a soft grey day in September. The leaves on the trees were golden in the evening light. There were playful gusts of wind.

Chapter 6

Sleuth describes Magda’s parlor.

We passed through it into a rather surprisingly spacious hall. It was furnished with restraint – well-polished dark oak and gleaming brass. At the back, where the staircase would normally appear, was a white paneled wall with a door in it. (…) We went through the doorway on the left into a large drawing room. It had pale-blue paneled walls, furniture covered in heavy brocade, and on every available table and on the walls were hung photographs and pictures of actors, dancers, and stage scenes and designs. A Degas of ballet dancers hung over the mantelpiece. There were masses of flowers, enormous brown chrysanthemums and great vases of carnations.

Sleuth describes the library.

It was a big room, full of books. The books did not confine themselves to the bookcases that reached up to the ceiling. They were on chairs and tables and even the floor. And yet there was no sense of disarray about them. The room was cold. There was some smell absent in it that I was conscious of having expected. It smelt of the mustiness of old books and just a little beeswax. In a second or two I realized what I missed. It was the scent of tobacco. Philip Leonides was not a smoker.

Sleuth describes Clemency’s apartment.

The walls were painted white – really white, not an ivory or a pale cream which is what one usually means when one says “white” in house decoration. They had no pictures on them except one over the mantelpiece, a geometrical fantasia in triangles of dark grey and battleship blue. There was hardly any furniture – only mere utilitarian necessities, three or four chairs, a glass-topped table, one small bookshelf. There were no ornaments. There as light and space and air. It was as different from the big brocaded and flowered drawing room on the floor below as chalk from cheese.

The bedroom with its twin beds and white coverlets and its simplified toilet appliances reminded me again of a hospital or some monastic cell. The bathroom, too, was severely plain with no special luxury fitting and no array of cosmetics. The kitchen was bare, spotlessly clean, and well equipped with labour-saving devices of a practical kind. 

Then we came to a door which Clemency opened, saying: “This is my husband’s special room.” This was an intensely personal room. There was a large roll-top desk untidily covered with papers, old pipes, and tobacco ash. There were big shabby easy-chairs. Persian rugs covered the floor. On the walls were groups, their photography somewhat faded. School groups, cricket groups, military groups. Water-color sketches of deserts and minarets, and of sailing-boats and sea effects and sunsets. It was, somehow, a pleasant room, the room of a lovable, friendly, companionable man.

Sleuth describes Brenda's parlor.
Its proportions were the same as the drawing room on the ground floor below. There were colored cretonnes, very gay in color, and striped silk curtains. Over the mantelpiece was a portrait that held my gaze riveted – not only because of the hand that painted it, but also because of the arresting face of the subject.

Chapter 14

Sleuth describes the drawing room.

It was a woman’s room, exotic, soft, shut away from the rude blasts of outside weather. It was not a room that a man would be happy in for long. It was not a room where you could relax and read the newspaper and smoke a pipe and put up your feet. Nevertheless, I preferred it to Clemency’s own abstract expression of herself upstairs. On the whole I prefer a boudoir to an operating theatre.


Christie's amateur sleuth in The Crooked House commented on the rooms as he discovered them. There was very little description of place from chapters 15 through 26. Only as much as was needed to place a character in a chair, etc.

Christie's method was spare and to the point. She used the different living spaces to reveal character. This is a technique you can use in your story. What do your characters' personal spaces say about them?

Next week, we'll look at the planting and payoff of clues in The Crooked House.

Dissecting Christie Part 2

Christie was a very competent mechanic. Her mysteries were linear stories with multiple, credible suspects. She did an excellent job of pointing the finger.

When it comes to describing characters, she was a minimalist. Writers are advised to avoid the laundry list, but she used it to good effect.

We view most of the characters through the filter of the point of view character, the amateur sleuth, as he meets each person for the first time. He notes their basic appearance and his first impression.

Chapter 1

Sleuth describes his fiancee Sophia.

I liked everything I saw. The dark crisp hair that sprang up proudly from her forehead, the vivid blue eyes, the small square fighting chin, and the straight nose. I liked the well-cut light-grey tailor-made, and the crisp white shirt. She looked refreshingly English and that appealed to me strongly after three years without seeing my native land.

Chapter 3

Sleuth describes himself.

“I shall figure in the reports you get. Five foot eleven, brown hair, brown eyes, dark-blue pinstripe suit, etc.”

Secondary character describes the Victim.

“Funnily enough he was attractive. He’d got a personality, you know. You could feel it. Nothing much to look at. Just a gnome – ugly little fellow – but magnetic – women always fell for him."

Two different characters describe the victim's widow, Brenda.

“A young woman out of a tea shop. A perfectly respectable young woman – good-looking in an anemic, apathetic sort of way.”

“She’s what I call a harem type. Likes sitting about and eating sweets and having nice clothes and jewelry and reading cheap novels and going to cinema.”

Chapter 5

Sleuth describes the elderly aunt.

Along the path toward us came a tall figure walking briskly. It had on a battered old felt hat, a shapeless skirt, and a rather cumbersome jersey. … Edith de Haviland was a woman of about seventy. She had a mass of untidy grey hair, a weather-beaten face and a shrewd, piercing glance.

Chapter 6

Sleuth describes suspect Philip.

He got up from behind his table as we entered – a tall man, aged somewhere around fifty, an extraordinarily handsome man. (…) Certainly I was not prepared for this perfection of feature – the straight nose, the flawless line of jaw, the fair hair touched with grey that swept back from a well-shaped forehead.

Sleuth describes suspect Magda.

I don’t know how she gave the impression of being three women rather than one who entered. She was smoking a cigarette in a long holder and was wearing a peach satin negligee which she was holding up with one hand. A cascade of Titian hair rippled down her back. Her face had that almost shocking air of nudity that a woman’s has nowadays when it is not made up at all. Her eyes were blue and enormous and she was talking very rapidly in a husky, rather attractive voice with a very clear enunciation.

Chapter 7

Sleuth describes suspect Magda.

The titian hair was piled high on her head in an Edwardian coiffure, and she was dressed in a well-cut dark-grey coat and skirt. With a delicately pleated pale mauve shirt fastened at the neck by a small cameo broach. For the first time, I was aware of the charm of her delightfully tip-tilted nose.

Sleuth describes suspect Roger.

He was a clumsy giant of a man with powerful shoulders, dark rumpled hair, and an exceedingly ugly but at the same time rather pleasant face. His eyes looked at us and then quickly away in that furtive, embarrassed manner which shy but honest people often adopt.

Sleuth describes suspect Clemency.

She was a woman of very sharp and definite personality. She was about fifty, I suppose; her hair was grey, cut very short in what was almost an Eton crop but which grew so beautifully on her small well-shaped head that it had none of the ugliness I have always associated with that particular cut. She had an intelligent sensitive face, with light-grey eyes of a peculiar and searching intensity. She had on a simple dark-red woolen frock that fitted her slenderness perfectly.

Chapter 8

Sleuth describes Victim's portrait.

It was a portrait of a little old man with dark, piercing eyes. He wore a black velvet skull cap and his head was sunk down in his shoulders, but the vitality and power of the man radiated forth from the canvas. The twinkling eyes seemed to hold mine. …

Sleuth describes widow Brenda.

She wore black – very expensive black and a good deal of it. It swathed her up to the neck and down to the wrists. She moved easily and indolently, and black certainly suited her. Her face was mildly pretty, and she had rather nice brown hair arranged in somewhat too elaborate style. Her face was well powdered and she had on lipstick and rouge, but she had clearly been crying. She was wearing a string of very large pearls and a big emerald ring on one hand and an enormous ruby on the other.

Sleuth describes suspects Laurence and Eustace.

There a fair-haired young man of about thirty and a handsome, dark boy of sixteen were sitting at a table.

Chapter 10

Sleuth describes the suspect Josephine.

The face still had its goblin suggestion – it was round with a bulging brow, combed-back hair and small, rather beady eyes. But it was definitely attached to a body – a small skinny body. (…) She was a fantastically ugly child with a very distinct likeness to her grandfather.

Chapter 14

Sleuth describes witness Nannie.

In the doorway stood an old woman – a rather bulky old woman. She had a very clean white apron tied around her ample waist and the moment I saw her I knew that everything was all right.

Chapter 15

Sleuth describes widow Brenda.

Brenda Leonides was the first. She was wrapped in a grey chinchilla coat and there was something catlike and stealthy in the way she moved. She slipped through the twilight with a kind of eerie grace. I saw her face as she passed the window. There was a half-smile on it, the curving, crooked smile I had noticed upstairs.

Sleuth describes suspect Laurence.

A few minutes later Laurence Brown, looking slender and shrunken, also slipped through the twilight. 

* * *

It is important to introduce your characters when they appear for the first time. The level and style of introduction is up to you. Too little and you risk talking heads. Too much and you risk annoying your reader. Christie advocated just enough to get the point across.

Next week, we'll look at how she used description of place.