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Tips on Body Language

There are a few cardinal sins in terms of body language

The first is when disembodied body parts do things. Eyes do not roll, drop, run, scan, or travel. They cannot be glued or pasted. A gaze can be fixed. A gaze can travel. A heart cannot drop. It can beat hard. It can thump. It can't literally travel up your throat.

          Incorrect: Her fingers clenched.
          Correct: She clenched her fingers.

          Incorrect: His nose wrinkled.
          Correct: He wrinkled his nose.

The problem occurs when we try to cut out excessive pronouns by having the body part perform the action. I was guilty of this until an editor pointed it out at a conference.

My hand slapped my forehead, which brings us to the second cardinal sin: clichés.

The third cardinal sin is use of the same dull, repetitive body movements. We all cry, laugh, run, sit, stand, and walk. It's okay to have your characters do these simple movements sometimes. Some editors think these words are invisible, like said and asked. Others want you to change it up. Write the way you want. The important thing is to avoid clichés, purple prose, and repeating the same word too frequently on the page.

The key is to combine body language with interiority, actions, and words with mindfulness and purpose. If you show over-reaction to every single stimulus, it is overkill. Make sure that body language corresponds to, or contradicts, the emotion expressed for a reason. Thoughts and actions should not duplicate dialogue. Don't show a character feeling angry, tell us he is angry with an adverb tag, and have him shout all in the same sentence. Readers get it the first time.

Utilizing responses in an intentional way takes your work from bland to brilliant. It wastes time to perfect the first draft. As you write, throw in whatever standard crutches your brain reaches for. Write down enough that you have the intention of the scene. Dick has a fight. Dick sits or stands. He laughs, coughs, or frowns.

Write clichés and purple prose if it is what you normally throw in. Use the revision layer to rework the passages. Zoom your verbal camera in close to take in small details where it is most important. Widen the verbal camera's focus when you relate scenes of lesser importance. Continuous, play by play, in-depth detail makes your prose exhausting.

We'll talk  more about the revision layer next week.

Should You Write A Book?

Most articles focus on how to write a book. In order to write a (good) book, you have to have a grasp of the language and (at least) a basic concept of story structure and an imagination. You don't need an MFA. You can learn about writing on your own. There are lots of books on the topic, including mine. You can read blogs, such as mine. You can take classes online. You can find a critique group.

But should you write a book?

1) Why do you want to write a book?

A) It is a lifelong dream.
B) You want to be famous.
C) You need money.

If your answer is A, continue. There is absolutely no guarantee, and low odds, that you will attain B and C.

2) What commitments do you have and how much time do they require?

A) Do you have a full-time or part-time job?
B) Do you have a romantic partner? 
C) Do you have to maintain a residence?
D) Do you have children? 
E) Do you sleep?

Subtract the hours you already have committted from 24. If you have extra time and/or are willing to infringe on the time dedicated to your commitments, continue.

3) If you have spare time, what do you prefer to do with it?

A) Read books.
B) Watch TV.
C) Exercise or sports.
D) Play video games. 
E) Other hobbies.

Are you willing to give them up to write, revise, edit, and proofread? If so, continue.

4) Do you like a grueling challenge?

A) Yes.
B) No.

If your answer is A, continue.

5) Can you handle criticism and rejection?

A) Yes.
B) No.

If your answer is A, continue.

6) Are you willing to market yourself and your product in person and online?
A) Yes.
B) No.

If your answer is A, continue.

If you have reached this point and are still interested then get busy.

If you need help getting started, check out the Story Building Blocks Series:

Organizing the Layers Part Two

We have developed forty conflict ideas and layered the first half of the story. Let’s finish the process. We left off at turning point 2. Now the hero must come up with the correct solution to the problem, the one he resisted at first: blowup the meteor.

Internal Conflict 6: Dick finds Sally packing her bags.

     Dick says, "Don’t leave. I love you. I’ve always loved you." 

     She replies, "Then why are you ruining things?" 
     Should he tell? Is it better for her to know or not know that their days are numbered?

Antagonist 7: Dick confronts Ted. 

     "You had something to do with this."

     "You’ll never prove it and in a few days it won’t matter anyway."

External 7: They are back to the drawing board - all seems lost. They enter countdown mode. 

Internal Conflict 7: Sally tells Dick that she received a call from Ted and that he said there was no reason for Dick to stay at work. That he is lying to her.

External 8: Dick comes up with a final plan. It is do or die. They will nuke the meteor. 

Antagonist 8: Ted must find a way to make certain the shuttle doesn’t take off.

Interpersonal Conflict 7: Captain Curtis appeals to his crew. Is anyone willing to go? Captain Curtis decides to go himself.

Internal Conflict 8: Dick tells Sally the truth.


External 9: They rev up the shuttle loaded with a lethal payload to intercept the meteor and, despite last minute glitches, the shuttle takes off on a suicide mission.

Antagonist 9: Ted’s attempts to prevent take-off fail.

Interpersonal Conflict 8: Ted and Jane have a show down. Jane can’t believe Ted is so evil.

Internal Conflict 9: Dick and Sally spend the evening together, knowing it may be their last.

Interpersonal Conflict 9: Bob rats on Ted.

Interpersonal Conflict 10: Jane and Bob celebrate when the shuttle succeeds. 

Antagonist 10: Ted is led off in handcuffs.


External 10: Their plan succeeds and everyone lives, except the crew of the shuttle.

Interpersonal Conflict 11: General Smith tells Dick to stay. He is too valuable an asset to retire.

Internal Conflict 10: Dick and Sally leave for the airport to go on their vacation.

The End

Now that we have a basic outline of the plot progression, we can begin our first draft. If massive changes are made along the way, it doesn’t hurt to repeat this exercise at the end. Make a list of each scene and the conflict it addresses. Does it still flow in a logical cause and effect order?

For more information on how to flesh out your conflict outline, check out Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict.

This post was originally published on

Organizing the Layers Part 1

We have come up with ten basic ideas for all four layers of conflict. You may find you need to add more scenes to fill in the gaps in the story. You may change your mind about elements of the plot. The point is to have a series of prompts that keeps you working through your rough draft.

You can tweak and enrich the draft during the revision layers. Things will come to you as you write that you didn’t think of before. Your characters will come alive and may change the trajectory of your story. That’s expected. What’s important is to avoid getting stuck in the muddy middle.

Let’s layer the forty scene ideas we've developed in the most logical order.

Internal Conflict 1: Dick and Sally make plans to go on a long-awaited vacation. He gets a call.

External Conflict 1: Dick learns a meteor will strike. 

Antagonist Conflict 1: Ted learns there is a meteor headed toward earth. Finally, the world can be destroyed and he doesn’t have to lift a finger. All he has to do is sit back and watch the show.

Interpersonal Conflict 1: Jane meets with Ted to declare her feelings before it is too late. He manipulates her into helping him without telling her the real reason.

Internal Conflict 2: Dick informs Sally that he isn’t retiring after all. He can’t tell her why.

Antagonist Conflict 2: Dick has come up with a plan. Ted vows to make sure it doesn’t work.

Interpersonal Conflict 2: Jane meets with Dick and gives him erroneous data.

External Conflict 2: Dick thinks of a way to stop the meteor while it is still far away. He will nudge it with a satellite. 

Interpersonal Conflict 3: General Smith argues that his satellite is too important to be used to adjust the meteor’s trajectory. It could cause more harm than good. They should blow it up.

Internal Conflict 3: Dick and Sally fight about the vacation. Looks like we have to cancel it.

Antagonist Conflict 3: Ted is denied access to the equipment. He has something on one of the ground crew, Bob, and uses that pressure to convince him to tamper with it.
     "But we’ll all die."
     "Do you want to die now or later?"

Interpersonal Conflict 4: Bob tries to tinker with the satellite, but almost gets caught by Jane.

Antagonist Conflict 4: Ted confronts Dick. "Why are you trying to stop the inevitable?"

Interpersonal Conflict 5: General Smith relents and allows the satellite to be used.

External Conflict 3: The satellite crashes into the meteor, but doesn’t change the trajectory.

Turning Point One

Internal Conflict 4: Sally gives Dick an ultimatum. 
     "I’m tired of waiting. It’s me or the job." 
      Dick replies, "If I don’t do this there won’t be any me or you."
     "What do you mean?"
     "I can’t tell you."

External Conflict 4: Dick comes up with plan to divert the meteor with a laser beam.

Antagonist Conflict 5: Dick has come up with a new plan. So Ted must get Bob to tamper with the laser beam.

External 5: They can’t get the beam close enough from the ground.

Antagonist Conflict 6: Ted calls Sally and tells her Dick and Jane are having an affair.

Internal Conflict 5: Sally accuses Dick of having an affair with Jane at work. Dick is called away.

Interpersonal Conflict 6: Captain Curtis balks at sending the laser to the space station.

External Conflict 6: They send the laser to the space station. The equipment breaks off and is lost in space.

Turning Point 2

Next time, we will complete our layering process.

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