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Bad Choices versus Mistakes

Dennis Brown in his book Rule of Life 101 defines the difference between bad choice and a mistake thusly: 

“A mistake is innocent, a bad choice is not. A mistake is being completely oblivious to the error being made. An example would be telling someone your name and them pronouncing or spelling it wrong. Or giving someone the wrong phone number because you just got a new number and it slipped your mind. These are examples of mistakes. A bad choice is being totally aware of the error being made and choosing to do it anyway. Say for instance your boyfriend or girlfriend was sleeping with your best friend. A bad choice is knowing something is wrong or hurtful and doing it anyway.”

In any story, the critical turning points are either actions or decisions. Bad choices or actions result in goal failure. Mistakes cause conflict along the way. Take a look at your work-in-progress. Have your characters made bad choices or mistakes? How did they complicate the overall story problem?

If the inciting incident is a bad choice, Dick is forced to take steps to repair it. The key turning points will show the progress toward and steps away from repairing his life, relationship, or situation to the status quo.

If the inciting incident is a mistake, Jane will have to make amends. In the first turning point whatever she has tried doesn’t work. She will have to approach the problem from a new angle. At turning point two, that angle didn’t work either. In fact, Jane compounded the mistake, perhaps by making a second mistake. In the third turning point Jane will realize the right course of action that will restore the story balance. In the climax, she makes amends and all ends happily, usually.

The caution I want to offer is this: it is hard to root for a character that continually makes bad choices and mistakes. One or two sprinkled throughout a story can drive it. However, if the story is riddled with them, it becomes abusive.

I’m reminded of a recent television series I watched. After two seasons with a main character who continually made mistakes and bad choices, there was no growth. He never caught on that he was the problem. It made sense that the series was cancelled.

Make sure your characters are not continually making mistakes and bad choices. People who don’t change make poor protagonists, friends, and lovers. It’s okay for the reader to shout “you idiot” once or twice in a story. However, they are likely to burn the book if it happens in every chapter.

As Dennis Brown concludes: “People’s mistakes should be forgiven, and even some bad choices are forgivable, but consistent bad choices should never be overlooked. Know when enough is enough; if you have no boundaries, people have no reason to respect them. A person can’t respect what’s not there to respect. Whether it’s in a friendship, marriage or business relationship, bad choices that lead to adverse circumstances for you should never be tolerated.” 

Even if the characters are fictional.

For more information on using conflict to drive plot, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, available in paperback and E-book.

Gift Ideas for Writers

This was originally posted on the Blood Red Pencil, but I thought I’d repost here as a reminder to nurture the writers in your world.

Most writers have seen ads galore for gadgets and gizmos to increase productivity that do anything but. You have undoubtedly received endless pens, paper weights, journals, etc.

Here are a few of my favorite tools that you can ask Santa for this year. If Santa neglects to bring them, treat yourself.

1. Nuance PDF allows you turn documents into PDF documents within Word for Windows: just select Print, Save as PDF, and voila - done.

2. Word Web Pro brings up a dictionary and thesaurus within word with a click of Control-W. It includes pronunciations and usage examples, and has helpful spelling and sounds-like links.

3. Smart Edit goes beyond the many editing tools available in Word for Windows (as outlined in Story Building Blocks III) to make your prose the best it can be before you turn it over to an agent or editor. If you are an independent publisher and can't afford an editor, at least give your manuscript a run through with this tool before hitting upload.

4. Natural Reader reads your work back to you. The readback voice is not the quality that allows you to make an audio book, but it beats reading your manuscript back to yourself. You can purchase additional "voices" beyond the basic two.

5. Serif Web Plus provides website building for the HTML challenged. There is no need to learn code. If you can operate a photo manipulation program, you can build your own website with this user-friendly gem. You can utilize a template or build your own from scratch once you get the hang of it.

6. Interior Templates by Create Space creates a template based on the selected trim size. If you can use Word for Windows, you can modify the template to fit your needs. The pre-calculated gutters and margins keeps your text where it needs to be. You can customize the headers, footers, and fonts.

7. Cover Creator Templates
 by Create Space allows you to use any photo manipulation program or Adobe Photoshop to create stunning covers. It generates a template based on the trim size and page length.

8. Calibre helps you create an e-book with ease. It supports all the major e-book formats. It can rescale all font sizes, ensuring the output e-book is readable no matter what font sizes the input document uses. It can automatically detect/create book structure, like chapters and Table of Contents. It can insert the book metadata into a "Book Jacket" at the start of the book.

9. Scrivener: there is a learning curve, but it is an excellent way to organize your plot and works perfectly with the Story Building Blocks theory of story structure and character creation.

10. Story Building Blocks Series: learn how to structure a plot, build believable characters, craft believable conflict, and revise like a pro with this set. One fan called it a Cliff-note MFA.

Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflicts examines the core building blocks for plotting your book and their relationship to the different genres.

Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict introduces you to sixteen character prototypes that can be warped and tortured to create realistic characters your readers will care about. It helps you create psychology-based conflict amongst the cast members of your story.

Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers takes you through high-low revision techniques to remove the plot holes and speed bumps from your first draft and basic editing tips so your agent and editor won't cringe while reading it.

Story Building Blocks: Build A Cast Workbook uses the sixteen mannequins from Story Building Blocks II and offers a "fill in the blanks" format to flesh out your cast.

Home, Where the Heart Is

I have to thank Simon and Garfunkel for this post which was inspired by their song Homeward Bound.

The lyrics go: “I wish I was homeward bound. Home, where my thought's escaping. Home, where my music's playing. Home, where my love lies waiting silently for me.”

Hopefully, his love isn’t lying there silently because she is dead. If so, it would place the story in the mystery or horror category.

For most, the word “home” conjures warmth and belonging, especially during the American holiday of Thanksgiving. Home can be a place where Dick finds nurturance and love. It can be the place where he feels safe in a world gone mad.

Home can be a place that he longs to return to, a situation he longs to build for himself, or a place he needs to run from instead of to.

What kind of place do your characters call home? What lies in wait for Dick when he gets there? Home can remind Dick of all the things he lost or never had. Family get-togethers may be bitter rather than sweet. If a story problem forces Dick to go home, the game begins.

What if home is full of ghosts, personal demons and the walking dead, either literally or figuratively? Home can be full of mildly or severely dysfunctional people. If Dick’s family home or hometown is filled with addicts and felons, then it isn’t the cheery Hallmark scenario everyone imagines.

Going home can be psychologically or physically damaging. Can he tell anyone what home is truly like for him? Not necessarily. Shame is a huge motivating factor. It may keep Dick from telling anyone just how bad home really is. Even if Dick tells, he might be mildly rebuked for being so hard on his nearest and dearest. Surely it can’t be that bad? Except, it is. When his coworkers are rushing home, eager for the weekend or his schoolmates returning home at the end of school term, it can fill Dick with dread.

Coming from a family with something to hide places Dick in a precarious position. Even if he is brilliant and has a laudable talent or amazing skills, he has to be careful to not allow the spotlight to veer in his direction. It might startle the cockroaches from his past and make them frightened, which can make them dangerous.

Home can be a trigger for a recovering Sally. Most characters long for home. If going home puts Sally at risk for a relapse, it may not be the best place to visit. If the dysfunction that exists there is the thing that made her get high or drunk in the first place, the trigger will always be there, waiting like a land mine to blow up in her face. Sally may have to avoid home as much as she craves it. She will have to find a way to build her own home and that is not an easy thing to do. What if Sally feels more at home somewhere else? As much as her friends or other family members may like her, she isn’t really part of their home. Will they make room for her? Can they? Should they? To what extent?

Home can be full of actual ghosts or zombies. That places the story in the paranormal realm. Can Jane tell anyone? Maybe not. If she has to deal with the paranormal element at home while trying to live a normal life outside of it, Jane has serious conflict. Keeping a secret becomes a prison whether Jane is hiding that her Dad is a serial killer or a faerie King. How far is she pushed? Who could she tell? Who would believe her? How could she prove it? Her life is in danger either way.

What if Dick returns home and finds it markedly changed? He can return from college, a trip abroad, or from living on another coast or planet. What if it isn’t what he remembered? Dick may have a hard time reconciling the idealized version of home with the reality. How do the changes make him feel? Have things improved or gotten much worse. Has the town been invaded by trolls? Maybe Sally and Jane don’t remember things in quite the same way. Maybe Dick is forced to face a completely different “truth” about the way things were. The story can review all the things he thought he remembered and offer a completely different twist.

A fully drawn hero has both a home life and a work life. It’s important to give your reader a glimpse into both. It is unbalanced when we are presented with characters that are never at home or never at work. We don’t need to see every little thing they do at either location, but it helps to understand them if we see how the character operates in both worlds. They are defined by how they navigate the tricky waters both inside and outside the family.

For more on crafting conflict to create tension, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict available in paperback and E-book.

Stirring the Plot: Denial

Denial is an subconscious defense mechanism. When you ask a two-year old if he took a cookie from the jar (and he knows he will get in trouble for it), he denies it.

Characters deny things for complex reasons: to protect themselves, to protect people they love, to dodge a painful truth, or to deflect blame or suspicion.

When confronted with an internal dilemma or overall story problem, Dick (the protagonist) can choose to accept something or not oppose it at first. He may deny that aliens have landed or that his wife has lost that loving feeling. He may deny that he has cancer. As events unfold, Dick is eventually forced to accept it.

When confronted by information that counters his belief system or faith in someone, a character’s first response is usually denial. Many stories center on his journey as he struggles to accept the truth.

Dick may deny that he is the only one who can stand up to an injustice or a bully, but the overall story problem forces him to do so.

Jane (as antagonist) can see that her plan is failing and refuse to accept it. The reader will be thrilled that she failed.

Dick (as protagonist) can refuse to accept that his cause is lost and push on until he wins. The reader will be elated when he succeeds.

If Jane refuses to believe that Sally is dying, she may plan vacations and purchase air tickets that will never be used. She may insist on trying every far-fetched “miracle cure” on the market while Sally tries to bring Jane back to acceptance that the end is nigh.

Friends and foes chiming in on the issues make the story problem more difficult for the protagonist to succeed and the antagonist to fail. Their own acceptance or denial can create obstacles.

Friends and foes can continue to deny that vampires exist or a friend’s spouse is cheating even when they see the cheaters together.

Friends and foes can deny they were at the crime scene, withholding critical information either out of fear or out of malice. 

Denial creates conflict and tension as the reader waits for it to resolve. You can use this tactic to drive the story at scene and overall story levels.

To learn how obstacles create conflict for your characters, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, available in paperback and E-book.

Crafting Characters: Angel or Devil?

Conscience is that angel sitting on Dick's shoulder that tells him when he is doing something wrong. Conscience makes him feel bad when he does things that are counter to his morals or belief system, or when it registers that he has hurt another person. Empathy goes hand in hand with conscience.

Conscience is the thing within that keeps Dick from lying, cheating, stealing, or killing. It forms the psychological lines that Dick won't cross or the cultural taboos that direct his behavior.

An antagonist doesn’t have to be without conscience. He can truly believe in his cause or plan and at the crisis point realize that he has been doing something wrong. He can know from the beginning that he is doing something wrong, but justify it until the crisis comes along and he can’t anymore. He can exit the stage steadfast in the belief that he was correct.

Shame can serve as strong motivation. 
Shame creates that burning sensation in the chest. It can make Dick regret something he has done and apologize for it. Lies and betrayals, large and small, can lie heavily on his conscience. Shame can inspire Dick to do something noble to make up for his mistake.

Shame can have the opposite effect. Jane can feel so full of shame that it sends her into a death spiral of low self-esteem that forces her further into addiction or crime. It can so damage her self esteem that she doesn’t see the point in trying to be any different. Trying to drag Jane back to a sense of balance can be impossible.

Shame can create small, subtle conflicts within a psyche, a marriage, a friendship, a social club, or a work group.

Characters can accept blame for things they didn’t do either because their self esteem is low or because they want to protect someone else. They can take responsibility for things they shouldn’t. A crisis of conscience can be a story problem or a story solution. It can be a protagonist’s personal dilemma.

Conscience can drive different characters in different directions. Conscience can send Dick to war and make Jane a conscientious objector.

On the dark side, are characters who lack conscience. Psychopathy and sociopathy are similar disorders. Both are considered antisocial personality disorders. 
Some consider sociopaths less in control, more anxious and easily agitated and more likely to act up in public. They are often homeless because they can’t do what it takes to live in normal society. A psychopath is considered calmer, more secretive and manipulative. They can be charismatic and charming, hiding their pathology with a veneer of health. They don’t feel remorse or guilt but are aware enough of what the appropriate human responses are that they can mimic them. They both mean trouble and make chilling antagonists. However, they tend to be one-dimensional. An argument could be made that they have been overused.

Characters are rarely one-hundred percent good or evil. Crafting them with shadow and light makes them more interesting. Internal conflict enriches the story. Wrestling with their choices creates tension.

For more about how to craft characters, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, available in paperback and E-book and Story Building Blocks: Build A Cast Workbook, available in paperback and E-book.

What Drives Your Characters? Part 2

Which works better, the carrot or the stick? Most writers understand using objectives to encourage characters. However, you can also use tactics to discourage your characters.

Children learn early that behaviors have consequences. Too much reward and too little punishment creates a spoiled brat. Too much punishment and not enough reward and they end up with poor boundaries and a tolerance for abuse or they become rigid and a bully. The people surrounding the antagonist are usually one or the other. This can be a mild factor in a family dynamic or the dynamic between a mob boss and his cronies.

Dick may ask for a cookie. If mom says no, he might cry. This ploy might work or it might result in having to sit time out for five minutes. A child learns to read the people around him and use the methods that work to get what he wants. Characters in your story are the same. People generally do things only if they work. If something stops working for them, they change tactics. Your protagonist will use a variety of methods to gain what he needs. When his tactics don’t work, he is forced to change them until he finds the one that does.

If Jane asks Dick to do something and it is within the realm of what he is willing or able to do, or if it will give him a payoff of some kind (the pleasure of Jane’s company, the pleasure of an activity they both enjoy), Dick will agree immediately. They will continue to talk about it, plan for it, or commit to a date. Dick may have a busy schedule and have to check his calendar or see how much his budget will tolerate. However, his immediate response will be positive: “I’d love to. Let me check my calendar and we’ll go from there.” And he does check and gets back to Jane within a day or so.

When Dick consciously, or subconsciously, does not want to do something, he will make outlandish excuses and the justifications fly. Dick will squirm and hedge. He will say things like “Can’t afford it” or “Don’t have time right now.” However, Dick’s excuse is patently false. He really does not want to fulfill the request. He is hesitant to come right out and say so for fear of hurting Jane’s feelings, inconveniencing her, or making himself look or feel bad. The list of justifications will expand and mutate as Jane points out flaws in his logic by saying things like, “but we can afford it” or “I’ll pay for it.” Dick will be driven to even more flights of fancy to excuse his reluctance. These conversations rarely end well.

When Jane asks Dick to do something he does not want to do, his body stiffens. His thoughts skid. It takes a few seconds to come up with a justification. If Dick is an introvert, he might do this if you ask him to speak in public. If he is an extrovert, he might do this if it sounds confining, restrictive, or boring.

Dick will do this whenever he does not want to go somewhere, meet someone, engage in an unpleasant activity, or spend time with a person he dislikes. It isn’t politically correct to say, “I don’t want to go because I loathe your brother.” He may be completely unaware that his internal resistance is because he hates Jane’s brother. Instead of analyzing his reaction, Dick will simply reach for excuses such as work, conflicting plans, or the last ditch cure-all, “I don’t feel well,” to avoid the event or avoid fulfilling Jane’s request.

A people-pleasing Jane will immediately respond “yes” to every request Dick makes then have to wriggle and squiggle her way out of it. It can be entertaining to watch. She says, “Yes.” Her mind registers the negative aspects. Her body clenches as thoughts swirl while she figures a way out of it: “Well, what I mean is,” or “I’ll have to check,” or “I’ll have to look at my schedule and let you know.” It is guaranteed Jane will find a conflicting engagement or other rationale to escape the obligation. If Dick persists, Jane will likely toss out the “I don’t feel well” card. Who can argue with the flu and a temperature of 105?

A rigid Sally will automatically answer “no.” She may create problems for herself by saying “no.” She may come back and try to accommodate the request, but that is rare. Rigid characters rarely reconsider anything.

A middle of the road Sally who initially says “no” may go home and feel guilty. She may worry that she’ll look bad if she doesn’t fulfill the request. She may worry about hurting Jane’s feelings. Sally will find a sudden opening in her schedule or a miracle cure for the flu that permits her to do it.

Pit a character that needs something against a character with any of these responses and you have subtle conflict at scene level. They make uneasy allies. They make complicated lovers. They make irritating family members and coworkers.

You can use the conflict of repulsion in many ways at any story level in any genre. 

For more information on using obstacles to create tension in your fiction, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in paperback or E-book.

What drives your characters? Part 1

Most stories hinge on the question of attraction versus repulsion. A protagonist is either kept from achieving something he really wants to achieve or works to prevent something he can’t allow.

There are many motivators both tangible and intangible. They can be a desired object, a position, a return favor, praise, time spent together, a puppy, or promise of a leisure activity. 

The reward can be immediate or in the future. Too far in the future and both reward and punishment lose their impact. That is why the story and scene stakes should be more immediate.

The reward must also be meaningful to a character. We are all motivated by different things. We all like and need different things.

If you promise an introvert a party or a starring role in a play, she will most likely walk away.

If you promise an extrovert a week alone on a tropical island, he will likely decline unless the island has buried treasure.

Most of your characters, at some point, will do something either out of hope of reward or fear of punishment.

Dick might work toward solving the story problem out of hope of reward. He will gain something he very much wants: the girl, the job, the presidency or world peace.

Sally might work toward the story or scene goal out of fear of punishment or retaliation by an angry parent, aliens or an evil mob boss.

There are many types of rewards: self esteem, the esteem of others, connection, friendship, money, position, power, fame, or an adrenaline rush.

The most powerful is financial gain. Characters are willing to dress up in costumes and act silly to gain money. They are willing to stand out in the rain with a sign and beg for it.

If Dick is in debt, he may be willing to lie, cheat, steal and kill to get money. Money encourages characters to gamble, to invest in risky stocks, to commit murder in a Mystery. It can also motivate a child to do his chores or a worker to try harder to get a raise.

If Dick values esteem over money and offering to pay him doesn’t work, offering to publically praise him will.

Jane may resist the goal because she does not want the reward, strange as that may sound. Offer Jane the carrot of something she does not want, and you have the opposite effect than the one you desired. Offer Jane a punishment she’d enjoy and you’ve failed again.

If Jane hates being the center of attention, offering her the spotlight will send her running in the opposite direction.

If Sally prefers vanilla over chocolate, Dick giving her a Whitman’s Sampler for Valentine’s Day won’t earn him brownie points. Baking her chocolate chip cookies instead of sugar cookies won't convince her to do her homework.

Telling Dick he’ll have to stay home with Grandma while his parents go on vacation to Amish Country to shop for antiques won’t exactly break his heart, especially if Grandma is the cookie baking, curfew-ignoring type.

If Dick offers Jane a reward that she considers a punishment, they have conflict. Lets say, Dick suggests they go a Bed & Breakfast for the weekend. Jane might say yes or she might say no. Jane may love B&Bs, but she isn’t feeling particularly fond of Dick at the moment, so she refuses. Going might heal their relationship, but Jane meets internal resistance at the idea of being alone with Dick, so she declines the offer. She will come up with justifications as to why: too much work, conflicting meeting, too exhausted and wants to stay home in her jammies. Jane might agree to go but the confinement of the B&B causes them to fight rather than make up and Dick gets the opposite of what he hoped for. Jane can give in and go and end up having a good time, thus getting the result Dick hoped for but Jane didn't think possible.

If Dick and Jane are forced to work together to solve a mystery, Dick might agree because he loves a good puzzle. Jane might hate puzzle solving but agree because Dick appeals to her sense of justice or fair play. She might be secretly in love with Dick and covet time with him.

If Sally is secretly hoping for an engagement ring for Christmas and Dick buys her a diamond watch, she still received diamonds, just not the diamonds she was hoping for. Dick's next request will most likely be met with resistance if not refusal.

This type of conflict can play out among any set of characters be they friends, relatives, lovers, coworkers, etc. Characters tend to buy gifts, plan vacations, throw parties, arrange date activities and select movies for the weekend based on their wants, needs and personal preferences. This almost always causes conflict unless the two people are entirely in sync with each other in that regard.

Dick may plan a day at the football game, while Sally would rather stay home and watch a Jane Austen marathon. Okay, maybe that's just me, but the point is made.

Jane may plan a surprise party for Dick at work. If Dick hates being the center of attention or if he is trying to pull off a covert action, he will not be happily surprised by the party. It may make his scene goal much harder than he ever thought possible.

If a group of friends decides to go scuba diving in the Florida Keys for the weekend and Jane is either afraid of water or afraid of sharks, she'll refuse to go. No matter how many rewards Sally offers her (free margaritas all weekend, Jimmy Buffett playing at a local bar, lots of hot guys in skimpy bathing suits), none of that will matter to Jane. She could agree to go to the Keys but not scuba dive. The rest of the pack will consider her a wet blanket and refuse to pay for the drinks or refuse to go to the Buffett Concert in retaliation. Or they could enjoy her company so much that they don't care if she joins them in the ocean, as long as she goes along for the trip. If the reward of her company is alluring enough, they might offer to pay for the trip if Jane can't afford it.

Place characters with opposing ideas of reward in a relationship or in a scene and you have conflict.

Next week, we will explore the conflict of repulsion.

For more on using obstacles to create tension in your fiction, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in paperback or E-book.

Avoid The Reaction Plot Hole

If a bomb goes off in your plot and no one reacts, what's the point?

A friend of mine uses the term “push back," in her critiques. What it means is something of merit happens or is said and none of the characters respond. The action or dialogue goes unchallenged and the scene contains no conflict: huge plot hole.

During a recent encounter with a stubborn two-year-old, I knew exactly what she meant. The conversation went something like this:

“Ava, Granny has to go into her room for a minute.”


“Yes, I do. You can hold my hand or I can pick you up, which would you prefer?” (I like to give toddlers options. It makes them feel like they have a modicum of control.)


“Take my hand.”


“Okay, the hard way.” I picked her up. She pushed back by whining the entire time we were in the room. Little Ava didn’t get her way and she was not happy about it. She let me know it, for five minutes straight, while banging her Barbie doll’s head on everything she came in contact with.

Don’t make things too easy for Sally, Dick, and Jane. Make sure other characters balk, impede, cop an attitude, and show their displeasure. Make them react. Get inside each character's head. What are they thinking and feeling in the scene? 

Too often secondary characters' motivations are lost when writing from one character's POV. Just because they aren't the focus, doesn't mean they don't have thoughts, feelings, wants, needs, schedules, and goals of their own.

If Dick forces Jane to go somewhere she doesn’t want to go, talk to someone she does not want to talk to, or perform an act she’d rather not, have her refuse or retaliate.

What will Jane do to make him regret forcing her hand? It may not happen right away. Dick might not feel the push for an hour, a day, or a week. Dick makes Jane do something. She forces him to pay for it later by making him do or say something or go somewhere he doesn’t want to. If Jane complies and fulfills Dick’s request, she might push back right away then emphasize her point again later.

They start off having the above sort of conversation:

“Jane, we’ve been invited to Sally and Ted’s for a party.”

“No freaking way.”

"Ted is my boss.”

“I’d rather crawl in a sewer and collect Bubonic-plagued rats.”

“Attendance isn't optional.”

“Your problem, not mine.”

"He expects you to come with me.”

“Fine, I’ll go, but I’ll need a new Coach purse and new heels and a new dress.”

This is the immediate push back. Jane hits Dick in his credit card.

The night arrives, dinner ensues, and Jane ruins the evening by discussing Bubonic-plagued rat hairs found in a caterer’s food at a previous party. That is push back. She might give Dick a break and tell the hideous hostess that it wasn’t her caterer – of course 
 but one can never be too careful.

Dick forces her to leave the party early, which makes Jane very happy. In retribution, he will offer a little push back of his own. When Jane asks him to go to her mother’s house for dinner, he can reply, “I’d rather crawl in a sewer and eat Bubonic-plagued rats.”

The game is on.

To learn more about using obstacles to create conflict in your fiction, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, available in paperback and E-book.

Abandonment as Conflict

When someone we care about goes missing, there is conflict. It could be a mysterious disappearance, a runaway, a kidnapping, or a death.

A parent that abandons a child, or dies, leaves a psychological wound that influences the child’s entire life. A parent who simply disappears creates an anxiety-riddled need to understand why and how. The child often blames himself. Send a character on a journey to find out why and you have a story problem.

Abandonment wounds can lower Jane's self-esteem. It can color how she interacts with the world. It can make her more sensitive to someone’s absence. A child whose parent is absent or abandons them can become clingy. It can make Jane a suffocating friend or lover. It can make Sally an overprotective parent. It could make Dick assume that everyone leaves so why try to connect? On the flip side, it can inspire Jane to be a better parent, friend, or lover to compensate for what she didn't have.

Abandonment strikes a person all the way to the core. It is a trigger that, even if dealt with, remains. It doesn't take much to set it off. If Jane's father abandoned her, she won't be able to view fathers and daughters on television or out in the park without feeling a twinge of loss. Jane might be jealous of a step-sibling who has a father but doesn't appreciate it. She might be jealous of a friend's relationship with their father. In a thriller or paranormal tale, it can inspire Jane to usurp the friend's place. Jane may avoid relationships because she can't handle the possibility of being left again. She may avoid having children. Her husband or boyfriend might not understand. Mother hunger works the same way.

What if Jane found the parent that gave her away only to learn the parent was a serial killer? It would make a terrific suspense thriller. Jane could find out that the parent was simply an ordinary broken person who lacked the ability to love another in a healthy way and she was better off without the parent. This would make a touching literary tale with a down ending.

If Jane disappears, Dick will take steps to find her and won’t keep hoping or trying until he is successful. Dick will go to any lengths to regain someone he has lost. It can be a friend, lover, child or parent. The more personal the connection, the higher the stakes become. Each layer of separation from the protagonist and the stakes become diluted, unless the person they have to find can save the world. Add a ticking clock and you are at thriller level. The obstacles are in trying to get them back.

Getting them back can create new conflicts. Dick can get Jane back and it all ends happily. He can get Jane back and find she has changed. Dick can find out Jane didn’t want to be found. You can twist this plot in many ways in every genre.

Attempting to locate someone who has died makes a great overall story problem in a Horror or Paranormal Fantasy novel. It can also be used at scene level. If Jane needs to talk to someone and can’t find them, she will be unable to achieve her scene goal. If someone disappears in the middle of a scene, she has conflict. She is either forced to give up the scene goal to look for them or muddle on without them.

If a Jane takes her child into a store and the child decides to play hide and seek, Jane has conflict. If she is trying to overcome a scene obstacle, little Sally's stunt will make Jane's goal that much harder to overcome. If little Sally has been snatched by kidnappers, Jane has an overall story problem.

You could argue the thematic statement that absence makes the heart grow fonder. The flip side is to argue that it doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. Absence makes you realize you don’t really need or want the person after all.

What if Dick chased the one that got away only to find out he didn't like them? That would make a fun romantic plot, providing the right girl was there all along. Dick could pine for an old girlfriend, see her in passing and realize she isn’t as attractive as he remembered, or that she is now a centerfold model. This could be used in a literary tale about a marriage gone stale.

At scene level, an inspector can locate a suspect and realize the suspect is innocent. He must abandon theory one and investigate theory two. The inspector can be haunted by a partner that left without explanation. He can be haunted by a missing person case he did not solve.

In any genre, Dick can be abandoned by someone in a crowded park or building or left on planet Zircon to solve the situation by himself. It will frustrate, if not panic, him.

You can play abandonment in a different way. If extroverted Dick takes introverted Jane to a party and goes off to talk to other people all night, Jane will feel abandoned. She might get mad. She might leave. She might hold it against him for a really long time. The next time he asks her for something, she will refuse. She might deliver verbal zingers until he finally asks why she is being so mean.

If Dick and Jane fly to Africa for a safari and Dick disappears, Jane has a massive problem. She has to find Dick or face the possibility of returning to America without him. Finding someone in a foreign country is a difficult thing to do, particularly when their laws, society, and language are foreign to you.

Abandonment is a terrific theme and overall story problem. It adds poignancy to a love story or motivates a character at scene level. Being alone, even in a crowd, is a universal fear that everyone can tap into.

For more about using obstacles to create tension in your fiction, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in print or E-book.

Stirring the Plot: Absence and the Return

There are many types of absence: voluntary, forced, temporary, perceived, sporadic, and permanent. Wherever there is absence, there is conflict. Let’s examine ways in which absences can be dramatic, frightening, thrilling, or funny.

The absence of a loved one can create pathos, longing, and sadness. When a loved one leaves temporarily or permanently, it leaves a vacuum that needs to be filled. It may not be filled with healthy endeavors, or the absence can open a door to new opportunities.

Absence can cause a momentary annoyance at scene level. Jane had plans to go somewhere with Sally or Dick, but had to cancel. Dick and Sally choose to go together without her. Jane is then wounded because she is so easily replaced. If Jane cancels frequently, then she is no longer considered trustworthy. Dick and Sally might exclude her from future plans and it will make Jane angry.

Voluntary absence from work creates headaches for coworkers. If Dick calls in sick, his work is not getting done. Someone else has to temporarily pick up the slack. He might go to extravagant lengths to hide the fact that he wasn’t really sick. If Jane sees him in town during her lunch hour, he will have to explain his absence. He will either tell the truth or lie. If Jane has it in for him, she will enjoy exposing him and Dick is forced to come up with a deterrent fast. He may agree to do something for Jane he does not want to do. He may take over an assignment for her. She might make him give up his parking spot.

It keeps the plot moving when a scene is resolved in a way that creates a new and more difficult goal. Once Dick has lied to Jane, he will have to maintain the lie. Lies lead to more lies. Dick might have called off to spend one last day with his dying mother. He might have called off to help someone track down a terrorist cell. He might have called off to go to a job interview for a new job. At the end of the day, he will either succeed at hiding his reason for calling off or admit that he was playing hooky. It could be comedic, thrilling or tragic. The reason he called off can be momentous, silly, or simply that he was tired and needed to recharge his mental battery. His absence can have profound consequences or barely make a ripple in the story overall, depending on what you need it to do.

At the scene level, Dick could leave the room and give Jane an opportunity to replace or remove something. When he returns, he can notice that his desk has been disturbed. He can either mention it or wait until Jane leaves to search his office. He might shrug his suspicion off, leaving the clue to raise its head later in the story. He might keep tearing his desk apart until he finds the bug or realizes an important file is missing.

Dick could leave the scene of an accident and create a story problem, or a complication to solving the story goal that comes back and bites him later. His reasons can be unthinking, an attempt to protect himself, or malicious.

Dick leaves a bad date at a restaurant because it was easier to disappear than tell the girl her laugh made him cringe. When he runs into his hapless date later, it will be awkward. If she turns out to be his boss’s daughter, it gets extremely awkward. If he has to work with her, it becomes horribly uncomfortable. If he finds out she is a werewolf, he is in danger.

A character can be voluntarily absent from a conversation, a room, a building, a job, or a planet. There are multiple outcomes to a voluntary absence, but at some point the person typically returns.

Jane jetting off to Aruba without Dick for a month in an attempt to “find herself” creates an overall story problem. When Jane reappears, Dick can be happy about it, unhappy about it or have mixed emotions. Jane’s return can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you want to play it and the genre of your story.

In a romance with the typical happy ending, Dick and Jane will overcome the conflicts her voluntary absence and subsequent return create and live happily ever after.

In a literary tale, Jane can return, find out nothing has changed and realize she should have stayed in Aruba with the cabana boy. Dick and Jane can desire to come together again, but realize they really don’t work as a couple, ending on a sad note.

In a mystery or thriller, Jane can return and Dick realizes he preferred life without her. He takes steps to make her absence permanent so he can keep Jane’s inheritance.

Let’s say Jane returned from Aruba after finishing a work assignment that lasted a month or a year. She can return to a spouse, a friend, a child, her parents, a house, a neighborhood, or a job. Her return will affect all of them. Life continued to move on while she was gone. Her return will force her to renegotiate all of her relationships. Friendships and alliances shift over time. Jane’s return can spark jealousy or ignite buried resentment. It can result in renewed love or friendships. The obstacles Jane faces are in trying to fit in again, to redefine her place in the lives she left behind.

Jane might have to move back in with her parents or have her ailing parents move in with her. It can spark a battle of wit and wills. The situation could be comedic, tragic or a sweet literary story of acceptance. This makes a terrific overall story problem or personal dilemma for a protagonist.

Jane might find the balance of power in the company shifted in her absence. She will have to redefine her place in the pecking order. Her coworkers might not appreciate her return, or they might celebrate it because the person who took her place was a jerk.

There are many fun and poignant ways to play with absences.

For more information on using obstacles to create tension, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in print or E-book.

Publishing's Dirty Little Secret

My motto is, "Life is too short for bad fiction." 

There is nothing that makes me happier than finding a new writer whose world building and plotting submurges me on page one and does not let me breathe again until the last page is turned. There are images from stories that will haunt me for life. Exquisite word usage is icing on the cream cake.These are the books I hate to leave for a moment, the ones I will stay up until the wee hours of the morning to finish, the kind of series I binge read more than once. Sadly, they aren't as common as I'd like.

The Story Building Blocks series is the result of my research into what it takes to become one of those skilled authors. It's a selfish thing. As a book addict, I want more reading highs.

Editors and agents fight over brilliant wordsmiths and unique storytellers. Skillful writing is damned hard work. Writers flock to classes and workshops, eager to become those authors, the only kind gatekeepers admit to opening the front door for. I worship those willing to do the work. So many give up when they realize a first draft isn't the key to fame and fortune, even though they have a natural gift.

I have discovered indy-pubbed authors I'd place in the brilliant category that were ignored by traditional publishers. I am truly thankful they found their own launch pad and happily promote them every chance I get.

There are snobs who can debate what constitutes "literature" for days. Some of those books are snooze-fests. The majority of stories that sell well are written simply, but they have a unique story world, character, or plot twist that makes up for their flaws even if they aren't Nobel prize material.

But here's publishing's dirty little secret: shit sells.

It has always sold. Publishers have a dark, dingy back door that lets authors in as long as they can churn out a constant stream of mediocrity to feed the demand. Unpolished schlock from bodice rippers to gore fests to plodding mysteries have always sold like hotcakes in the form of melodramas of old to cheap paperbacks to fulfill genre demand. These authors make a comfortable living. I don't begrudge them the money. If there wasn't a demand, they wouldn't sell a single book.

In addition, publishers are guilty of guilding some serious turds. They put a lot of money into marketing them and, if a little bit of the gilt falls off, they have already made their profit. Those millions often help launch other projects they love that have less reach. So, more power y'all.

When those stinking dumps of excrement rise meteorically, aspiring authors think, "What the heck? What is all this fuss about writing well when this dreck makes millions?" I share your confusion and disdain. Then I remember low-brow reality television shows get more ratings than quality screenwriting.

You don't have to invest months, perhaps years, of honing skills to become a first-class writer to make money. Nowadays there are book feeding frenzies, usually sparked by a best-seller. By carefully tracking the chum of the week, an author can make a small fortune writing and uploading a first-draft novella or two a month. It still involves a lot of elbow grease, just a different kind. You have to be on topic, prolific, master the formatting and uploading process, and know how to promote online.

Self-publishing didn't create the phenomenon. It just made the process easier and cut out the pimps who sneered at the illicit trade but were all too happy to pocket the money.

If you aren't concerned with quality, there has never been a better time to pinch your nose and start shoveling.

Confining Your Characters

No one likes feeling trapped and the desire to escape is an intense motivator and speaks to a universal need for safety. Readers root for characters to escape catastrophic or horrific danger. By limiting the psychological or physical boundaries, you increase the boiling point of your story cauldron by making it impossible for your characters to walk away.

There are obvious ways to use physical confinement: remote locations or being trapped inside burning a building, speeding train, or airplane. Characters may have to escape an asylum, a prison, a sinking ship, or a dying planet. At scene level, they may have to overcome other obstacles such as manacles or laser alarm systems or crawl through tight tunnels. Life or death stakes ratchet up the tension. Add a ticking clock, and you’ve escalated the conflict to Thriller level. 

But let's step outside obvious physical limiations to look at a few examples where confinement is psychological. Emotional life and death stakes can be just as effective.

Dick might need to escape from a confining belief system, societal rules, or cult. This type of conflict fuels many dystopian and Science Fiction plot lines. It also works in literary and coming of age stories. She might literally have to escape to save her life or the lives of others.

Sally can be confined by a family, a tribe, or a gang. The situation can be an abusive or an intolerable person she needs to flee from.  She may simply need to escape to pursue the career she loves or marry the man of her dreams.

Confinement can force a character to deal with a person or situation because they can’t escape from them.

Dick can feel trapped in an airplane seat. Add an obnoxious rowmate and his discomfort increases. Replace the obnoxious stranger with an angry spouse and your characters are strapped in for a few hours of heated debate or icy silence.

Being confined in a car can have the same effect. Characters often have intense and important conversations while strapped inside. Being confined in a train, elevator, or waiting room can provide Dick with ample time to think something through as well.

Dick might want to break free of romantic relationship or marriage. Depending on his personality type and childhood wounds, he might find commitment suffocating. It can be as simple as Dick not liking that his romantic options have narrowed or been eliminated, so he refuses to propose to a girl he loves. He’ll live with her but he doesn’t like the prison bars that marriage suggests. 

If Jane sees marriage as a desirable bond, a sign that Dick values their relationship and promises to always have her back, she won’t understand his reluctance. This provides terrific tension in a romance or romantic subplot. Dick and Jane, as well as the supporting cast, can argue whether marriage entraps or frees them. Dick can overcome his internal resistance and give in. Dick and Jane can agree that their commitment to each other is more important than the piece of paper. Or, their differing belief systems and needs are a deal breaker and they end the relationship.

Sally might want to break free of a confining friendship. If Sally is the type of easy-breezy personality that loves to be around lots of people and considers twenty people her best friend, she might befriend Jane who values one tight, soul-sister over lesser acquaintances. Confine these two in an apartment or a college dorm and the conflict increases. Whether physically confined or emotionally confined, their differing needs and definitions of loyalty and trust provide obstacles to continuing their friendship. It can be explored in a sweet literary story about why friendships fail. Jane could cause problems for Sally, the protagonist, in other genres as Sally negotiates her exacting friend’s emotional neediness while solving an unrelated story problem. This claustrophobic dynamic has been explored in horror films about scary roommates, but it can also factor in virtually any plot line. Pairing friends with differing connection needs creates believable conflict.

Jane might want to escape a confining job. She may be afraid to leave a lucrative career but imprisoned by the monotony or lack of challenge. She may love the job but hate her boss or coworkers. The entrapment will either force to her make a life changing career move or renegotiate her reality within the confines of her job.

Family get togethers are rarely the love-fests featured in the sweet family stories of long ago. Reunions are hot beds of festering unmet needs and resentments. Personalities clash and clang and grate, fomenting snide remarks and truth-revealing tirades. The quickest way to exit an undesirable family event is for your character to make statements they know will stir the family pot and storm out during the ensuing verbal brawl. An investigator might stir the pot to get a suspect to reveal himself. 

If going home feels like entering a prison, Jane isn’t going to enjoy going there for a holiday meal, much less a week. She may be forced to return home to take care of an ailing parent. The situation makes her feel like she is being strangled, particularly if irritating siblings insist on visiting. Emotional bombs will burst.

Setting and situation choices can force your character to make decisions or take actions they otherwise would ignore. As the character's social, psychological, or physical noose tightens, the reader's tension grows along with it and they keep turning the page to relieve their own anxiety.

For more ways to utilize obstacles to create tension in your fiction, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in print or E-book version.

Stirring the Plot with Isolation

Earliest man lived in small tribes. With fewer people, they relied on each other more. Such is the stuff of Historicals, Westerns, and Literary pioneer stories. When people died, especially in large numbers due to disease, famine, or drought, it preyed on the survivors' mortal fear of being alone. These stakes can heighten a story problem or create a scene conflict.

If the population of a planet is dying, Dick has an overall story problem.

If Jane feels alone in her marriage, she has a personal dilemma or overall story problem.

The situation in a dark, spooky mansion is heightened if Dick is alone, as would a perfectly normal forest. A planet would be terrifying if he was the only surviving astronaut.

The smaller the population, the higher the stakes of survival and the more claustrophobic the situation becomes. Put Dick in a city of a thousand people and he can easily get lost in the throng. That makes a good Mystery. Putting ten people in a space station makes a great Science Fiction story. Killing them off one by one makes a great Thriller or Horror story. Post apocalyptic stories explore our fear of being alone and the desire for survivors to find one another. Science Fiction stories explore our desire to not be alone in the universe.

On a personal level, most of us prefer to live with someone. A few thrive on the freedom of living alone.

How far is Jane willing to go to feel connected? Jane may marry someone she does not love, become friends with someone she wouldn’t otherwise, build a robot so she has a companion, join an organization she does not agree with, or draw a face on a football so she has someone to talk to on a deserted island.

How far is Dick willing to go to live alone? He might rent a cabin in the Dakota badlands or buy an island and find out he needs people after all.

Characters who are hurt by something or someone often withdraw from the people around them. Some do it for a week, others a month, at the most extreme end they withdraw from life entirely.

At the scene level Dick may need to be alone to accomplish something but all his well-meaning friends keep dropping by to chat.

Dick may momentarily find himself in an empty house, which creates the perfect opportunity for the ghost to visit.

Isolation adds an element of creepiness to any situation. It is a keystone of Horror stories. The characters must be trapped in a building, a city or on a planet from which there is no escape, so they must turn and face the horror instead of run away from it.

Isolation is critical in a Gothic novel for the same reason. The hapless governess cannot simply walk away from the creepy plantation house. She can’t board a bus or walk into a Starbucks. She can’t have a cell phone – not one that works anyway – or call a cab. She needs to be isolated so that she is forced to unravel the mystery or uncover the secret instead of running away at the first sign of trouble.

Isolation is also a key component of YA because so many teens feel isolated: from their family, their peers, their world. Isolation leads to depression and anxiety and feelings of low self-esteem. The character can realize they aren’t alone after all. They can graduate high school and find their “soul mate” friends in college. They can leave their all-Caucasian neighborhood to live in a predominantly Hispanic one and find themselves at home, or find the new community has its share of issues to contend with.

In a Literary story, Sally might embrace her mid-life crisis by selling up and moving to a house in Italy only to realize the locals don’t want her there. All that high life and camaraderie she expected are denied her. The doors remain shut but the curtains are pulled to the side so they can spy on her. Sally sits in her wilting, rustic money pit an unscrupulous salesman talked her into and realizes she should have stayed at home. It was boring but people liked and accepted her there. If murders start happening, it could become a Mystery and Sally the sleuth forced to solve them. In a Thriller, someone could want her to leave their family home and she becomes the target.

In a Romance, the opposite could happen. Sally could feel isolated in her home town because all of her friends have moved away or moved on. Her family might not be supportive or emotionally connected. She kicks the traces and runs off to a charming seaside cottage in Ireland and finds the circle of friends she desperately needed and a lad with a charming brogue to keep her warm at night.

If Sally’s best friend is moving away, in a sense abandoning her, the situation can cause subtle conflict as Sally attempts to overcome the overall story problem or a momentary distraction at scene level.

You can use isolation to fuel any genre at any story level. 

For more obstacles that create conflict, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in print or E-book version.

Why Do I Write?

As I turn 53 today, several recent events converged to make me examine why I write and whether I want to continue writing.

I wrote and published 8 books between 2007 and 2012. I have not written a book in a while and Create Space sent me an email asking if I was still writing.

I had lunch with a friend and we talked about my dry spell and she asked me what would make me passionate about writing again. I have suffered health crisis after health crisis since before I wrote Mythikas Island, which has resulted in a roller coaster of frenzied work and months living as a cat. Health woes certainly contribute to the ambivalence.

I began writing poetry and journaling as a young girl. I did not attempt fiction until I was middle-aged. So as I explored the reasons why I started writing books in the first place, a theme developed.

I wrote the Mythikas Island series (I: Diana, II: Persephone, III: Aphrodite, and IV: Athena) for my daughter Anna. She was a teenager and was sick of love triangles in YA books. She said some girls wanted stories that didn’t revolve around guys. Ideas for stories about goddesses and girl power had been percolating for a while and that became the impetus for the Mythikas Island series. Four girls are groomed to be leaders and must save themselves and fight for their future.

I wrote the Story Building Blocks (I: The Four Layers of Conflict, II: Crafting Believable Conflict, III: The Revision Layers, IV: Build A Cast Workbook) because I couldn’t find them anywhere when I needed them. I was tired of reading about the story arc and all those motivational tomes. I wanted nuts and bolts and tools for developing plots and characters. 
I wanted advanced craft lessons. I also wanted to centralize all of my notes on revision, editing, and proofreading. So, I spent several years learning, reading, dissecting stories, and researching. I developed a story architecture theory that made sense to me. This blog, Game On, is an extension of the desire to share what I learn. I also guest post on The Blood Red Pencil, another blog devoted to the craft of writing.

I have studied interior formatting, cover design, and website building. Although far from expert, I have added those skills to my tool kit.

Then I was blindsided with the misdiagnosis of a mystery muscle disease. That led to a year of research and another year of developing that research into a website for the rare disease, Stiff Person Syndrome, which became The Tin Man. It not only has up-to-date information on SPS, but a large section on how to cope with debilitating diseases and resources for patients with rare diseases. Again, things I couldn't find that I needed.

While I haven’t been entirely slothful, there was no book at the end of those two-plus years. Create Space had no way of knowing that, hence the gentle reminder.

It turns out, I am motivated by writing things that benefit other people. It is the sharing information and helping that bring me joy. If I inspired one teenager, helped one writer, or educated one patient, I consider all that time well spent.

I’ve always joked to my critique group that my biggest problem is that I don’t need the money and I don’t want to be famous. I admit to being turned off by the business and promotional aspect of publishing, as necessary as it is to being a lucrative independent author. It is an area I would need to research and I’d have to overcome my natural resistance to being in the spotlight and sales promotion. I would also have to work around my physical limitations. I’d much rather sit in a room churning out work and let others worry about what to do with the end product. Alas, successful writer-preneurs are not built that way. So, I have to decide if that is the way I want to spend time.

I attended a funeral yesterday for a friend that made me ponder what I want to do with my remaining time. He died during the adventure of a lifetime, checking off a big item on his bucket list. This led me to examine what I am still capable of and prioritizing my bucket list. The hubs is going to retire next year in August. After our relocation from Windyana to Adult Disneyland, I don’t know what my days will be like. All those long hours I spent working or sleeping while he was at the hospital will now be filled with different things.

My muses still visit and my characters still chime in with ideas of where they'd like to go, especially my goddess girls. I have more ideas for the Story Building Blocks series. I have a draft of a YA story, and first chapters of many others that I call my Widows & Orphans file including a mystery called The Wicked Stage.

But will they ever see print? Who knows? Once the reno nightmare of the new house and trauma of moving are over, I may put fingers back to keyboard. If for no other reason than to free the characters that haunt me like trapped ghosts seeking the light.