Thursday, January 16, 2020



A quality present in the ending of a scene, chapter, entire novel, entire short story. A dramatic itch awaiting a scratch.

The quality manifests itself in dramatic emotions like question, interest, sadness, reconciliation, grief, sorrow, surprise; sometimes aftertaste from a particular scene evokes a mashup of one or more of these feelings.

Consider aftertaste as the writer's reward to the characters and readers for staying the course of the narrative. If the reader comes away from reading a scene with no feelings about it, the entire scene falls into question. 

NB: There is no room for neutrality in fiction. 

For the scene to earn its place, it must leave at least the aftertaste in the reader of wonderment at what will come next, to which character, and how.


The governing force that drives every character in every story.
Agenda represents what the character wants, becomes the armature about which the other traits of the character winds.  Think Scarlett O'Hara in Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, then consider her every action in that narrative.

Agenda tells the character how to behave, sometimes in ways not yet clear to the character. The behavior alerts other characters--and the reader--to expectations and suspicions about future activity.

See agenda as the rabbit hole into which the lead characters tumble, as Alice did in her trip to Wonderland. Consider Macbeth in the opening scenes of the play named after him, ambitions covered by what he assumed to be his agenda of loyalty to King Duncan, then read on to see what happens after he got home to discuss his recent promotion with his wife.

Characters who don't want anything don't belong in a story. Even nameless characters have agendas. The crosswalk guard who delays the protagonist wants to get her charges, the school kids, across the street. The pizza delivery person wants a tip. No matter if they have no lines of dialogue; their behavior reveals their agenda, offers the writer the physical vocabulary and narrative tools to portray them.

Agendas in characters may be obvious or hidden, nevertheless they reside in what and how the character acts, thinks, and says.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020



All stories require adversaries in one form or another. The adversary is an individual or group whose interests conflict with those of the principal characters for whatever reason. These individuals often appear more likable than the principal character. No matter; the reader soon learns how these individuals will work tirelessly to prevent the principals from achieving their goals. 

Adversaries often take the form of circumstance, conditions, and conventions, thus aged adults in a youth-oriented culture (or the reverse spin), women with the temerity to run for office in a male-dominated society, any system, whether social/cultural, political, religious, which the principal characters of a narrative believe cannot be beaten.

Adversaries bear close relationship to antagonists and obstacles. 

If you do not have one in your narrative, you do not yet have a story.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020



A useful loan from firefighters, where an accelerant adds momentum and direction to a fire already in progress. Think of story as a considerable force, already in progress, then look for a potential fuel to enhance it. Characters such as Iago, in Shakespeare's Othello, Milo Minderbinder, in Joseph Heller's Catch-22, and Rebeca Sharp in William M. Thackeray's Vanity Fair accelerate the forces of impending mischief in their respective narratives.  By its inherent, striated nature, social class offers the fiction writer opportunities to add momentum to narrative. Many of Thomas Hardy's novels use social class and its conventions to force characters to even more intense behavior. Hardy's Tess of the Durbervilles provides a significant example of accelerated dramatic force. Jude the Obscure emphasizes the potential for evoking forces that prevent a character from achieving a stated goal.
Settings and scenery offer yet additional chances for acceleration of narrative. Consider the details of Pip's life when he lives with his sister and brother-in-law in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations. Compare them with the surroundings Pip encounters on his visit to the estate of Miss Faversham. For an instructive treatise on how the details of setting and scenery provide accelerant, consult Zadie Smith's White Teeth.

HINT: Let no character or character's agenda, no locale or object enter a narrative without a demonstrable potential for service as an accelerant.

Monday, January 13, 2020

ACTION, Revised Edition

So much in story depends on action, the movements between characters and, in many cases, the movements between the various aspects of a single character. Appropriate for the Revised Edition of The Fiction Writer's Handbook to begin with:

Story begins with action. Someone in the present moment does something or is done to. The protagonist acts or is acted upon.
Shakespeare knew this for a certainty in the early 1590's.  Romeo crashed a party for the daughter of the sworn enemies of his family. Primary action. Of course you have only to look at the first meeting between Romeo and Juliette. Proof of the pudding for how much this first action-reaction sequence mattered to Shakespeare; he shifted the narrative for their first exchange from his customary blank verse to a perfect (Shakespearean) sonnet.
In The Dublin Murders, a 2020 televised mash up of two early novels by the American-Irish writer, Tana French, a detective is sent to investigate the murder of a young girl in the same locale where he was a victim as a youngster.
Story begins when readers are then motivated to await the consequences of actions.
To put a fine point on the matter, consider the process known as inertia. A body in motion tends to stay in motion while a body at rest continues its snooze. Each state is vulnerable to force, itself the personification of action.
When motion stops, story comes to a halt, takes on dramatic qualities such as introspection, recollection of past actions, and description, all associated with inaction. 
These qualities must earn their keep if they enter the narrative.
HINT:  Remember inertia. Readers have greater motivation to continue reading when the characters stay active.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

The Itch in the Publisher's Voice

The moment your body sends you an urgent itch message from some outpost of anatomy, a portion of your awareness goes to work forming a scratch response. Even if the offending itch flares up in the middle of your back under a layer of tee-shirt, sweater, and jacket, awareness begins to assess damage control, sends you an available source to defuse the itch.

You may have to contort to reach the itch site, seek out a tree trunk, door frame, or other convenient remedy, whereupon you heave yourself against the trunk or door frame for some significant rubbing. Sometimes there may be a person to whom you can state your urgent plea. "Please. My back. Scratch."

The moment your body sends you an urgent story message from some outpost of your imagination, a response similar to itch awareness broadcasts itself through your sensitivities. In notable similarity to the itch message, the story instinct wants to be dealt with, scratched, as it were, rendered under some kind of control.

Unlike the itch, which may be scratched in a matter of moments, the story notion takes on the presence of a pestering insect or a hungry mosquito. You will need some time--always more time than you at first allot--to scratch enough to restore your previous comfort.

Itches and stories pester you away from your more benign self. You are in effect practicing mindfulness on one or two story itches from years in the past.

"Time," a publisher says in a text.

Ah, you think. Time for a royalty statement.

"That, too," the publisher says. "Time also for a revised edition."

Publishers seldom, if ever, want revisions on published works of fiction. You have published a work of nonfiction and another of fiction with this publisher. There is no need for him to tell you he wants the revision on the work of nonfiction.

Thus early in the new year, not yet midway through January, while you have only a day ago scratched a short story itch to your satisfaction and have only the continuing buzz of a novel you are swatting at, another itch sends a scratch me message. You know for certain that this itch will require at least the better part of the coming year.

The first thing you will need to scratch this itch is the voice, the narrative tone in which this version will be told.  This means you must do something you have not done for much of your writing life--you must listen to the material--let it dictate how you will speak of it.

Let's say it's eleven p.m. or midnight. Your neighbor continues to host a loud party or play Sacre du Printemps at considerable volume. Do you appear at his door, knock, then politely inform him of the noise? Do you yell across the courtyard?  How will you proceed?

For some days to come, your subsequent entries here will reflect you, listening to the material, then responding to its behavior.