Writing craft essays by Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk provides us with some brief and super-effective writing advice. This is my take on the ones that work best & aren’t explained already in other blog posts – in order of my personal preference:

Establishing Authority

If you do this correctly in the beginning, you can take your readers anywhere – they will trust you. You can do this in 2 ways:

  • Heart: use honesty and frankness. The narrator risks being perceived as the fool rather than the hero – but you also risk to make the reader emotionally involved in your story. Exposing something embarrassing, you prove the readers the story won’t be about proving your glory or looking good, but about failures and weaknesses, and so they will be more inclined to admit and accept their own.
  • Head: demonstrating knowledge. You researched the subject topic, and the narrator is the best qualified person to talk about it

Nuts and bolts: using your objects

The ring in Breakfast at Tiffany’s gains more and more emotional value each time it appears. It holds the whole story’s message. A well-used object can function as:

  • Memory cue (blue necklace in Titanic): it echoes past plot points, including their emotional weight
  • Buried gun (sled in Citizen Kate)
  • Gesture prop (ring thrown away in Harold and Maude): characters physically express themselves instead of using (only) language
  • Through-line image (green ashtray in Creep Show): reoccurring, add another layer of continuity

The key is to re-use them to give them power, and to morph them.

Using on-the-body physical sensation

If you engage the reader on the mental, emotional and physical level, then you’ve created another reality, something that can replace their commute or doctor waiting room. This doesn’t happen with generic words that describe pain/pleasure, but only if the story occur in the reader’s mind, heart and gut. You must create a tangible situation, detail by detail – see for example Palahniuk’s short story Guts. “Sharp pain”, “ecstatic pleasure” are cliches that don’t evoke anything. Un-pack the event, moment by moment, and make it happen in the reader’s mind; make the pain occur in the reader’s mind. The next time you are sick, list the physical details: you want to give your readers a headache. Or you can use medical jargon, looking for medial causes to things like headaches, or for cures, as they list what they tackle.

Submerging the I

Stories written in first person create more distance with the reader (we see “I” and we recoil, another hero story, another person bragging), but they have more authority. They also allow you to play with the narrator’s honesty and use an unreliable narrator (see Great Gatsby – is Gatsby as cool as it sounds, or is Nick Caraway desperate?). Great Gatsby also works because we have an average person talking about his hero – actually, an apostle talking about his messiah, thus telling a hero story without being boring.

On the other hand, the third person sometimes sounds like a “hidden God” telling a story. So, to tell a first person story without the “I” problem, submerge the I and use it as late as possible, possibly after the authority is established and the reader is hooked. Use “mine”, “me”, “my” instead of “I” in the beginning if you must – keep the camera away as long as possible.

Nuts and bolts: hiding a gun

A gun is something you talk about (a detail, an error, a flaw) that comes back to destroy a character. It can even communicate something that will happen after the end of the book – see the quotes in Dune, that makes you realize Paul’s wife will focus on writing and he’ll spend his life with his loved one.

Tell a Lie, Bury a Gun

Consider the boiler in Shining: in the beginning they say it’ll need maintenance or it will explode, and when the plot needs a climax, the boiler explodes. This is the buried gun explained previously.
The gun can also be a lie (the relationship with Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate; Maude says in the beginning that she wants to die; absent fathers making impossible promises to their kids but then transformation happens and everyone is happy). Lies can be insincere promises, crimes, secrets and so on.

A buried lie gives the story the chance of a climax. The lie gives the narrator power over others, and in return the truth places the narrator at the mercy of others: the narrator is bought back to honesty.
Check lies that people work hard to conceal: people who act smart are usually trying to hide the fact that they feel stupid. Beautiful people hide how ugly they feel. Maintain their lies until it’s impossible – then the fun will really start.

Disconnected Dialogue

We like dialogues when one person demonstrates power, and the other outwits him/her. Good plots play with power – a character gains it, loses it, regains it. When power shifts the story gains power, tension and momentum. If the communication is complete, there is no frustration/unfulfilled expectation, so we want incomplete dialogue (and not the witty dialogue of sit-coms where the answer is perfect and complete).
For example, unanswered questions build tension – especially if these are the questions the audience is asking. Leaving the question hanging unanswered creates frustrated tension. If you complete the exchange question-answer you leave the energy flat:

  • Weak: Did you walk the dog? – Yeah, an hour ago
  • Respond the original question but adding tension: Did you walk the dog? – It’s your dog
  • Ignore the question and show the inner world of the character: Did you walk the dog? – Stop attacking me!

Nuts and bolts: “thought” verbs

Don’t use verbs of thought or intention: think, know, understand, realize, believe, want, remember, wonder, imagine, desire, love, hate. Don’t say “he wondered if she loved him”: show her preparing coffee for herself, and not for him. You can only use sensory details and physical actions that will lead the reader to know/think rather than you spoon-feeding them. Build the case like a lawyer.
And don’t leave characters alone to think – instead, make then wonder about what worries them. Be also careful about “be” and “have”.

Beware the “thesis statement”

Don’t declare at the beginning of the paragraph what the paragraph will be about. “It was a difficult place to find work”, “He woke up hating his life” – these statements will take away the intrigue of your work; you are a stripper, you don’t push your ordinary genitals in the audience’s face. You want readers to make their own mind about what you are going to say. Don’t say someone feels sick – show every detail of his last meal so the audience feels sick.

Reading out loud and share with others

If you read your work to 6-8 people, you’ll immediately understand which bits work and which don’t – where the story loses energy, the lack of laughter or moans; where you need to break the tension with a good laugh just before creating an even worse crisis. A  reader’s brain reacts to verbs in stories the same way it would react if the reader’s body were actually involved in the action. Make something happen in each scene. Understand where you should give a bit extra time to the readers to come up with a conclusion – the goal is always to make your readers understand something the paragraph before the narrator says it.

The monkey mind is that part of our brain which tries to make sense of everything that happens. By using this tool you will become a better storyteller. Write stories to make sense of what happens around us. This way you can use what happens to you rather than being used. The stories we cannot tell are the secrets that kill us. Maybe the only way to escape the monkey mind is to accept it: you are doomed to storytelling. Particularly on emotions around problems we cannot solve/tolerate. You can force that voice to do something productive. Reading out loud helps to turn the personal issue into a product made for an audience. Embrace your need to tell stories; speaking will remove the story from you and set you free, it will allow you to dig up your personal shit and make into art. You will turn your personal issue into a story that doesn’t exclude others, a story that lets other people explore and exhaust their own issues. What trigger your emotions? Why the trigger is so important?

Nuts and bolts: punctuation with gesture and attribution

Study what people do when they talk: no one stays still. Use gestures and interruptions to add tension to a dialogue.

Learning from cliches… then leaving them behind

If you heard something said in a certain way (“wringing my heads”), your job is to describe it in another way based on the history/family/education of your character. We are seeing the world from his/her unique point of view.
This being said, it’s ok to copy other storytellers. One of the best self-teaching methods is to mimic the style of writers you enjoy. Then, create variations, combine them with other techniques you’ve learned by copying other writers.

Talking shapes

The linear story is dead. Here are some alternatives:

  • The Big O: start at the end of the crisis (Great Gatsby, Nick is old). Advantages: you start with a compelling scene and you know who the narrator is. The narrator shapes the story, so they’ll know what to expect
  • The Quilt: unite different stories with the same context
  • The Thumbnail: the narrator already knows how the story will end – how can he/she tell the story from the original innocent, unenlightened perspective?  With the thumbnail you can give a preview of what will happen, and the promise of exciting events (American Beauty: the protagonist is going to die, big stuff is going to happen, our time won’t be wasted). This shape also creates tension, and you’ll be using subtle storytelling to make the readers forget the thumbnail: you will demonstrate the initial statement. It gives authority and credibility: it acknowledges it’s a story. If we didn’t know how Titanic ended, the story might feel terrible. Write the first chapter last, but don’t provide too many details the reader cannot understand or it will be confusing. Present it inside a limited physical scene instead. Tease, but give your readers enough landmarks to hold onto, balance the unreal details of an the future with real details of the tangible present.
  • The Cycle: an innocent person seems to have found a way to escape misery, but it turns out it’s a trap to destroy victims and self sustain. The beginning seduces the protagonist – and the reader. This structure works well because it validates a fear we all have: the world is conspiring to kill us, everyone is pretending to love us to use us. It demonstrates that life is unfair.
  • The Rebel, the Follower and the Witness: well-known shapes like this help us accepting the weird. The writer might find helpful to identify the myth he/she is talking about and study the original to find the missing elements (e.g. Star Wars is a quest story: the hero is called, saves the princess and kills the dragon). In this shape you have 3 main characters, and only one survives (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Great Gatsby, Fight Club). A rebel doesn’t fit into the world and shocks people with his behaviour. The follower tries to please the system the rebel is fighting, and destroys himself. The rebel is destroyed – the crisis that destroys the follower gives the social order a chance to destroy the rebel. The witness lives on a compromise, leaving the old system, enlightened.

Textures of information

What we remember about characters (much more than their names) are their actions, their language and their appearance. Textures are tools borrowed from real life to make a story more powerful, and can be rules (see Fight Club), definitions, ceremonies, T-shirt quotes, contracts… You can even use them to undermine the credibility of the real object (e.g. airport public announcements are actually coded messages).

Effective similes

Only a limited number of physical details create the reality we are aware of. If you pick the right detail, you can define the whole scene.
Metaphors are usually more powerful than similes, but if you decide to use similes: don’t use the verb “is” but use a verb more specific to the quality (it is green > it looks green); limit them; describe the subject before using the simile; don’t use “like” (“X could have been Y” is better).

Thirteen writing tips

  1. When you don’t want to write, use a timer to write at least for 30 mins / 1 hour
  2. Your audience is smarter than you think. Don’t be afraid to surprise them. They’ve already read many stories more clever than yours.
  3. Before writing a scene, analyze why you are writing it. Is it useful for something in the future, or does it explain something in the past?
  4. Surprise yourself. Allow the story to go to places that amaze you, and you will surprise the reader. If you can see well-planned surprises, chances are, so will your reader
  5. If you are stuck, re-read what you wrote, and you are likely to find a buried gun you can use
  6. Use your writing as an excuse to throw writing parties – so you won’t regret your passion
  7. Let yourself be with not knowing. The longer you can allow the story to take shape, the better. You only need to know about the next scene / few scenes – it will be boring if you know the end already.
  8. If you feel in need of more freedom, change the characters’ names. They are not real, they are in your power, and this will confirm it to you and you’ll be able to torture them
  9. Use all three types of speech: descriptive (the sun rose high), instructive (walk, don’t run), expressive (ouch!)
  10. Write the book you want to read
  11. Take the picture for the back cover now that you are young, and ask for copyrights
  12. Write about the issues that really upset you – they are the only ones worth talking about
  13. Everything the world will see about you will be your work

Killing Time

The secret of the story must be revealed gradually, similar to how we learn things in real life. A play between denial and gratification. The two biggest problems of writers are generally plot and pace – often because pace is too slow.

Body Language

Put the television on mute and list all gestures actors do. 75% of the information comes from posture and gestures, 18% tone of voice, 7% words. Verbs activate our brain, and visual gestures rich the audience better than words. We are captivated by movements (dance, fire, washer machine). Gestures, and reasons behind those gestures, can tell a lot about people (e.g. former anorexic journalist who still checks her arm to measure body fat). How do gestures help to tell the story? How do they help pace the dialogue and build up tension?


Grace Kelly and an actor who romanced her before her wedding have bribed people to hide a prop from a movie they shot together – a small hatchet – in each other’s bed in hotels, resorts, palaces. The object has been a reminder of their affair, then a gesture of friendship, then a nostalgic souvenir of their youth and careers. Objects should have this power in stories. Reoccur and change meaning. Stand for goals and dreams, or absent characters, or a “gun” that will force the plot crisis (the boiler in Shining) or represent power (the ring in Lord of the Rings). The best ones morph to serve different plot points.

Utility phrases: when all words fail

There are sentences e say when we don’t know what to say: they should tell something about the character. If they say “I don’t know”, they weaken what they just said; “true fact” bolsters their authority.

Names versus pronouns

Don’t use third-person pronouns. Use more specific ways to refer to characters – Palahniuk always gives characters at least 3 names. Not only proper names, but also stronger labels: usually based on actions (first impression), appearance and then relationship to us (the blonde man who died in that movie, the dog that licked my hand). The proper name is the last detail we remember.

PS: Palahniuk aims to create a maximum amount of tension using a minimum of elements: limited settings, characters, time – to focus on physical actions and avoid wasting time on new characters and descriptions.
PPS: in reality television/your story you can recognize the ancient myth the story reinvents, and the archetypal characters.

Nuts and bolts: plot points

You need to know the purpose of a scene before writing it. Does it prepare something, gives a clue, solve something, slow down the pace to give more power to the following scene? Answer questions or ask new ones? This is a plot point, and if a scene is weak, the writer probably hoped the plot point would reveal itself. Is it a ‘gripper’ scene to seize the reader’s attention, or a ‘reversal’ of power?
Note that often the best stories rather than stun the readers, excite them creating a storm of personal anecdotes, discovering new connections between themselves and the larger world, they recognize something in the world and give people permission to explore it, with a shared language and supporting metaphors (we cannot acknowledge things we have no words for). A writer’s job is to express unresolved themes that other people can’t (shared hate for vegans for some reason?). A story that evokes other stories is a good story.

A story from scratch

A few editing suggestions:

  • Palahniuk prefers to start a story with a physical action. Avoid dialogue if you can use gestures
  • Describe a character by how he/she describes the world. Not “like the roof of a house” but “like the roof of Mr Lloyd’s house”. For example, if you talk about money – that’s an abstract concept. The character will instead think in terms of things he/she can buy
  • Usually the first draft focuses on plotting, scene, characters: the string of plot events from beginning to end. Subsequent drafts focus on the accumulation of emotion that leads to a character’s transformation (see the Transformational Arc)
  • Describe actions (he hid the gold) not the motivations (to come back later and pick it up)
  • Remember the on-the-body physical sensations – these will be a reminder of the reasons why the characters is feeling those things, a summary of what happened and of the time passing
  • Decide what words the narrator doesn’t know, and don’t use them
  • If a character is experiencing something (e.g. physical), describe the effect of it, and using comparable things which will describe the narrator’s personal history: baseball, television etc. (e.g. hit on the head by a ball, don’t say it’s a ball, describe it’s like a bunt in softball)
  • You can recycle previous gestures – once we know what a gesture means, we no longer need to define it: the character will perform the gesture, and the audience will remember its previous meaning. And even previous descriptions, to echo previous situations
  • To create tension, during conflicts you can suggest that the antagonist will win: this will generate sympathy in the reader
  • To describe a long journey you can do a list of streets
  • At the end the social contract is fulfilled, the old values (fatal flaw) are left behind, salvation arrived when the protagonist evolves – e.g. trusted something he couldn’t explain (Luke Skywalker). The characters can ask questions in the end that no one needs to answer – the readers know the answers.

Summary of “The Power of the Transformational Arc” by Dara Marks

Inside Story

The storyteller is on a ‘quest for wholeness’ to discover parts of our true nature, something that resonates with him/her. This is the transformational arc: any living thing that isn’t evolving can only be moving towards death. Avoiding the conflict is not only coward, it’s tragic; stories that lack any real reflection of a character’s inner struggle show characters who are “good” because they were born good. This communicates to the audience that virtues like courage, kindness, compassion aren’t choices, but birthrights, and for characters aligned with dark forces there isn’t any hope for redemption.
Writing is a struggle to get to the new place, so it’s a mystery, but the process of unraveling this mystery shouldn’t be a mystery itself, and by following the rules in this book you should be able to go through it.
Characteristics like integrity, compassion, ambition, courage and resiliency manifest themselves when something challenges their existence. This is the inside story, the driving force of the entire drama.

The Beginning

Some stories don’t work, or look flat even if they are compelling, because there is no connection between the external activity and the internal motivations. The internal needs that motivate a character to take action relate to our own inner needs. See for example Apollo 13 (compelling but flat, it talks about a bad day at work: the main character already had in the beginning everything he needed to overcome the obstacles) vs Star Wars (from just a boy, Luke trusts a force greater than himself and becomes a Jedi). Lovell (did you remember his name?) emotionally remains where he was in the beginning; Luke ventures internally to a place where he has never been before; encoded in this simple fantasy is an essential piece of our humanity: exploring the unknown aspects of our human being, towards the connectedness of life. Neither the fate of Apollo 13 or the Death Star is real to us. The life er are concerned about saving is our own. Story is an activator of our internal development as any experience we have in real life. Few of us will ever fly in a spacecraft, but at some point in each of our lives we will be called upon to fight for what is right, to defend our personal boundaries, or to overcome obstacles. How will we approach those obstacles if stories tell us that the road to heroic achievement is reserved only for those who come with their heroic attributes already intact? If we examine the development of our own character, it is the challenges we are forced to face in life that provide the opportunity for self-discovery and personal growth.

The audience enters the story through the protagonist; as the protagonist encounters conflict and obstacles, the audience encounters those same problems. This is how we become engaged in a story. The story becomes more compelling as we watch the characters make emotional decisions that go one way when we know they should go another. If victory goes to the smartest, strongest, and most attractive, in real-life terms most of us would be excluded and therefore there must be something wrong with us if we don’t win. In contrast, look at how audiences respond to a character like Forrest Gump: he is still considered heroic, not because we desire a marginal IQ, but the story reminds us that what we perceive as our own imperfections can be the source of heroism. This way triumph is measured against the struggle within (the only one we care about). The imperfections of characters like Forrest, Schindler, Rocky are real, which informs us that our own inner obstacles are conquerable as well.

What lies on the surface of a story for a writer is the idea. This is usually a “what if…?” notion that begins to bring a character into contact with an obstacle. The moment that character engages with conflict a natural story structure begins to form around the need to resolve the problem. The three most basic elements of story structure are: Plot (reveals what the problem is and where the action takes place), Character (who is trying to solve the problem), Theme (gives the audience some understanding of why this problem the actions of the character are relevant). The theme tells what the story really wants to communicate. The transformational arc tracks the protagonist’s internal struggle to rise to meet the external challenge by overcoming internal barriers. It reveals how a [character] succeeds/fails to grow and change [arc] withing the context of the conflict [plot] from the writer’s point of view [theme].


The plot is formed around the motion generated by a conflict, of a great enough size and scope to produce a sense of jeopardy. This automatically establishes a need to get to a resolution, which forms a goal, and the struggle to get to that goal produces dramatic tension which keeps the audience connected to the outcome of a story. Until it’s clear what the problem is, there is no way to care about whether or not the conflict of the plot will be solved – writers should set a strong, clear conflict as soon as possible. The external conflict doesn’t need to be big, but the internal one does. The internal objective creates a supplementary goal that is formed around the subplot, which carries the emotional and thematic content.

Instead of devising a plot that moves the action forward, develop it around the needs of the protagonist to evolve. This begs writers to consider his/her story choices in a very different way and the conflict serves a specific function: to push the inner nature of the protagonist towards maturity.

Remember that completely unrelated conflicts cannot be set into motion and end up at the same climax at the same time. This doesn’t mean that the action can’t move the story in many different directions, or track several different avenues leading towards the single resolution of a conflict, but it mustn’t have two unrelated plotlines, or the audience’s focus will become split, and they will be confused. This is also unsatisfactory and disengaging (see The Fugitive, both protagonists seek justice, it’s a different view on the same theme).

It is essential to name the plotline: name what moves the external line of action forward, using Conflict, Action and Goal. E.g. Schindler defies the Nazis (conflict) and risks everything (action) to save Jewish lives (goal). The writer must have the ability to make conscious, purposeful choices: in the early stages of development, plot details can only be intuited, but at some point it will be necessary to gain a conscious understanding of what the story is really about. Don’t be concerned if the name seems generic: art is in the details and in fact, the more familiar a plotline sounds, the greater the chances the story is striking a strong, universal chord. There’s no such thing as too many stories about greed, love or any other human frailty.
It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish plot from subplot: plot is action (external), subplot is reaction (internal).


What makes characters tragic is the result of what they fail to do for themselves: the internal goal for a protagonist is always to become heroic. There is always the possibility of failure, or winners would be born, not made.
The audience enters a story through the protagonist – this makes the conflict of the plot personal. Stories that attempt to be told from some neutral perspective will sideline the audience. The protagonist is the character who carries the goal of the plot, and as a strong story has only one plot, it has only one protagonist. If a story has more than one protagonist, each with a separate goal, then it’s imperative to find a creative way to link their goals into one.


The final scene of Schindler’s List, with the descendants of the survivors placing stones on the grave, is an emotional reminder of how much we all need each other in this world, and how every person can make a difference. We don’t want to be Schindler, but we want to be Schindler-like.
Confusion over the theme won’t engage the audience: Saving Private Ryan ends in a similar way, but the theme goes from “war is horrible” to “war is heroic” to “one’s life value”. Learning to work with the theme is the greatest tool a writer can develop.

Ideas capture the imagination because they mean something to the writer. But if this resolves in just a long speech at the end, it’s probably because the thematic ground didn’t happen to fall into place by itself through the story. This way, the theme is not a tool that can move a mountain. The key to developing a theme is to make it tangible, and to achieve this, it’s given some sort of physical expression: the action of the protagonist.

Theme is based on what a writer believes in. This is the writer’s distinctive point of view, what is personally valued, and through this a writer can come to understand the true intention of his/her story. And this will lead to intentional choices in storytelling.
The point of view encompasses the writer’s vision, passion and values. There are no perfect answers to life’s questions. The writer’s job is to explore these feelings and express them.
This also gives a clue to the design of significant character traits that will evolve logically and non-randomly, from the thematic intention.

Write what you know – but in the realm of the theme, write what you know to be true (a perception is enough, no facts are required). A writer’s view is indisputable. Whether or not anyone else is interested is another subject entirely. Writers must be willing to open their heart and search within to find the connection between themselves and the subject matter. As a theme is a point of view, there are no incorrect point of views. Whether or not that particular vision of life is popular at any given time is not relevant. There will always be detractors from any thematic position a writer holds. Artistically, that’s just a risk that must be taken – otherwise the writing is not honest (e.g. Citizen Kane, it wasn’t a resounding hit in their day, but artists are visionaries and sometimes it takes a while for their views of society to catch up). Other stories can withstand cultural mood swings because there is a layering effect (e.g. Casablanca uses  patriotism as the external thematic vehicle that carries the audience deeper into more profound human issues, such as self-acceptance and unconditional love).

Words like patriotism, love, sacrifice carry no implied value (e.g. positive/negative). A personal meaning must be attached to them: there are at least two separate and contrary views about the same subject (we need family and we need our own identity). If these values are held in balance there is no conflict: theme speaks to an aspect of our human reality that is somehow out of balance (family is a solid foundation, but “putting family first” is what destroys Michael in The Godfather). The writer has to look deeper into the source of the imbalance – not to make hateful/racist characters more sympathetic, but to offer some insight into the tragic reality behind their behavior. When we read powerful thematic stories we hardly think of patriotism or heroism; the language of theme confronts us with the reflection of our own heart. None of us invents what it means to be human; we are all the same except in the details.

Thematic goal: narrowing the thematic intention to a singular point of view pulls the story into clearer focus – but this doesn’t mean that a single theme can’t have many secondary ideas related to it. In fact a writer often discovers that what’s on the surface is not what the story is really about. The real conflicts that demand our attention are often buried under superficial distractions. But how does something like this become integrated into a story so that the audience will feel, not just acknowledge, its meaning? Thematic poignancy is established through the audience’s identification with what a character is experiencing and feeling: the theme has to take on qualities that can be expressed physically in both plot and character. The challenge is to give an interpretation that will make it a physical challenge to the protagonist (e.g. Dead Poets Society has “seize the day” and the interpretation is that if the protagonists don’t take control of their life, there are other forces ready to take control of it for them – they have to fight for their own true nature, and thus “to become men, the boys must learn to be true to their nature in order to take control of their own lives”).

Thematic structure: the plot may be the first thing the writer intuitively creates, but it is the needs of the character that must define the journey. Thematic intention defines the internal quest – but theme also helps establish the external issues that will drive the conflict. The greatest of all obstacles is the antagonist, who has an agenda that usually opposes both the internal and the external goals. Utilizing intention enables us to break down the structure of a story in thematic terms: the subject of the theme (e.g. for Dead Poets Society: manhood), point of view (seize the day), context (take control of their lives), struggle (for individual value). Through theme we can form the bone structure of the story: plot/external goal (value the individual – don’t confuse this, the theme of the plot, with the description of the plot explained earlier. The theme represents the personal value that lies inside the conflict) and subplot/internal goal (be true to your nature). And don’t worry if the values sound unoriginal: a strong theme is usually an essential part of our life, which means that we have a great need to hear it expressed over and over. Originality isn’t dependent on what you have to say, but how you say it.
Be especially conscious that you may be dealing with something much more important to you than you realize. Therefore, always approach theme work with immense respect. The value of your thematic message lies in the sincerity and the honesty with which you are willing to expose your own humanity to the world. It involves looking at a reflection of your own life: your choices, your sacrifices, your illusions, and your pain. When it starts to hurt, then you know you’ve hit real thematic pay dirt. In fact, if it doesn’t touch your emotions, you aren’t there yet: it won’t touch the audience either. It takes a lot of processing to identify a theme, and there are no shortcuts: it may take many frustrating days, but it is the most essential work a writer will do. You may process your theme only to realize that there’s more to it than you initially understood – this is how you will remain inspired. You might finding yourself writing of what you don’t know: the conscious impulse that is calling your attention to start the writing process is only the doorway to something deeper inside you that is trying to find expression. If your theme is not chiseled in stone it will have the elasticity to expand and grow: the greatest thing that can happen is for you to experience your own illumination, penciling in thematic ideas to the best of your ability and moving on, trusting that the more you write, the more insight you will gain. Writing is always better when it pushes past what we think and begins to tap into what we feel. Writers who find themselves standing on shifting sands are much more likely to hit something fresh than those only move forward when every step is paved in concrete.

The Fatal Flaw

Is all our pain and sorrow an absurd cosmic joke, or does it have meaning and value? Are the events in our lives ever an indication of absolutely nothing, or is the smallest activity part of a cumulative effect, defining who and what we are? Encoded in our stories is a response to these kind of questions. There are no absolute answers though, so it’s not necessarily the answers we are searching for. Instead, it is the process of the search itself that leads writers to higher ground. This is the sacred trust that is bestowed upon storytellers – to lead humanity to a higher place by illuminating the path ahead and make it a little less treacherous. If we acknowledge that the events in our life do impact us, we connect to everyone else. We confirm that the wide range of human emotions – including negative ones – are not only felt by us, but by all of humanity. We must leave behind any part of ourselves that is obsolete and no longer benefiting our development – this is the drama of our existence.

We see a reflection of our humanity in imperfection – if there’s hope for them, there’s hope for us as well. This is what makes a story compelling: survival on the deepest human level. We all have invested in systems of survival that have gone bankrupt – through relationships, careers, lifestyles and so on. This is the experience of system breakdown, and our stories warn us that the greatest human tragedy is a life that is lived disconnected from its own true nature. It is the quest to know ourselves that forms the grand journey of our lives. When writers touch even a small part of this level of self-reflection, they reach into the soul of everyone.
The young adult is required to cast off ego-driven self-indulgences to become a more selfless participant in the world of career, marriage, and family. But these pieces of our old self are seldom surrendered without a struggle, and this is the nature of the internal conflict that is told and retold in all of our stories: the reclamation of Self. Despair, anger, emptiness are our nursemaids; they care for our souls. We care about the protagonist only if we connect external experiences to internal struggle – and it should be a struggle, or it will remain superficial. How we face our experiences determines who we are, and there is simply no greater purpose for telling our stories.

There are moments in the human drama where the stakes are the highest, where our choices matter the most: what’s going to happen? A need for transformation must be established, and this is where the fatal flaw can be defined. Most of us will fight to sustain destructive relationships, unchallenging jobs, immature behaviour, because it’s easier to cope with what we know than with what we haven’t yet experienced. The fatal flaw is a struggle within a character to maintain a survival system after it has outlived its usefulness. It can relate a physical death, or foreshadow a more metaphorical one, a killing of dreams, desires, passion, identity. It shouldn’t be a judgmental verdict that a writer places on a character, nor should it ever be a moral judgement.

The fatal flaw must be drawn from the theme, it’s the value that opposes the theme and the internal goal (e.g. in Dead Poets Society, the theme is “seize the day” and the internal goal is “be true to your nature”. The fatal flaws therefore must be something that betrays or is false towards the boys’ true nature). This will provoke essential questions: why would someone struggle against being true to their nature? What does it mean? Is it really possible to be false to one’s nature? There are no correct answers, but the technique of finding the fatal flaw demands that writers investigate their own perception of the theme, and it channels the thinking towards issues that will play out the dramatic conflict implicit in the theme.

The fatal flaw should also be used to create a character’s backstory: how did his/her experiences lead to this internal moment of reckoning? By creating a backstory that gives a history to the fatal flaw, a writer is able to connect with the character’s humanity (if someone is difficult and cantankerous, aren’t we giving them more depth if we know it’s because they lost a child?). The protagonist’s behaviour shouldn’t be a random act or simply a dramatic contrivance, but the natural, logical manifestation of a heroic ideal based on a survival system that has outlived its usefulness. It is the tension of hanging on to the old as we are being pulled into the swift current of change that makes our stories alive.

This also defines the context (e.g. in Dead Poets Society, context is harsh and unaccepting; judgmental and disrespectful).

Case study from Lethal Weapon:

  • Subject: Life and death
  • Thematic point of view: Choose life
  • Plot (external goal): Value life
  • Obstacle: Devalue life
  • Context: murder, corruption
  • Subplot (internal goal): To connect with others
  • Fatal flaw: Disconnected from others
  • Character traits: detached, reckless, suicidal

Transformational Arc

Inside Structure

Architects don’t dump a pile of wood on the ground and call it a house. As the process of writing ceases to be a mystery, you can look past the boundaries it creates and find opportunities for unique self-expression.
The harder an issue is to solve, the greater the conflict. But resistance can’t intensify indefinitely: the tension will reach a breaking point and release will follow. Holding this pattern of resistance and release in some sort of balance (almost 50/50) will help establish and maintain a stronger dramatic tension.

What was unconscious in the beginning becomes conscious in the end. From this perspective, stories such as Schindler’s List aren’t about opportunistic men caught in the crossfire of history who must make selfless choices to help others survive, but stories about people (just like us) caught between the desire to stand alone and the need to be connected to others. The dynamic tension between this type of conscious and unconscious split is part of all of our lives, and it constantly demands that we make choices. There is no right answer, where there is tension there is an imbalance in the force between the opposing energies.

ABC: There are three primary plotlines in a story: a plot and two subplots.
The plot is the A story, that can only be solved if B and C are solved.
External action causes internal reaction, which leads to external response and internal shift, which resolve the external conflict. When the Inner Conflict rises to a level that is great enough to demand Resolution, it establishes a Goal that inspires Action – this forms a structure which is the nature of a subplot (sub with the meaning of “foundational”, it gives meaning and value to the action of the plot), or B story (fatal flaw / internal conflict). It reveals what the protagonist needs to achieve internally to resolve the external goal of the plot.
The A story is dependent upon the B story for resolution. As a writer, rely upon what you experience in your own life to answer how the inner conflict is resolved. Can inner transformation ever be a passive act? There must be actions that will validate whether or not that change has occurred. The internal change is demonstrated in relationship to something in the outer world. A husband’s infidelity can’t be fixed by an apology and a claim that he’ll never do it again – only time and consistency in relationship to his spouse will demonstrate that. The relationship conflict form the second subplot, called C story.
There can be some confusion, but there are distinctions: in the A story, a relationship conflict is driven by external obstacles that block people from achieving the external goal; in the C story, a relationship conflict primary focuses on the protagonist’s internal conflict and it serves to internally challenge him/her to change and grow in relationship to someone or something.
To recap:

  • External events in the A story represent the opportunity in the outer world for the protagonist to grow and evolve towards the thematic value. How we rise to a challenge by making choices and accepting change
  • The internal conflict (fatal flaw) in the B story represents what is lacking inside that is forcing the protagonist to grow towards the thematic value. How we are capable of self-destruction and re-creation
  • The relationship conflict of the C story shows the impact that the lack of this value is having on the protagonist’s ability to connect with someone/something. How we relate to each other

Example from Casablanca: In A, Rick is asked to save Laszlo from the Nazis. In B, the theme is expressed by showing that Rick believes he needs nothing and no one, and his manner is brusque (Rick will need to connect with others). In C, Rick’s lack of valuing others leaves him isolated (Rick learns to love unconditionally through his reunion with Ilsa).

As a writer you should ask yourself: in order to resolve the external conflict, what will the protagonist achieve internally at the end of the story that he/she is not capable of achieving at the beginning? In an early draft a writer may be inspired by complex plot contrivances that produce surprising twists and intriguing dilemmas, but as the writing process evolves, it is essential that you develop the theme in the form of emotions such as pain, emptiness, desire, and need.

Case study with Lethal Weapon. A (plot): Riggs and Murtaugh must stop the dangerous drug cartel. B (internal subplot): R&M learn to trust life. C (relationship subplot): R&M must connect and form a team.

Unknown-Exhaustion-Known-Renewal forms the three-act structure (the second act is divided in two halves), and act breaks and page counts can give the writer guideposts within which to organize and make maximum use of structural elements.

Act I

The story must begin where achieving the value and purpose are necessary and relevant. The exclusive purpose of the first act is to set conflict into motion – everything must serve the function of establishing the conflict. It isn’t necessary to know the end of the story before beginning to write, but only to know the point of view the ending will express. The end itself is just a matter of creative choice.

The first act will show hoe and why A, B, and C storylines are interrelated. Example: if the A story revolves around a cop solving a murder, then the audience needs to learn about the murder in the setup, and they must be aware of any external obstacles. To set up the B story, the audience needs to be shown the internal issues creating obstacles to solving the murder as well – for instance, the cop might arrive at the crime scene hungover. If this stands alone, the protagonist will merely come across as a worthless drunk – it’s important to show a relationship conflict (C story) between this behaviour and what is causing him to drink excessively, or the audience won’t care. His wife can just have left him.

There are then four possible scenarios for the outcome, and it’s vital to point the story in one of these directions in the setup, so that the audience has some sense of where the story is taking them:

  1. The cop catches the killer (A) because he is able to stop drinking (B) by resolving the issues that caused the relationship conflict (C): heroic arc of character, once we deal with our inner demons, we are capable of dealing with the demons in the external world
  2. The cop doesn’t catch the killer because he is unable to stop drinking as he was unable to resolve the relationship conflict: tragic, if our internal demons aren’t dealt with, the external demons will prevail
  3. The cop catches the killer even though he fails to stop drinking as he failed at resolving the relationship conflict: tragic, the cop achieved a hollow victory; he looks heroic on the outside, but on the inside he is at risk of becoming a demon himslef
  4. The cop doesn’t catch the killer even though he does stop drinking through resolving the relationship conflict: this scenario can be heroic if it shows us that catching the killer wasn’t really the right thing for him to do (e.g. the killer was a victim) or cynical if the message is that no matter how much we try in life, we ultimately have no control over the actions of others and over outside circumstances (careful though, the story itself might come across as pointless)

Notice that in all of these scenarios, the C and B stories are connected.

If the three plotlines are well established, the first act will be strong. However, conflict that is strong doesn’t necessarily imply that the actual writing is powerful and compelling. This quality will depend on the writer’s ability to communicate the layers of internal and external conflict with subtlety, subtext, wit, nuance and insight. There are no simple rules to tap into these qualities, but there is one very powerful source of inspiration to avoid mediocre, predictable storytelling: follow the image. What you want to transmit when action, dialogue and setting work in collaboration to imply an image. You are constructing something that mirrors or symbolizes its value. For example, in the opening scene of Rocky, as we become engaged in the fight between Rocky and his opponent, the imagery (desolate reality, human waste, disappointment = dark, shabby atmosphere of the fight arena) makes us feel that the stakes are very, very high, because the images that envelop the fight convey a foreboding sense of doom. In the first act less emphasis is paid to the big prize fight to defeat the world champion than to what Rocky is actually fighting for. Include your knowledge of the theme and how it translates to the fatal flaw of the character. If the readers identify themselves with the protagonist’s difficulties, they will be emotionally engaged when in the second and third act you will focus on the external conflict. Working with image demands that you ask yourself: what does this mean to me? What am I really trying to say? An image is not a direct replication of a situation, but a personal interpretation of what that situation means, so it is essential to have a personal perspective or bias.

Inciting Incident, Call to Action, Defining Moment: if the audience doesn’t understand what’s at stake they won’t be concerned about what’s coming next. Many writers tend to confuse subtlety with ambiguity: it may feel appropriate to draw the audience into the mystery of the situation by leaving the setup vague and non-specific. This doesn’t work!! Until the audience knows what’s going on in a story, they won’t care about the outcome. Utilize the first pages of your book to clearly set up the conflict in all three storylines. Two common terms used to identify how the A story is set up are the inciting incident (it doesn’t have to directly relate to the protagonist, it simply instigates the beginning of a chain of events that must eventually pull the protagonist into the story and call him to action) and the call to action (it is absolutely mandatory. Willingly or unwillingly, consciously or unconsciously, in the first act the audience must be able to clearly track the protagonist’s actions as he is being pulled into the central conflict of the story).
Example: Star Wars, not only is Luke Skywalker unaware of Princess Leia being captured, he doesn’t even know who she is or that he is part of a legacy of Jedi knights. It takes nearly fifteen more minutes before Luke’s destiny becomes directly intertwined with the princess’s and he is called to rescue her.
Notice that the setup of the A story is clear (through inciting incident and call to action) and the audience understands the external conflict. Setting up the B and C storylines can be a little more complex in terms of making the conflict clear so that the audience will become emotionally engaged. This needs a defining moment that brings clarity and focus to the internal dilemma of the protagonist: it clarifies the nature of the conflict and what it will take to resolve the crisis. In the beginning it’s fine to use some amount of subtlety, but don’t go too far without making sure that the internal conflict gets clearly spelled out, or the audience may not fully understand what is really at stake. Use finesse and sensitivity though.
In Rocky, the coach calls Rocky a “tomata”: he isn’t interested in working with a fighter who doesn’t have any real fight left in him – if Rocky doesn’t learn to stand up and fight for himself, he’s going down for the count. In American Beauty the writer is even more direct: the protagonist says “In less than a year, I’ll be dead. In a way, I’m dead already [shower, naked body is silhouetted, it becomes apparent he is masturbating]. Look at me, jerking off in the shower. This will be the high point of my day. It’s all downhill from here” – and we then see he’s right. Anybody. and Lester himself, ceased to care about him. In Dead Poets Society John Keating cautions his students to seize the day and make their lives extraordinary.

All of the plot elements of the first act have something to do with what the protagonist doesn’t know. He doesn’t know how to resolve the conflict. It’s important to identify the system of resistance that is keeping the protagonist from getting to the goal of resolving the conflict. It is important ti set your character up in some condition of unknowing in Act I – this can include unawareness, ignorance, and so on. Transformational change is the act of growing into new consciousness.

First Turning Point: a turning point is an escalation of the conflict that turns the story in a new and unexpected direction, substantially raising the stakes for the protagonist. Something big and unforeseen must happen to change the course of action the protagonist is taking. In the A story, the first turning point occurs as a result of a shift in the external action. Look at your theme to define the obstacles that appear in the protagonist’s path. The theme of Rocky is the heroic path to redemption: he has given up on himself; the turning point happens when Creed chooses Rocky as his opponent for the World Heavyweight title: he is given a chance to redeem himself, albeit one so huge it clearly dwarfs him. In The Fugitive, Dr. Kimble has been falsely accused of murdering his wife (A story); he is forced to board a bus that will take him to a death row prison cell. Along the way, another prisoner attempts an escape that causes the bus to crash on a railroad track where a train is coming; Kimble is able to evade the clash, becoming a wanted fugitive. This point is strengthened when a U.S. Marshal vows to relentlessly hunt him down (A story), but Kimble also makes a critical decision that will greatly influence his fate: at the moment of impact, he decides to risk his own life to get an injured guard to safety. While this leaves the guard alive to become a potential eyewitness, the writer shows the audience that Kimble is not a man who will sacrifice others to save himself; we’re not just cheering to save an innocent man, we’re cheering for a man who is worth saving. Because he has proven himself worthy, a firm hand helps pull him to safety from the inferno around him. One of the other escaping convicts tells him that he doesn’t want Kimble to follow him: this sets the tone for the entire second act. If Kimble is to make his way back to the world, he must find his own path (abandoning the false security of his old identity; no longer the proud doctor, but a common man being forced to take on life in a new way).

Awakening: at this point it’s necessary to look into the impact the external experiences are having on the internal reality of the protagonist. Because the purpose of a story is to move a protagonist towards resolving conflicts, the writer must design the plotlines so that the protagonist is constantly confronted with a greater and greater need or urgency to achieve those goals. Hence, the situation must constantly worsen or heighten. This will shake, if not completely unsettle, the foundation of the protagonist’s inner world. If a strong fatal flaw has been established in the setup, then the inner world will be in grave need of a shakeup anyway. Remember, the fatal flaw feels like a condition of being stuck or trapped (Luke Skywalker feels trapped in adolescence), and the awakening is a wake-up call for the protagonist, though generally not a welcome one (Luke wants to grow up, but the reality that there is evil in the world is not what he expects or wants, especially when that evil kills his family and threatens the future of the Republic; Harry and Sally want love, but not the pain and heartache that are part of the bargain). Its function is to set the story on a new course that will disrupt the status quo and add more urgency to the need for resolution, especially when set off by a strong internal conflict. Use every means possible to call attention to what is happening: if a turning point does not increase the audience’s emotional involvement, it will be very difficult to sustain their interest.

Act II – Part One

The first half of the second act is where old values and distorted perceptions are challenged. Anything that doesn’t serve either the external or internal needs of the protagonist may be broken apart: we have to exhaust everything we know, or think we know, in order to get to someplace new. It is likely that the protagonist’s actions are not leading towards a resolution of the conflict, especially internally, because he is stuck making decisions that feel safe and easy, and we in the audience will usually root for him – but there is something in the back our mind that just doesn’t feel right.

A, B and C must keep traveling in threes. It’s important to keep pushing the protagonist toward exhaustion in all three storylines:

  • Attempts to solve the external problem A will be ill conceived, thwarted, misjudged and so on. This will lead to frustration, false hope, disappointment, and even chaos
  • In the internal conflict B, denial tends to reign supreme. The awakening may have brought about the dawning of new consciousness, but it’s still early and the protagonist doesn’t know what’s really going on
  • This denial especially impacts the relationship subplot C, because the protagonist lacks understanding and the ability to connect to real inner emotions, which makes relating to what he wants and needs nearly impossible – so not relationships in general, only with regards to the goal of the plotline (if Harry and Sally need to fall in love, at this point they become friends rather than lovers, or can’t stand each other). Their actions must tell us that they are in resistance to the truth (in a story about a woman married to an abusive man, during the first part of the second act she will be doing everything she can to produce harmony), so we sense a discomfort and tension

Midpoint: as things continue to worsen and become more frustrating, the ego strength of the protagonist will begin to break down. This is part of the essential function of exhaustion: where there is a breakdown, there is potential for something new. The midpoint creates a breaking point in the dramatic tension. Despite willful attempts to make things turn out the way the protagonist wants, something happens, usually in the A story, that rips the sense of control from his or her clutches. The more forceful this incident, the more powerfully your protagonist will react (see The Fugitive, Kimble can run no more and is cornered by his pursuer, who doesn’t care whether Kimble is guilty or not. Kimble realizes his options are exhausted – but then he realizes he still has one more option he never considered, and dives into the unknown waters below. In the first act Kimble is presented as a victim – Gerard is the voice of justice, how can he be indifferent to a man’s guilt or innocence? This is the thematic question of the story. Perhaps the thematic insight is that trye justice in life answers to a higher source than our human sense of correctness; difficult, unfair things happen to everything in nature, the real question is: what am I going to do about it? Only one course offers hope, and Kimble’s courage is rewarded with guidance: no longer the victim, Kimble now intends to catch the man himself). The nature of the transformational arc is that it will rise or escalate as the tension to resolve the conflict intensifies; but no conflict can go on forever unabated, so after the breaking point a shift occurs that allows something new to enter the picture, usually in the form of new information or a new perspective: this is the moment of enlightenment because it casts a new light on the problem and allows the protagonist to begin to see how the conflict might be resolved. The conflict is shifted out of resistance and released in the direction of resolution.

Even though something happens in the A story, it is not the physical action but the internal reaction to the midpoint that opens up the new idea that allows the protagonist to move forward towards resolving the conflict. This enlightenment also comes about because the protagonist has begun to see how his own behaviour (fatal flaw) impacts resolving the conflict. Since the fatal flaw comes directly out of the writer’s thematic point of view, it is that thematic content that is specifically expressed at the midpoint. This is the truth that the protagonist begins to understand.

The midpoint not only reveals the truth to the protagonist, but it also reveals the writer’s truths to the audience. Through the protagonist’s actions and reactions, the writer’s thematic values are clarified and defended at the midpoint. This is the place where you can usually get away with demonstrating a principle regarding the thematic value, even through a speech. The midpoint happens for A, B and C – though it’s not essential that they all occur at the same time and in the same scene – the order also doesn’t matter.
You can also look to the midpoint to understand your theme. What is physically shifting the action toward resolution? What is internally motivating the protagonist to take the new course? If nothing is motivating the protagonist, your theme might be underdeveloped. This is also a good place to see if the theme you think you are developing is the same theme the story actually wants to communicate. Writers are called to write what they don’t know, therefore open yourself to the possibility that the “new thing” may be breaking into consciousness for you as well as for the characters in your story. You can pay special attention to the midpoint of a story to find clues about what the writer’s conscious and unconscious intentions might be. It is also a very good place for both the protagonist and the audience to rest and be reminded of the value and importance of the quest itself. You can use it to re-write the first half of the book if it didn’t use the theme, for example an undeveloped fatal flaw.
In Lethal Weapon, Riggs saves Murtaugh’s life, and this brings the two closer to start working as a team (relationship C moving towards the midpoint); Riggs begins to laugh and relax which is an indication that the internal arc of character B is also moving towards the midpoint where he will find purpose in his life again; and the truth of what is really going on in the plot A takes shape for the protagonists and the audience when they know who they are fighting and why.

Act II – Part Two

Period of Grace: a great amount of energy has been used, and now we are at the summit and we have the chance to rest and renew our energy. The protagonist will be inspired and motivated to face what lies ahead with renewed vigor and resolve. It can be a few pages long, or as short as a single scene. The audience will welcome this rest – very often they will hope that the story will end here, but then we are also aware there is too much still unresolved. The grace period can even give the false impression that all is well and the conflict is abated. Many writers take full advantage of this misimpression and intentionally lure both the audience and the protagonist into a false sense of safety. The protagonist can lower defenses and even become too sure of himself. The grace period should show us the protagonist’s potential of whether she can achieve the internal and external goals. In the external plotline, this is where the weakness in an opponent’s strategy is exposed. But more importantly, you want to explore what is shifting inside the protagonist that will lead her to transformational change. But it must also be evident that there is work still to be done because change cannot be achieved without commitment, hard work and letting go. It’s a gift/reward for having struggled to achieve greater self-awareness, and it increases access to the realm of consciousness, and what was unknown externally and internally becomes known.

Fall: Higher consciousness alone is not enough; it must be acted upon before it can be transformed into something greater within us, and this is the nature of the challenge that still lies ahead. In storytelling, the principle must be evident or the arc of transformation will feel false. The internal storyline is not complete. There are still unresolved complications that will cause a great undoing, a fall that sets relationships, ambitions, aspirations and achievements into a decline. Lies and half-truths are about to take their toll. Miscommunication and misjudgments occur, leading to bad timing and bad planning. The result is often a sense of betrayal. Often the biggest reason for the fall is that, despite the enlightenment, the ego won’t easily let go of old perceptions and values. There is a conflict between old and new self that is struggling to emerge, and protagonists can become ambivalent, indecisive, and even disengaged from the goal: they are often directly or indirectly responsible for the fall itself. Sometimes, the fall happens if the new consciousness is more than he can handle. In Dead Poets Society, the new personal freedom leads to irresponsible behaviour, and one the boys foolishly mocks the headmaster.

Death Experience: life will often get a lot more difficult before it gets better. Transformational change is the death of an old system of survival (the fatal flaw) and the birth of a new one, let go of what is obsolete and surrender to the new. The writer forces the protagonist into a situation that will about her undoing, which is how we arrive at the second turning point: a very big obstruction into the wheel of progress for the protagonist. What’s the worst thing that can happen, related directly to the internal struggle of the protagonist? Using the internal struggle has a bigger impact, the protagonist feels to have lost everything, especially the gifts received during the midpoint (in When Harry Met Sally, the theme has to do with how essential it is for lovers to be friends, therefore the worst that can happen is the loss of their friendship). Consider your own emotional response to the experience of loss: unbearable sense of disillusionment, anger, betrayal, failure, sorrow, defeat. We’ve done the internal work and it seems like a cruel trick of fate that our lives aren’t working out the way they’re supposed to. The one thing that can never be taken away though is the enlightenment of the midpoint. However it can be unwanted and despised because it is now attached to the loss, which causes profound internal crisis. It feels like all the internal development is now lost, but this isn’t the end of the story – if the protagonist is willing to fight. This is the challenge of the third act.

Tragic characters miss the opportunity to reach new knowledge.

Remember not to stay in your comfort zone when exploring the theme in the second act: explore the shadows, as the core is often there.


Often, when terrible things happen to the protagonist, a writer’s instinct is to jump in and rescue their main character as quickly as possible. Don’t do that! There should be a downward slide well in progress since the midpoint; the conflict has picked up a lot of momentum: the more unstoppable it feels, the more urgency the audience will feel as well. The third act is leading towards a climax, and this is not the time for things to slow down. Everything is at stake, don’t resolve anything. This mistake is especially common in the relationship subplot. This is where the protagonist will feel the most disillusioned, cynical, angry, betrayed and vulnerable; these emotions are what will make your characters most human – most like you and me. The descent is a time of pain that reveals the protagonist what life will be like if he refuses to change and grow. This is also a time when the protagonist will feel most acutely alone, even if someone is with him, because transformation is a personal choice and the help of others doesn’t work. Then we surrender our ego system and we are forced to engage in a new way. Transformation demands sacrifice. The death experience pushes us beyond what we thought we could endure. The protagonist must feel the depth of the emotional loss suffered at the second turning point. If he doesn’t experience such feelings, then the turning point isn’t strong enough and the loss isn’t great enough. If this part of the story is weak, it is important to look within yourself; you can’t write the protagonist’s pain if you don’t honestly feel it. This doesn’t mean that you have to understand it; sometimes our pain runs so deep that the only part of it we can touch is the sense of fear and confusion surrounding it. But if you are at least honest enough to show us the fear and confusion, we will still be able to connect with the story’s emotional reality.

The goal of the plot itself must be falling apart as well. The ending of a story takes a heroic turn when the protagonist is able to pull herself out of the descent by making choices and taking actions that not only resolve the external conflict but also revitalize her inner sense of purpose and value.

Transformational moment: The decision by the protagonist is the pivotal event of the entire story. The protagonist decides her own fate. Afterwards, in the climax, the protagonist will take physical action towards resolving the conflict and achieving the goal of the plot, but it is this internal moment of decision that marks the true transformation of character. Often the TM is the climax of the B story. Transformation is always a conscious choice. The protagonist makes the decision to do what must be done to resolve the external conflict, thanks to her highest point of consciousness.

Climax: the climax brings the conflict to a conclusion. To resolve the dramatic tension, the thing that stands in the way must be beaten, outsmarted, overcome, killed, destroyed, won over. The antagonist is the physical representation of the interior conflict. Don’t link the climax with something disconnected from the theme, or the audience will be confused (see Million Dollar Baby, where euthanasia just happens to be part of the outcome of the story, but it looks like it brings up the issue of the right to die. Up until the death experience, it was a story about the courage it takes to become a winner.  Maggie could have take the decision to end her life in the beginning, so this has become Frankie’s story and “loving someone enough to let them go” – a strong statement, but it has nothing to do with the theme). Finding a whole new thematic direction at the end of a story is not unusual or counterproductive – it may be a strong indicator that the writing experience is alive. But the new thematic direction must not remain unprocessed: the new pathway must be integrated into the rest of the story. The question is: has the protagonist achieved something in the end that he was not capable of achieving in the beginning?

Resolution: it is the start of something new, it gives the audience a glimpse of what the new encounter with life will look like. It has a great symbolic value: there is always more life on the other side of our troubles, and the hardships and suffering we endure are worth the effort. There will be more struggles on the horizon, but the protagonist is now better equipped to handle life’s battles. Some stories utilize irony and paradox to leave the audience stimulated and questioning their own values and perceptions (see the end of American Beauty where Lester addresses the audience about the beauty of life despite the fact he is dying). What was unbalanced regain balance, but the questions remain. “Self vs others” is a great theme, and there is no correct answer (Dead Poets Society: it doesn’t create a new imbalance towards Self; it says that even with the boundaries of society, the boys can maintain their own integrity. Good tragic endings like The Godfather III doesn’t leave us feeling as hopeless and miserable as the protagonist). Before this point a pause was needed, but the intensity must be kept strong here and push the protagonists beyond their limit. You don’t want the audience to remain passive, but to emotionally engage them.

Epilogue: it’s not just that we identify with protagonists – it’s that they were already part of us. They gave our emotions an identity, and they showed us how to process them – especially the painful and difficult ones – so that we can continue to evolve, moving ever after into a larger world of infinite possibilities. As a writer, what good is the gift of a great story if it is never opened and shared? And would the world be better off without the contents of what lies within, no matter how terrible? Dare to be guided by your passion, open your gift and release into the world of infinite possibilities the truths that reside there.

Competing with God: Making Fascinating People

Stein (from which the examples of this paragraph are taken) says: “There’s a book called Characters Make Your Story that you don’t have to read because the title says it all: Characters make your story”. Readers want to fall in love with your characters, they want to know them and they want them to be so interesting that they can’t shut the book. And to get your readers to know your characters, you have to characterize them. You can achieve this goal:

  • Through physical attributes
  • With clothes or how they wear clothes
  • Through psychological attributes and mannerisms
  • Through actions
  • In dialogue

Don’t just characterize them: show them while they talk and act. You can use exaggerations (“he weighed two tons naked”) or comparisons (“he was Wilt Chamberlain tall”). But avoid clichés: for sexy women you can talk about their hairs, for men their voice. And keep them visual: “he walked against an unseen wind”. You can also use characterization to help your story, for example psychological attributes often connect to the story (“if you got in a car with her you’d find that her sentences were at least ten miles long”).

And most important: avoid protagonists with a weak will and antagonists badly behaved. Readers want assertive characters who want something badly and now.

To develop a character you can use these non conventional questions:

  • Does he behave differently at home, with the family, with strangers, with old successful/unsuccessful friends?
  • Does he speak to other people in a way they find offensive? Does he realize that? Does he apologize?
  • If he had a reason to shout, what would you hear? If he never shouts, what thought is he repressing?
  • Does he use figures of speech or particular expressions? Conscious or unconscious mannerisms?
  • What’s his attitude toward himself? Does he reveal it through some physical tic?

You usually want extraordinary characters, and what makes them extraordinary are personality (specialness, charisma, eccentricity, temperament), disposition (toward people and places, predisposition, mind-set), temperament (how he reacts, how he confronts with new things), individuality (concrete details that define his identity), eccentricity (it’s the heart of strong characterization, an unusual manner of behavior, dress or speech).
You can also use contrasts (a character well dressed who picks his nose).
Somerset Maugham said “You can never know enough about your characters”, and when you have trouble improving the characterization you can view your character from a different perspective: make him complain bitterly, imagine your adult character secretly dressed in children’s clothes (why is he doing that?), imagine him old, or in the nude, ask him questions that are provocative; can you see him trying to fly or kiss everyone at a party?

About other characters:

  • Villains: you can use a slightly disturbing mannerism, or thinking about how they behave with people they don’t know. But you have to avoid villains badly behaved
  • Minor: pick one characteristic that makes them unique

To have a swift characterization you can use the clash of differences between characters, and the process of identifying different worlds can be accomplished through markers: easily identified signals that will reveal a character’s cultural and social background. Clothing can be a marker (designer jeans), a characteristic of the body (black under fingernails), the public conduct with children (screaming vs dressed-up), mannerisms (scratches his crotch), where and how food is consumed, vocabulary and expressions, attitude toward travel, actions they do (at the restaurant, does he complain or overtips?).
There are some questions that can provide markers: what influenced his life? What has he tried to change without succeeding? What family tradition had a good or bad influence? What is the single most important factor in the villain’s upbringing that contributed to his conduct?

Even Stephen King provides wonderful advice for creating good characters – along with other unmissable tips – in his “On Writing”. I will summarize it in my next blog post, so if you want it delivered to your inbox, just enter your email address here and you will get this and the next posts about creative writing – for free:

(no spam – unsubscribe at any time)

I’m also collecting all these tips in a book – if you want more information, you can visit this page.

Distinguish between novels and bullshits: Show, don’t tell

Chiara Gamberetta is an Italian literary critic and the opinion leader in fantasy books (yes, I’m Italian, that’s why my English in not that good – I write books in Italian by the way, not in my clunky English). Her blog name http://fantasy.gamberi.org/ means “Fantasy shrimps” because she says that Italian fantasy is like Bubba Gump: everything is made of the same thing. Shrimps.

Chiara Gamberetta

Chiara Gamberetta by Guido Codecasa

Her caustic reviews are the reason why I started to read creative writing manuals. She even reviewed my first book and her comment is on the cover: “I read the novel, and I didn’t like it”. She is right, it’s a featureless fantasy, but I started to write it way before knowing all these techniques. The moral of the story is: you can’t write a good book if you don’t know the principles, and the king of the principles I learnt from Gamberi Fantasy is: Show, don’t tell.

Why should you show instead of tell? Chiara answers: because if you are watching a movie at the cinema and the director pops up saying “Michael is old”, he would be ridiculous. And you don’t want to be ridiculous, you don’t want to wake up the dreamers – the readers reading your book.

The principles

These are the key principles of this rule:

  • Everything has to look real: you can’t just say “it’s real”. It’s not enough. You have to show it. Michael’s old age depends on specific details (his difficulties in climbing the stairs, his bad sight…), not on the author saying “the old Michael” over and over again.
  • The rule helps you in picking only the details which are relevant to your story. For example, if it’s relevant that due to his age, Michael can’t see very well, then it’s useful that he wears glasses.
  • Showing details gives plausibility to your book with tangible proves, and this is the key to distinguish between novels and bullshits.

How to show instead of tell

It’s particularly easy to fall into the mistake of telling instead of showing: when you are telling what happened before the story began; when you tell what a character looks like; and when you tell what a character senses. You can understand in your book if you are telling instead of showing if you find these things:

  • If you use generic and abstract words, like “Michael is tall”. It’s better to show Michael who has to bend his head to cross the door – and showing his tallness three times in three different occasions so that it becomes real.
  • If you use adverbs: replace them with more specific verbs.
  • If you use phrases like “he tried to open the door”, “he attempted to”, “he failed to”. If you don’t want to tell, you have to show the handle which slips through sweaty fingers.
  • If you name emotions instead of conveying them by action.
  • If any character tells another what that character already knows
  • If there is the artificial beat of time with words like: before, after, then, suddenly, a few moments. This is the narrator ordering the events, but the time is actually marked by actions. If you have to create a pause, show it with actions.
  • If there are words like “almost”, “nearly”, “about”, “around”. Shy authors use these words, but our brain doesn’t distinguish between “red” and “almost red”. Is it useful for the story that your object is not red? Then show it. Same thing with words like “a sort of”, “a certain”: don’t judge what you are showing, just show it and then the reader will decide for himself.
  • In general, if you are ashamed of your readers’ opinion. “Oh my gosh, I’ve written it’s pink, people will think that I’m frivolous – let’s write it’s pretty”

What readers want

Readers don’t want to be told a story, they want to experience it, and they want to experience things that are more interesting than their daily life. Receiving information from the author doesn’t give them an experience. The key to show instead of tell is particularity: “she boiled water” tells, “She boiled water in a lidless pot so she could watch the bubbles perk and dance” shows. “He took a walk” tells, “He walked as if against an unseen wind, hoping someone would stop him” shows (examples from Stein). The reader has to see what’s happening.

If you spot a paragraph when you are telling instead of showing, you can try to come up with a simile or a metaphor that shows what you’re trying to tell. You can ask yourself if the reader is able to see what’s going on. You can check if the narrator is talking, and silence him using an action to help the reader understand what a character feels.
Showing will turn boring intrusions into characters doing things that excite the reader’s interest. Stein suggestion is to “Show the story”.

That said, there are instances when telling can be used: for example if considering the point of view it’s more natural to tell, or if you want to summarize events which are boring but necessary. But keep it at the bare minimum: if Indiana Jones escapes from Nazis jumping on a plane and in the following scene he arrives in New York, your readers won’t have problems in knowing what happened.


“Show, don’t tell” is one of the most important rules in writing; in the previous post I’ve talked about intriguing the reader and another important rule was “characters make your story”. The next post will explain how to create fascinating characters. If you want it delivered to your inbox, just enter your email address here and you will get contents about creative writing for free:

(no spam – unsubscribe at any time)

If one understands the principles of intriguing the reader, one doesn’t need decades of experience

If you want to read only 1 book focused on creative writing, my suggestion is Stein on writing (Sol Stein). He says: “If one understands the principles of intriguing the reader, one doesn’t need decades of experience”. And he clearly explains these principles.

Thwarting Desire: The Basis of Plotting

The main one in my opinion is the one he calls “thwarting desire”. Creating characters driven by needs and wants is the key for an intriguing plot, and the more urgent is the want, the greater will be the reader’s interest. The wants must be important, necessary and urgent. There must be a clash of wants which also the reader must perceive as important, because this way he can identify with the character. Some examples of good wants are the gaining or losing of love, achieving a lifetime ambition, making justice, saving a life, vengeance, or doing something that seemed impossible.
If you want to check if the want is important enough, you can ask yourself if it leads to unhappiness, injury or death, if it is about something that values, or an important decision. The clash must seem inevitable and not caused by coincidences. It must involve the most important thing for the character, and possibly surprise the reader with something he hasn’t expected (even better: with the opposite of what he expected).
And then you need to keep the reader’s interest, for example forcing the character to stay with someone he hates, or forcing him in an embarrassing environment, or involving a character’s fear (even better if it’s generated from small things), or a change in relationships, or surprising the reader with something unexpected, with a new obstacle, with a change in circumstances. It’s pretty easy to follow this rule: just ask yourself where you think a situation will lead, and then do the opposite.

A very good way of creating the scenes that form the plot is described by Stein in the “actors studio method”: basically you give two different scripts to your characters without them knowing the other script. For example one is the headmaster of a school where an incorrigible boy has finally been expelled after not responding to the warnings of his teachers and doesn’t want to take him back under no condition; the other is the mother of a first-class student who has been wrongly targeted by the headmaster. This is what happens in real life: every person has a different script (intent) and that’s why there is conflict.
Another way to create the plot is using a “crucible”: the motivation for the characters to continue their conflict is stronger than the motivation to leave.


Keeping the reader reading

The suspense is another very important element for the plot: the curiosity for the reader to discover what happens next must be stronger than the need to do something else than read. Suspense means “to hang”, and the writer is the hangman: he is not the rescuer, he has no compassion, he must leave the character hanged for as long as possible as save him as late as possible. The reader must want something to happen, and that thing doesn’t happen. He wants to stop something that is happening, and you don’t stop this thing.
“The writer’s duty is to set up something that cries for a resolution and then to act irresponsibly”, exacerbating the reader’s need for a resolution.
Examples of situations that cries for a resolution: a prospective danger, an actual immediate danger, an unwanted confrontation (maybe wanted by one character and unwanted by the other), the return of an old fear, a crisis which requires action.
The writer’s duty: not removing the prospective danger, not removing the danger without introducing a bigger one, holding off the unwanted confrontation as long as possible, making the fear even worse than expected, the action backfires and the crisis is prolonged.

The reader is interested in the scenes, not what happens between the scenes, and you have to remove the weak ones. Don’t drive the reader where he wants to go, create more than one lines of suspense. Short chapters create a good pace, but if they are shorter than 3 pages they don’t engage the reader. The chapters should finish with an unresolved trouble.

And finally, the tension. Writers are troublemakers, their job is to give readers stress, strain and pressure. Tension must last for a short amount of time: suspense can last the whole book. Create a sudden stress and the reader will love it, he will feel excited. “Sudden” doesn’t mean that you will quickly solve the conflict: the conflict created by the tension can last the whole book. Actually, it’s better to put it in the book as soon as possible. Example of situations which create tension: a dangerous work (with a child looking!), the approach of a deadline, an unfortunate meeting, an opponent trapped in a closed environment. And add one tense moment to another to raise the degree of tension toward a climax.