Too often writers sidetrack a scene with descriptions of churning stomachs and beating hearts and swelling throats. If a monster leaps from a closet, shouldn't the focus be on the fearsomeness of the monster—its dripping fangs and razor-sharp claws—rather than on the rapidly beating heart of the character the monster scares? 

Writers sometimes believe that to play fear they need to show their character being afraid, and this leads to the usual clichés about sweating brows and somersaulting stomachs. These distract the reader by taking the focus off the object causing the emotional response, and reducing the character's response to a purely biological reaction. 

Instead, it's much more effective to show what makes the characters afraid, in such vivid and convincing detail that it terrifies not just the characters, but most of all the reader. It's easy to write that a character is afraid, so easy that anyone can do it. But if you can make the reader feel afraid, or angry, or tearful, then you'll have a reader for life.  

The Novel of Ideas vs Novels that Contain Ideas

“Never try to convey your idea to the audience. It is a thankless and senseless task. Show them life, and they’ll find within themselves the means to assess and appreciate it.”– Andrei Tarkovsky

Novels must have ideas to be any good, but Novels of Ideas are rarely any good. This is one of the fundamental paradoxes of writing fiction. The goal of the Novel of Ideas is usually noble, devoted to educating the reading public about one crisis or another, as espoused by the author. But the results of idea-driven fiction are too often leaden, with dull characters, unbelievable action, and long passages that are long on didacticism and short on drama.  

Yet novels that are bereft of ideas rarely rise above the level of the page turner, and even then, bore the reader long before the final page is turned. 

We can sort our way through this literary paradox by considering the original Greek word for drama, Δράμα, meaning "to do, to act." Δράμα in Greek is pronounced "drama," just like the English, Spanish, Italian, and Czech variants of the word. The idea behind the term is universal. To dramatize an idea is to play it through characters (to do) in action (to act). The author's ideas must rise naturally from characters in pursuit of their needs, rather than be imposed upon the characters by the political needs of the writer. This is the difference between characters who seem to spring living from the page, and paper-puppets who serve mostly as mouthpieces for the writer's opinions, however noble those opinions may be.  

Nabokov says it best when he writes about one of his books, "Despair has no social comment to make, no message to bring in its teeth. It does not uplift the spiritual organ of man, nor does it show humanity the right exit. It contains far fewer ‘ideas’ than do those rich vulgar novels that are acclaimed so hysterically in the short echo-walk between the ballyhoo and the hoot."

And of course, Nabokov's books overflow with ideas, social commentary, and psychological insight. Few would argue that his novels are bereft of ideas. But his novels do not wear those ideas on their sleeves; instead the ideas rise naturally from the dramatic action, expressed by the dilemmas the action presses upon the characters. Even though he didn’t write Novels of Ideas, his novels contain ideas that can take a scholar’s lifetime to explore.


Beware of Stale Gestures

Beware of characters who sigh often in scenes, just as you’d be wary of characters tapping their foot, rolling their eyes, and checking their watch to show impatience. They’re summaries of more complex emotions the writer is trying to get at. An actor using these gestures would be thrown off the stage or set. Why? Because they're performance clichés. And they’re no less a cliché in fiction. Give your characters gestures that are specific to who they are. I often think of Bogart’s signature gesture as Philipp Marlowe in The Big Sleep, tugging his ear as he contemplates the mean streets he walks. Twenty years later, Jean Paul Belmondo paid homage to this gesture in the film Breathless, in which he rubs a thumb along his lips as he stares at a movie poster of Bogart. Look for a gesture that is specific to your characters and it will give them a spark of originality that might just be unforgettable.


Writers need to be careful when referencing works in popular culture, particularly if those works are relatively obscure, and the sentence/paragraph relies heavily on the reader to understand the reference to get the point. Fiction is relatively timeless. We can pick up a work by Chaucer and understand most of it, once we get around the changes in the language. Imagine if Chaucer filled his work with references to post-plague troubador bands of the day. Nobody after the 15thcentury would get it. Dante, however, populated his Inferno with his personal and political enemies, who would have been long forgotten except for their eternal condemnation on the pages of his masterpiece. Sometimes literature outlasts popular culture, so if you want someone to roast in eternal hell, you can give them a start in the pages of your novel. If the reader's understanding of the scene isn't contingent on knowing the cultural reference, you too can roast your enemies forever, or pay eternal tribute to that obscure garage band you've always loved. 


The Stock Phrase

A stock phrase is a phrase that describes a familiar situation or emotion in language approaching and sometimes tripping headlong into cliché. He was cold as ice, she burned with rage, it soared like a rocket, and it fell like a brickare all stock phrases. At one time, when the stock phrase was not so shopworn from use, it may have been a good example of imagistic, descriptive writing. He was cold as icehas the characteristics of good writing—the first readers likely shuddered at the image—but since then it has been used so often that readers no longer see or feel the image. Instead, the phrase functions as literary shorthand; the reader understands what the writer means but doesn't derive more than perfunctory meaning from it. A more original image or turn of phrase creates meaning specific to the characters, place, or scene. A stock phrase relies upon the generic meaning summoned by the countless times the reader has encountered it. To use a stock phrase or stock image is to hold a giant placard in front of the reader: SHE BURNED WITH RAGE = SHE WAS REALLY ANGRY. 


The commonly expressed notion that voice can't be taught raises a complex question about the role of a teacher in creative writing or other fields of endeavor. In my view, a teacher isn't just someone who imparts a set of rules that students can then follow to success. Certainly, that approach works for some things (and I use that approach to teach specific craft-based techniques) and for some vocations a teacher isn't really called upon to provide more. But voice is a critical component of fiction and to say "it can't be taught" is a dodge.

Let's think for a moment about the role of the teacher/mentor in myth. Joseph Campbell and other scholars in cultural anthropology, as well as philosopher-psychologists such as Carl Jung, have identified the archetype of the guide/mentor in quest stories and myths. The role of the mentor in quest stories isn't limited to teaching the hero specific technical skills needed to fulfill the quest. Though that may be involved, the mentor also helps the hero understand her true heroic nature, convincing her that she's destined or ready to fulfill the quest. In some stories, the mentor weighs in at key moments to offer more than advice.

A creative writing teacher should teach students specific technical skills, but should also serve as a guide to help the writer find within herself the components she'll need to complete her quest, and those components won't always be purely technical. Many of my lectures in workshop are intended to help writers connect with their subconscious, which is where most writers will find the answers to most of their deeper creative problems.

In one sense, the adage that you can't teach voice is correct. No one can impart voice to a writer in the same way one might a set of technical instructions. But a teacher should know how to listen, and what to listen for, and then to tell the writer where the voice sounds strong and true. This is much harder than it might appear at first glance. Rather than teaching voice, a teacher helps a writer identify her voice when she hears it, and then waits to see how the writer then develops that voice.

Backstory and the Reflective Pause

Writing backstory isn’t a sin. It’s part of the creative process. Writers at all levels of development often explore their story by writing reams of backstory. They learn about their their story by writing each character’s history in scenes that will never make the final cut, creating a comprehensive view of that character through time. The pages of a novel are the tip of the story’s iceberg, the writer having imagined a weighty mass of dramatic material supporting those few pages she decides make up the part of the story she shows. At some point, the writer must decide what part of the story she wants to show, and this then shapes the writer’s approach to how she uses backstory in the overall plot. Does this mean that the pages and pages of backstory a writer generates are doomed to be lost? Certainly, much of it sinks below the water line, supporting the primary plot but unseen by the reader. But some of it remains above the surface, in the form of backstory that gives the primary plot context and depth.

How can a writer determine when it’s dramatically effective to venture into a character’s backstory? The most certain way is to design the action to provide a dramatic prompt for the playing of that particular backstory at that specific time, and then to do what writers do best: tell a story. A writer can pen pages of backstory about a character, but if those pages aren’t prompted by the action, and the pages don’t tell a story, then the backstory will have little dramatic impact. A dramatic prompt gives the reader a reason to care about the backstory at that moment in the story or scene. A man in mourning sees a woman who looks from behind just like his dead wife, and this prompts a memory that’s key to the story. A woman being sexually harassed on the street remembers the last time a stranger called her a bitch, the surprised look on his face when he fell back onto the pavement, his nose broken. If the backstory is relevant to the action in the scene, then it’s more likely to work.

Another important technique is to explore backstory when the action in a scene or story pauses naturally. Stories have a pulse, or breathing pattern. At least, living stories do, and we want to write living stories. Writers can use this pattern to identify when to jaunt back to the past. Usually, something happens that creates a need in the character to remember, and then when the story rests for a moment, that memory dissolves/cuts into view. This technique avoids the problem of stopping the action to relate extended backstory, because the action is at rest for a moment, and the character’s need to remember something serves as the prompt to flow into the past. I call this concept the reflective pause, the moment for contemplation between bursts of action. In opera, the protagonist sings an aria during the reflective pause. In fiction, the character contemplates something from the past, something that serves the needs of the character in the primary story as it’s unfolding.


Never Borrow, Always Steal

This quote has been attributed to many different artists, from Igor Stravinsky to Pablo Picasso and who knows, Yogi Berra probably even said something like it once, in regard to base stealing. But T.S. Elliot was among the first to deliver more than a one-line quote. What does it mean, to steal? Here's how T.S. Elliot defines it: One of the surest tests [of the superiority or inferiority of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.

The idea, then, is to transform the literary ideas you take from others into something completely new.

The Myth of Show Don't Tell

If you take enough writing courses you'll hear the phrase, "Show, don't tell." Most writers probably hear this phrase quoted as the gospel truth in the first course they take. The idea that stories are shown and not told is misleading. Stories are told. Stories are told and shown, shown and told, told and shown. Narration, either in the form of a visible or invisible narrator, tells the story, contextualizing the characters, settings, and dramatic issues, allowing the reader to understand what’s going on when dropped into a scene. The primary level of narrative is not the scene, it's narration. It's someone telling us a story that (most often) includes scenes of action, but isn't strictly limited to scenes of action. So first comes the telling, then the showing. Writers get into trouble when they tell scenes, rather than show them, and when they fail to find an engaging narrative voice for telling. 

The Art and Craft of Revision

When approaching the next draft of a novel, it's important to read and reread the manuscript until you develop a vision of how to move forward. We often become so deeply engrossed in writing the first draft that we lose sight of how the story is being perceived by readers. When writing a first draft, it's important not to preordain too much of the action, to let the characters move and speak with a life of their own. When writing a second/third draft, the writer often must take more control, consciously shaping the story toward a vision of what it needs to read like.

When approaching a revision, it’s important for the writer to "re-envision" the plot, characters, and story. One of the primary reasons first books fail is because the writer has welded her vision to a flawed first draft so solidly that she can't see how to make significant changes, or is afraid to make significant changes. When this happens, a writer fiddles with a sentence here, or tweaks a scene there, but never sees or understands how to address the story's problems. Sometimes it requires great courage to change a story in order to make it work, because the writer is so familiar and comfortable with the existing version that the idea of making significant changes, and all the work and uncertainty required, is terrifying. The writer is afraid of taking the story apart and then putting it back together, because even though they know the story doesn't work well enough to be published, they're comfortable with its flaws, and worry that they won't be able to put it together any more effectively. But they've learned how to write a book, so when they launch into the next story, they aren't welded to a flawed way of seeing story and characters, and carry the energy of the new into the project. 

Several writers have brought flawed first drafts to my workshops, and after rewriting and revising and rewriting again, have published those stories. Others have gone on to publish their next manuscript. Every writer is different.


Agents and editors often skip prologues because they see them as being backstory. In effect, the writer is either handing you a manual you’ll need in order to understand the primary story, or hoping to convince you to wade through a slow first few chapters by force-fitting an action-packed scene at the start. If you feel a prologue helps you get into telling your story, go for it. If you feel the prologue helps the reader get into the story, go for it. A prologue is easy enough to cut out or add at a later date. The first chapter is the tough one to figure out because it’s the true start of the novel, the opening moment from which all future moments flow. But keep in mind that in most manuscripts a prologue is little more than a way to write backstory that can more effectively be woven into the forward-moving story that begins with chapter one.

And because prologues are rarely key to first act structure, the writer can move on after having written one, with no negative consequences further on in the action.

Martin Landau Talks About Creating Character

Much of what I write about for this blog and teach in my workshops grew directly and indirectly from my early studies in directing actors at UCLA Film School, with the wonderful Delia Salvi of the Actors' Studio as my mentor. Though I became a writer instead of a director, I learned from Delia how to approach creating honest and dynamic fictional characters. Delia and Martin Landau were good friends, and she spoke with great admiration about his talents as an actor and teacher. In recognition of his passing this week, I'm quoting a brief snippet of his 1990 interview with Terri Gross, on her show, Fresh Air.

LANDAU: It's what motivates you unconsciously that drives you on. Characters reveal things inadvertently, very often, not purposefully. No one walks into a crowded room at a cocktail party filled with strangers and says, hello, everybody, I'm embarrassed.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LANDAU: You know, that's not something people do.

GROSS: Right.

LANDAU: Therefore, what you - what people in that condition are trying to do is trying to convince themselves they're relaxed and trying to appear relaxed to other people when, in fact, what's going on is contrary to that. So the actor has to create the degree of unrest and then try to cover it.

The Art of Literary Misdirection

Writing and magic involve many similar concepts, perhaps chief among them the concept of creative misdirection. The magician seeks to direct the audience's attention away from the spot where the sleight of hand is being performed. A joke makes the audience laugh at a critical moment, or the magician gestures broadly with his right hand while his left is working the magic. In writing, you want to distract, or misdirect, your reader away from the plot turn you're about to make. If the reader knows the plot turn long before it happens, the reader will be bored. Although this concept applies to all types of fiction, in fiction involving detection the writer points supicion away from the character who will eventually be shown to be guilty.

All scenes – and comic scenes in particular – rely on the concept of misdirection, of leading the character/reader to thinking one thing, only to let the action surprise them, leading to a reversal or a revelation.

Kurt Vonnegut Talks About Plot and Character

In my workshops and private consultations, I talk extensively about the idea that character is structure, and plot is what happens when characters pursue their objectives. When I was a young man I read everything Vonnegut wrote, then read it all again. As usual, he speaks about craft better than nearly anyone else, and does it with the simplicity of a master. Here's an excerpt from an interview he did with himself (!) in The Paris Review.

"I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time...When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are [and what they want].

And you can put him to sleep by never having characters confront each other. Students like to say that they stage no confrontations because people avoid confrontations in modern life. “Modern life is so lonely,” they say. This is laziness. It’s the writer’s job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all. If a writer can’t or won’t do that, he should withdraw from the trade."

Empathy and Writing Comic Fiction

The comic's sense of empathy must be different from the writer of drama. Humor, and particularly satire, get most of its impact from a lack of sensitivity. Writers (and comics) get a high percentage of their laughs from direct or indirect insult. Sometimes the audience itself is the target of ridicule. How is this possible?

 The writer and the reader (or comic and audience) form a pact with each other. The writer/comic vows to be funny, yes, but implicit in that vow is a shared humanity that makes it okay to laugh at someone, or at one's own self. The writer/comic can insult everyone in the audience, but once it become cruel or mean, people stop laughing. Why? Because when the work has too much spite and malice, the material generates far more tension that it releases.

Don Rickles is a master of the comic insult. It's clear going to one of his shows that anyone can become his target. And that's the point. He doesn't pick on one type of person. He picks on everyone. We all laugh at ourselves and each other. No one is left out.

I read a fascinating article in the New Yorker a couple of years ago about a group of therapists who discovered that schizophrenics who didn't respond to personal interaction came out of their shells when watching Larry David's character in Curb Your Enthusiasm. Why? Because the character reacts to life in a way that they feel true for themselves, that they empathize with. "Boy, I do that all the time!" A common comment watching one of this shows. The character in this show is venal, self-centered, lacks empathy himself, and he's always getting into trouble because of these same qualities. People (not just schizophrenics, me too) laugh at the show because it reveals the worst in us in a way that we can empathize with and laugh at, releasing our tension. "Hey, Larry does it, he's even worse than I am, maybe I'm not so bad."

And I think being insulted by Don Rickles may have been one of the greatest compliments of all.


The Concept of Story Set Up and Dramatic Pay Off

The pattern of story set up followed by dramatic pay off is one of the chief engines of forward motion in a story, pulling the reader along for the ride. One of the components of this forward motion is the element of surprise, when a dramatic element placed earlier in the story returns to complicate or complete a later action. Think for a moment about Chekhov’s gun. Imagine that we see it on the wall in the first act, and then the moment the audience sees it, a character pulls it down from the wall and shoots someone. End of story. Chekhov’s gun can be used to demonstrate many dramatic principles, one of them being the importance of letting an element placed early in a story generate suspense under the surface, the reader subconsciously wondering if it’s going to mean anything, then to return to that element later, paying it off. Dramatic spacing generates more suspense, and greater eventual power, when the story turns sharply on the dramatic event that fulfills the set up. 

When you pay off a story element, include another set up in the pay off, or cut immediately to another set up. This propels the reader through the text because each set up creates a mystery that the reader wants to see solved. The reader gets pleasure from anticipating the answers to these questions. If you solve the mystery the moment it's posed, it gives little pleasure to the reader. 

The Unreliable Narrator

Stories with unreliable narrators operate on three levels of truth and deception:

1. What the narrator says about himself and the world around him;

2. What others say about the narrator and events that involve him;

3. What the action reveals about the narrator and truth of his perceptions.

This multi-dimensional approach to truth/deception is one of the reasons unreliable narrator stories are so interesting; they construct and deconstruct truth with the layered complexity of a good mystery, no matter what genre the story.

When we read a story, we make a decision to trust the writer and continue reading, or not to trust the writer and to stop reading. This does not mean that readers trust the character or the truth of the character’s narration. Readers trust that the story and characters will entertain them (intellectually and viscerally), while adhering to a set of rules that the writer has set for the narrative. If the rules the author sets for the narrative are consistently applied, and the work entertains, readers will be swept along, ripe for the surprising twists and turns the writer prepares for them.

The general concept, then, is to present the inconsistencies in the unreliable narrator's account with a rational explanation. Facts may be facts, but unreliable narrators are usually adept at spinning those facts to suit their stories. Readers will note the inconsistency but read on, and thus have a pleasurable aha moment when other characters and events reveal that reality is not what the narrator wants it to seem. Other characters might express views of events that contradict those of the narrator, and the events themselves might play out in a way that’s inconsistent with the narrator’s story.

For example, a narrator might present himself to be the innocent victim of speculation in his wife’s disappearance, a view that others don’t share, and that events as they develop don’t precisely support. For these revelations to work dramatically, the narrator must seem credible at the start, or at least compelling enough as a character for readers to suspend their sense of disbelief, and to be convinced, for a while, by the narrator’s version of the story. 

The Key Scene Approach to Outlining

Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."  E.L. Doctorow

Whether or not to outline a novel before writing it, or how much to outline before beginning, depends on the individual needs of the writer, and the story. In fiction, outlining is more common in plot-driven genres because of the complexities of the twists and turns required by the story. Some writers need to outline no matter what the genre, and some refuse to outline, even in plot-driven stories, preferring instead to let the subconscious plot the story as they write.

If you chose not to outline, I recommend meditating on three or more key scenes in the story early in the process of writing. The key scenes will usually contain the delivery of major turns in the plot. The first key scene will be the one that launches the dramatic action, the inciting incident. The second key scene will be the climax of the first set of dramatic implications of that inciting incident. The third key scene will be near the end, and this can be as vague as a feeling for where you want the characters to end. This approach gives writers a target (the next key scene) and a trajectory, while allowing the subconscious to move the plot. When you reach the second key scene, think about the next key scene that involves a major change in the characters/plot, then write toward that scene.

The Focal Points of Narrative Consciousness

One of the first issues to resolve in approaching an extended narrative is the focal points of story consciousness. The original story consciousness always resides outside the narrative, springing from the author writing the text. Some writers don't conceal this, presenting themselves as the teller of the tale, but most writers construct a fiction about who is telling the story, which we’ll call the primary story consciousness. The story is filtered through one or more of the characters, or being told by a witness to events, or being narrated by a central consciousness that knows all. Because events rise from this storytelling consciousness, it's important to figure out the source of the story at the very start. Begin by asking yourself who is telling the story. In first person narratives, the answer to this question is usually straightforward: the story is being told by the first person narrator. Third person narration is not as clear cut, springing from one or more characters; from a narrator who knows enough of the story to explore it but doesn’t know everything; or from a God-like narrator, who may be visible or invisible.

Once you’ve established who is telling the story, figure out the rules that the story consciousness must obey. The narration has access to the thoughts of this and that character, for example, but not those characters. The narrator knows the past but not the future. The narrator knows how everything will work out, or knows nothing. Define the limits of the narration and you'll see this eliminates problems with perspective shifts, because you'll build the range of narration into those first pages and not stray from that range for reasons of convenience.