Formula fiction? Me? Never!

Okay, not never. In fact, always. Why? ‘Cause it works.

There are certain things fiction readers crave, but the item sitting at the top of the list is simply this: a rousing good tale. It needn’t even be original. But it must be evocative enough to transport the reader away from whatever is their daily norm. Genre is far less important than the power of the story to make the reader suspend disbelief, whether the action takes place on another planet, in a high school gym, under a cabbage leaf, or anywhere else.

How does a writer accomplish that? Surely a formula can’t be the answer, or we’d all be writing bestsellers every time. That presumes, of course, that we’re all using the same formula. Far too many wannabe writers have no idea what’s in the formula, and yet they’re adamant about NOT using it. Somewhere along the line, “formulaic” became a bad word.

What a bunch of horse piddle. The formula I use requires:

  • Sympathetic characters
  • Conflict
  • Meaningful motives
  • Surprises
  • Conflict
  • Verisimilitude
  • Conflict
  • Experiential settings
  • Variation in pacing and structure

And did I mention conflict?

Writing with a formula in mind isn’t restrictive; it’s liberating. As pointed out long ago, (here, in fact) it requires some pretty basic stuff: an opening consisting of a Person, in a Place, with a Problem; a middle consisting of Try/Fails, and an ending which includes both a Climax and a Denouement. See the link for details.

The formula doesn’t provide a checklist of things you can dump into a recipe like garlic salt or bacon bits. You still have to write intelligently. You still need to understand proper punctuation and grammar. Fortunately, those things can still be learned if you somehow avoided the information in grade school.

The stories I find most interesting, and the kind I try to create, are those featuring a cast with conflicting goals. (Note the root word of the adjective describing goals.) This is the heart of the story. It’s made up of the actions and the consequences of those actions, which the characters employ to achieve their ends. Readers don’t much care whether or not the players achieve intermediate goals; what they want to see is how the characters handle adversity, success, fame, and/or failure. That’s where they’re more likely to find parallels in their own lives.

In order to get started, you need a character with a conflict. (There’s that word again!) He wants or needs something, but there’s an obstacle in the way. I find it easier to work from a scenario where another character either is or represents that obstacle. Instantly, I have two plot lines: he wants it; no, she wants it.

If all I intend to do is write a short story, I’ve got plenty to work with. Novels require more. So instead of having the two characters with conflicting goals go at each other in the beginning, I’ll throw some other obstacles in their way first. Joe wants to drive to Iowa to claim his inheritance? Fine. I’ll have someone steal his car, or blow it up, or force it off the road, or just let him run out of gas. Any of those things, and about million others, will present opportunities for spinning Joe’s tale. Maybe he gets mugged while hiking to a gas station, or maybe he tries a short cut and gets kidnapped by crooks, or aliens, Amazonian warrior babes, or rabid fairies.

The other protagonist, I’ll call her Pearl, can’t afford to let Joe claim his inheritance because doing so will reveal some horrible secret, probably but not necessarily, about her. Fortunately, she already lives in Iowa and knows the attorney settling the estate. Her task then becomes getting her hands on the damning document (book, video, manuscript, carving, Voodoo death charm or whatever) before Joe does. Slowing her down is as easy as breaking her leg, arresting her for being drunk and disorderly, or running her out of town for preaching without a license. (I’m told they have some bizarre laws in Iowa.)

If that isn’t enough, I can always toss in a love interest for one of them or maybe add an incensed bureaucrat, a bipolar athlete, or a deranged urban outdoors-man, and suddenly I have the makings for a real page-burner. Er, turner.

All that lovely conflict will provide opportunities to show what the players are made of, what drives them, and how far they’ll go to achieve their aims. It includes all the non-conflict stuff in the list I posted above. You’ll need to include all that, too. Luckily, having all that conflict to work with should make it fairly easy.




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Psychology of the Page

If you’re a reader, you’ve probably looked at a million pages. If your reading material of choice tends to be hard-copy novels (paperbacks or hardbacks) as opposed to digital books, you have no say in how the page looks. What you see is what you get. Writers, on the other hand, do have some options. We can seriously influence the way our books look, and I’m not just talking about independent publishers. Even if you publish traditionally, you might want to give some thought to just how the pages of your book, look.

If you favor lengthy, involved paragraphs, rich with exposition, description and other collections of detail, there’s a good chance your pages will generally consist of solid chunks of unrelieved text. The Bible (sans illustrations) and just about anything by Ayn Rand are good examples. Note the two page mock-ups which follow.

The one on the left has very little white space. In fact, almost every line is maxed out. The page on the right is much more relaxed. The paragraphs are shorter. There’s probably some dialog, which would account for the extremely short entries. Now, without knowing the actual content of either page, which one do you find more inviting? Which is more intimidating? Perhaps more to the point, which of these pages will take longer to read? Should that matter? Probably not. But does it matter? I think so. I believe this one issue, call it “text density,” could very well contribute to a reader’s perceptions of the story.

It works in a couple ways. In the most obvious instance, readers are moving faster through the book since there’s less text on every page. Seems simple enough. Those pages are being flipped in a hurry; the reader races through the story, and before he or she knows it, they’ve reached the end. Writers always love to hear they’ve created a page-turner. If a writer chooses to write with a little white space in mind, they can actually create one.

Then too, consider the over-all length of a book. The average novel runs between 80-100 thousand words. Let’s say yours is smack in the middle: 90K. How many pages will that require? Font size is critical; a book set in 14-point type will take 40% more pages than one set in 10-point, assuming the style is the same. Text density can also have an effect. White space can add a significant number of pages, perhaps as much as 10 or 20% more.

Imagine you’re standing in one of those little airport shops perusing the available paperbacks. You’ve got a five-hour flight ahead of you, and you want something to help you kill time. You find two books that appeal to you. One of them is 250 pages of small, dense type; the other is 350 pages of bigger type with lots of white space. The bigger book costs two bucks more. Which one will you buy?

I’m guessing the majority of readers will spend the extra money. I certainly would.

Of course, all of this is based on a much more important premise: that you’ve written a book which is absolutely worth reading — no matter what font you used, or how much white space you employed. None of that will save a lousy story, unsatisfying characters, or a hackneyed plot. A bad book will remain a bad book no matter how lovingly it’s laid out.



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I’ve Got This Great Idea For A Book!

Now, where do I start?

Most writers have some clue about the story they want to write. If they’ve been down the writing road before, they’ll most likely just dive in and start working. Those folks, of course, are pantsers, members of that daring category of storytellers who disdain logic and reason (and an outline) and plunge into the business of creating art — or “arting” as Chuck Wendig would have it.

The rest of the writing herd, the plotters, are more likely to make a few notes if not some sort of outline or plan. Then they’ll dig in.

But what if you haven’t been writing long enough to know whether or not you’re a pantser or a plotter, or something in-between? What do you do? Where do you start?

My suggestion would be to restrain the arting urge, at least for a little while. Then, instead of writing an outline, a list, a series of character studies, or anything else, try your hand at blurbing your book.

There are a variety of approaches one can use for writing a book blurb. The one I like the most was devised by professional writer and freelance editor, Victoria Mixon. Her formula cuts right to the heart of what a story needs to compete in the world of commercial fiction. Here it is:

When [identity] [protagonist name] [does something], [something happens]. Now, with [time limit/restrictions], [protagonist] must [do something brave] to [accomplish great achievement]/ or [sacrifice high stakes].

Here’s a version of the formula with a variety of character possibilities. The formulaic words can be manipulated to fit the circumstances, but the primary elements all remain: character, motive, action, and consequence leading to a climax.

Here’s how I applied the formula to my current novel in progress:

When eager college grad, Stormy Green, applies for a newspaper job during WWII, she meets an eccentric gossip columnist with a bizarre lead on some Nazi infiltrators. Now, with the columnist murdered, and time running out, Stormy must take her place, unravel the lead, and find a way to thwart the terrorist plot.

Clearly, the blurb doesn’t tell the whole story. Far from it. But it does force the writer to focus on the critical story elements. By working what you have in mind into a framework like this, you’ll suddenly have a better understanding of the story arc — the guts of the tale. You’ll be far more likely to know where the tale begins and how it will end. All in a couple of sentences!

Does this mean you can’t change your mind as you go? Of course not. New characters will pop up; new challenges will present themselves; things you never dreamed of will suddenly rear up in the night and demand to be included in your book. Whether or not you allow them in is entirely up to you. But by then you’ll command a double armload of scenes, maybe even chapters, and those decisions will be much, much easier.

If you haven’t blurbed your story idea yet, get busy. Now!


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The Dos and Don’ts to Dialog Tags

I’m pleased to offer the following writerly advice from Ryan Lanz whose blog on the craft (see links at end of article) have helped many beginning writers. And, I’m pleased to note, we pretty much agree on every point! I’ll be back next week. –Josh

The Dos and Don’ts to Dialog Tags

by Ryan Lanz

Writers use dialogue tags constantly. In fact, we use them so often that readers all but gloss over them. They should be invisible. However, there are ways to misuse them and make them stand out.

In an effort to avoid that, let’s take a closer look at dialogue tags. Toward the end of “Tag travesties” is something I sorely wish someone had told me before I started writing.

Why do we use dialogue tags?

The simple answer is that we use them to indicate who’s speaking. In visual media, such as movies or television, the viewer can easily tell who’s talking by lip movement and camera angles. When reading a book, obviously that’s not an option.

Tag travesties

There are certainly ways to misuse dialogue tags. When I was a new writer, I felt compelled to overwrite. I ‘m sure every new writer goes through a version of this. I observed how successful writers used simple tags like “said/asked” and thought to myself, that’s boring. I’m going to be an awesome writer by making them more interesting. You don’t have to admit it aloud, writers, but we all know that most of us have. Let’s look at an example of this:

  • “We can’t cross this river,” Alanna exclaimed repugnantly.
  • John crossed the room and shouted disgustedly, “I’ll never take you with me.”
  • “This has been the worst day ever,” Susie cried angrily.

For those of you who still aren’t convinced, let’s up the dosage with a paragraph:

Hank crossed the room and sat down. “We should have never waited this long for a table,” he seethed, leaning over to glare at her. 
“If you wanted a better spot, you should have called ahead for a reservation,” Trudy returned pointedly.
“Well, perhaps if you didn’t take so long to get ready, I could have,” he countered dryly.

Can you imagine reading an entire book like that? *shiver*

So why do new writers feel the urge to be that . . . creative with their dialogue tags? Back in the beginning, I thought the typical tags of “said/asked” were too boring and dull. It didn’t take me long to realize that dull (in this context) is the point.

Image your words as a window pane of glass, and the story is behind it. Your words are merely the lens that your story is seen through. The thicker the words, the cloudier the glass gets. If you use huge words, purple prose, or crazy dialogue tags, then all you’re doing is fogging up the glass through which your reader is trying to view your story. The goal is to draw as little attention to your actual words as possible; therefore, you keep the glass as clear as possible, so that the reader focuses on the story. Using tags like “said/asked” are so clear, they’re virtually invisible.

Now, does that mean that you can’t use anything else? Of course not. Let’s look further.

Alternate dialogue tags

Some authors say to never use anything other than “said/asked,” while others say to heck with the rules and use whatever you want. Some genres (such as romance) are more forgiving about using alternate dialogue tags. I take a more pragmatic approach to it. I sometimes use lines like:

“I’m glad we got out of there,” she breathed.

The very important question is how often. I compare adverbs and alternate dialogue tags to a strong spice. Some is nice, but too much will spoil the batch. Imagine a cake mix with a liter of vanilla flavoring, rather than the normal tablespoon. The more often you use anything other than “said/asked,” the stronger the flavor. If it’s too powerful, it’ll tug the reader away from the story and spotlights those words. In a full length book of around 85,000 words, I personally use alternate dialogue tags only around a few dozen times total.

By saving them, the pleasant side effect is that when I do use them, they pack more of an emotional punch.

Related: How to Write Natural Dialogue

Action beats

I have a love affair with action beats. Used effectively, they can be another great way to announce who’s talking, yet at the same time add some movement or blocking to a scene. For example:

Looking down, Katie ran a finger around the edge of the mug. “We need to talk.”

That added some nice flavor to the scene, and you know who spoke. The only caveat is to be careful of not using too many action beats, as it does slow down the pacing a tiny bit. If you’re writing a bantering sequence, for example, you wouldn’t want to use a lot of action beats so as to keep the pacing quick.

Dos and don’ts

Sometimes, action beats and dialogue tags have misused punctuation. I’ll give some examples.

  • “Please don’t touch that.” She said, blocking the display. (Incorrect)
  • “Let’s head to the beach,” he said as he grabbed a towel. (Correct)
  • Sam motioned for everyone to come closer, “Take a look at this.” (Incorrect)
  • Debbie handed over the magnifying glass. “Do you see the mossy film on the top?” (Correct)


Like many things in a story/novel, it’s all about balance. Try alternating actions beats, dialogue tags, and even no tags at all when it’s clear who’s speaking. By changing it up, it’ll make it so that no one method is obvious.

Ryan Lanz is an avid blogger and author of The Idea Factory: 1,000 Story Ideas and Writing Prompts to Find Your Next Bestseller. You can also find him on TwitterFacebook, and Tumblr

Image courtesy of Onnola via Flickr, Creative Commons.

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It’s All About the Sex — Part 2

Last time we scratched the surface of writing sex scenes. The essential take-away was that a sex scene should be two-fold, at least. In other words, make sure there’s more to the scene than just sex. Pick an extra element that’s most likely to advance your story, complicate the lives of the characters, and/or draw out their innermost secrets, desires, or motivations. If your reader doesn’t learn anything new as a result of your sex scene, then you’ve failed in your job as a writer. You’ve wasted that reader’s time, and most likely her patience, too.

In the previous visit to this topic we focused on scenes where some sex actually occured, and you’re likely wondering how one might write a sex scene which didn’t involve sex. In part, it’s about the chase, but there can be other aspects, as well.

Sex figures into all my novels in one way or another and serves as an important element in one or more subplots. Sometimes it impacts a primary player, sometimes not. Could I have left those scenes out? Probably. But not without weakening the motivations and/or consequences of the characters involved. The breakdown works out this way: too much, too little, too late and too bad. Forgive me if I use examples from those books to illustrate. I’m a lot more familiar with them than anyone else’s. And for those who haven’t read them yet, I promise not to spoil anything terribly important.

A pair of very young, very small, native Americans fall in love at the start of A Little More Primitive. Their host is a young woman forced into a life of solitude in rural Wyoming. She has no problem with folks having an active love life; she dreams of having one of her own. But instead, she’s forced to observe these two youngsters who have just discovered sex, and they’re obsessed with it — day and night, here, there, everywhere.

It’s all about the chase in Under Saint Owain’s Rock as an American ad man and a civic-minded lass from a tiny village in Wales slowly realize they’ve fallen in love. After numerous unclaimed opportunities for the most intimate personal explorations and experimentation, their grand finale occurs after the final page.

In Resurrection Blues we find a woman on the wrong side of forty whose husband has abandoned her in favor of strip clubs. In response, she connects with a sinister male who lavishes on her the attention she craves. Despite repeated setbacks, she keeps angling him toward a randy rendezvous, but when their lustful moment finally arrives, so does a distraction that’s too great to ignore.

Treason, Treason! features two unusual, sex-centered scenarios. In the first, one of the participants fades away to nothing — at precisely the wrong moment. In the second, another couple is heavily engaged in the most ancient of joint exercises when… Well, suffice it to say, things go wrong. Expected outcomes, readers learn, can never be relied upon. There’s always an alternative; there’s always a surprise.

The 12,000-Year-Old Whisper plays host to a Stone Age couple busy spooning, among other things. They’re new at it, after all. For them, having sex while somebody watches, cooks, skins an animal or sweeps out the cave is pretty much the norm. In this case, however, it’s the observer who feels uncomfortable, and in a very humorous way.

So, in at least half my novels, the sex scenes don’t mirror the established norm. (Nor, by the way, do they in any of my other books.) I don’t care to employ the stereotypical, often diagrammatical approach to sensuality. And for a very simple reason: it’s just not as much fun.

It occurs to me I may be shifting my own innate discomfort with writing sex scenes onto my characters. But then, why should they get off easy? (Once again, no pun intended.) Sex is a profoundly important part of living. It follows that the problems and complications arising from it are fair game and should provide plenty of fictional kindling. If we ignore it, we’ll never get those emotional fires burning as hot as we need them to.

In short, the trick is to make sex a by-product rather than an end-product, at least in terms of plot and story arc. I welcome your comments, observations and feedback.


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It’s All About the Sex — Part 1

If you’re writing a novel for adults, and these days “adult” often means Young Adult, too, there’s a very good chance you’ll need to include some sort of sex scene. Many writers new to the craft approach this opportunity with mixed feelings, not the least of which is fear — fear of looking bad in a relative’s eyes, fear of kickback from friends or employers, fear of failure, etc. Sadly, little I say here will make those fears go away. BUT, I have a strategy you can use to make the process less difficult. Better still, that same strategy could vault your sex scene from something you had to write up to something you’re proud of.

For openers we need to look at the “why” behind the scene. There has to be a reason for it, even if it’s simply character development or procreation. If all the scene does is go through the motions like a stripper who’s done the same dance a thousand times, it’s unlikely to be memorable. It may not even have enough sensory value to make it worth reading. In these cases your best bet may be to settle for “…and they made love.” Or maybe “…and they went to bed.” Or, in extreme cases, “…unto them a child was born.” You can always just cut to the fireplace.

That all assumes there’s nothing else to be gained from the scene. If that’s all you expect from it, then make it short and forgettable — the written equivalent of wham, bam, thank you, ma’am. Don’t waste your time, or the reader’s, with a recap of how they undressed, where they went, what they did, how long it took, or if there were any encores. It just isn’t necessary. The only folks who might care are likely not buying books, assuming they can even read (a fact not in evidence).

Ah, but what if there’s a secret to be revealed? What if one of the players isn’t who (or what) he or she claims to be? What if there’s a tell-tale mark visible only when disrobed, or seen under ultraviolet light? What it it’s not visible at all? What if it has to be felt or tasted? (Okay, I’ve written a lot of science fiction. <smile>)

What if the sex isn’t as important as where it happens — be it in the Lincoln Bedroom, the back seat of a limo, in the King’s closet, on the moon, or any place else for that matter.

What if it’s the timing that’s important? Maybe the encounter occurs between two people who aren’t where they’re supposed to be, at least, not at that particular moment. Say, when the king walks by, or the Publisher’s Clearing House people come calling? (“Mabel dear, just where were you on Super Bowl Sunday?”)

What if the sex is between estranged partners, old lovers, spies for different countries, or some other combination of good and bad, dark and light, plaid and stripes? Any such combination of character or circumstance can provide the angle a writer needs to make the ordinary interesting. Let’s take these one at a time and see what can be done with ‘em.

There’s a secret: Who doesn’t love this gambit? Let’s say the sex is merely a means to enter a certain room, one containing the top-secret Toilet Plunger of Death (sometimes referred to as the McGuffin — essentially an object or other motivating element which drives a plot). A bounty of potential actions and consequences can bloom from a motive like this: a theft attempt, an effort to hide the thing, a call for help, an effort to silence someone, etc. Now imagine any one of these options, or several, set against a backdrop of seduction. Suddenly, the sex isn’t just something happening between consenting adults, it’s a means to an end (no pun intended).

Place precedes passion: Consider the humble “Off Limits” sign, which is just as likely to be metaphorical as physical. “You can’t go in there; that’s the boss’s office!” Or the Queen’s craft room, the President’s boudoir, the mad scientist’s wine cellar, or the girl’s locker room. Wherever. It doesn’t matter. For some characters, there’s a profound and irresistible lure associated with almost any forbidden place or thing. Now, add the complicating factor of sex; make it the key to unlocking that untouchable domain. Or make it the reward. The point is, you have the chance to make it important.

Tick, tock: No, I don’t mean speed sex. (Besides, ick. And shame on you!) Under normal, non-marathon circumstances, sex requires a certain amount of time. This applies even unto really unsatisfying sex (about which I’ve only read, naturally). Point is, it takes time. And that time can’t be devoted to anything else, because, well, you’re busy. And focused. Sex tends to force both parties to keep their arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times and to remain there until the ride comes to an end. So, while your characters are doing the nasty, they can’t be doing something else, somewhere else. Once again, the number of motives which play to this theme are legion.

I’ll never forget ol’ what’s his/her name: What often begins as light-hearted amusement, just for old time’s sake, can lead to an emotional and/or psychological avalanche. In the case of enemies, it can have physical consequences, too. How many times did James Bond dally with dainties wearing black hats? Does this hurt? No? How ‘bout this? Whether you’re writing a thriller or memories from the old folks home, you have the opportunity to spice up the story or a relationship. In fact, handled skillfully, you can get enormous mileage out of one measly roll in the metaphorical hay. Consider the possibilities, not the least of which are offspring, guilt, shame, pride, boasting, lies to cover it up, lies to make more of it, maybe even failed memories. Who knows? It’s your story, after all.

Notice, however, that in all the examples thus far, sex actually takes place. There’s a whole gunny sack full of options available when little or nothing happens. I’ll address those next time.


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Huge debate: Prolog or Prologue?

Actually, I’ve known writers crazy enough to get into arguments over nonsense like this. Toe-may-toe or Toe-mah-toe? Prologue or Prolog? Seriously? The awful truth is they’re completely missing the point. Either spelling is okay, but using either is not. At least, not in a novel. If you’re writing a handbook for hustlers or a cookbook for caring cannibals, then go right ahead. A prolog may be just what you need. But if you’re writing a novel, there’s a better than even chance that what you put in your prolog/prologue will be ignored by a serious chunk of your readers.

Do you really want to take that chance?

Just for giggles, let’s assume that whatever it is you’re thinking about putting in a prolog is critical information your readers will need to have in order to gain the proper appreciation for where your story is, where it came from, or where in the world it might be headed. Let’s further assume you’re actually a real, live writer who can string nouns and verbs together in a readable fashion. Fair ’nuff? Okay.

So, why not make the prolog material just as readable as the rest of your story? Why risk dumping it off to the side where some readers will zip past it like they do stranded rush hour motorists on the Interstate?

For many writers to whom I’ve offered this alternative, the suggestion is often received not as a useful tip, but as a sad reminder that they haven’t finished writing, and that they can’t simply pour out some historical background stuff in pseudo-scholar mode and get away with it.

That said, one needn’t go overboard the way Michener did in Centennial, where the first 80 pages or so dealt with the formation of the Earth, heaving seas of molten rock, the rise and fall of magma, and shifting tectonic plates, among other things. (Sorry Jim; that part sucked.) All of which merely justified the existence of a cave in Colorado. (I’d have been tempted to go with something like: “Look, Lame Beaver. It’s a cave!”)

When I was working on Under Saint Owain’s Rock with Barbara Galler-Smith, my writing partner at the time, we wrote a prolog explaining the existence of an ancient letter which spilled the beans on someone supposedly a saint. The entire plot rode squarely on the back of this tidbit, but it took place some 700 years before the rest of our story occurred. Fortunately, we had the good sense to recast that bit of data into a very short, but still interesting opening scene. A punchy first line helped a lot. See for yourself:

Llancerriog, North Wales
— August, 1307

Owain cover 2013Sainthood required more than a massive headstone and a dozen village idiots. Finally, Owain — Saint Owain — lay dead, and all Meleri could think was good riddance.

That didn’t mean the truth had to be buried with him. She wrote a letter of confession meant for the Abbot of Sant Dewi’s monastery, and for his eyes only.

Knowing her soul depended on its contents, she listed the name of every villager who had taken part in the affair and recorded, as faithfully as she could remember, the role each had played. When finished, she signed her name and affixed the family seal. All she needed was a safe place to hide the letter. If anyone asked about Saint Owain, she’d deliver it and let the world know the truth — though it ruin them all.

Kindly pardon the blatant plug, but the example is entirely appropos. If the material is good enough to include in your book, why not make it as compelling as the rest and include it right at the beginning? Yes, it’s backstory, but it’s essential, so treat it that way. Hook your reader with it! Make them drool to find out just exactly why it’s important. 

That’s the way to handle a prolog. Or prologue. Whatever.


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